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Black womanhood as of late has received a much-needed and long-overdue boost. Increased conversations and initiatives among black and mainstream media alike have moved the needle on the gauge of black women’s images toward change and positivity. Now it’s time to expand the dialogue to include black motherhood.
Defying black motherhood stereotyping is not just so that we can look better on television and in films. Our living above others’ ignorance will break down the walls dividing all black mothers, release us from the mental and emotional strain of constantly defending ourselves, and empower us to bring large-scale change to this country—all for the health, safety, and success of our precious and beautiful children.
It stands to reason that the public image of black mothers is an extension of the opinions held about black women. The Jezebel stereotype of black women being sexually promiscuous yields the stereotype of all black moms being hyper-fertile baby-making machines. The reality is that we have a proportionate share of women who struggle with infertility. Similarly, the prevailing misconception that black women are angry, masculine, and sharp-tongued translates to an image of black mothers being emotionally distant and stoic, harsh disciplinarians, and understandably unmarried or without committed relationships. And just as the perceptions of black women are complicated, so they are also of black motherhood. Kimberly Seals Allers, founder of the mom and parenting site for women of color, MochaManual.com, and national black breastfeeding advocate, accurately describes the true paradox of the black maternal role: “…[B]lack women are somehow viewed as perfectly capable and desirable for taking care of other people’s children, but yet viewed as incapable of taking care of our own.” Mammy, not mommy, seems to be others’ preferred label for us.
Much of the stereotyping of black motherhood stems from the prevalence of single mothers in our community. Public discourse often reveals that black motherhood is assumed to be single motherhood and thus any pathology thought to be associated with single moms is automatically transferred to moms generally. “…[N]on-blacks don’t know who we are. So they think women like Michelle Obama—educated, married, devoted mother—are anomalies, instead of understanding that there are scores of black mothers who are this norm and a relative minority who have been amplified into the stereotype”, says Seals Allers. This type of over-generalization has caused internal divisions to arise within the black community itself. Married moms don’t want to be collapsed into the stereotype, and single mothers are tired of having all the ills of the black community laid at their feet. Even the black church feeds into the negativity projected onto black motherhood. Undoubtedly, it is right for the church to speak truth about non-marital childbearing, but in the case of our single moms, the traditional adage, ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ doesn’t seem to apply, as illustrated by Pastor Marvin Winans’ refusal to bless the child of a single mother in the church’s dedication ceremony. Charity Grace could bring her child for a private blessing ceremony but was informed that Winans “does not bless children of unmarried mothers in front of his congregation.” Considering Winans’ own challenge of having to address allegations of infidelity and fathering a son out of wedlock, the irony of his pronouncement was not lost on many, including Stacia Brown, founder of Beyond Baby Mamas, a blog and initiative that provides a space for conversations among single mothers of color. Ms. Brown understands the stigma surrounding black motherhood, especially single mothers, and offers this insight:
A woman’s circumstances around single motherhood rarely [matter]. …I think the conversation about single mothers in the church should start there. Do we know who we’re stigmatizing? Do we know her story? Shouldn’t we extend grace regardless?
Indeed, a powerful starting point for changing public perceptions and stereotypes of black motherhood is an honest look at our own minds and hearts. How can we credibly critique others’ mishandling of us if we mishandle, judge, and excoriate ourselves? Do we believe our mothers are lazy, neglectful, and inept? Some of us might be, but aren’t we allowed diversity within our ranks, just like any other demographic group? We won’t all be Claire Huxtable; some of us will be Mary Lee Johnston. Showing ourselves grace, kindness, and compassion is an important self-care tactic in an overall resistance strategy. Another prong of our strategy should be to actively rebut the misrecognitions where, how, and to the extent we can. Brown makes a good point when she says, “Taking on all critics can be exhausting and it makes for a relentlessly defensive life. My personal approach, outside of my Beyond Baby Mamas efforts, is to be the absolute best mother I can be. Providing your child with a great family life won’t completely silence critics, but it’s the best counter-argument we can make.” Seals Allers echoes a similar sentiment when she suggests that we are experiencing image management fatigue and just want to focus on being the best mothers we can for our children. Personal excellence is a workable strategy to relieve the internal stress, and this is important because chronic stress seriously impacts our mental and emotional health, thereby affecting all of our relationships. But allowing so much wrong information and degrading imagery about our lives to persist is also damaging and hinders our needed involvement in critical cultural conversations and policy development.
If in fact black moms are tired of waging the everyday battles we face and wondering if we can make any difference, we have contemporary examples of powerful advocacy being done on a national and international level by moms of color to inspire us. On the international stage, Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner and co-founder and leader of Liberian Mass Action for Peace, led a resistance movement that ended the 14-year Liberian civil war. In her provocative memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation At War, she clearly connects her groups’ effectiveness, motivation, and source of influence to their status as mothers. Speaking to then Liberian president Charles Taylor during a pivotal negotiation summit she said, ““…[T]he women of Liberia…, we are tired of war. We are tired of running. We are tired of begging for [food]. We are tired of our children being raped. We are now taking this stand, to secure the future of our children. Because we believe, as custodians of society, tomorrow our children will ask us, ‘Mama, what was your role during the crisis?’”
Stateside, grief and devastation over repeated and unrequited injustice against our children was on national display when Trayvon Martin was murdered and when his killer was subsequently acquitted of his murder. Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton provided a stereotype-shattering display of grace, poise, and resolve as she lamented his death and is now advocating for common sense gun reform and the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws. She reminded black mothers everywhere that we don’t have to limit ourselves to the common black mom stereotype of private, but impotent grief—cathartic for the griever, but lacking transformative power. Ms. Fulton demonstrated that we can transition our grief to public influence and power. Other noteworthy models of effective black mom-based activism include: Mocha Moms, Inc.’s Occupy Schools™ education initiative, led by Kuae Mattox; Kimberly Seals Allers’ innovative Black Breastfeeding 360 campaign to educate and raise awareness about the benefits of breastfeeding among moms of color; Tonya Lewis Lee’s spokesperson role for the Office of Minority Health’s to reduce black infant mortality; and 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence, a non-profit created by 2013 Ebony Power 100 mom Lorrain Franklin-Taylor. And there are other potential issues for high-impact policy and cultural involvement of black mothers, including disabilities, sexuality and sex education programming and funding, mental health, childcare, criminal justice reform, and employment issues like a living wage and maternal leave policies.
Black motherhood needs to be humanized and re-conceptualized. We are more than grief and shame and hardship. We are also joyous and communal and emotionally available and wise and intellectual. It benefits us and our society to lean in to the full spectrum of our mothering.