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Black motherhood: image vs. reality


You may write me down in history
with your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.
— “Still I Rise,” a poem by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou’s words are a timeless mantra for African American motherhood–particularly single motherhood–which has so often been subjected to controversy and political fodder.

It was 45 years ago that Patrick Daniel Moynihan, who was at the time assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, wrote the contentious “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” also known as the Moynihan Report.

In the report, he concluded that “there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future; that community asks for and gets chaos.

“Crime, violence, unrest, disorder . . . are not only to be expected, they are very near to inevitable.”
These were fighting words. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP, CORE and leaders in the African American community spoke out against what they deemed a naive “blame the victim” mentality, as well as an insult to Blacks in general and single mothers in particular.

Almost 20 years later, Ronald Reagan, during his 1976 presidential campaign, recounted the story of a so-called “welfare queen” from Chicago’s South Side who was arrested for welfare fraud: “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing, deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, is getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free, cash income is over $150,000.”

Although Reagan never named names, studies show that the term “welfare queen” carries gender and racial connotations and is a stigmatizing label most often placed on single Black mothers.
Although the perception of the “welfare queen” and other negative stereotypes still lingers among some, today’s image of the African American mother–both married and single–varies along a much broader spectrum. Black women with children have options that the previous generation never dreamed of having.

Cynthia McClain-Hill, is a proud mother of two adult children–one a professional athlete and the other a senior in college. She is among the second generation of women who sought to have both a thriving career and motherhood. A lawyer by trade, McClain is co-founder of Strategic Counsel, a Los Angeles-based firm specializing in strategic public policy, and is a former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

McClain said that pressure of motherhood in the workplace has decreased as women have learned to better define success. “Baby boomers felt pressure to prove that they could be counted upon at work, notwithstanding families and other outside responsibilities. As a result, they tried to downplay or hide the difficult conflicts that were created by simultaneously trying to excel in both roles,” she said.

“Today working mothers are more common and much more assertive in terms of seeking reasonable work accommodations to allow them to better balance their professional and family responsibilities. Having the experience of their own childhoods and examples of their mothers, today women are simply better at defining for themselves what success looks like and have less to prove in terms of their ability to handle professional responsibility.”

While the image for working mothers is improving, Hollywood’s image of Black motherhood still has a ways to go. In an article entitled “Black Motherhood Lost at the Oscars,” Rev. Irene Monroe, coordinator of the African American Roundtable of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (CLGS) at the Pacific School of Religion, contrasts the Academy of Arts and Motion Pictures awarding an Oscar for the portrayal of a ghetto welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child in “Push” (“Precious” is the movie) by Sapphire and the Oscar given to Sandra Bullock for her role (in “The Blind Side”) as woman who offers the hand of human kindness to a poor Black child in need of parenting.

“The images of African American parenting have historically been viewed through a prism of gendered and racial stereotypes,” Rev. Monroe wrote. “The image of Mo’Nique as the ‘bad Black mother’ and Sandra Bullock as the ‘good White mother’ is nothing new.”

Roles for African American mothers have fared much better on the small screen. Diahann Carroll as “Julia,” Claire Huxtable of the “Cosby Show,” Vivian Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” all offered glimpses into a world of possibilities for Black mothers.

Entrepreneur and stay-at-home mom Kimberly Seals Allers says that the televised images of Black motherhood “showed a future generation of lawyers, doctors and accountants that upwardly mobile Black women could indeed have it all. We could raise five kids without a nanny, take care of a house, maintain a high-powered career, be adored by our husband and still look glamorous and sexy.”

Allers mused that although in reality, having it all may not be possible, however, “This was new territory for Black women. For decades, this was something that only seemed possible for White women.”

The romanticizing of single motherhood is a current movie trend that seems to exclude Black women, even though government statistics show that a whopping 72 percent of Black babies are born to unmarried mothers.

Movies like “Knocked-Up” with Kathryn Heigl and the “Back-up Plan” with Jennifer Lopez depict a romanticized image of motherhood. In the movies, whether the pregnancy is planned or not, the baby’s daddy always comes around at the end or is at least available to co-parent.

In real life, this is not always the case. “Many single mothers are not selecting to become single mothers,” says Barbara Perkins, life coach and mother of two young adults. Perkins has been married for 26 years and is the founder of Sisters at the Well, a forum for networking and support programs that enhance the lives of Black women, their families and communities.

The former executive director of LA Cares Mentoring Movement, Perkins, comes into contact with many young mothers. “The overwhelming desire of women who become mothers is to have a supporting husband or mate to be the second parent in a child’s life. However, women with a strong desire to have children, when faced with the option of having a child as a single [parent] or not having a child, will often plan to go it alone. I do not believe, however, that that is the intention and desire of a significant number of women,” said Perkins.

It’s long been believed that the Black family was nearly obliterated as a unit during the slavery system.

“The absent Black man/father remained one of American’s most enduring myths,” writes Earl Ofari Hutchinson in his book “Black Fatherhood II: Black Women Talk About their Men.”
“What many don’t know is that the Black single parent home is very recent,” he writes. “In 1980, nearly six out of 10 Black men were in the home.”

Moreover, he states “If you take Black families with income, assets and professions that match those of White families, you will find that the same number of Black men stay in the home as White men.”

When asked about the changing role of motherhood, Perkins reflected on the fact that, “Motherhood has always held a sacred space in our society for as long as I have been told about it and have experienced it. Traditionally, motherhood has been respected and has carried with it a badge of distinction. In the Black experience, mothers remain the anchor that holds the family together.”

“We all revere mothers,” said Pamela Brogdon-Wynne, Ed.D., director of the EOPS and CARE and CalWorks programs at College of the Canyons “It may take the younger generation a while to realize how she is responsible for our lives. They have to grow up and go through life to come to that realization.”

Indeed, with the derogatory lyrics used to describe women in some rap music, it can make you wonder about the future image of the Black mother.

Mark Henderson of gives leadership training to young Black men and tries to impress upon them the importance of respecting all women.

“We ask them ‘would you like someone to talk to your mother or sister like that?’ We have to get them to make that correlation,” Henderson said.

“But then, if their mother is trying to be their friend, well, you can talk to your friend, your big home girl, any kind of way.”

Brogdon-Wynne agrees.

“Women have to stand up and demand respect, and I guess mothers need to teach their daughters,” she said. “Teach them that they deserve respect. Someone can’t respect you and call you a bitch; what’s that about? It’s not a term of endearment.”

Maya Angelou’s words of inspiration and perseverance still ring true in regard to today’s Black mothers and their children:

Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise.
I rise.
I rise.