Mammy Economics

I’m fat in ways that white girls won’t understand. I’m fat in ways that my white mom didn’t understand, and still doesn’t; nearing 75, she diets and rebels, diets and rebels. (When she sleeps at our house, I think she sometimes waits until the lights are out, then pads to the kitchen and eats more, leaning alone against the counter. At Thanksgiving, the table sacred in candlelight, she says, “Starting tomorrow, no more sugar and no more junk.” She is my mom; I wish she was free.)

I’m fat in ways only black girls understand. For us, it’s less about the number and more about how you carry it. It’s less the size on the tag and more the hug and drape of the dress. We originated thick, tied to patriarchy though the concept is. We are allowed a rumpiness, a bold embodiedness, that they don’t let our white sisters play with very often. Our white sisters fret what to do with the flesh that we fat black women simply hold. They toss-toss-toss fat like mean hot potatoes and we just move on, fat held like a baby.

For example: Barb, my white-lady aunt, the one who is family because she married my step-grandma’s son, sees me at Christmas and winces. She says, “You just keep getting bigger!” It’s true, I do; I get fatter and fatter, don’t I? (I am 10 years old.) But my black auntie, auntie-by-blood Renee, stands on her stucco stoop in a warm, smoggy LA neighborhood and, seeing us emerge from the DeVille after the drive from San Francisco, cries to 12-year-old me, “Oh, you beautiful Amazon!” (Sweet Renee, my dad’s favorite, who wore a pink satiny house dress and cooked us scrambled eggs at midnight. I remember the orange coil of the electric stove under the non-stick pan into which she dropped a glug of canola oil. I remember her dry heels in lavender slippers that slapped the linoleum, and her dimpled, silky arms as she stroked my wooly hair (which the white kids called a Brillo pad).)

All of this is to say, I’m fat in ways that are ok because I’m black. I’ve always been thankful to be fat and black, not fat and white. My white sisters at least could look like models, so maybe they ought to. No matter what I try, I’ll never be white. There’s freedom in never.

And yet, a foulness clings to fat black womanhood. I’ve written about Mammy — the shadow I cast as a fat black woman— before. Those observations were poetic and emotional. What I didn’t say is that part of my Mammy shame is straight-up economic. It comes from her caste, which runs like a taproot from antebellum hell to this May night in California, hundreds of years later, where I live a life that is more or less a paradise.

Mammy’s caste isn’t just about being fat, or black, or even female; it’s about being crushingly domestic and servile. Mammy’s a cartoon, more domesticated animal than woman. She’s as bootlicking as a dog. She is sopping wet with a bovine-stare vacuity and the masculine strength of a beast. She is irreconcilable with the ideal of womanhood, which is to say, the ideal of white womanhood, a lady who is coiffed, charming, soft, bright, light, and, of course, ornamental. Mammy is so unwomanly that to be her, or like her, is to be an unwoman. Like a linebacker in lipstick, or a pig.

Mammy isn’t those things on her own, of course. She was mashed into that grotesque shape and then fired in the kiln of racism. “Mammy” is the lead box into which fat black women were/are shoved, and from which little holes were pierced for her wide nostrils to suck air, for her nipples to protrude and suckle white babies, for her hands to sooth feverish pink foreheads, for her mouth to speak soothing words to white fragility, for her broad brown feet to shuffle across the floors she cleaned.

“Mammy” is an albatross because she is loathed and low, not because of anything inherent to the individual or combined characteristics of fatness, blackness, and womanhood. But the combination does, indeed, matter.

The confluence of fatness (which is, in this culture, asexual), blackness (which is dumb and animalistic), and womanness (which is obedient and submissive) hamstrings Mammy: She is a sexless, voiceless servant and therefore can only function in the domestic sphere. Imagine the impossibility of Mammy the Neuroscientist! She’s too dumb. Or Mammy the Mayor! She’s too dumb, and too submissive. Or Mammy the Pageant Queen (too ugly), or gifted writer (too animalistic), or someone’s beloved wife (too androgynous to be a beloved wife, no?). The triad of her defining qualities — fat, black, female — won’t let her do anything with her life but domestic labor. Watch as she manages (even happily masters!) all kinds of house-bound tasks: making pancakes and scrubbing tile, washing a child’s fine hair and mending torn doll clothes.

Mammy’s work — washing, cooking, folding, wiping— is the work we value least. It’s the work we don’t pay, sometimes refuse even to see. It’s picking hardened food off pans with fingernails, scrubbing bits of shit from the toilet bowl, bending to shove clothes into the dryer, emptying trash bins of waxy Q-tips and tissue-wrapped tampons. It’s also roasting juicy, crispy-skinned chicken and gold potatoes, icing three-layer cakes for birthdays, pouring warm bathwater down a happy toddler’s back, smoothing fresh sheets across mattresses, and picking flowers for the vase by the bed. But this masterful and beautiful work is devalued because it is “housekeeping,” and the disgusting work is devalued because it is just “housekeeping,” too. Phrased differently: it’s devalued because we do it, not men. It’s the work to which we gals are, don’t you know, naturally suited — not art, not real labor, just an expression of womanhood!

I am fat, black, and female. (I don’t strive to change any of these things, not anymore.) And I have paid the various costs to arrive, with an office that overlooks California hills and a house with views of the bay. I’m as vain as any woman must be (NARS Jungle Red, Louis Vuitton bag, shaved pits and all that). I’m as aculturated to free-market capitalist patriarchy as anyone. So why would I want to trigger thoughts of shuffling, domestic labor when I walk into a room? I don’t, but trigger them I do. Or I fear I do, and what is the difference? I am fat, black, and female. The gap between what I fear and what is real is thin as a blade.

When I stride to the podium (heels clicking) to begin my remarks before 300 people, or convene a meeting at the head of the conference table (the boss doesn’t take notes so I don’t even have a pen) I feel not only my me-ness, but my Mammy-ness, and I feel you feeling my mammy-ness, too, and I cringe and wrinkle up inside. I feel her and it and you every day; not all day every day, but every day. No one sees her because she is invisible. But we feel her, the way we feel an ant crawling on our skin.

She is the part of fat black womanhood that I don’t like. And even though I know she’s only who she’s forced to be, I blame her. Even though my fear of her might be more more real than she is, I blame her as if she’s real, and right in front of me, and wrong. She’s how I’m fat in ways that white girls won’t understand.

If I were a better person…

If I were a better person, I’d ask her into my house, and ask her what her name is, and offer her something to eat and drink. If I were brave, I’d take her picture, one of her alone, portrait-like. She’d tell me a story from the other day, or back when, and I’d learn something about myself, but she would be no magical negro. I’d like to sit with her on a porch swing that is strong enough to hold our body weights, and be silent, watching the water in the distance speckle and rock under setting-sun light. If I were more kind, I’d honor her in the tiny bourgeois ways of which I’d be capable, like wearing a bikini to the public pool. If I were knit together on the inside, I’d hold her hand like grandma’s. I’d see her eyes; what color and shape are they? Small and green like mine? Or maybe brown, like my sister’s? And I would bear witness to the light on her face, the expressions on her face, solemn nods and exultant smiles that are human, only human, as fully human as mine, and yours.

And I’d tell the world.