OP/ED: Hollywood to Black moms: “Stay home”

imageThe movie “What To Expect When You’re Expecting” was, sadly, exactly what I expected: devoid of any real representation of African-American motherhood. Whenever Hollywood sets out to portray the joys and trials of modern motherhood on the big screen, black mothers are blatantly and consistently missing from the mix.

Like when I excitedly trekked to the movie theater to see Uma Thurman in “Motherhood,” as the epitome of a frustrated New York City uber-mom and blogger. But “Motherhood” must have been filmed in the same Hollywood version of New York used for years for the shooting of “Friends” (and currently being used to film HBO’s “Girls”): the no-blacks-except-for-the-extras version. Really?

Later, I was super-excited to see the big-screen adaptation of one of my favorite books, “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” starring Sarah Jessica Parker. But apparently black mothers don’t do it at all.

Whenever there is a significant mainstream movie on motherhood, black mothers aren’t there. Why is that? If Walter Lippmann is correct is saying that how we come to understand the world is a function of the “pictures in our heads” and that the media play a crucial role in the formation of these images, then African-American mothers have a serious problem.

Because the “pictures in our heads” of black mothers depict them as crack heads, single mothers with deadbeat-dad issues, welfare queens, violent, uneducated or as neck-rolling sassy maids and smart-talking fishwives. Alternatively, we are being portrayed by a man. In a fat suit. And a wig. Nice! We are rarely seen as nurturing mothers or (gasp!) intentional parents with committed husbands, let alone successful women who don trendy shoes, fabulous handbags and have some of the same romantic-comedy-worthy struggles as any other parent or would-be parent. Hey, Hollywood, we even have fertility issues, despite the hypersexualized, baby-making-machine stereotypes you’ve come to believe.

Even with a highly educated, modern black woman who is a self-described “mom in chief” serving as the First Lady, black women are not included in any of the mainstream mommy dialogue in this country — which is dominated by white and affluent voices. We aren’t seen as thinkers in this mommy movement, women with an important perspective in shaping the future of, say, maternity leave and child-care issues. Nor is our journey in motherhood and middle-class angst and bliss told in cutesy books or on network sitcoms about modern family. The white experience (motherhood or otherwise) is viewed as universal — something for everyone to watch — but throw in two African-American actors (minus the obvious Will Smith factor) and suddenly it’s for black audiences only. And I’m still boycotting those Mom blogger conferences for their blatant lack of diversity. (Check out this woefully whitewashed infographic by H&R Block on the mom blogger space for further proof.)

The slow demise of black motherhood began in slavery where we were viewed as breeders producing commodities, not as real humans, and therefore we had no control over our experience in motherhood or our children. As slaves, our children were often ripped from our bosoms and sold as we stood helpless in despair. What followed was a long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood. As a result, mainstream culture still sees black motherhood as a distortion of true motherhood ideals, and therefore unworthy of the big screen.

The stigma of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” which designated black mothers as the principal cause of a culture of pathology, stuck. Moynihan’s research predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African-American communities, he blamed black mothers for the state of African-American families. The now infamous Moynihan Report encouraged the nation not to view black mothers 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.

Even now, the subliminal messaging remains clear: Black mothers are not welcome at the real mothers table. My job as a black mother is to stay off the system and make sure my children don’t become future criminals, gangsta rappers, teenage mothers or welfare recipients — not glamorous stuff. With so much for me to do, let’s leave the policy-making, Hollywood imagery and big-picture idea-shaping to someone else.

I refuse to spend my money to support the “What to Expect” movie, even with Jennifer Lopez as the token “brown” person (her character apparently is going to Africa to adopt — I won’t even go there!) and Chris Rock (my favorite comedian of all time) as an African-American dad.

I will not support the continued disrespect of black mothers, who for years have been deemed as perfectly fit to take care of white people’s children but somehow unfit to raise our own. I will not stay quiet while Hollywood creates an unrealistic New York City or any other city by erasing African-Americans from the landscape. I will not support movies that do not portray the full spectrum and true diversity of the motherhood experience. I’m just sorry that this failure is exactly what I have come to expect.

Kimberly Seals Allers is an award-winning journalist and author and a Food and Community Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Her fifth book, an examination of the impact of social, economic and political forces on breastfeeding in the U.S., will be published by St. Martin’s Press in early 2014. Follow her on Twitter: @IamKSealsAllers.

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