‘Don’t You Talk About My Mama!’: Black Women Writers and the Reconstruction of Motherhood

‘Don’t You Talk About My Mama!’[1]:
Black Women Writers and the Reconstruction of Motherhood

by Anne Louise Cranwell

My thesis project was inspired by my love for the work of author Toni Morrison.  After reading Beloved for the third or fourth time, I could not get the main character, Sethe Suggs, out of my mind.  I thought about Sethe’s roles as mother and slave and how the latter institution determined the parameters of the former.  Sethe developed a way of being a mother to her children that denied slavery’s ownership of her body.  She defined motherhood for herself even as her racial identity prohibited such a proclamation.

Morrison’s Beloved was written in 1987 and speaks to the history of black motherhood and white America’s obsession with determining who qualifies as a legitimate mother.  This compelled me to think about how black mothers were characterized at that time the novel was written. Were black mothers still subject to racist and sexist interpretations?  Were black mothers still fighting for legitimacy, rights, and equality?  Did race still determine who was “allowed” to be a mother?  I looked to other novels of the 1980s and 1990s written about and by black women to provide some insight into black women’s lives. Motherhood was clearly a predominant theme.  Black women writers such as Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, were engaged in the process of re-defining motherhood, according to the circumstances of a black woman’s life.

I am not writing a literary thesis, but my research of black women’s literary history has emphasized the connection between literature and the history of black communities in the United States.  Black Americans– mothers, fathers, and families– have always been subject to outside (white, middle-class) interpretations of their behavior, their values, and their culture.  Novels of the 80s and 90s written by and depicting black women, when juxtaposed with popular media stories of the same time convey the message that the black family is in crisis, and black mothers are largely responsible.  Many media stories painted the black family as a monolithic entity, characterizing them as immoral, pathological, and self-destructive.  The differences between black families and white families, black mothers and white mothers, were presented as evidence. The poverty found in black communities was attributed to the increase in black female-headed households.  Race, class, and gender determined how a mother was judged and depicted in public discourse. The black single-mother was viewed as dangerous to the well being of all American families.

Though I realize that novels do not directly reflect reality, I strongly believe that the black women writers I discuss in my thesis have produced texts that echo their experiences.  The mothers of Women of Brewster Place, The Color Purple, Beloved, and Push present a tradition of black motherhood that rejects conventional standards and uncovers the need for community, female empowerment, and self-love.  Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Sapphire produce characters who are not reflective of all black people; however, their novels have stimulated much controversy and discussion, and several critics have accused an author of slander towards black communities.

Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple and the subsequent film were viewed as highly negative depictions of black men and black people in general.  Walker was accused of reinforcing negative stereotypes of black Americans that depicted them as hyper-sexual, immoral, and lacking in family values.  Despite such criticism Alice Walker achieved fame and popularity, commonly regarded as a spokeswoman for black America in general and black women in particular. Yet many readers misinterpreted The Color Purple as representative of all black communities.  Walker’s situation is indicative of how mythologizing the black community and essentializing black Americans provides comfort to outside society. While The Color Purple does not encompass the experiences black America or describe the lives of all black Americans her writing is derived from her own life and from the lives of those around her.  Walker, Morrison, Naylor, and Sapphire have all been engaged in taking back the power to control their own images.

The combination of history, literature, and popular media lends insight into the ways in which ideas about how people are, how people live, and what they deserve – particularly in terms of political power – develop.  Images of black mothers in the media, especially single-mothers, helps perpetuate ideas of black women that are conjectural, yet entrenched in the American imagination.  Black women writers undermine the stereotypes and speak to the dynamic life processes of black women throughout history.  Readers of black women’s novels are given an opportunity to enter into spaces that may be unfamiliar. Often the intimate connections established between a reader and a novel’s characters generate transformative results.

Reading Beloved or Push forces the questioning of cultural assumptions as Morrison and Sapphire invite us into the intimate spaces of their characters’ lives.  Precious Jones is a contemporary mother who withstands poverty, abuse, and illiteracy to raise her children any way she can, just as Sethe depicts the slave woman’s struggle for motherhood in post-emancipation America. Both offer the reader a more critical point of view and an opportunity to imagine the intricacies of black women’s lives. ▢

[1] June Jordan, “‘Don’t You Talk About My Mama!’” Essence, December 1987, 53+.

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