Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

The troubling distortions of black motherhood

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University Bad black mothers are everywhere these days.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell

is an associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University

Bad black mothers are everywhere these days.

With Michelle Obama in the White House, I expected a resurgence of Claire Huxtable images of black motherhood: effortless glamour, professional success, measured wit, firm guidance, loving partnership, and the calm reassurance that American women can, in fact, have it all.

Instead the news is dominated by horrifying images of African American mothers.

Most ubiquitous is the near universally celebrated performance of Mo'Nique in Precious, the film adaptation of the novel Push. It is the story of an illiterate, obese, dark-skinned teenager who is pregnant, for the second time, with her rapist father's child.

At the core of the film is Precious' unimaginably brutal mother, an unredeemed monster who brutalizes her daughter verbally, emotionally, physically, and sexually. This mother pimps both her daughter and the government, stealing her daughter's childhood and her welfare payments.

Just as Precious was opening to national audiences, a real-life corollary emerged in the news cycle, when 5-year-old Shaniya Davis was found dead along a roadside in North Carolina. Her mother, a 25-year-old woman with a history of drug abuse, has been arrested on charges of child trafficking.

Yet another black mother made headlines recently, when a U.S. soldier, Alexis Hutchinson, refused to report for deployment to Afghanistan. Hutchinson is a single mother of an infant, and she was unable to find suitable care for her son before she was deployed. She had initially turned to her mother, but she had prior caregiver commitments. Stuck without reasonable accommodations, Hutchinson chose not to deploy. Her son was temporarily placed in foster care, and she faces charges and possible jail time.

These stories are a reminder that, for African American women, reproduction has never been an entirely private matter.

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison chose the stories of enslaved black mothers to depict the most horrifying effects of American slavery. In her novel Beloved, Morrison reveals the unimaginable pain some black mothers experienced because their children were profitable for their enslavers. Enslaved black women did not birth children; they produced units for sale, ensuring intergenerational chattel bondage was the first inheritance of black children in America.

As free citizens, black women's reproduction was no longer directly tied to profits, but they became the object of fierce eugenics efforts. In Killing the Black Body, law professor Dorothy Roberts explains how the state employed involuntary sterilization, pressure to submit to long-term birth control, and restriction of state benefits for large families as a means to control reproduction.

In a 1904 pamphlet, "Experiences of the Race Problem. By a Southern White Woman," the author claims of black women: "They are the greatest menace possible to the moral life of any community where they live. And they are evidently the chief instruments of the degradation of the men of their own race. When a man's mother, wife, and daughters are all immoral women, there is no room in his fallen nature for the aspirations of honor and virtue. . . . I cannot imagine such a creation as a virtuous black woman."

Decades later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," designated black mothers as the principal cause of a culture of pathology that kept black people from achieving equality. Instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African American communities, Moynihan reported the assumed deviance of Negro families.

This deviance was clear and obvious, he opined, because black families were led by women who seemed to have the primary decision-making roles in households. Moynihan's conclusions granted permission to two generations of conservative policymakers to imagine poor, black women as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control emasculated their potential male partners and destroyed their children's future opportunities. The Moynihan report encouraged the state to view black mothers as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demand assistance from the system.

Black mothers were again blamed as the central cause of social and economic decline in the early 1990s, when news stories and popular films about "crack babies" became dominant. Crack babies were the living, squealing, suffering evidence of pathological black motherhood, and American citizens were going to have to pay the bill for the children of these bad mothers.

This ugly history and its policy ramifications are the backdrop against which these three contemporary black-mother stories must be viewed.

Undoubtedly Mo'Nique has given an amazing performance in Precious. But the critical and popular embrace of this depiction of a monstrous black mother has potentially important, and troubling, political meaning. In a country with tens of thousands of missing and exploited children, it is not accidental that the abuse and murder of Shaniya Davis captured the American media cycle just as Precious opened. The sickening acts Shaniya's mother is accused of become the story that makes tangible the jaw-dropping horror of Mo'Nique's character.

And here, too, is Alexis Hutchinson. As a volunteer soldier in wartime, she ought to embody the very core of American citizen sacrifice. Instead, Hutchinson has committed the very worse infraction against her child and her country, failing to marry a responsible, breadwinning man who would free her of the need to labor outside the home. She does not stay home clutching her weeping young child as her man goes off to war. Instead, she struggles to find a safe place for him while she heads off to battle. Her parenting is presented as disruptive to her duties as a citizen.

Sarah Palin's big public comeback occurs right in the middle of this news cycle full of "bad black mothers." Embodied in Palin, white motherhood still represents a renewal of the American dream; black motherhood represents its downfall.

Each of these stories, situated in a long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood, serves a purpose. Each encourages Americans to see black motherhood as a distortion of true motherhood ideals. Its effect is troublesome for all mothers of all races who must navigate complex personal, familial, social, and political circumstances.