Beyoncé Is Not The Magical Negro Mammy
Beyoncé is no one's mammy.
So the record-scratching comments from Adele and Faith Hill shortly after Beyoncé's Grammy performance came across as absolutely bizarre. In her earnest acceptance speech for her album of the year win, Adele praised her fellow artist's vision for Lemonade, the album that Adele's 25 bested in the category. She also all but said Beyoncé deserved the Grammy.
She then turned inward and noted how difficult it was to re-enter the music business to record the album, particularly as a young mother. As a music lover and mother, I was nodding in appreciation of her vulnerability and openness.
But then she said this: "My dream and my idol is Queen Bey, and I adore you," she gushed to Beyoncé in the front row. "You move my soul every single day. And you have done for nearly 17 years. I adore you, and I want you to be my mommy, all right."
Shortly after, Hill repeated the sentiment: "I'm older than you, but I want you to be my mommy, too."
Both comments were made without the least bit of irony, but for this black mom, those words made me bristle — seared me down to my soul.
Beyoncé's ethereal, multimedia celebration of pregnancy in her Grammy Awards performance of "Love Drought" and "Sandcastles" was nothing less than stunning: With airy yellow goddess robes floating about her crowned head and her baby, Blue Ivy, joyfully prancing and giggling around her bare, pregnant belly, she created a powerful, dramatic piece of art, an exultant narrative for black motherhood.
It's a narrative that follows in the footsteps of exemplary black mothers like first lady Michelle Obama, the self-styled "mom in chief" who shaped her legacy in the White House around her role as a working mother dedicated to the concerns of America's children; and actress Jada Pinkett, who regularly expounds on her nontraditional but dedicated parenting style; and TV executive Shonda Rhimes, who has often waxed poetic about her role as a mother shaping daughters who will grow up to be powerful women.
This narrative also happens to be the opposite of one typically ascribed to everyday black moms.
We're depicted as either lazy, inept jezebels who have accidentally gotten knocked up by men who neither care for nor about us and our children, or we're invisible in the parenting debate altogether, worth talking to only when pathology or tragedy becomes a concern.
Pick up any parenting journal of record; rarely will one see an image of a black mom tending to and loving on her children, much less participating in any kind of discussion on ordinary motherly concerns like teething or breast-feeding. Instead, chroniclers of modern family life tend to see little value in our voices and experiences outside of a racial context rooted in the effects of poverty or black-on-black crime on our kids or how we processed Trayvon Martin's death. Society, in turn, perpetuates the idea that we're all poor, strict disciplinarian, welfare-sapping single moms with no men to speak of and kids we barely love, who are destined for prison or early graves.
Such stereotypes are too often highlighted in headlines about black families.
Consider how easily news reports latched on to the criminal history of a grieving Samaria Rice, mom of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot dead by police while playing in a park in Cleveland. Local media used her prior drug-trafficking conviction to question her parental choices and smear her dead child — all before anyone even knew the names of the officers who killed him. And then there was the disturbing amount of praise heaped on Baltimore mom Toya Graham when she was caught on camera slapping her son silly for protesting the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. She was quickly nicknamed "Hero Mom" for beating her son. Implicit in the label was that she was a rare black mom who disciplined her kid while the rest of us let our criminal kids run amok.
It makes us black moms want to holler — throw up both our hands.
Our history, particularly here on these shores, is littered with the broken hearts of black mothers who, working as chattel in the brutal American slave system, were forced to mother everyone but their own babies.
Our reverence for the miracle of pregnancy, the gift of motherhood and the divinity of life is as old as time: Ancient West African religions include deities like Osun, the Yoruba river goddess of love, beauty, prosperity and fertility; and Yemoja, the African goddess of the ocean and the patron deity of pregnant women. Both are considered sacred — worshipped for their ability to bless believers with babies. Surely, Africans brought those beliefs with them through the Middle Passage and, in their own way, even amid the force-feeding of Christianity to the enslaved on American shores, worshipped the power of those deities, who today enjoy a growing resurgence among young people of the diaspora reconnecting with the beliefs and practices of the Yoruba religion. Indeed, Osun was one of the deities Beyoncé channeled in her Grammy performance, as evidenced by her gold headpiece and floating yellow robe, mimicry of artistic representations of Osun.
In other words, we been wanting, and loving on, our children. And collectively, like moms of any other culture, background or race, we are fine mothers.
But we are done being moral mothers to grown men and women who shun their responsibility for their complicity or silence in abhorrent injustice. No black woman, Beyoncé or anyone, should have to coddle a grown person who seeks reassurance that it's OK to invest in and perpetuate their own privilege while the person doing the comforting suffers for it.
Our history, particularly here on these shores, is littered with the broken hearts of black mothers who, working as chattel in the brutal American slave system, were forced to mother everyone but their own babies. Indeed, the power structure of that system made it practically impossible for black women to have their own say in when and how they would parent. Our children were often the products of breeding arranged by plantation owners anxious to increase profits by creating more "property." These mothers were subjected to rape by hypersexual masters who thought nothing of asserting their power over both enslaved men and women by turning the women into concubines. And their babies were taken away from them — sometimes as punishment, sometimes to avenge the honor of aggrieved plantation wives, and regularly for income.
Our children, then, were both stain and profit, but never truly ours. Still, we loved them strong and parented them as best we could.
The same is true today of the league of black and brown nannies swarming through posh parks, pushing fancy strollers occupied by babies who are not their own. While they work round-the-clock shifts caring for others' kids, the nannies' children are being raised by grandmothers and other family members in impoverished neighborhoods — in many cases, in lands far away from our shores. They are mothers who cannot mother their own children, even as they labor to mother white babies.
How incredibly odd and outrageous, then, for two white women, intelligent enough to understand America's volatile relationship with black motherhood, to take the stage on one of entertainment's biggest nights, after one of the most meaningful performances by a black woman celebrating her choice, need and desire to mother her own children, and pronounce they want her to mother them. To be in service to them. To be their Magical Negro Mammy.
Just imagine Beyoncé, one of the world's most celebrated, recognized and highest-paid stars, being tasked with laying aside all that she's created, all that she is, all that she has, to "mother" Adele and Hill, like a bedazzled Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost) or Louise (Jennifer Hudson in Sex In the City), using her insight and mystical powers to help the white moms just, like, deal.
As did the tens of thousands watching at the Staples Center, Adele and Hill interacted with Beyoncé's art on multiple levels and considered its impact on their industry, the fans and the political moment. They searched for their personal entry point into the work. That what they found was an invitation for one of the world's biggest stars to serve them, even at the expense of her little daughter and the two littles in her belly, smacked of subservience — the lowest denominator in terms of how white women have historically entered into relationships with black women.
Judging by the polite grin she tossed in Adele and Hill's direction when they pleaded for her mommying, Beyoncé played along to get along. But she is much too busy creating music and images that, in her acceptance speech for best urban album, she acknowledged held more artistic merit than a great beat, bouncy lyrics and provocative outfits:
"We all experience pain and loss, and often we become inaudible. My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that would give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history. To confront issues that make us uncomfortable.
"It's important to me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty, so they can grow up in a world where they look in the mirror, first through their own families — as well as the news, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the White House and the Grammys — and see themselves, and have no doubt that they're beautiful, intelligent and capable."
Capable, surely, of being much more than someone's mammy.
Denene Millner is a New York Times best-selling author and a parenting expert, whose latest book is My Brown Baby: On the Joys and Challenges Of Raising African American Children. Follow her @MyBrownBaby.
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