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Dr. Boyce Watkins

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Black Motherhood Re-Examined: Are We Always Doing Our Best?

Posted: 03/ 8/2012 6:02 pm

Janelle Harris wrote an interesting article at Essence.com, discussing stereotypes of black mothers in America. The title of the article was quite compelling, "Black Moms Do More Than Cook, Cuss and Beat Their Kids."

Like everyone else, I thought back to the women who've influenced me in my life, namely my mother, aunts and grandmothers. Yes, they all cooked, a lot. I do recall a cuss word coming out every blue moon, but not enough to be alarmed. Also, I did get a "whoopin'" every now and then, most of which I probably deserved.  So the women in my life did cook, cuss and beat their kids, but of course, this didn't define the entirety of their parental activity.

Harris and others have found themselves rightfully offended by some of the stereotypes that have been fed to us about how black women go about raising their children. When the media focuses on our beautiful black mothers, it often presents them as simple-minded control freaks who are hell bent on murdering their kids for any small indiscretion. The running joke is that the typical black mama is the one who will put you in an early grave for talking back, leaving the TV on, or misbehaving with your friends.  She is the marvelous woman who could instantly turn into the kind of monster that you only hear about at summer camp.

Media imagery also feeds into the model of a mother who must conquer the world all by herself because the daddy is too busy getting high and drunk to care about his own damn kids.  Most problematic is that many of us in our own communities buy into this imagery, and it can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Young women who are raised to buy into the one-dimensional notions of what it means to be a black woman can, unfortunately, turn themselves into cold, crass human beings devoid of any ability to give or receive meaningful love to or from anyone... including their own children.

There is no point in trying to portray the black mother as some kind of angel.  There are millions of black women in America, and there are few images that can capture the diversity and complexity of black motherhood.  However, when it comes to how all women pursue what is arguably the most important job in the world, conversations about models of black motherhood should certainly be laid on the table for discussion.

For example, women on shows like Basketball Wives (aka "Basketball Ex-Fiances and Baby Mamas") do not present models of black motherhood that make any of us proud.   These gorgeous women have allowed the world to turn them into disgusting abominations of womanhood, where the fathers of their children are mere accessories, like Coach purses or Prada handbags.  Unfortunately, many of us know women just like the ones we see on Basketball Wives.

Another image of black motherhood that is celebrated but should be rejected is the "me-against-the-world, I-am-also-the-daddy" authoritarian, who is too busy intimidating her kids to actually love them. I grow tired of hearing people talk about the "strong black woman," as if black women are not allowed to be nurturing, giving, loving, and selectively vulnerable.  As hard as life may have been for any of us, none of us should be convinced to go through life as an emotional brick wall.

The point in all of this is that stereotypes should mean nothing when it comes to how we define our personal notions of black parenthood.  What is unfortunate, however, is that many of us look to stereotypes to tell us how to raise our kids.  So rather than doing critical self-assessments to determine how we can become better parents, we assume that we have no room for improvement and thus continue counterproductive cycles that serve as detriments to our kids.

One ugly cycle that grows with each generation is the unfortunate belief that the father is not a necessary component to the healthy development of a child. Rather than considering cases where the father was forced out of the child's life or the mother has made an executive decision to alienate the sperm donor, we would rather buy into the simple narrative that the child's "daddy just ain't sh*t."

Black mothers can be the most amazing and valuable creatures on this planet, but to defend the black mother by not encouraging her to self-examine would be a horrible mistake.  All of us can find new ways to become better parents, and those answers aren't typically found by embracing the nearest stereotype.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.

 

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