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Why Is the Media So Obsessed With Horrifying Images of African-American Mothers?

With Michelle Obama in the White House, I expected a resurgence of the Claire Huxtable stereotype. Instead, hideous depictions of abusive, irresponsible black moms are everywhere.
 
 
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Bad black mothers are everywhere these days.

With Michelle Obama in the White House, consciously and conspicuously serving as mom-in-chief, I expected (even somewhat dreaded) a resurgence of Claire Huxtable images of black motherhood: effortless glamor, 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 currently dominated by horrifying images of African American mothers.

Most ubiquitous is the near universally celebrated performance of Mo'Nique in the new film Precious. Critically and popularly acclaimed Precious is the film adaption 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. (Think The Color Purple in a 1980s inner-city rather than 1930s rural Georgia)

At the core of the film is Precious' unimaginably brutal mother. She is 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. The charges allege that this mother offered her 5-year-old daughter for sex with adult men.

Yet another black mother made headlines in the past week, when U.S. soldier, Alexis Hutchinson, refused to report for deployment to Afghanistan. Hutchinson is a single mother of an infant, and was unable to find suitable care for her son before she was deployed. She had initially turned to her own mother who found it impossible to care for the child because of prior caregiver commitments. Stuck without reasonable accommodations, Hutchinson chose not to deploy. Hutchinson's son was temporally placed in foster care. 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, measurable in labor contributions. Despite the patrilineal norm that governed free society, enslaved mothers were forced to pass along their enslaved status to their infants; ensuring intergenerational chattel bondage was the first inheritance black mothers gave to black children in America.

As free citizens black women's reproduction was no longer directly tied to profits. In this new context, black mothers became the object of fierce eugenics efforts. Black women, depicted as sexually insatiable breeders, are adaptive for a slave holding society but not for the new context of freedom. Black women's assumed lasciviousness and rampant reproduction became threatening. 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 black women's reproduction.

At the turn of the century many public reformers held African American women particularly accountable for the "degenerative conditions" of the race. Black women were blamed for being insufficient housekeepers, inattentive mothers, and poor educators of their children. Because women were supposed to maintain society's moral order, any claim about rampant disorder was a burden laid specifically at women's feet.