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The following is excerpted from a forthcoming publication for the journal “Review and Expositor.” The longer work chronicles the plight of the Black woman as mule by pivoting around the travails of the two Tamars in the Bible. Tamar in Samuel and Tamar in Genesis. Through these women’s stories and the stories of many other women throughout African American history, I identify and unpack the “muling trend.”

A pack mule carries the weight of other folks’ goods.  This animal was built to transport heavy loads. Because a mule does not rock from side to side under stress, it is called upon more than a horse to move big bundles.  It does not bob around and threaten to topple over the valuables and trifles thrown on its back, a back sunken just so, a slight “u” carved into its spine for the sole purpose of embracing numerous wares to be transported on a long journey.  The pack mule is the epitome of balance.  It is sure-footed, focused, and strong, bearing its load gracefully, even though there is not much in the pack mule’s bundle that belongs to the pack mule. 

What I know about a pack mule and a quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, collides in a way that paralyzes and reels me all at once. Janie, the heroine of the novel, decidedly declares that “de nigger woman is the mule uh de world, so fur as Ah can see.”[1]  Upon reading those words, immediately, the image of a mule, clopping down a dusty road, packed with a high and heavy load of things that didn’t belong to her, buried itself into my mind.  Now, when I am low, or my sister is feeling down, or my friends are stumbling under the travails of life, I speak the quote, angry about its relevance, timeliness and timelessness, and truth. 

“You know, girl,” I say, “the black woman is the mule of the world. We all gotta carry our load. We’re built for this.” 

I lament the ease with which I lean into Janie’s decree, how resolute I am about such a gross and visceral declaration, how disgusted I am to be compared to an animal, a mule, how close 1937, the year Hurston first published the novel, is to now. I look for ways that this cannot be true and do not find ways for this not to be true.  Pages of scholarship carry me from the coast of Africa to the shores of America, and time and time again, I see the black woman “muling” and doing so most often with the worries and cares of other folks balanced on her back.  There is not much room for women to carry their bundles; they are too laden with the burdens of others. 

The muling of which I speak is not the definition one finds in a GOOGLE search. For this text, it is a word used to explain the action of carrying someone else’s burdens, being responsible for them, in fact, even though one has enough of her troubles to carry. It is the act of being overwrought with baggage and continuing to carry it all the same. 

If one looks at the history of slavery in America, one can conclude Black women were bought for muling.  They made up approximately thirty percent of all slave cargo. If a slave ship was carrying one hundred Africans, roughly thirty of those Africans were women and girls.[2]  Those women were responsible for producing generations of black, brown, tan, or yellow slaves who would then be responsible for putting feet on the progress America made over the next three hundred years. In this sense, the Black women (though few) carried bundles of progress and experienced the labor pains of birthing Black men who would raise a great nation on their black backs, through their salty black tears, with their black labor, with their black bodies. 

There is a folktale. No one knows from whence the tale comes.  The anthropologist, Hurston, however, collected its sentiments in her book, Mules and Men. She titled it “Why the Sister in Black Works Hardest.” The tale involves a large package, a bundle, that God wraps up and puts in the middle of the road.  The white mistress sees the bundle and tells her husband to get the package and see what is inside. The husband, or master of the home, sends someone to the quarters to tell a male slave to get the package and bring it to him. The male slave tells his wife to run down to the middle of the road and pick up the package. She runs and grabs the package, and, because she is curious, opens it. When the black woman opens the package, she finds nothing but hard work and misery, and since that time, the misery and hard work have belonged to the black woman.[3] She is Eve or Pandora, the woman who opens the bundle and sends the plight of black women all a-tumble. 


[1] Zora Neal Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York:  Harper Perennial 1998), 138.   

[2] John Illfe, Africans:  The History of a Continent (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2012), 140.

[3] Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men, (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1935).

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