Axing Rapper’s TV Special Puts Focus on Black Parent Coverage

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Author: 
Joshunda Sanders
January 30, 2013

Roberto Delgado

Development and subsequent cancellation by Oxygen Media of rapper Shawty Lo’s “All My Babies’ Mamas” points to a dearth of realistic portrayals of black mothers and fathers in mainstream media, black parenting experts say.

Word of the hour-long special featuring Lo, whose real name is Carlos Walker, and the 10 women with whom he has fathered 11 children resulted in two online protest petitions. As the 15-minute trailer for the Oxygen cable network show spread, reaction to it as a pathological and sensationalized portrait of promiscuous and irresponsible black parents gathered support.

CNN reported that a Change.org petition to cancel the show received more than 37,200 supporters, and a ColorOfChange.org petition garnered more than 40,000 signatures.

Sabrina Lamb, an author and creator of the Change.org petition, considers the cancellation a triumph for representation of healthy, complete and positive portrayals of African-American families. “The term ‘Baby Mama’ is a slur,” she said in a CNN interview this month. “We're saying that children don’t deserve to witness your chaos. They deserve to have a mother and a father.”

But the show also highlighted dissent in the African-American community about who can decide what constitutes a respectable family, with or without sufficient balanced portrayals of black parents. As NPR’s Gene Demby wrote this month, “Isn’t it possible that Babies’ Mamas could have also granted some humanity to real baby’s mamas and complicated some simplistic, ugly stereotypes about them?”

Data about black families in America does not corroborate portrayals of a community teeming with fertile, promiscuous single parents. In 2010, many mainstream media reports about a government finding that 72 percent of black children were born to unmarried women failed to mention that fertility rates among all women are at an all-time low while births to blacks and Latinos approach fertility rates of their white and Asian counterparts, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Citing the U.S. economic downturn, The Associated Press reported last year that while half of children born in the United States are of color, the black population has grown at a annual rate of about 1 percent.

Generally, mainstream media accounts assume the same negatives about black mothers that are voiced in the African-American community, says Stacia L. Brown, who founded beyondbabymamas.com, described as “a support and advocacy group for single mothers of color.”

Brown says she started the site to combat stigma and shame often associated with single mothers. “ ‘All My Babies’ Mamas’ is not a reflection of every black family,” she says. “The reason the media picks up stories in negative ways is that we help. We say it’s embarrassing to us, and mainstream culture senses that we feel a certain way about single parenthood.

“That 72 percent statistic was just picked up without any consideration of that fact that African-Americans have different family structures and [that] multigenerational living is popular in our culture as well as other cultures.”

Reality television shows and parenting blogs such as MyBrownBaby.com and beyondbabymamas.com work to dispel misleading narratives about black parenting. A variety of black mothers is featured on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” and VH1”s“T.I. and Tiny’s Family Hustle” portrays a semblance of realistic black parenting models and blended families.

Most mainstream media images of black motherhood are negative or completely absent. Writing last June about release of the movie, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” at the “Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting” blog for The New York Times, Kimberly Seals Allers noted:

“Because the ‘pictures in our heads’ of black mothers depict them as crack heads, single mothers with deadbeat-dad issues, welfare queens, violent, uneducated or as neck-rolling sassy maids and smart-talking fishwives . . . We are rarely seen as nurturing mothers or (gasp!) intentional parents with committed husbands, let alone successful women who don trendy shoes, fabulous handbags and have some of the same romantic-comedy-worthy struggles as any other parent or would-be parent. . . .”

The media often still cover single black mothers and female-led households as the source of black America’s failure to be given full access to the American dream, says Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. She also writes as “crunktastic” for the Crunk Feminist Collective blog, which she co-founded.

Cooper cites coverage of Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, who was convicted of two felonies in January 2011 and jailed for nine days for using her father’s home address to enroll her two daughters in a nearby school district. Eight month later, Gov. John R. Kasich (R) reduced the convictions to misdemeanors.

Cooper says the case was part of a larger, more common “national narrative that black women are deceiving the system and taking things that don’t belong to them.”

“The primary media conversation about black families is about the proliferation of female-headed families,” she says. “There’s a real investment in the nuclear family, the two and a half kids and a dog, which is part of a larger conversation about African-Americans’ fitness for the American dream, and it gets remixed every generation.

“We’re always talking about the black family and the state of it, even when we use other terms like getting people to go to work, cutting welfare entitlements and so on.”

This has been true in modern journalism since release in 1965 of “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” a U.S. Department of Labor report, also known as the Moynihan Report after its principal author, Daniel Moynihan, then assistant secretary of Labor and a future U.S. senator.

The report famously referred to black families’ being caught in a “tangle of pathology.” Damning and bleak, it laid the foundation for decades of mainstream media reporting that would portray African-Americans as incapable of being loving and whole parents while largely dismissing societal, economic and political factors that led to fracture of the black family.

Denene Millner, author and founder and editor of MyBrownBaby.com, says absence of healthy, normal examples of black parents in media is part of what made the Shawty Lo program problematic.

“All too often when we’re invited into the discussion, it’s to talk about pathology,” she says. “If you want to talk about teen parenting or how far behind black kids are in education, call a black mom. If we’re talking about the hard part of being a working mother, the challenges of breast-feeding or the challenges of balancing a husband and kids, black thought is never included in the conversation. What that leaves is this very stereotypical view of single black moms and single black dads.”

Millner, who wrote for Parenting magazine for a decade, say her experience as the magazine’s sole black writer provided evidence not of racism in mainstream media but a less malignant state of oblivion.

“I can honestly tell you that the people there were not racist, they were not anti-black people,” she says. “They just didn’t think about it. It wasn’t their reality. They didn’t have, as far as I could tell, any black children or any kids with black friends. It wasn’t something they thought of. And when they would run stories on black parents they would get negative responses from the readership.”

As a result, stories about black nuclear families are rare, with notable exceptions in Essence magazine and occasionally on reality TV.

Like some of “All My Babies’ Mamas” defenders, Cooper, Brown and Demby make the case that while Shawty Lo may not be a positive example, his story is still one facet of the African-American parenting experience.

“I am concerned about negative representations of black families in the media,” Cooper says, “but you can’t achieve the thing you want by subtraction. Some negative portrayals exist, but I also think we have to get away from the narrative of positivity and negativity. Other people don’t get to define the legitimacy of our family structures.”

As for mainstream coverage of black parents, the Obama family has become the latest representation of the black family in America, for better or worse.

Before President Obama’s inauguration this month, The Washington Post published an article about feminists’ reaction to first lady Michelle Obama’s 2008 announcement that she intended to be “mom-in-chief.” The article discussed the stir that the highly educated Obama has caused among white and black feminists for downplaying her credentials in order to put being a mother first.

Again, the fictive ideal of the right type of black mother was at work, Cooper says. “There’s a real problem with saying that this is the way that black people should be in a family because we won’t talk about economic policy, the school-to-prison pipeline or the prison industrial complex and how they have kept us from having families in that kind of way.”

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