Unpacking the Pack Horse: Letting Go of the "SuperNegress" Cape

By Ericka Wilkins

At my age, having never been married nor birthed children, it’s easy to dry up into the stereotype of a Mammy or a Sapphire. Both identities originate in slavery, created from a desire to suck the humanity out of Black women and to minimize us into persons whose sole purpose of existing was to be of service to others. Both of these images require Black women to forget that we deserve to be soft, tender and loved, along with our strong, resilient and caring edges, in an effort to lessen the lifestyles that we deserve.

Ever feel like you are everything to everyone, and that you are good at it, but “damn” you get tired? Among close-knit circles, I jokingly talk about this as the need to “grow another set of boobs” so that I can nurture more babies. Corporate women may experience this when they agree to mentor yet another promising young Black career person, while stifling the fact that they barely have time to nurture their own careers. Another example of this can be found among women who are leaders in their churches, serving on numerous ministries, and somehow still find time to serve the needs of family and friends. For a single woman, being identified as a “mammy” in our communities is likely met with appreciation and reverence. And it’s fucking exhausting.

Living a life primarily in the service of others, while reaping very little return benefit, can be spiritually draining. Pouring into others while feeling like your own cup is not being poured into, can exhaust women with even the greatest emotional endurance. The hopeful mentee, who you once greeted with excitement, is now viewed as a needy succubus who drains you emotionally. And if they spend another moment in your office they might literally start draining your bank account, as you spend so much time with them that you don’t have time to work towards your own lucrative promotion. The church folks who you used to joyfully serve become people for whom you issue daily prayers. Asking God to be a covering over your mouth because if these people start mess one more time…

If the mammy is the nurturer or self-sacrificial caretaker, then the Sapphire is the person who is tough enough to handle any of life’s challenges. The Sapphire is the woman who is strong enough to financially support her family members while handling all of her own financial responsibility. She has a guarded “no-nonsense,” “I came in this world alone and I’m going to die alone,” “all men cheat,” “I don’t need a man for anything” persona because guess what? This is key to her very survival in the midst of a world that sharpens Black women’s soft edges by treating us as if we can handle anything, are less than too many things and believes that we are more durable than most. Like pack horses.

The thing about a pack horse, or any other animal that is used for carrying items, is that I’ve often wondered if they have moods. Like, after years of carrying things around, doesn’t it make sense for them to be pretty pissed off and tired most of the time? Pack horses don’t have a choice. They just have to lug more and more stuff around until eventually they are too old to do anything other than wait to die.

Black women are different. Despite living in a reality where there are often good reasons for us to don a “SuperNegress” cape, it is necessary for us to begin a journey of how to refill the same spiritual, emotional and mental reserves that we use to help sustain our villages of family and friends. As such, it is time for Black women to begin exploring how to get back what we give.

Photo: Shutterstock

Dr. Erica Wilkins is a licensed marriage and family therapist who works with individuals, couples and families in the greater Philadelphia metropolitan area. She has researched the residual effects of slavery and clinical implications for therapeutic practitioners. Dr. Wilkins has received numerous awards and is a published author who has presented locally, nationally, and internationally.

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