The definition of “traditional” families are shifting. While two-parents used to be the norm in households across America, increasingly the definition of families have expanded to include single parent households, co-parents, same-sex couples, and multi-generational clans all united under love.
Still, despite the ways in which our understanding of what constitutes a family is widening, Black women still find ourselves derided for how we choose to love and parent.
Black single mothers are blamed for everything from crime in the ‘hood and failing schools, to their lovers and children being swept up in the prison industrial complex. Recently, the Atlantic explored the effects of mass incarceration on the Black family in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ massive cover story. The picture used to illustrate his point was of a downtrodden looking Black family helmed by a tired, overweight women who looked like she’d been through a lot of things.
The message was clear: Black women are rundown, fat, and unhappy because their men are all locked up.
On the other hand, a jubilant Kris Jenner–another single matriarch–recently graced the cover of Cosmo with her daughters under the headline, “America’s First Family.” While many were upset because America has a very wonderful, very Black first family in the Obamas, the image got some folks thinking.
Over at Salon, Brittney Cooper explores whether or not two covers tell a deeper story about how America views Black and white mothers.
Cooper wonders, “Why is it appropriate to celebrate Kris Jenner’s new status as the matriarch of a family of daughters, when we have pathologized Black mother-led families unrelentingly since 1965?”
Though Coates’ attempts to right this history by returning us again to the latest form of structural violence, namely our system of mass incarceration, which ravages Black family structures, his article does not resist the conclusion that something is wrong with families in which men don’t have a prominent place. Something is wrong with a system that has moved an alarmingly large number of Black men out of community and family structures that are nurturing and sustaining. Yet the visuals that accompany the article continue to mark that structural problem, through the body of the single Black mother.
This narrative is old and tired and not particularly productive. And it stands in stark contrast to the triumphant, jubilant family portrait of the Kardashian-Jenner family, now helmed by Kris Jenner. In this rendering, white women’s bodies mark freedom and triumph of a new American family structure, while Black women’s bodies continue to mark Black families as retrograde, pathological and downtrodden.
The Kardashian clan seem to mark a new set of familial possibilities. And in some ways, they do signal the future. The Pew Research Center reports that less than half of American children live in a home “with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage.” In 1960, 73 percent of U.S. children lived in such families. But given that Black families have long experienced this shift away from the nuclear, traditional family, it is telling that we don’t see non-nuclear Black families as paving a path to the future of the American family. Black people, Black families, and Black women, especially, never mark the path to the future.
While we know why Black women are constantly dissected and stigmatized while their white counterparts, like Jenner, are not, it’s still frustrating as hell.
But what do you think?
Are white women praised for being family matriarchs, while Black women are attacked?