By MURPHY BROWNE
It was my mother who gave me my voice. She did this I know now by clearing a space where my words could fall, grow, then find their way to others.
Paula Giddings, author of ‘When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America.
On Sunday, May 10, mothers will be celebrated in Canada, across the U.S. and in many other countries. Mothers have a special place in their children’s lives because of the bond that starts from pregnancy and develops through childhood, youth and adulthood.
A mother’s involvement with her children is unique because of the strong emotional and social bonding between mother and child. Our mothers are, in many cases, our first role models. (Sometimes the person who mothers us is not our biological mother and there are fathers who have mothered their children.)
In most communities, mothers are generally the primary caregivers in the family unit. In the history of African people in North America, enslaved African women have even been the caregivers of White children sometimes to the detriment of their own children.
Wilma A. Dunaway wrote in her 2003 book, The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation: “A majority of slave women worked as caregivers to young or elderly Whites at some point during their work lives. In those adult roles they would be forced to wean their own offspring too young and leave them without adequate childcare. Sarah Patterson watched all her own children die, except one, while she nurtured the master’s children”.
In Slavery and Medicine: Enslavement and Medical Practices in Antebellum Louisiana, published in 1998, Katherine Kemi Bankole writes: “In addition to the inherent dangers of agricultural labour, wet nursing, forced breeding and concubinage, were labours which created additional medical health risks for enslaved African women. Nursing the White children was an important occupation for many enslaved African women”.
In 1854, African-American poet, Francis E.W. Harper, described in her poem, The Slave Mother, the emotions of an enslaved African woman’s reaction to her child being torn out of her arms to be sold: “Heard you that shriek? It rose so wildly on the air, it seemed as if a burden’d heart was breaking in despair”.
Many of the children of these enslaved African women were sired by their White “owners” or his relatives, friends and sometimes White plantation employees, e.g. the overseers.
The children of these unfortunate and oftentimes brutal exploitation of enslaved African women were sold by their owner/father as easily as any other enslaved child. To justify the sexual exploitation of the enslaved African woman, over the centuries that Africans have lived in North America, there have been several myths about the African-American woman, many of which survive to this day.
The myth of the promiscuous enslaved African woman made it easy for White men to rape them and their female children with impunity while their White women blamed and brutalized the African women.
In her 1981 book, Ain’t I A Woman, African-American intellectual revolutionary activist, bell hooks, brilliantly analyzes “the success of sexist-racist conditioning of Americans to regard Black women as creatures of little worth or value”.
She explains that the history of this phenomenon began with the enslavement of Africans: “Rape was a common method of torture slavers used to subdue recalcitrant Black women. Sadistic floggings of naked Black women were another method employed to strip the female slave of dignity”.
The undignified images of African-American women have been used by 20th century White supremacist politicians like Ronald Reagan to sway White voters during elections. The image of the African-American woman as “welfare queen” that Reagan evoked with his coded racist language was used to mobilize White voters and ensure his re-election.
Given the history of African women in North America, there is little wonder that a number of White Americans (and some African-Americans whose minds remain enslaved and colonized) are finding it difficult to purge their minds of the Jezebel image of African-American women when they see images of the American First Lady and “Mom-in-Chief”.
Shattering all the stereotypes and negative images of African women in the American psyche has made Michelle Obama the target of both White men and women. The First Lady has turned negative images upside down with her Ivy League-educated, intelligent, calm and confident self. Her physical appearance has been criticized because the accepted ideal image of beauty in America is White.
Mrs. Obama is an obviously African woman, from her skin colour to her face and body structure. There have been news articles written about various parts of her body as if she is on an auction block; even her eyebrows have been criticized as too angry. Here is an African-American woman who defies all the stereotypes with which White America seeks to pathologize African-Americans.
She grew up in a two-parent household with a father who valued her and a mother who stayed at home until her youngest child started high school before she sought to work outside of her home. She and her brother attended university and are successfully and gainfully employed.
When Mrs. Obama spoke at the Democratic National Convention on August 25, 2008, the world heard her say: “I come here tonight as a sister, blessed with a brother who is my mentor, my protector and my lifelong friend. I come here as a wife who loves my husband and believes he will be an extraordinary president. I come here as a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world”.
There is no whiff of scandal, nothing to unearth and parade through the muck. Not exactly the Huxtables, but definitely not the “welfare queen” of Reagan’s and White America’s imagination. This has forced America to see a different side of African-Americans, a view with which many White Americans still cannot deal, judging from the nasty postings on the Internet, which makes it easy for cowardly racists to anonymously express their vile White supremacist rants.
In a crass attempt to continue the historic devaluation of African-American women, the White American media outlet, Fox News, dubbed Mrs. Obama: “Obama’s baby mama” during a broadcast in June, 2008. They were probably harking back to the good old days when enslaved African men and women were not allowed to become legally married.
Michelle Obama is nobody’s baby mama; she is the wife of the 44th President of the United States of America.
In 2009, the great, great granddaughter of enslaved Africans is America’s First Lady, Mom-in-Chief and a role model for mothers across America and throughout the world.