A scattered list of women comes to mind when I think about some of the most powerful portrayals of Black motherhood in pop culture. Mo’Nique as the abusive Mary Lee Johnston in Precious, and Alfre Woodard as the drug-addicted Wanda in Holiday Heart are seared into my memory for the upheaval they caused in their children’s lives. On the other hand, Vivian Banks (Janet Hubbert-Whitten, of course) stands out as the mother I always wanted, with Queen Mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) from Black Panther coming in as a close second. That my strongest memories of Black mamas on screen seem to point to women on opposite ends of a spectrum is telling. Representations of Black motherhood in pop culture always sit in the realm of super positive and aspirational, or bastions of malaise and trauma. There are few examples that exist in between, and those that do tend to be more forgettable.
For every Rainbow Johnson ( Tracee Ellis Ross) on black-ish, cozily living out her upper-middle class life as a wife and physician, there is one of the mother figures in Tyler Perry’s universe, thriving on chaos and resentment. And for every one of the strong Black mothers in Hidden Figures, trying to get ahead in their careers and a racist society, there is Empire’s Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), a connoisseur of tough love and occasional crime. Halle Berry went from leaving her child in a dumpster at the height of her drug addiction to struggling for custody in Losing Isaiah. And while I enjoyed watching all of these women onscreen, none of them come off as particularly realistic. At best, they represent exceptional cases; if not, gross exaggerations.
Black motherhood has always captured the public imagination in America, even outside of the confines of our favorite shows, movies, and books. Historically, Black womanhood has been inseparable from motherhood, with Black female slaves expected to have children in order to create more slaves, and later relegated to domestic labor that included midwifery and childcare. Within our own communities, Black women are often expected to be emotionally nurturing to everyone around them. Today, Black moms like Sybrina Fulton, Lezley McSpadden, and Gwen Carr — who all lost their children to gun violence within the past decade — have been used as symbols of the effects of an unchecked gun policy in the United States and the fraught relationship between Black communities and the police. On the other end of the spectrum, mothers like Beyoncé and Serena Williams are held in wonderment for being so talented and beautiful in the face of their parental responsibilities. From perfection to pain, perceptions of Black motherhood are either/or, and entertainment has followed suit.
Thinking about my own mother, even the extenuating circumstances that influenced our lives weren’t nearly as dramatic as the stuff I see on the big or small screen. First of all, my mama has never been anyone’s Vivian Banks or Claire Huxtable (Phylicia Rashad). She's not as rich, and she cusses way too much. No shade. And we were the furthest things from Cosbys, ever. But despite her personal struggles, my mother has never gone to any of the extremes Berry's character did in Losing Isaiah, either. She is a full human being who has evolved into many different versions of herself since she had me 30 years ago. What was standard for us didn’t necessarily look the same as all of my peers, but we were by and large pretty normal.
I get it: Extremes make for good television, static characters are why people commit to certain television shows, and movies are often relegated to a specific length. But it’s time for Hollywood to realize that our commonalities are important, too. Take Shameless matriarch Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum), for example. She isn't a mom, but the older sister forced to step in and raise her siblings thanks to her father's irresponsibility. Their family is a literal cesspool of poverty, drinking, drugs, and criminal activity, but the tone of Shameless isn't daunting. Instead, Fiona is humanized and complex. In Tully, Charlize Theron plays a mother of three struggling with postpartum depression and overwhelmed by her duties as a caretaker until a night nurse shows up to relieve some of the stress. White mother figures get to define the norm in every sense of the word.
The success of Insecure, where the basicness of Issa (Rae) and her friends make the show so glorious, is proof that this formula works across racial lines. Let’s give a Black mom that same treatment.