Happy International Women’s Day! Now let’s get to it . . .
Mo’Nique might have said last night that it was about “the performance and not the politics” but when she invoked the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American woman to win an Oscar, she proved that it is always about the politics. Back in 1939, McDaniel wanted simply to be “a credit to [her] race.” Beyond merely paying homage to McDaniel in words, Mo’Nique attempted to embody her, wearing a large white flower reminiscent of the one McDaniel wore when she received the award. By (rightly) situating herself within the tradition of Hattie McDaniel, Mo’Nique invited us through her own words –and through her superbly troubling portrayal of Mary Jones—to ask: What is our racial credit score? Do we have enough cultural capital to be able to afford yet another troubling representation of Black motherhood and womanhood? For these two women and their Oscar winning roles book-end a catalogue of representations of Black mothering, that leave one staggering for perspective and grasping for any slice of reality.
To offer another metaphor, they create an arc, an umbrella that starts with Mammy and ends with the Welfare Queen, and ensconses every negative stereotype of Black womanhood in between. Memorialized by McDaniel in Gone with the Wind, the Mammy– that ever-nurturing, sometimes sassy, always-loving, self-sacrificing and asexual mother– continues to anchor White Americans pastoral remembrances of girlhood and boyhood. At the other end are the Mary Joneses of the world, the welfare queens, the lazy, cunning, ignorant, abusive tangles of pathology that remain a thorn in the side of Black America. And if McDaniel’s and Mo’Nique’s performances are the umbrella of representations of Black mothers, then Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-winning performance of the heroic white mother in The Blind Side is the curved handle, the lever at the center, which has the power to make the umbrella as narrow or as wide as we wish, as formidable or innocuous as we need. And it is a curved handle because such performances hook you and handle you, while making you believe you control the lever. If our recent credit crisis has taught us anything, it is this: when White America gets a rain shower, Black America gets a hurricane. And when you’re caught in the whirlwind of volatile representations, wielding your umbrella is surely an exercise in futility.