Motherhood and Sweet Potato Pie

black-mother-1-378x300America claims to hold motherhood sacred. We sing the praises of the sacrifice and devotion of mothers…except for one group of mothers…Black mothers!
Because I spend so much of my time working in schools and with educators I have heard a litany of complaints about parents–especially mothers. The other night I was in an electronic conversation about the “school to prison pipeline” and several comments referenced those “bad” parents. Historically, Black women were thought to be the iconic symbol of motherhood. They were so prized that during the period of slavery they were regularly called upon to raise the children of the very people who oppressed them. For almost a century after slavery, Black women would be pressed into service to raise White children. The very image of the “Mammy” emerges from a sense of Black women as “nurturing, asexual, and mothering.” However, sometime after the rise of Republican South (think Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan) the nation was introduced to the notion of the “Welfare Queen.” She was the Black woman who had figured out how to game the system, not work, collect a check from the government, and live on easy street. I will tell you I have never, ever met a welfare “Queen.” Every Black woman I’ve known who is living on public assistance was barely making ends meet. She always had more month than money. There were times when she had to look into her children’s eyes and say, “no,” to what other parents might see as a minor expense. These are mothers who cannot quickly replace clothing and shoes. These are mothers who cannot go out and purchase some school supply a teacher requests at the last minute. These are mothers who have to give up a necessity to pay for a school field trip or school photos. These are not people living on Easy Street at the expense of tax payers.

Unfortunately, the typical Hollywood depiction of Black mothers is as abusive, unfeeling, uncaring people whose children are neglected and better off without them. Think of the character the actress Monique played in the film “Precious.” If they are shown as loving their children they are also of low moral character–think Halle Berry in “Monster’s Ball (for which she received an Academy Award). Sometimes Black mothers are shown as caring for White children while simultaneously being unable to care for or protect their own children…remember Viola Davis in “The Help?” (You is smart…you is important…).

My mother was one of the most extraordinary women I knew. She was smart, generous, caring and a perfect role model for helping her children navigate the turbulent 60s. She never beat us. She didn’t berate us. She worked hard to ensure we had what we needed and without giving in to everything we want. My own responsibility as a mother has been the most awesome one I have undertaken. I’ve made my share of mistakes but I don’t think any one of them would be placed on the big screen as examples of the horrible Hollywood Black mothers we see.

The Black folks I know rarely end up on an analyst’s couch because of something their mothers’ did. No, they maintain close, personal relationships with their mothers well into old age. Why? Because our mothers are sacred to us. They teach us how to make red velvet cakes, peach cobblers, and sweet potato pies. They teach us how to manage and style our hair no matter what texture we are blessed with. They warn us about love and heartbreak while encouraging us to search for it with our whole heart. Black women will always be incredible representatives of motherhood. What do you think?

Stay Black & Smart!

“Oh That Troublesome N-Word!”

No-More-N-Word

This past weekend writer, critic, activist James Baldwin would have been 90 years old. As a tribute to Baldwin who was one of my heroes I posted a video clip of an interview with James Baldwin called, “Who is the N**ger?” [He used the actual word but throughout this post I will refrain from using it either in its original spelling or the more popular hip hop spelling ending in the letter, “A”]. Watching that interview reminded me of how problematic the N-word has been for Black people. Baldwin declared that the word did not belong to Black people, it belonged to Whites and since they created it, it reflected who they are, not who Blacks are. (See clip below).


For those of us who experienced the Civil Right Movement, the word provokes an almost visceral reaction–fear, anger, offense, outrage are all wrapped up in that word. For today’s youth it is often “just another word.” But the word is not nearly as neat and clear cut across generations as that.
Black people have always had a complex relationship to the word. We’ve used it as a term of endearment (c’mon folks ‘fess up…we’ve referred to friends and foes alike using the N-word) and as an indictment (as in “N-word, please!). Our use of the word, while simultaneously condemning Whites for using it, has created some controversy. We hear it all the time. “Why is it all right for you to use it and I can’t use it?” The best response I’ve ever heard to that came from scholar, author, journalist Marc Lamont Hill who asked, “Why do you want to use it?”
Black comedians are known for their use of the N-word. Richard Pryor referred to himself once on the Late Show with Johnny Carson as “Skinny N-word.” His stand up was riddled with the word. Chris Rock insists that there are two kinds of Black people–Black folks and N-words–and he does an entire set that contrasts the two.
But where does that leave us? Several White celebrity’s have found themselves in deep trouble for having their use of the word exposed…Michael Richards (of Seinfeld fame), Paula Deen (of Food Network), and pop singer Justin Beiber have all been caught using the word.
My discussion with young people about the word pulls on its historic use and meaning. I remind them that author Toni Morrison says that the N-word is the first word every non-Black immigrant learns when she or he arrives in the US. It is the word that makes them “American” and allows them to have solidarity with Whites. It is the word that grants them entrance! Indeed, after the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 racists were calling some Middle Eastern descent people, “Sand N-word!” Think about that…N-word is such a pejorative that it can be used to denigrate anybody!
Some Black people say that our “in-group” use of the word represents our “taking it back” and keeping it from having power over us. The Black use of the N-word thus becomes our ability to invert the stereotype. But not everybody buys that reasoning. And, that’s why we’re a diverse community. As I said in an earlier post, we don’t all think alike! What do you think about the use of the N-word?

Stay Black & Smart!

“I Am Not My Hair…Or Am I?”

going-natural-hair-styles-5

Over the past year I have seen multiple postings on social media by and about Black women and their hair. No other group has had a feature that is common among most human beings that has undergone so much scrutiny. To write this post I am compelled to go back to the 1960s. I was a college student–so I officially qualify as an “O.G.!” My generation was in the midst of the modern Civil Rights Movement. We had lost Malcolm, Medgar, and would soon lose Martin! We were the generation who declared, “Say it loud…I’m Black and I’m proud!” Indeed, we called our own selves Black! Before that we were “Negroes” and “Colored.” Black had been a pejorative. People would fight over someone calling them Black.

The Black Pride Movement asserted that our skin color, our facial features, our body shapes and body types were beautiful and should be celebrated. The greatest affirmation of that assertion came in 1966 when Robyn Gregory was named Homecoming Queen at Howard University. Before she was announced, she sat behind a translucent curtain. When the spotlight shined on her the student body could see the shape of her natural hair crown and erupted in joy. This was a moment of affirmation for Black women’s beauty!

Later, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, and other icons of the movement presented themselves with natural hair. To my generation Black was indeed beautiful! I recall the first time I walked into my mother’s house with my freshly cut natural do. Oh, the horror! How dare I cut off my hair and walk around with “nappy” hair. But like many young Black women of the day, natural hair became our most liberating moment. For the first time we would define beauty on our terms. Yes, our hair was a political statement. I maintained a natural hairstyle for decades. And, yes I fell prey to “creamy crack” (chemical relaxers) at one point in my hair journey, but by the mid 1980s I returned to my natural hair. I have had an big afro, a teeny-weeny afro, and twists (incidentally, because of a bout with breast cancer I have also been bald). Today, my hair is straight without chemicals primarily because one of life’s little luxury for me is sitting in a stylist’s chair and allowing her to massage my scalp. My post-chemo hair is much straighter than what I started with.

Today, Black women continue to demonstrate that they have the most versatile hair of anyone on the planet. They can wear it straight or curly, short or long, dreaded or twisted, braided or knotted, dyed, fried, or laid to the side! That’s our gift…versatile hair. However, having versatile hair is NOT an invitation to have people touch it to satisfy their curiosity. Despite comments that we are “post-racial” I contend that nothing is as racialized as Black women’s hair. Only Black girls and women have been excluded from the workplace or school because of their hair styles. Only Black girls and women have had “rules” written into workplace and school dress codes based solely on THEIR hair styles.

I don’t think that most Black women wearing their hair in natural styles are making a political statement in the same way we were making such statements in the 1960s. No, I think many Black women are choosing natural hair styles because they find them attractive and they see them as a healthy way to care for their hair. I also think many Black women are tired of paying hundreds of dollars for relaxers, weaves, and wigs. I think Black women are tired of scheduling their lives around their hair–exercise, swimming, going out in inclement weather are all mediated by hair when it is not in its natural state.

And, to my relaxed or weave/extensions wearing sisters…how you wear your hear is YOUR business. You are entitled to as much choice as anyone else. Just know that you are NOT your hair!

Stay Smart & Black!