The historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at this year’s Oscars. And the point was clearly illustrated with Mo’Nique, capturing the gold statue for best supporting actress in the movie “ Precious,” based on the novel Push by Sapphire, as a ghetto welfare mom who demeans and demoralizes her child every chance she can.
Mo’Nique’s role juxtaposed to Sandra Bullock’s, who captures her Oscar as best actress in the movie “ The Blind Side,” offers the hand of human kindness to a poor black child in need of parenting.
But the images African-American parenting have historically been viewed through a prism of gendered and racial stereotypes. And the image of Mo’Nique as the “bad black mother” and Sandra Bullock as” good white mother” is nothing new.
The images of the “bad black mother” have not only been used for entertainment purposes but also used for legislating welfare policy reforms.
For example, in Ronald Reagan’s era (1981- 1989), black motherhood was constantly under siege. These moms were depicted as Cadillac-driving “ welfare queens,” who had little to no ambition to work, wanted money for drugs, and wanted to continue, due to their uncontrolled sexuality, to have illegitimate babies in order to remain on welfare.
Reagan told a fallacious story about a African American mother from Chicago’s South Side who was arrested for welfare fraud that subsequently not only shaped public perception of black mothers but it also shaped welfare reform:
“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve 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, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.”
The story of Precious takes place in 1983. And while the book shapes the character Precious and that of her mother Mary within both the economic an cultural context of the Reagan era, the movie “Precious” does not. And this one-dimensional depiction of Mary conveniently reinscribes black mothers’ fear that haunts us daily — that we’re never good enough.
The feeling that we as mothers are never good enough was thrown in our faces also in Daniel Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” This report – also known as theMoynihan Report- states that the cause of the destruction of the Black nuclear family structure were women, giving rise to the myth of “the Black Matriarch.” The myth proposes that African-American women are complicit with white patriarchal society in the emasculation of African-American men by becoming heads of households and primary jobholders.
Lee Daniels, the director of “Precious,” has a knack for portraying monstrous black mothers on the silver screen. Halle Berry won the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2001 for her role as bad mother in Daniels’ “ Monster’s Ball.”
In this “post-racial” Obama era, the subject of race and the politics of black representation in films are constrained by neither political correctness nor moral consciousness. But Daniels would argue that the moral conscious of his “Precious” is evident by the film’s crossover appeal, but also by the universality of its message- the suffering and damage of child molestation at the hand of parents.
While Daniels’ film shocked and awed moviegoers across the country, many African American sisters, like Precious, didn’t find the film as liberating and cathartic as intended.
For many of these sisters – as with a lot of African American women – we saw not ourselves, but rather a modern-day version of an old racist stereotype.
Some African American woman told me they saw the character Precious as our culture’s new “Hottentot Venus.” Hottetot Venus was Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman from South Africa, who was forced to reveal her huge buttocks and labia to curious Europeans in a traveling human circus show. The Hottentot Venus has become the iconic image for portraying black female bodies as subhuman, and this image is still very much part and parcel of our culture’s social discourse.
“Portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women’s oppression, ” sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.
“Precious” is no doubt an important film. But when the artistic portrayal of the characters and people Daniels is trying to bring to life in a new way reinscribes century-old stereotypes, Daniels -albeit with good intentions- has caused harm.
And if Daniels won’t take my advice on this, then he should just pause for a moment and go and ask his momma.