Why Is the Media So Obsessed With Horrifying Images of African-American Mothers?


Why Is the Media So Obsessed With Horrifying Images of African-American Mothers?

By Melissa Harris-Lacewell, The Nation.

With Michelle Obama in the White House, I expected a resurgence of the Claire Huxtable stereotype. Instead, hideous depictions of abusive, irresponsible black moms are everywhere.


Bad black mothers are everywhere these days.

With Michelle Obama in the White House, consciously and conspicuously serving as mom-in-chief, I expected (even somewhat dreaded) a resurgence of Claire Huxtable images of black motherhood: effortless glamor, professional success, measured wit, firm guidance, loving partnership, and the calm reassurance that American women can, in fact, have it all.

Instead the news is currently dominated by horrifying images of African American mothers.

Most ubiquitous is the near universally celebrated performance of Mo’Nique in the new film Precious. Critically and popularly acclaimed Precious is the film adaption of the novel Push. It is the story of an illiterate, obese, dark-skinned, teenager who is pregnant, for the second time, with her rapist father’s child. (Think The Color Purple in a 1980s inner-city rather than 1930s rural Georgia)

At the core of the film is Precious’ unimaginably brutal mother. She is an unredeemed monster who brutalizes her daughter verbally, emotionally, physically and sexually. This mother pimps both her daughter and the government. Stealing her daughter’s childhood and her welfare payments.

The mother of 5 year old Shaniya Davis

Just as Precious was opening to national audiences a real-life corollary emerged in the news cycle, when 5-year-old Shaniya Davis was found dead along a roadside in North Carolina. Her mother, a 25-year-old woman with a history of drug abuse, has been arrested on charges of child trafficking. The charges allege that this mother offered her 5-year-old daughter for sex with adult men.

Yet another black mother made headlines in the past week, when U.S. soldier, Alexis Hutchinson, refused to report for deployment to Afghanistan. Hutchinson is a single mother of an infant, and was unable to find suitable care for her son before she was deployed. She had initially turned to her own mother who found it impossible to care for the child because of prior caregiver commitments. Stuck without reasonable accommodations, Hutchinson chose not to deploy. Hutchinson’s son was temporally placed in foster care. She faces charges and possible jail time.

These stories are a reminder, that for African American women, reproduction has never been an entirely private matter.

Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, chose the stories of enslaved black mothers to depict the most horrifying effects of American slavery. In her novel, Beloved, Morrison reveals the unimaginable pain some black mothers experienced because their children were profitable for their enslavers. Enslaved black women did not birth children; they produced units for sale, measurable in labor contributions. Despite the patrilineal norm that governed free society, enslaved mothers were forced to pass along their enslaved status to their infants; ensuring intergenerational chattel bondage was the first inheritance black mothers gave to black children in America.

Alexis Hutchinson

As free citizens black women’s reproduction was no longer directly tied to profits. In this new context, black mothers became the object of fierce eugenics efforts. Black women, depicted as sexually insatiable breeders, are adaptive for a slave holding society but not for the new context of freedom. Black women’s assumed lasciviousness and rampant reproduction became threatening. In Killing the Black Body, law professor, Dorothy Roberts, explains how the state employed involuntary sterilization, pressure to submit to long-term birth control, and restriction of state benefits for large families as a means to control black women’s reproduction.

At the turn of the century many public reformers held African American women particularly accountable for the “degenerative conditions” of the race. Black women were blamed for being insufficient housekeepers, inattentive mothers, and poor educators of their children. Because women were supposed to maintain society’s moral order, any claim about rampant disorder was a burden laid specifically at women’s feet.

In a 1904 pamphlet “Experiences of the Race problem. By a Southern White Woman” the author claims of black women, “They are the greatest menace possible to the moral life of any community where they live. And they are evidently the chief instruments of the degradation of the men of their own race. When a man’s mother, wife, and daughters are all immoral women, there is no room in his fallen nature for the aspirations of honor and virtue…I cannot imagine such a creation as a virtuous black woman.”

Decades later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action” designated black mothers as the principal cause of a culture of pathology, which kept black people from achieving equality. Moynihan’s research predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African American communities, he reported the assumed deviance of Negro families.

This deviance was clear and obvious, he opined, because black families were led by women who seemed to have the primary decision making roles in households. Moynihan’s conclusions granted permission to two generations of conservative policy makers to imagine poor, black women as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculated their potential male partners and destroyed their children’s future opportunities. The Moynihan report encouraged the state not to view black mother as women doing the best they could in tough circumstances, but instead to blame them as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demand assistance from the system.

Black mothers were again blamed as the central cause of social and economic decline in the early 1990s, when news stories and popular films about “crack babies” became dominant. Crack babies were the living, squealing, suffering evidence of pathological black motherhood and American citizens were going to have to pay the bill for the children of these bad mothers.

Susan Douglass and Meredith Michaels, authors of The Mommy Myth explain that media created the “crack baby” phenomenon as a part of a broader history that understands black motherhood as inherently pathological. They write: “It turned out there was no convincing evidence that use of crack actually causes abnormal babies, even though the media insisted this was so…media coverage of crack babies serves as a powerful cautionary tale about the inherent fitness of poor or lower class African American women to be mothers at all.”

This ugly history and its policy ramifications are the backdrop against which these three contemporary black mother stories must be viewed.

Undoubtedly Mo’Nique has given an amazing performance in Precious. But the critical and popular embrace of this depiction of a monstrous black mother has potentially important, and troubling, political meaning. In a country with tens of thousands of missing and exploited children, it is not accidental that the abuse and murder of Shaniya Davis captured the American media cycle just as Precious opened. The sickening acts of Shaniya’s mother become the story that underlines and makes tangible, believable, and credible the jaw-dropping horror of Mo’Nique’s character.

And here too is Alexis Hutchinson. As a volunteer soldier in wartime, she ought to embody the very core of American citizen sacrifice. Instead she is a bad black mother. Implied in the her story is the damning idea that Hutchinson has committed the very worse infraction against her child and her country. Hutchinson has failed to marry a responsible, present, bread-winning man who would free her of the need to labor outside the home. Hutchinson does not stay on the home front clutching her weeping young child as her man goes off to war. Instead, she struggles to find a safe place for him while she heads off to battle. Her motherhood is not idyllic, it is problematic. Like so many other black mothers her parenting is presented as disruptive to her duties as a citizen.

It is worth noting that Sarah Palin’s big public comeback is situated right in the middle of this news cycle full of “bad black mothers.” Palin’s own eye-brow raising reproductive choices and parenting outcomes have been deemed off-limits after her skirmish with late night TV comedians. Embodied in Palin, white motherhood still represents a renewal of the American dream; black motherhood represents its downfall.

Each of these stories, situated in a long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood, serves a purpose. Each encourages Americans to see black motherhood as a distortion of true motherhood ideals. Its effect is troublesome for all mothers of all races who must navigate complex personal, familial, social, and political circumstances.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, is completing her latest book, Sister Citizen: A Text for Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough.


  1. e-scribblah says:

    i’m not sure i agree the news cycle is ‘dominated’ by horrifying images of black women. right now the news is being dominated by tiger woods and his (white) bimbos.

    while there is some historical context, it’s worth noting that race has very little to do with negative portrayals of women in the news these days, in real terms.

    to some extent, michelle obama’s positive example and glowing press clips do counter whatever negative portrayals there are, but i dont think there’s been a surge of negative stories about black females since obama’s election, not any more so than there’s a sure of white trash women since sarah palin emerged.

    if i wrote that since palin was on a book tour and visible in the public eye, i was surprised that stories like nancy garrido (the wife of suspected child rapist/abductor/wanna-be religious messiah david garrido) were getting ink, people would look at me like i was crazy.

    but that is, in essence, what Harris-Lacewell is saying here: since we have a black first lady, we should be getting whitewashed portrayals of black femininity.

    the shaniya davis story is horrifying. but it would be just as horrifying were that woman white. and if that were the case, it would probably receive the same amount of media attention. so race really has nothing to do with that story, neither does michelle obama.

    harris-lacewell sees a broad conspiracy against black motherhood. but is that really the case? she writes: “In a country with tens of thousands of missing and exploited children, it is not accidental that the abuse and murder of Shaniya Davis captured the American media cycle just as Precious opened.”

    really? seems like a coincidence to me. how is ithat not accidental? did the movie’s producers conspire with media outlets to besmirch black motherhood? that would indeed be news, were it true. but i just dont see a real link or actual connection there. maybe harris-lacewell is privy to some credible evidence which supports her speculation she didnt want to reveal for some reason. or maybe she’s going out of her way to make a point that’s not really there.

    bringing in alexis hutchinson and claiming that she has committed a “damning infraction” by not having a man to care for her child appears to be the author’s own contention, not the media’s. who, exactly, is damning hutchinson, other than the author’s own words?

    while there may be a “long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood,” the same thing could be said about white motherhood. and is Palin off-limits? not really. when her book came out, the AP wrote an entire article listing how factually-incorrect it was. her daughter’s baby mama is now a gay icon after posing for playgirl. and i dont see where conan, letterman or leno have been staying away from the topic.

    so i appreciate what the author is trying to do here, but it’s a bit of a reach. she seems to be trying to make the facts fit her thesis, rather than the other way around. there’s no connection between davis’ mother and hutchinson, other than the author’s attempts to link them to Precious. and certainly, media stories damning white women havent been suppressed because of this–the latest being that woods evidently dated a porn star.

  2. great article davey! it presents an insightful & necessary prospective. we’ve got to look more at the whole picture & history of black motherhood in america, rather than the condensed, commercialized movie version presented in “precious,” or depicted in the media.

    the reality of black motherhood is much more subtle; much more honorable; & much more entwined in the fabric of our american culture than either its presentation in the movies, or the spin orientated against black life that’s presented in the media. how could we be so totally bad, as black mothers, when we think of how many white babies were raised by black hands? & how many black success stories go unnoticed, or unsought after, when it comes to publicity?

    thank you, melissa harris-lacewell, for this thought provoking piece. i wish every mother (black or white) & every citizen would take time to read this article! very well done…

    — bronnie —

  3. @ e-scribbiah,

    • Palin’s shortcomings cannot be scaled up to indict the entire white race, so its a very different dynamic…

    • MHL’s essay was out almost two weeks (i think) before the Tiger scandal hit the news cycle. But even the coverage of Tiger’s woes seems to affirm MHL’s thesis of the stereotypical treatment of black subjects. The liberal folks at Huffington seem to think that “Tiger is well endowed,” is somehow newsworthy. kzs

  4. e-scribblah says:

    Kwame, even if tigergate happened after MHL’s essay, i’m not sure how that coverage is any more stereotypical than any other scandal involving a public figure.

    tiger is getting the same treatment ANY celebrity would get in a similar circumstance. when you look at the coverage overall, there’s no real racial dynamic to it–we’re also getting articles about Woods’ mother in law having chest pains. as for the well-endowed comment, no one said white irishmen are being treated stereotypically when that same comment was made about actor liam neesom.

    i think there’s a difference in media perception and academic analysis of media perception. in academia, you can connect dots which tie in all sorts of historical references that arent even relevant to a media view. in the media, all celebrities and public figures are fair game, as are situations like david garrido and shaniya davis. their crimes make them newsworthy, not their race.

    as for your other comment, i dont see how the davis situation is indicting the entire black race, unless one is already coming from a racist point of view. that story would have been news no matter what color the mother. it doesnt make me any more likely to think that black mothers are worse mothers than anyone else.

    perhaps you’d care to elaborate on why the dynamic is so different, according to you?

    by assuming that there’s a prejudice in anything involving race, arent you perpetuating those same stereotypes? think about it.

    when you see a white trailer park druggie getting arrested on ‘cops,’ what is that an indictment of?

    doesnt a methhead white trash woman like the one who ransacked the home of the family who died in a car accident reflect poorly on all whites? she’s probably not going to make the cover of good housekeeping, after all.

    for me, it comes down to this: i dont think human nature is inherently racist. i think racism is something ingrained in society and reinforced by institutional mentalities and sometimes media perceptions, but not automatically so. if that was the case, obama would not have been elected.

    human nature shows the best of us and the worst of us. news reflects this. celebrity scandals reflect this. women helping rapists, selling babies for drugs, or stealing from the dead reflects this. we can also look at the other side of the coin and see plenty of heroic or positive projections from both black and white people.

    we play into racist perceptions by assuming the media is automatically racist, even when it’s not.

    but if we are going to examine media perceptions of race, we must first look at our own perceptions and assumptions. are we just feeding the same beast we claim to abhor?

    if we see everything through a black and white microscope, arent we missing the larger, full-color, picture?

  5. e-scribblah we will have have to agree to disagree, but social facts and US history are on my side. black americans (and native americans) are at or near the bottom of every quality of life indicator you can dream up…

    america was founded and built upon the annihilation of the indigenous people and the enslavement of africans. black people were inventoried with horses and furniture for most of american history. post reconstruction led to what historians called the “nadir of race relations” wherein lynchings–not to mention Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex, red lining, etc, etc– were a prominent activity for white folks. that took us right up until the 1950s. Black Americans were de jure second class citizens until the passage of the EEOP act in the early 70s, I think. My mom remembers Jim Crow vividly. They used to sing a song in Iowa:

    “Hang em’ (niggers) high!
    How high?
    As high as the highest tree.

    So yeah, how you think America works is irrelevant.

    p.s. I would go into how individual acts in the black community are scaled up (previous post) but it is probably not worth the effort and i type too slow.

  6. e-scribblah says:

    kwame, you don’t have to lecture me on what this country was built on. i know all that. i’m black and native, i get it. i’m fairly sure i know more than you about how the media works, and in fact i might know more than you about who’s really running shit in the Illuminated Snakes of Illmerikkka.

    but pale horse paranoia and pre-civil rights pamphlets aside aside, we’re talking about the perpetuation of stereotypes which are reinforced by perception. not just theirs, yours. if you are conditioned to think all portrayals of black people are negative, you are doing their work for them.

    getting back to the article, the headline talks about the media’s obsession with horrifying images of african american mothers. to me that’s a misleading headline, in the sense that the article doesnt really make a convincing case for obsessive-compulsive bahvior on the media’s part against black motherhood, at least not with those two current examples.

    one could make a case that a movie like Precious is just the 1904 pamphlet in a new form–Michelle Obama notwithstanding– and argue that media portrayals of black mothers havent advanced in 106 years (which would be a tough argument to win with a black First Lady ) but the author doesn’t really do that.

    now if the article said, why is Hollywood obsessed with negative portrayals of black women?, i’d say you were on the right track.. but usually when one says media, one is talking about TV and newspapers. movies are a form of media if you want to get technical, but newspapers dont make movies, for the most part.

    the author’s thesis hinges on establishing a direct and apparent connection between the film Precious and two news stories: one about a woman who sold her baby for drug money, and another about an enlisted mother who refused to deploy because she couldn’t find childcare.

    yet other than in the author’s mind, there’s nothing really connecting those three things, except for the fact they all involve black women, and a pre-civil rights legacy of conscious racism–which may or may not still be relevant and is certainly not unchanged in 2009.

    ask yourself: would those stories still have been newsworthy had the movie Precious not been released? yes. would they still have been newsworthy were they involving white women? yes.

    the historical stuff is interesting, but doesnt really explain a media obsession, if one exists. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is not the media, so he doesnt fit the headline or the thesis. and an obscure 1904 pamphlet written by a “southern white woman” (i’m picturing Susan George in “Mandingo”) holds little if any credibility today, just like the white slaveowner who whipped Frederick Douglass for daring to read a book doesnt represent a mainstream point of view in 2009.

    one can argue that America still has a race problem in 2009, but to say that it hasnt changed in 44 or 106 years isnt entirely accurate. when was the last time you overheard any white person sing a song about lynching? these days, black teenagers openly talk about killing white cops and its called freedom of speech. just saying.

    those two news stories have more to do with economics and the reality of being a single mother in this day and age than with race. it’s not like there arent white female crackheads or white single mothers in the army.

    if there were white women involved, i dont think the reportage of either story in the press would have changed. maybe what would have changed is your perception of those stories.

    the author makes one huge assumption which is inherently false: that drug-abusing mothers are synonymous with black women. she also states that “the news is currently dominated by horrifying images of African American mothers” which is simply not true.

    the news may be dominated by horrifying images, but they are equal-opportunity horrifying images: the recent front-page headline about the white meth-head woman who stole from the dead refutes both assumptions the author makes.

    and, speaking of women with children by rapists, the jaycee dugard story was bigger than either of the two stories the author attempts to make her point with. both victim and perpetrator in that case were white.

    so, again, the author can make a case that black women have been hisotrically maligned. she can make a case that a movie like Precious feeds into those perceptions and that maybe those two news stories do too.

    but for the media to be obsessed with portraying black mothers negatively–the author’s main thesis–it would have to conversely either not also give equal treatment to white women who are bad mothers and/or drug abusers–which is not the case– or never portray black mothers in a flattering light–which certainly is less true with michelle obama in the white house than its ever been.

    i’m not saying there’s no dirty water under the bridge, or that racism doesnt still exist, but i think things are getting better, not worse. one movie, one crackhead, and one single army mom do not a media obsession make.

    if you want to talk about tigergate, now THAT’s a media obsession, which can’t ignore the fact of a rich famous black dude fucking a whole lot of white women–the worst fears of the racist south come to life. after all, the rationale for many of the Jim Crow laws in the first place was to prevent miscegenation, i.e. race-mixing. with Obama and Tiger not in danger of actually being lynched anytime soon,, guess that didnt work out too well, did it?

  7. Despite what these Europeans have said and done to our sisters & mothers, we shall always be indebted to them, for all the shit that they have to put up with, the Black Woman shall always be the cream of the Universe. These Devil Slavers, used to regard our women as inferior, but the next thing you know, you have communities of Mullatoes around the plantation. I wonder what went on in the heads of the white “princess” when she saw mixed babies popping out so often? Then they have the nerve to even think that they are better than our sisters. Black women have Soul, something these Barbie dolls can never ever possess, no amount of money & breast implants can give them that. Around the 1850`s in Zululand, Southern Africa, there was a Christian Missionary by the name of Robert Robertson, who renaged on his duties and became a drunk who could not resist pretty Zulu girls, needless to say that he blamed King Cetshwayo and his “satanical” followers for his misdeeds. Throughout History the white man has gone around preaching to Africans about heaven, but it is evidently clear that the only heaven that the white man experienced was between the legs of a Black Woman. So Tiger Woods, time to fight the power, you bitch-ass nigger.

  8. e-scribblah says:

    clint eastwood had the best line yet on tiger, on last night’s lopez show: “i respect him more as a golfer because now i know he was thinking about other things than golf.” lol.

    ps GoS, Tiger has been fighting the power his entire life, whether he knew it or not.

  9. e-scribbah,

    you obviously enjoy your own words. long winded explanations that don’t say much.



  10. e-scribblah says:

    @kwame, how we gonna come up with attitudes like yours?
    guess i should be happy you can read, maybe one day you’ll add reading comprehension to your skill-set
    sorry to disturb you from your slumber
    keep on sleepin…

  11. Too many other crazy news stories to even think about the so-called media and their slant on AA mothers. The author makes points, but we should know this by now, especially from a historical standpoint…

  12. Robert Jr. James McClendon says:

    I’m still watching, escribblah. Still got the “propaganda” machine working on here I see. Don’t believe the hype, people! What we should know and what the media allows to be printed about what we know are two different things.

  13. e-scribblah says:

    mcclendon, what are you saying, exactly? your ‘points’ are vague and filled with cliched sound bites, but dont actually contain any gist.

    i’m not disputing there’s a historical context for a negative image of black women being portrayed in society. but i agree with CDF, that that’s an obvious point.

    while it’s nice to be reminded of the attitudes of white women toward black mothers around the turn of the century, it would be helpful to have some understanding of just how widely circulated that 1904 pamphlet was–just mentioning it exists doesnt mean much to me. seems fairly typical of attitudes of that time, but in a post-Oprah, post-Michelle O. world, how relevant is that now? ditto with the Moynihan report–which was apparently rendered moot by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    the author writes, “In a country with tens of thousands of missing and exploited children, it is not accidental that the abuse and murder of Shaniya Davis captured the American media cycle just as Precious opened.”

    how is that not accidental? it’s completely coincidental. movie opening dates are determined months in advance. unless the author is arguing there was collusion between the studio and the media, and has proof thereof, this is not just speculation, but projection–evidence of the author’s own internalization of these negative portrayals.
    and really, that story wasnt that big–it didnt have a lot of legs as far as news cycles go.

    she also writes :”The sickening acts of Shaniya’s mother become the story that underlines and makes tangible, believable, and credible the jaw-dropping horror of Mo’Nique’s character.”

    this, too, seems like a reach, an attempt to connect fiction with reality that isnt quite there. other than the author, how many people connected Mo’Nique with Shaniya Davis’ mother?

    moving on,t he author states, “Black mothers were again blamed as the central cause of social and economic decline in the early 1990s, when news stories and popular films about “crack babies” became dominant.”

    Did i hear that correctly? Really? Black crackhead moms were the CENTRAL CAUSE of social and economic decline in America, not Reaganomics?

    if we are to take such a bold statement at face value, it would be helpful had the author provided just ONE example of crack baby stories dominating the news and movies.

    it would also have been nice had the author had a supporting quote to back up her assertion that “Implied in her story is the damning idea that Hutchinson has committed the very worse infraction against her child and her country.” let’s look past the confusing, less than crystal clear syntax there. If that were the case, there should be a multitude of media voices proclaiming that “damning idea” that Hutchinson is a bad black mother, right?

    then, seemingly for no reason, the author throws in a Sarah Palin reference, while completely ignoring the media’s widespread characterization of her as a bad mother–an overly politically-ambitious schemer who used her Downs Syndrome child for sympathy points, and whose own daughter’s teenage pregnancy was one of the biggest campaign stories of 2008.

    the idea that Palin represents the American Dream certainly took a hit in the media recently, when it was revealed that issues with the diversity of the local population caused her to leave the University of Hawaii because she felt uncomfortable. maybe that would have been ok in 1950. but in 2009, with a sitting black president and a black first lady, whose own motherhood record is much more impeccable? I dont think so.

    like i said before, it’s not like we dont see white trash meth-heads/crackheads on TV and in newspaper articles.

    and i dont think the author makes a convincing case for media “obsession” –which is her main thesis. to me, this article doesnt work as a media critique, especially because it not only confuses movies and newspaper stories, but uses several reference points for context which have nothing to do with the media. you can throw darts at a dartboard all you want, but that doesnt mean you’re going to hit a bullseye.

    in actuality, one could make a stronger case that in a post-Oprah, post-Michelle O. era, the media is less obsessed with negative portrayals of black women than its ever been–but there’s still a long way to go.

  14. Please be careful of repsonding to those who wish to stiffle discussion as oppossed to engaging healthy discussion.As well as those who wish to stroke their own egos. Some of those who comment on topics are sent to do so with specific goals in mind. Lets continue to raise the level of awareness and discourse. Crabs arguing over the “color” of the barrell don’t realize that none of them are ever going to get out alive…

  15. look alike

  16. I don’t think it’s about color this women is wrong for what she did with her 5yr old daughter.

  17. true why is that? – 8