BY KIKI OCHIENG
June 20, 2012
While navigating the complex web of social media on Father’s Day, I came across a variety of posts. Some consisted of heartwarming quips and anecdotes about the special relationship between a father and his child, while others were touching eulogies to fathers and grandfathers gone but always remembered. A few praised the single mothers who had assumed the role of both mother and father in their households. As I read through these numerous pieces written in honor of the day, I discovered a rather dark piece by James B. Peterson that plagued my mind.
In the article, Peterson reaches back into our nation’s annals to resurrect that terrible specter which perennially haunts America: slavery. By many accounts, slavery could be considered the institution that has shaped America’s history most dramatically. Aside from its economic function, slavery facilitated the propagation of racism and eugenics as well as the widening gulf of ideology between a liberal North and a conservative South that persists to the present day. To justify the subjugation of an entire race, white slaveholders purposefully created myths of inferiority and associated the color black and those who bore black skin with vice and evil.
Understanding the historical context of slavery is a critical step toward comprehending how the image of black female licentiousness began to pervade American society. Women’s bodies have been a popular battleground for policing morality within the state. While women of all races struggle to regain political and personal control over their bodies, black women have been subjected to the physical and intellectual dissection of their bodies for centuries in especially pernicious ways.
Today, popular media narratives of black womanhood typically fall along four main veins: the pitiful case of the single black woman, concern for black women’s health (particularly in relation to obesity), the offensive assertiveness of black women, and the cyclical nature of black single motherhood. All of these issues can be attributed to a national preoccupation with black women’s bodies that stretches back to the slavery era, when they were battered and traded like cattle.
Of these, the narratives surrounding black single motherhood are perhaps most frequently addressed in popular culture. While there are millions of well-adjusted children of single mothers across the nation, some segments of our population view single mothers as a sign of declining morals within our society. In this war to restore American “family values,” single mothers are often caught in the crossfire. By virtue of the color of their skin and their relative prevalence, black single mothers are often viewed as the archetype of this so-called moral degeneracy.
On a social level, these comments often take the form of joking references to “baby mamas,” while on a political level, they frequently inform discussions of the welfare queen. But can this phenomenon that admittedly affects the black community more than other communities be uniquely tied to black female sexuality and its inferred moral shortcomings?
I think not. The Peterson article suggests that a more insidious legacy will be forever tied to black single motherhood: the rape and assault of black slaves by their white masters. While a small minority of such relationships may have been consensual, these men impregnated their slaves and, in the vast majority of cases, did not claim paternity, leaving their former slaves to continue lives of systematic oppression. Even Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founding fathers, had several unacknowledged children with his slave Sally Hemings.
Black single motherhood is the product of a society that prizes incarceration over education, resulting in a system in which blacks only make up a little over 13% of the population, but black men comprise 40% of the prison population. Disproportionate arrests of people of color have taken children away from their fathers. While some of these men may be considered stock-character deadbeat dads, there may be an equal number who do not have a choice when it comes to being separated from their children.
From tales of plantation life to the Jim Crow society that lynched and victimized black men across the United States to the latest incarceration statistics, we can see how black single motherhood is not the result of some moral failing, but rather the product of living in a society that has yet to fully overcome its history of racism. Before legislators continue to bemoan the presence of black single mothers, of hardworking women who must struggle to combat the welfare-queen stereotype and a society that marginalizes their struggles, the historical and political contexts of this state must be fully addressed.
For some women, single motherhood is a happy choice, but for a large number of women it is not. Nevertheless, many of them have successful personal and professional lives. In this age of shifting cultures and ideologies, we must acknowledge that there is no one path to the American dream of home and the ideal family. While we applaud their commitment to their children, we should take care to remember to correct rampant, misguided criticisms of black single motherhood and to acknowledge the role that our societal shortcomings have played in constructing the false narrative surrounding it.
Kiki Ochieng is a sophomore in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.