Sometime this spring, the Oxygen network will air a program called All My Babies’ Mamas, featuring someone called Shawty Lo. You probably already know this because a press release and video leak last week (video since removed) caused the heads of good black folk to explode all over the interwebs. You could hear the pop from space. The one-hour special documents Shawty, 31, whose mama named him Carlos Walker, and his relationships with his 11 children, their 10 mothers, and his newest, a 19-year-old girlfriend. Oh, and in the spirit of Flavor of Love, the women on the show will have their identities erased in favor of nicknames like “Fighter Baby Mama,” “First Lady,” and “Bougie Baby Mama.”
Lord, pass me my smelling salts.
The impending debut of All My Babies’ Mamas has been met with some predictable responses: A petition urging Oxygen to shelve the special and a whole lot of people vowing never, ever to let their eyeballs see this shitshow. But two reactions I find troubling: black shame and a heap of demeaning talk about single-parent and nontraditional families.
The “Ban All My Babies’ Mamas” petition, which, as I’m writing, has 73 signatures on Change.org, calls for the Oxygen show to be canceled for demeaning black women, girls, and children and stereotyping black men. I have no doubt the show will do all these things. And — make no mistake — the show’s creative team, Liz Gateley and Tony DiSanto, mean for this to be so. Nearly every reality show, from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to Love & Hip-Hop, is built on the exploitation and promotion of bias and stereotype.
A few months ago, when I spoke to author and media analyst Jennifer Pozner about Honey Boo Boo, she said, “You can almost hear TLC saying, ‘Step right up to the Poverty Voyeurism Comedy Tour!’.” In this case, the message is undoubtedly, “Come see a dysfunctional, black family up close!” Or maybe, “Live, unmarried, over-sexed black women!” Or, “In this ring: triflin’, black sperm donors!” And we know — because racism works this way — that Oxygen’s stereotype-pimping will make black lives just that much harder, as we are judged by the actions of a man and women that have nothing at all to do with the rest of us.
But that doesn’t mean that we have to accept the stigmas that racism foist upon us. A commenter named Tay on Shadow and Act wrote:
This IS an unacceptable embarrassment to the black community, not to mention for women in general. We need to STOP acting like this – and we for damn sure need to STOP acting like this IN PUBLIC. We need to stop condoning this type of behavior with our financial support AND/OR with our silence. We complain about white people treating us like we are all lazy and ignorant and violent and on welfare and constantly out there making babies, etc… BUT THAT IS ALL THAT THEY SEE IN THE MEDIA. And we the black community continue to pour our money into supporting the very idiots (like this moron, and Chris Brown, OJ, pretty much the entire NBA….) who constantly throw us under the bus. The media-driven minstrel show needs. to. stop!!!!
There is a lot wrong with this comment, but let me focus on the idea that black Americans should be embarrassed by this show, that All My Babies’ Mamas is an illustration that African-Americans need to “do better.”
Stop owning the idea of black dysfunction. Stop repeating that “we” act this or that way. Stop believing that every ill-advised or socially unacceptable act of an individual black person (or 20 black people or 1,000) is a blight on the whole of the black community or YOU personally. Stop pretending that all black behavior is endorsed by the black collective. That racist America thinks this way is no endorsement. But taking to comments sections to proclaim loudly your disgrace at how other black people are living is an endorsement of credit-to-your-race type thinking as well as the idea that the caricatures the media treat us to really are representative of our race.
Stop it with the black shame. Shawty Lo is not the black community. If the white guys over on Gawker aren’t hanging their heads over Mick Jagger, his many children, and their mothers, then you can still hold your head high in a world where Shawty Lo and “Fighter Baby Mama” exist.
I know what you’re about to say: “But … but … but … 72 percent of black children born out of wedlock!” Right. The face of family is evolving all over the world — not just in America and not just among black people. Marriage rates are at an all-time low in the United States and across Europe. Rates of cohabitation and children born to unmarried parents are up. And these combined statistics don’t always add up to economic and social decay. (Hello, Sweden!) We need to begin figuring out how to adapt to these changes. And if you want to, you can lament that the changes are occurring. But here’s what you can’t do: pretend that Shawty Lo and his family are representative of single-parent or nontraditional black families. Because you know damn well they are not.
A News One commenter wrote:
I am glad this is coming on. Like it or not that is a pretty accurate portrayal of black ghetto family life. How many articles have we seen black women say a man is not needed in the home and marriage is not important? This show is the end result of that logic and mindset.
As long as men and women remain silent and black women celebrate baby mama ideology this will continue. “I don’t [need] no man” … the black community is lost.
Society has been branding black families dysfunctional since the days of Django Unchained on through Lincoln and — boosted by the much-maligned Moynihan Report — all the way up to today. And people like the commenter above, KIR12 on News One, are ever-eager to believe we are what they say we are — no matter how many times all those stories about “welfare queens” and the like get debunked. The media and conservative propagandists (of all races, because we have some black ones, too) constantly serve up aberrations like Shawty Lo’s situation as illustrations of dysfunction and then sit back and say, “I told you so.” That’s some sleight of hand, for sure.
But neither impersonal statistics nor reality TV shows have anything to do with the lives of actual black parents, single or married, co-parenting, or going it alone. It obscures the real discussions we need to have about marriage and poverty and policy and instead taints black mothers, fathers, and their offspring.
For the last year, I have been interviewing black women for a book on marriage and relationships. One participant, raised by a single mother following divorce, told me:
“I am a college grad and am currently working on my master’s. [When people] hear my story about being raised by a single mom, I get all these sympathizing looks and ‘Oh wow, you made it!” pats on the back. It is aggravating. Why would I not make it? … My childhood was excellent and not being raised by both parents did not ruin my existence.”
Another sistah, a never-married 40-something who raised three children as a single mother and has recently joyously welcomed her fourth, says, “Life is what you make it. I am just a regular ol’ sister with kids, making it in today’s world. And I have never been anybody’s ‘baby mama’.”
These are real black women, with authentic and specific family lives and experiences. To erase those real stories — and my story as a married black woman, a proud stepmother to two, and a product of generations of married couples — in favor of a racist reality-show caricature is a bigger sin and a shame than Shawty Lo will ever be. (I have to add that I doubt this show will fairly and accurately portray the actual people involved … but, hey, they signed up for it.)
I’m not going to watch All My Babies’ Mamas because it looks like a hot-buttered racist and sexist mess. (Have I used the word “shitshow” yet?) But my aversion won’t be driven by manipulated embarrassment or a belief in the inherent wrongness of black families of any type.