The historical legacy of the devaluation and demonization of black motherhood was both applauded and rewarded at this yearâ€™s Oscars. And the point was clearly illustrated with Moâ€™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 at every chance she can.
Moâ€™Niqueâ€™s role juxtaposed to Sandra Bullockâ€™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-Americans parenting have historically been viewed through a prism of gendered and racial stereotypes. And the image of Moâ€™Nique as the bad black mother and Sandra Bullock as good white mother is not new.
The images of the bad black mothers have not only been used for entertainment purposes but also used for legislating welfare policy reforms.
For example, in Ronald Reaganâ€™s era (1981-1989) black motherhood was constantly under siege. These moms were depicted as Cadillac-driving â€śwelfare queens,â€ť 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 an African American mother from Chicagoâ€™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:
â€śShe has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteranâ€™s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. Sheâ€™s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.â€ť
The story of Precious takes place in 1983. And while the book shapes the character, Precious and Preciousâ€™ mom Mary within both the economic and cultural context of the Reagan era, the movie Precious does not. And this one-dimensional depiction of Mary conveniently reinscribes black mothersâ€™s fear that haunts us daily - weâ€™re never good enough.
The feeling that we as mothers are never good enough was thrown in our faces also in Daniel Moynihanâ€™s 1965 report â€śThe Negro Family: The Case For National Action.â€ť This report also known as the Moynihan Report states that the cause of the destruction of the Black nuclear family structure were women, giving rise to the myth of â€śthe Black Matriarch.â€ť 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 job holders.
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 Monsterâ€™s Ball.
In this â€śpost-racialâ€ť 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 filmâ€™s crossover appeal, but also by the universality of its message- the suffering and damage of child molestation at the hand of parents.
While Danielsâ€™ film shocked and awed moviegoers across the country, many African American sisters like Precious didnâ€™t find the film as liberating and cathartic as intended.
And much of the reason is because 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 cultureâ€™s new â€śHottentot Venus.â€ť Hottetot Venus was Saartjie â€śSarahâ€ť Baartman from South African 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 cultureâ€™s social discourse.
â€śPortraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarchs, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black womenâ€™s oppression, â€ť sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes in â€śBlack Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.â€ť
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 intention - has caused harm.
And if Daniels wonâ€™t take my advice on this, he should just pause for a moment and go and ask his momma.