Michelle Obama stands next to Barack Obama and points at the inauguration

African Women, Don’t Be a Mammy for Empire

The hot new trend in the US empire is pushing African women to the front in order to make us the faces of the same old capitalist-imperialist violence. We are positioned as woke ladies with agency—  kicking ass and taking names, bringing big auntie energy and those good good outfits to the day to day work of managing a genocidal settler-colonial empire.  We don’t have  to look any further than the examples of current US Ambassador to the UN and former high-ranking State Department official in Africa, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, or current Domestic Policy Czar and co-architect of the invasion and devastation of Libya, Susan Rice. There’s also Stacey Abrams, Condaleeza Rice, and dozens of others who’ve made muling a trend. All too often these days we are witnessing petit-bourgeois African women willingly taking positions of leadership, power, and influence within the political and military infrastructure of the United States. Positions that require, as part of their job descriptions, acts of extreme ongoing violence against the world’s most oppressed populations, including their own people. 

Think back to Biden’s inauguration where we saw a trifecta of petit-bourgeois African womanhood centered and celebrated during the florid coronation of an unrepentant segregationist who has been credibly accused, several times, of sexual assault. We watched on our TV screens and social media feeds, gasping and fawning over Michelle Obama in her silk press and burgundy superhero fit, Amanda Gorman in her canary yellow Prada experience, and Kamala Harris in her chucks and pearls, backed by a soundtrack provided by Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez. These women showed up beautiful and brilliant for motherfucking Joe Biden, to celebrate his ascension into the leadership of an empire built from murder, theft, slavery and the ongoing exploitation of African and colonized peoples and our homelands.

A new day was dawning in the US, cable news talking heads told us, as Biden and Harris solemnly swore on a Bible to carry the settler empire’s murderous work forward. Then Gorman recited a poem about her sweet and prideful hope for a version of the USA that has never and will never exist, as Michelle Obama looked on from the crowd beside her proud war criminal husband, pointing and waving. She would later say on the Ellen Show that she was ‘ecstatic,’ ‘joyous,’ and ‘relieved’ to see the architect of racist mass incarceration who helped spawn a hemisphere-wide refugee crisis with his neo-colonial Plan Colombia, officially seated as the new president of the United States. 

A cartoon depicting poet Amanda Gorman carrying Uncle Sam
A cartoon depicting poet Amanda Gorman carrying Uncle Sam/

In the days that followed the public and media response was a predictable one for a place as racist and dysfunctional as the US. Everyone saw something in these women that they could project upon and center in their own personal consumption of woke  hyper-nationalist US propaganda. We saw these women recast in the press and in our tweets and tiktoks as national aunties, little sisters, and fantasy best friends – loving yet firm mammys of empire. African and colonized women and girls saw in them something they could identify with; a way to see themselves in this ‘new day,’ and something to aspire to. Non-African and European people saw in them an embrace, an absolution, and a vaguely sexualized comfort.  One cartoonist even went so far as to draw a picture of young Amanda Gorman, flying and wearing a cape, carrying an old and uncharacteristically frail looking Uncle Sam. The picture was meant to convey that we, young African women, were saving the empire – rehabilitating it with the strength of our arms and our backs, with a smile on our face.  Many African women protested these images online, but the depiction wasn’t inaccurate. 

African women and marginalized genders are told by liberal petit-bourgeois African feminists that we should be proud of this representation within these structures. We are told that when we see a former ‘top cop’ and prosecutor ascend to a level of political leadership where her capacity to harm dramatically expands in scale and scope, we should celebrate it as a win for all of us. But while the symbolism and the emotion and the imagery around these women is elevated and celebrated, memed and discussed in the mainstream,  we, the masses of poor and working class African women and mages, find ourselves left in the background still living with their violence. Unlike our striving petit-bourgeois counterparts that dominate so many platforms and thus the discourse about this, we are not able to turn so easily from the reality of how these women got to where they are. 

In the case of a Harris, or an Abrams, or a Rice, or a Greenfield, they only got to where they are today by accepting a series of positions that required of them nothing less but a complete rejection of not only their own people, but all poor and oppressed peoples. They must, in exchange for more and more power within this system, agree to uphold and carry out disenfranchisement, criminalization, police terrorism, invasion, and neo-colonization. They must defend jailing single mothers, closing schools, and dropping bombs. They must throw trans women into men’s jails, they must chase sex workers into the hands of institutional abusers, they must lie on and demonize free African leaders, they must commit to the attempted destruction of free socialist states and the continuous expansion of the Empire. It’s only by renouncing and harming African and poor and oppressed peoples, domestically and across borders, that these women are able to climb the ladder to the top. And they willingly do it. 

Although we are told that these women should be at the center of how we see and understand ourselves, we do not have to accept them as the only model for who we are or who we should be. We do not have to accept representation and aspirations built on a foundation of death and unjustifiable compromises. We can say that we refuse to accept any definition of success that requires turning our backs on and harming Africa and African people. We can say that the only success we will recognize is one that advances collective liberation. We can refuse to be used to rehabilitate an empire. And if we choose to do this, we have many revolutionary African women in our history of struggle that we can look to for guidance and inspiration. 

  • There’s Carlotta, heroine of Cuba, who helped lead a year-long organized uprising in the Matanzas region of Cuba in the late 1800s during a period of mass African resistance to slavery known as La Escalera.
  • There’s Teodora Gomes, leader of the General Union Guinea-Bissau Women (UDEMU), the women’s wing of the PAIGC, who fought on the frontlines of the African struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau.
  • There’s Elma Francois, a remarkable labor organizer and domestic worker who led multiple strikes and labor movements, challenged British colonial policies in Trinidad and Tobago.
Lili Bernard's 'La Negra Carlotta' - a painting depicting Carlotta leading an enslaved African uprising.
Lili Bernard’s ‘La Negra Carlotta’ – a painting depicting Carlotta leading an enslaved African uprising.

The history of the struggle of our people’s liberation is riddled with the stories of women who refused to compromise with or find their place within a capitalist-imperialist system built on destruction and exploitation. Women who instead committed themselves to liberating oppressed people from that system. If we should aspire to be anyone, it should be these women. If we should seek to build a new revolutionary African woman or marginalized gender, it is their example that we should build from. We should say definitively that  power and liberation for African women and marginalized genders can never come at the expense of African or any oppressed people. We should wholeheartedly reject any framing of feminism that finds liberation in capitalism and imperialism. We can say that the only representation we need is revolutionary representation. And we can use that revolutionary representation as inspiration to build the next phase of our struggle for liberation from the frontlines of that fight.

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Onyesonwu Chatoyer is an African woman marooned in the United States, organizing to defeat capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. She is an organizer with the All-African People's Revolutionary Party and the All-African Women's Revolutionary Union, an editor with Hood Communist, and also serves on the national committee of the Venceremos Brigade.