Yes, I am going to once again talk about men on a feminist website. Today I thought we would discuss Will and Jada Smith and how they are portrayed differently by the media. Of the two Will is the box office smash; however Jada has done some good work of her own.
As was pointed out by one commenter, Will Smith is often held up as a model of fatherhood because he is an active participant in the lives of his children; while conversely very little is said about Jada's motherhood. While I will agree that part of the disproportionate coverage has to do with the imbalance of star power between them, the reasons go much deeper than that.
Historically the black mother is the long suffering woman. She goes without so that her children may eat, and is the glue that holds the family together. The black matriarch stereotype belies the high rate of dysfunctional abusive relationships that black women are in.
Even while acknowledging the high rate of single motherhood within the black community; it is still important to acknowledge the women that are engaging in relationships on their own terms. As I have mentioned several times, I have been happily unmarried for over18 years to the father of my children and would count as a single mother due to our marital status.
Like any other black woman my body is embedded with meaning based on ideas of what black womanhood, or specifically in this case black motherhood means. I am meant to exist without requiring praise because it is deemed natural that we (read:black women) should suffer for our children. I am meant to go unrecognized because it is understood that black mothers stand behind our children in all circumstances. Motherhood for black women is conflated more with suffering and struggle then with joy and reward.
Will Smith is doing what a good father should do by being an active participant in the life of his child and yet he is placed on a pedestal. The so-called natural behaviour that is expected of black mothers is not expected of black fathers. Black males are overwhelming seen as dead beat dads; and therefore when one chooses to fulfill his parental obligations he is given almost a mythical superhero status.
There is much time and energy devoted by the black community to fatherhood, while the real life existence of black women is oft overlooked. The black man is continually asked to pick up the patriarchal mantel and parent his children, as a symbol of masculinity. Many of the social problems that currently exist are attributed to a lack of father figures in the household and a stubbornness on the part of black women to submit to the black male patriarchy. Apparently we have become so independent that our very existence is often deemed a threat to the "natural order" of things.
Using the Will and Jada model as our guide what we can see is the that the reclamation of the black family is based on the insertion of a black male figurehead and a silenced, invisible woman. Just like the white male patriarchy the black male patriarchy seeks to define its masculinity by having the ability to have an authoritarian presence in the household. It is assumed that this authoritarian rule will lead to a social uplift for all black peoples. What it does not consider is that the potential damage that this does to black women. Having a penis does not necessarily mean that someone is wise, or kind and submission based in gender roles would place already precarious black women in even more vulnerable positions.
When we celebrate nuclear families like the Smiths or even the Obamas what we are not considering is the hidden meaning behind why we find male headship so attractive. It is not because of the rarity of the traditional family, it is because we have become socially conditioned to assume that the patriarchal nuclear family is not only natural, but good.
The idea that black women form a matriarchy is a false social construction because just like all women we are subject to sexism, and misogyny. Living in a racist society makes the notion of black women existing with this kind of social power even more ridiculous, and yet we are expected to give up the little power that we have so that the black male may be affirmed.
When we stand in recognition of men like Will Smith, or Barack Obama for being good fathers while not acknowledging the contributions of their black wives what we are doing is affirming the idea that motherhood is of little value socially if a male is present. Jada and Michelle are just as instrumental to the development of their children as Barack and Will, and yet this importance is often overlooked because we have over valued masculinity. A man should not rise because we have socially decided that an authoritarian father figure is ideal, he should rise based of the merits of his contributions to his family. His ascension to the pedestal, or in this case social elevation should not come at the invisibility of the mother of his children.
Perhaps instead of seeking to uplift the community through the elevation of the patriarchal family, what we should be doing is looking for ways to support black families in the different ways in which they are constituted. Taking a more woman friendly approach would mean the disappearance of the long suffering black mother stereotype and lead to more a equitable gender neutral understanding of the importance each parent plays in the life of their offspring. It is time that we realize that the way forward is for us to stand side by side, rather than the suppression of one to uplift another.