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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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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, which kept black people from achieving equality. Moynihan's research predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African American communities, he 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 policy makers to imagine poor, black women as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculated their potential male partners and destroyed their children's future opportunities. The Moynihan report encouraged the state not to view black mother as women doing the best they could in tough circumstances, but instead to blame them 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.

Susan Douglass and Meredith Michaels, authors of The Mommy Myth explain that media created the "crack baby" phenomenon as a part of a broader history that understands black motherhood as inherently pathological. They write: "It turned out there was no convincing evidence that use of crack actually causes abnormal babies, even though the media insisted this was so…media coverage of crack babies serves as a powerful cautionary tale about the inherent fitness of poor or lower class African American women to be mothers at all."

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 of Shaniya's mother become the story that underlines and makes tangible, believable, and credible 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 she is a bad black mother. Implied in the her story is the damning idea that Hutchinson has committed the very worse infraction against her child and her country. Hutchinson has failed to marry a responsible, present, bread-winning man who would free her of the need to labor outside the home. Hutchinson does not stay on the home front 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 motherhood is not idyllic, it is problematic. Like so many other black mothers her parenting is presented as disruptive to her duties as a citizen.