Ever since pictures surfaced of Willow Smith with a “teeny weeny afro,” critics have wanted to know why Jada Pinkett Smith “let” her daughter cut her hair. Pinkett Smith wanted them to know it was none of their business and with one social media post illustrated a shift in black parenting and images of black motherhood. This may have come to as a shock to some who see African-American women as uniformly rigid, and not positively so.
“We are rarely seen as intentional parents or as nurturing mothers,” Kimberly Seals Allers, author and founder of MochaManual.com, told theGrio. Seals Allers writes frequently and professionally about the black motherhood experience and believes African-American mothers are often mischaracterized in popular culture. “The media image is that we ‘end up’ pregnant and that we are always smacking our kids upside the head,” Seals Allers said. “We are viewed as good disciplinarians, but not good at nurturing.”
When actress Jada Pinkett Smith took to Facebook to defend her 12-year-old daughter, she challenged that conventional image and added another descriptor to the black mother archetype: progressive. She wrote:
The question why I would LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves…I made a promise to endow my little girl with the power to always know that her body, spirit and her mind are HER domain. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair.
Many online who commented on this statement failed to see the value in her evolved attitude. Yet, Seal Allers, a mother of two, says that black mothers today find themselves at an unprecedented crossroads where African-American women can make different choices. “We’re taking some of the old school parenting ideals we grew up on and blending them with new-school parenting ideology. We’re the first generation to be in this situation.”
In fact, first lady Michelle Obama might be the exemplar of this new definition of black motherhood. When she called herself first and foremost a “mom-in-chief” at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, many black women saw this as a pivotal moment. The first lady — who famously does not spank her daughters — might be the first African-American woman to be widely venerated for parenting.
This is a very new cultural manifestation. While Chinese mothers have been celebrated as “tiger moms” who push their children toward achievement, few seem to turn to black mothers for parenting strategies. This, despite a longer history than many moms in America of professional caregiving, managing blended families, and balancing work and home among today’s motherhood challenges.
Writing of this lack of cultural appreciation of good black mothers for a New York Times blog, Seal Allers noted that African-American moms “are not included in any of the mainstream mommy dialogue in this country — which is dominated by white and affluent voices. We aren’t seen as thinkers in this mommy movement, women with an important perspective in shaping the future of, say, maternity leave and child-care issues.
“Nor is our journey in motherhood and middle-class angst and bliss told in cutesy books or on network sitcoms about modern family,” she added.
Finding your personal journey as a mother is Karen Taylor Bass’ specialty. At 40 years old, the public relations professional recently added to her blended family, giving birth for the first time while also proudly mothering her husband’s child from a previous relationship. A difficult pregnancy, postpartum depression and a declining economy forced her to join a support group for new mothers. She found in the group, especially among mothers of color, many eager to challenge traditional images of motherhood and carve out their own methods of parenting.
In response to these experiences, she harnessed her know-how as a publicist for clients such as Jill Scott to write The ‘Brand’ New Mommy: From Babies to Branding Bliss, a guide for mothers looking to reinvent themselves. She is using her platform as an emerging black voice on issues of motherhood to help the larger community.
Now traveling regularly to hold roundtables with mothers of color, Taylor Bass finds that these meetings routinely turn into semi-therapy sessions, with moms sharing aspects of their lives that they are unable to share elsewhere.
“Society cannot raise our children and, at the end of the day, we as parents have to own our unique brand,” Taylor Bass told theGrio about the challenges they face. Finding one’s individual way of relating to one’s child, catered to that child’s personality, may be a new concept to those who typically view black mothers as ubiquitously holding a “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentality.
Yet, Jada Pinkett Smith would likely agree with Taylor Bass, as black mothers like these usher in this new approach to raising kids.
After her Facebook post about Willow’s hair cause a stir, Pinkett Smith used the occassion to encourage all mothers to break free of unnecessary parenting limitations. “These discussions allow us to find our true individual boundaries for our lives AND…our personal style of parenting,” she shared. “These conversations simply help us to find our personal paths.”
But, Taylor Bass warns that while black mothers can look to outspoken celebrities like Jada Pinkett Smith for encouragement, to find their own way of parenting, they need to turn inward.
“It’s about breaking those expectations, often ones that are cultural and generational, and to come out on the other side doing the best that we can for our children,” she said.
Donovan X. Ramsey is a journalist who has contributed to theGrio, Black Enterprise, Diverse, and Money. Follow him on Twitter at @iDXR.