By Sharayah Alkire •
By Black mothers, in many forms, are a large part of our literature, movies and society in general. They are the women standing at the forefront of the civil rights movement, they are the mammys, the house negroes, the women who fought, struggled and clawed our way into the light. We as Black women have been a group that has been portrayed in so many forms we must struggle to be seen in any other way. In the terms of feminism, the Black mothers who helped give life to a movement are scattered throughout our literature being what is seen as “minor characters”, while supporting a movement that spurned generations of powerful Black children. This project will analyze the works of Langston Hughes, primarily his poem “The Negro Mother”, and other works of literature through the lens of Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought which claims that African American women need to be the ones to break down the stereotypes of the Black mother, the “happy slave” that gets portrayed by male and white female perspectives. This project will study the Black mother and her involvement in the movement of Intersectional feminism.
The term Intersectionality has many definitions, because of this it is necessary to establish the lens in which this project will use to analyze works of literature that perpetuate negative Black femme stereotypes. Patricia Hill Collins builds her definition of Intersectional feminism off the Black women that first began to build their own intersectional thoughts in the 19th century. Two of these women are Sojourner Truth and Ida Wells Barnett. Intersectional feminism is necessary for three reasons according to Collins: Black women’s labor has often been exploited, Black women have often been deprived of opportunities that have been extended to white men and Black women have been stereotyped in media and art in such a way that attests to our oppression (12). Black women have been routinely left out of the larger feminist movement despite all our struggles and our significantly harder fight to survive. Social justice is often seen as a stairwell that can only be taken one step at a time, because of this our addition to the movement was feared to be a hinderance. Sojourner Truth was one of the first Black women to come out and state her feelings towards Black female oppression, at a convention in Akron, Ohio (1851) she speaks on the parallel worlds of white women and Black women, “That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman” (14 Collins). Truth begins to break down what her society tells her a woman is, she sees white women with more freedom and respect than what she is given. Men are expected to give those women chivalry and a semblance of respect, whereas Black women were not meant to be given the same. This is our first view into Intersectional feminism as Americans.
Ida Wells Barnett actively spoke out for civil rights as well, being a journalist and an anti-lynching advocate, she got the right amount of publicity to make her voice heard. Though she was kept out of the larger suffrage movement, Wells made her own way, helping found the NAACP in 1909 and then creating the first Black suffrage organization in 1913. Though she took a large part in creating the NAACP she never gained a position of power in the organization and it is suspected that it is because she was a woman. Wells frequently journaled accounts of lynching’s and pointed out the double standard that Black men were routinely being lynched for being accused of rape against white women whereas white men were not being punished for the same crimes against Black women and girls, “Not only is it true that many of the alleged cases of rape against the Negro, are like the foregoing, but the same crime committed by white men against Negro women and girls, is never punished by mob or the law…” (https://blackpast.org). Black women were at much more of a risk than white women were and yet a white man’s crime was not seen as heinous as a Black man’s crime was. Here we view two women who were catalysts in the Intersectional feminist movement and because of this a road was paved for studying the effects society has had on Black women. This definition of Intersectional feminism leads me to view our 2-dimensional portrayals in literature and art that have led to negative stereotypes affecting the lives of Black women and children alike.
Our misrepresentation in literature in film comes from many mainstream pieces of literature and art. I first focus on the movie adaptation of “Gone with the Wind” (1939), and Scarlett O’Hara’s mammy. We see mammy frequently throughout the movie and it appears as though she has raised Scarlett from a young age. Though Mammy appears to have such a prominent role in Scarletts life, she does not seem to care too much about Mammy’s opinion, and she seems to revolve her life around the well-being of her masters. When Rhett Butler inquires about buying Mammy a red petticoat Mammy’s opinion is completely disregarded, the conversation goes:
Rhett: [laughing] I never heard anything more true. Mammy’s a smart old soul. And one of the few people who’s respect I’d like to have.
Scarlett: Well, I won’t give a thing. She doesn’t deserve it.
Rhett: Then I’ll take her a petticoat. I remember my mammy always said that when she went to heaven, she wanted a red petticoat so stiff that it would stand by itself and so rustly that the Lord would think it was made of angels’ wings.
Scarlett: Well, she won’t take it from you. She’d rather die than wear it (http://xroads.virginia.edu).
While Scarlett and Rhett discuss Mammy’s wants and needs, no one thinks about going to Mammy and asking her how she felt. Scarlett does not appear to even see Mammy as being a person who has wants, there is no reason for her to believe that Mammy does not want such things. Though Rhett seems to have more feelings towards the matter, he doesn’t think to discuss this with Mammy either. Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammy fits the exact stereotype that Collins is calling us as Black women to recognize, “By loving, nurturing, and caring for her white children and “family” better than her own, the mammy symbolizes the dominant group’s perceptions of the ideal Black female relationship to elite white male power. Even though she may be well loved and may wield considerable authority in her white “family,” the mammy still knows her “place” as obedient servant. She has accepted her subordination” (71 Collins). Mammy is not meant to have personal opinions and needs outside of that which is needed to care for her master’s family. Throughout the film Mammy shows her loyalty many times, often follows Scarlett wherever she goes, and though she seems to be more outspoken than other Mammy’s she is still in a position where she knows there are certain things she cannot say or do. Mammy is still fully aware of her standing in the O’Hara household.
Toni Morrisons essay “Playing in the Dark” leads me to view the next form of misrepresentation in the book The Help (2009) written by Kathryn Stockett, movie adaptation released in 2011. Toni Morrison states that Black characters are often used as tropes to mobilize humanity, “American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on to historicize and render timeless” (7 Morrison). When we see African Americans in white writing, too often are we seeing scenarios where we are only used as an interesting way to change humanity. We see this in the characters of “The Help.” The book is written from the perspectives of Aibileen, Minny and Miss. Skeeter. Though we are seeing the situation from many perspectives, the one who decides to make a change and write the book is Miss. Skeeter. She does this because she is seeing the suffering of the Black women, both of whom are maids or mammies for their own bosses, living in poverty and making pennies for their work. “The Help” gives the notion that having a white woman give the Black community a leg up during the Civil Rights era was even necessary. White people did stand alongside Black leaders during this time, but they were not at the forefront of the movement, and it certainly wasn’t their idea. Toni Morrison calls this “the reckless, unabated power of a white woman gathering identity unto herself from the wholly available and serviceable lives of Africanist others” (25 Morrison).
The Help attempts to be “relatable” with its use of African American Vernacular English especially when Aibileen is speaking. A phrase that is used in the movie frequently between her charge Mae Mobley in the movie is, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important” (2011 Taylor). In the book the phrases are, “’You a smart girl. You a kind girl, Mae Mobley’” (107 Stockett). “Balancing the Perspective, a Look at Early Black American Literary Artistry” by Houston Baker pulls from a quote by William H. Robinson relevant to this stereotype: “The black man in the hands of most white dialect writers is a subject of ridicule and served to document the learnings and expectations of white readers in need of repeated confirmations of their psychological and social notions about superior and inferior races” (517 Baker). While Aibileen is no man, she and the other Black characters are subject to ridicule at the hands of Stockett’s attempt to be “universal.”
The Help gives us another view of a “happy slave” stereotype in Miss. Skeeter’s loyal caregiver who basically dies of a broken heart when she is fired. Miss. Skeeters mother fires Constantine after her “high yellow” daughter oversteps boundaries at a party and “three weeks” (430) after she is fired, she dies. Even though Constantine was finally reunited with her daughter she had given up for adoption, the greatest sadness of her life was being fired from her white family’s home. The movie Miss. Skeeter even goes so far as to blatantly say that Constantine died of a broken heart, I believe it’s safe to say that this most likely wouldn’t have been the saddest thing in Constantine’s life if she were an actual nuanced character. Constantine is a mother that had to give up her actual blood daughter because her child was mixed race. Being mixed race in the south with a dark-skinned mother during this time was a true struggle. Constantine was treated badly because she was parading around a child who looked close to being white (100-101 Stockett). It is strange that the loss of Miss. Skeeter and her family in Constantine’s life would be sadder than having to give up her own young child by choice. Morrison discusses this in her essay as well, she talks about the stereotype of slave mothers being intensely loyal to their white charges, even over their own children. Morrison calls it out, “Only with Africanist characters is such a project thinkable: delayed gratification for the pleasure of a (white) child” (27 Morrison). It’s almost laughable to think that Constantine might have thought Miss. Skeeter to be more important than her own daughter. But downplaying Jim Crow era America is how this book/movie has gotten its reputation for being “feel good.”
Toni Morrison attempts to tackle a more nuanced version of Black motherhood in her own writing. One of these depictions being that of the mother in her book Sula. In Black female writings motherhood is often depicted as being detached and unemotional. Collins tackles this with a quote she pulled from Gloria Joseph, “For far too many Black mothers, the demands of providing for children in interlocking systems of oppression are sometimes so demanding that they have neither the time nor the patience for affection. And yet most Black daughters love and admire their mothers and are convinced that their mothers truly love them” (127 Colins). Eva has the demand of raising three children in a country where she can hardly make a dime, when her daughter asks if she ever loved her children Eva angrily replies, “What you talkin’ bout did I love you girl, I stayed alive for you” (127 Collins, 69 Morrison). When Eva’s husband leaves her to raise her children alone, she is forced to put aside any feelings she has towards the situation and life in general aside. She moves to putting herself second because she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, when her daughter seems to question her love, anger grows from her because she knows she has sacrificed much of herself for the well-being of her children. Morrison attempts to show the world of Black motherhood that we are not seeing when we read The Help, where this narrative attempts to show Black women dedicated to their jobs. Sula gives us the other side, the Black mother that goes home and struggles to be loving to her children she works her fingers to the bone for.
Morrison again works at tackling a nuanced Black mother in her Gothic tale Beloved. Collins describes one of the struggles of Black motherhood being painful not knowing what we can and cannot protect our children from, “The pain of knowing what lies ahead for Black children while feeling powerless to protect them is another problematic dimension of Black mothering” (135 Collins). This is what Morrison seems to attempt to show in her story, where a slave mother makes the decision to kill her own child rather than force her to die by slavery. The tale shows a mother’s psychological struggles in dealing with her loss. Though the story attempts to bring across messages about slavery, motherhood, and self-perception. Sethe deals with having had to make the decision of taking her own child’s life rather than letting her fall into the hands of slavery. Her decision is still something that is widely debated but it is obvious that she loved her children, “”I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved ‘em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they weren’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon-there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?” (190 Morrison). As the readers we are split between sorrow and anger towards Sethe’s actions, but this is how Morrison intended for her audience to feel, for it is how the main character feels about herself. Sethe has paid a costly price for loving her daughter, Beloved so dearly, and this plays into a more 3-dimensional depiction of the horrors that can come with Black motherhood, more so than the narratives depicted in Gone with the Wind and The Help.
Ann Petry is another author that attempts to give her readers a view on Black motherhood that is more nuanced in her story “The Street.” This is a story about a mother named Lutie Johnson who is attempting to raise her son, Bub, in the streets of Harlem in the 1940’s. Lutie struggles to keep her family afloat while working long hours at various jobs, first as a house maid for a white family. When Lutie’s husband leaves her for another women Lutie is forced to quit this job and move on to other endeavors, always having the fear in her mind that she is not spending enough time with her son. At one point when Lutie scolds Bub for getting a job as a shoe shine boy she wonders to herself why she feels so much anger towards this. She thinks to herself, “…that it may do worse than that and get him into some kind of trouble that will land him in reform school because you can’t be home to look out for him because you have to work” (67 Petry). Lutie is terrified of destroying her son’s life because she cannot be a stay at home mother. The oppression of society itself, the terrible wages and opportunities at hand for Black mothers is what is keeping Lutie from giving her son the life she desires and from being the mother she wants to be. Collins states that, “…being unable to care for one’s children is oppressive” (133). Lutie being simply unable to get the chance to properly love and care for her son is the result of an oppressive society. The streets that Black people were (and still are) forced to live in due to redlining is why Petry felt it necessary to point this out in Lutie’s story.
Lutie is continually subjected to unwanted sexual advances and attempted sexual assault. Every (white) man in power attempts to take advantage of her any way they can, and she becomes helpless to her situation. Lutie’s life mirrors reality and her anger towards her situation grows as the story progresses, she states at one point, “Streets like the one she lived on were no accident. They were the North’s lunch mobs, she thought bitterly; the method the big cities used to keep Negroes in their place” (323 Petry). Petry’s depiction of Black motherhood is a harsh look on the true struggles Black mothers have faced throughout our history in raising children in a society that continually wants to oppress them. Lutie struggles to get jobs and keep them, and she notices that everyone else around her seems to be falling into the same problems. The street she lives in is a vicious cycle that no one seems to be able to get out of, and with Bub being locked up at the end of the book we get an even more raw mirror of real life when we compare it to the mass incarceration of Black men in America. While Lutie’s narrative does not have a happy ending, it is a gritty vision into the true face of Black motherhood.
Toxic stereotypes surrounding Black motherhood do not only come from white female writers, they come from Black male narratives as well. Collins discusses a problematic viewpoint that has been set across by Black males, “By claiming that Black women are richly endowed with devotion, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love-the attributes associated with archetypal motherhood-Black men inadvertently foster a different controlling image for Black women, that of the ‘superstrong Black mother’” (116 Collins, Staples). This problematic narrative of Black motherhood moves to affect Black women in real life, a mother who is implicitly resilient is not going to be offered as much help as she may need, because it is thought that she doesn’t need it. This vision is portrayed in Tupac’s rap hit titled “Hey Mama” (1995). Tupac Shakur’s lyrics praise his mother for fighting through all of her tribulations to survive in post Jim Crow era America, is lyrics stating: “And even as a crack fiend, mama, you always was a Black queen mama” (1995 Shakur). This is a toxic narrative to put across about Black motherhood, while it is not a piece that should be ignored it is a 2-dimmensional stereotype perpetuating the “welfare mother” and “superstrong mother” mindsets. His mother was a crack fiend because of the subsequent pushing of drugs by the government into Black communities to tear families apart, he is leaving out her struggles as the wife of a Black Panther and many other factors that affected her life as a Black mother in the streets of Harlem, New York. These two-dimensional surface representations of Black motherhood have the power to negatively affect Black mothers in real life, and when we are busy praising the strong Black mother, we are ignoring this fact. While trying to give their mothers thanks for what they did for them, Black men are unintentionally creating another controlling image of Black mothers that translates to how we are seen in real life. Barbara Christian states that “the idea that mothers should live lives of sacrifice has come to be seen as the norm” (116 Collins). This controlling image continues to dominate the view of Black mothers.
Patricia Hill Collins states that Black feminism is not a mindset that is exclusive to Black women, she states characteristics of Black feminists, “that Black women’s experiences with both racial and gender oppression that result in needs and problems distinct from white women and Black men, and that Black women must struggle for equality both as women and as African Americans” (20 Collins). She uses W.E.B Du Bois and Frederick Douglass as examples of Black feminists, but I argue that another demonstration of a male Black feminist comes in the form of poet Langston Hughes. His poem Negro Mother fights against the painfully one-dimensional views of Black motherhood that we find too often in literature and art. I believe that Hughes fits the criteria Collins sets for her definition on what Black feminists stand for and I believe that this poem shows proof of that statement. The poems line, “I am the one who labored as a slave, / Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave / Children sold away from me, I’m husband sold, too. / No safety, no love, no respect was I due” (Hughes) brings a powerful punch to its readers showing exactly what our ancestral mothers went through to continue the advancement of the African American race. Hughes speaks of an entire struggle that is under the surface, not just the face of a strong woman who prevailed.
Hughes uses the power of language to help symbolize the strength of Black women, the strength that they passed on to their children and grandchildren alike, “I had to keep on! No stopping for me – / I was the seed of the coming Free. / I nourished the dream that nothing could smother / Deep in my breast – the Negro mother. / I had only hope then, but now through you, / Dark ones of today, my dreams must come true…” (Hughes). Hughes calls for us to remember the struggle Black women have gone through and continue to go through. From a Black female perspective, he calls for Black children to use the struggle to rise. It is necessary to raise generations of powerful Black children in a country where it is potentially dangerous for them to grow up in, in a country that is built around them to not succeed. Being an African American is an everyday struggle. Hughes tells us not to take for granted the fight of the Negro mother, to remember the pain our grandparents went through to get us here today. He wants us to remember that oppression is still attempting to bring us down but to keep pushing forward, “breaking down bars.” Hughes ends the poem with his final call for remembrance, “Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers / Impel you forever up the great stairs – / For I will be with you till no white brother / Dares keep down the children of the Negro Mother” (Hughes). This poem is a beautiful and powerful attempt to have another look on African American motherhood, a look on Black mothers not as mammys, not as the help or even as superstrong fighters. But Black mothers as creators, as inspirations and as the true soldiers in the advancement of the African American race.
Mothering is a community in the African tradition that has been carried over with African Americans. Other mothering and surrogate mothering are common in communities with working class citizens, in the Black community “it takes a village” is taken to heart. Struggles within the African American community, when it comes to being parents, are not so often faced in white communities. It is necessary for Black mothers to stick together and raise children as a unit in a country where it is potentially dangerous for our children to grow up in. When we are perpetuating this superstrong Black mother figure, we are ignoring all the underlying reasons why the Black mother must be this way. And we are pushing Black mothers into the ideal that they cannot and will not complain about their pains, putting them at risk of ignored when it comes to health concerns and paying no mind to their struggles because “they will get through it.” The happy slave stereotype is putting a negative image on Black mothers, causing them to be seen as emotionally disconnected from their own children. These narratives are taking away from the true reality of being a Black mother in America. The fact of the matter is that Black women are more than 3-6x more likely to die during childbirth, they are less likely to get prenatal/neonatal care, they get less information and accessibility to birth control and less accessibility to abortions (http://www.nationalpartnership.org). Before ROE V WADE 80% of botched abortion deaths were Black women. (134 Collins).
Think of Tamir Rice’s mother, think of Treyvon Martin’s mother, this is the reality for Black mothers in America. These stereotypes are negatively affecting the lives of us as Black mothers and the lives of our children. When doctors refuse to hear our pleas because they don’t believe in our pain and people are shooting our sons on the street without any regard to their lives or the lives of their mothers waiting for them at home, we begin to see the negative effects of these narratives. Tamir Rice’s mother made a powerful statement, “That was the most horrific day of my life, sending two children out to play that day and only one coming home” (https://www.wkyc.com). Treyvon Martin would have been 24 in the coming year and yet his murderer was found innocent of his crimes. This is a fear for many Black women and mothers of Black children across the country and it is a fear that is generational. From being afraid of the police, to the KKK, to the fear of being separated from our children due to slavery, it is not a new phenomenon for Black mothers to have to fear the lives of our children. Collins addresses this issue in her book as well, she states “The pain of knowing what lies ahead for Black children while feeling powerless to protect them is another problematic dimension of Black mothering” (135 Collins). This is the reality of raising your Black children in America, this is the reality of being a Black mother in this country. We need to stop perpetuating these stereotypes if we ever want to begin to form change for the way Black motherhood is viewed.
Our fight has been empowering. For many African-American women mothering itself is an empowering experience. Being able to see oneself in our children, especially our little girls, opens our eyes to self-love. Collins pulls a quote from Alice Walker, “We are together, my child and I. Mother and child, yes, but sisters really, against whatever denies us all that we are” (137 Collins). Our grandmothers and great grandmothers fought so hard and pushed us so hard because they knew it was necessary to raise generations of powerful Black children. Giving us the power to move towards intersectionality. They have started a movement that doesn’t appear to be stopping or slowing down anytime soon, we are taking our voices if they will not be heard voluntarily. I believe that the fight we are putting to be heard as Black women of color we are bringing our grandparents justice. By taking advantage of the road they paved for us and using it to move towards change and make our voices heard we are showing our appreciation for their sacrifices. As I conclude I quote Hughes one more time, “Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers / Impel you forever up the great stairs – / For I will be with you till no white brother / Dares keep down the children of the Negro Mother”. These women are the ones behind Intersectional feminism, they are the reason we can have a platform for our own topics. It is empowering to be a Black woman and it is empowering to be a Black mother.
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Alkire 16 Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind/ Margaret Mitchell. Bard, 1964.
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Sharayah Alkire wrote this for an honors paper she has written on the misrepresentation of Black mothers in literature through a feminist lens