Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Danai Gurira, The Walking Dead (Photo: AMC); Sanaa Lathan, The Twilight Zone (Photo: CBS All Access); Cush Jumbo, The Good Fight (Photo: CBS All Access); MJ Rodriguez, Pose (Photo: AMC)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

This week, Mixed-ish, Black-ish’s prequel spinoff series, will give viewers a look into the backstory of Johnson matriarch Rainbow (narrated by Tracee Ellis Ross) as a pre-teen. She, her Black mother, Alicia (Tika Sumpter), white father, Paul (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), and two siblings are catapulted back into the capitalist real world after the Feds raid the serene commune where the family has lived for years. Now in the suburbs, the family is no longer shielded by the idealized hippie society they’ve grown accustomed to. For the first time in the children’s sheltered lives, they are confronted with the label of being “mixed,” which in 1985 isn’t necessarily looked at as being a good thing.

While watching Rainbow, Santamonica, and Johan try to fit in at school is often hilarious, it’s her mother Alicia’s personal awakening that stands out in the series premiere. The Berkley-educated lawyer quickly realizes that she doesn’t have the luxury of staying home with her college drop-out husband to grow food in their garden to pay the bills—she doesn’t have the (white) privilege. Soon she accepts a job at her father-in-law’s firm, trading in her patchwork frocks and free-flowing twist-out for a Sears tailored power suit and a slicked-back bun to keep her family afloat. More importantly, for the first time in a long time, she can no longer deny how the world sees not only her but also her children. It becomes clear that it is her politics and experiences as a Black woman that will guide her babies down this rocky road of race, helping them decide for themselves who they want to be. Will they choose one identity over the other, or stay something in the “ish” of being mixed? It’s a potentially interesting (and at times frustrating) journey, but if done correctly, with Alicia continuing to be fleshed out throughout the rest of the season, Mixed-ish could add another much-needed layer to how Black motherhood is portrayed on television.

From The Cosby Show’s Claire Huxtable to Fresh Prince’s Aunt Viv to Empire’s Cookie Lyon, there’s a rich tradition of African American mamas on television. These portrayals have always been complicated, especially given the negative ways real-life Black mothers have been viewed and talked about. Often, Black mothers onscreen either fight against these racial stereotypes by playing into respectability politics in seeming unassailable or perpetuate the same racist pathology that already exists. As Sesali Bowen wrote for Refinery 29, “Representations of Black motherhood in pop culture always sit in the realm of super positive and aspirational, or bastions of malaise and trauma.” Rarely are Black women with children allowed to exist in the middle.

Something has shifted in 2019. The tired notion that Black mothers and their experiences are monolithic has been replaced with more diverse and nuanced on-screen depictions that better reflect reality. While heroes in their own right, these Black mamas are not pillars of perfection or stoic one-dimensional superwomen. Each one is flawed and complicated, not only fighting to be a better parent, but also fighting to protect their children from what is waiting for them in the world outside the home. The storylines of these shows have tackled a range of issues, including mothering while Black, breaking the cycle of toxic parenting, and even redefining who and what being a mother is in the Black community. Most importantly, even in the face of trauma, which many stories have been grounded in, Black mothers have still reveled in the joys of nurturing and loving their children.

Examples of these layered and complex depictions can be found across all platforms, from network and cable dramas to streaming series. One particular standout has come from Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone. In “Replay,” Nina (Sanaa Lathan) attempts to drive her young son, Dorian (Damson Idris), to his first year at a nearby HBCU but finds herself being terrorized by a racist cop (Glenn Fleshler) who is hell-bent on killing her son. After a run-in with Officer Lasky results in her son’s death, she realizes her father’s old camcorder allows her to go back in time to perhaps “do something differently” in order to protect her son. But going back in time also means Nina has to experience this horror over and over again. After a terrifying day, in which Nina recognizes that having a college degree and living in a white neighborhood won’t save her family from this type of violence, Dorian arrives safely on campus. But in the end, Nina, who has held on to the camera for decades, learns that any sense of safety she had isn’t as real as she thought. Though “Replay”’s world may exist in a different dimension, the dread from seeing her child caught in the crosshairs of police violence is a reality for Black mothers on this plane.

Like The Twilight Zone, The Good Fight is also invested in social commentary, with storylines about punching Nazis, addressing #MeToo in the Black community, and resisting the man that occupies the White House. The show’s depiction of the biracial Lucca (Cush Jumbo), who struggled for much of season three with being a new mother and wanting to make partner, didn’t shy away from the subject of mothering while Black or the trend of white women calling the police on Black people for no reason. In “The One With Lucca Becoming A Meme,” Lucca is at a park when she encounters a nosey white woman who, after assuming that Lucca has stolen her baby, who passes for white, calls the police. Videos of Lucca defending herself go viral, causing her to be bombarded with racist emails and texts telling her “to go back to Africa” and that “white mothers would never behave the way she did.” Lucca’s run-in speaks volumes to countless Black women, who fear mothering in mostly white spaces, especially those who have been mistaken for their child’s nanny.

This season of This Is Us gave fans not only a backstory for Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) but also a better understanding of how being a daughter helps shape one’s own mothering style. In “Our Little Island Girl,” we learn that Beth and her mother, Carol (Phylicia Rashad), have unhealed wounds from a fractured relationship linking back to Beth’s childhood. Now as an adult, instead of doing what’s expected of many Black daughters—sucking up the pain in silence and getting over it—Beth finally musters up the courage to be honest about her resentment toward her mother, who squashed her teenage dreams of being a professional dancer after Beth’s father died of cancer. Too often flawed characters like Carol are written as flat and evil (e.g., Mo’Nique’s character in Precious), but This Is Us made a multifaceted character filled with humanity, vulnerability, and most importantly, love. Carol was merely mimicking what she learned from her mother; and while Beth eventually forgives her, looking back at earlier episodes this season, it’s clear that she has also worked hard with her two biological daughters, Tess and Annie, and adopted daughter, Deja, to break that toxic cycle of parenting. This is particularly evident in the third season’s “The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning,” where Tess admits to Beth and Randall that she thinks she “likes girls.” Unlike her mother, Beth allows her children to have the “air” they need to find themselves without shame.

In another depiction of complicated mother-daughter relationships, CBS’s The Red Line provided a rare representation of the intersections of Black motherhood and adoption. The ripped-from-the-headlines limited series centers on Daniel (brilliantly played by Noah Wyle) and his adopted daughter, Jira (Aliyah Royale), who are reeling after the loss of Harrison (Corey Reynolds), their husband and father, respectively, who was shot and killed by a white Chicago police officer. For Jira, this tragic loss compels her to seek out her biological mother, Tia (Emayatzy Corinealdi), who she believes will better understand her as a young Black woman than her white adoptive father. But that reconnection doesn’t go smoothly: Despite having an emotional first meeting, Tia struggles with her own apprehension of becoming a mother to the daughter she gave away 16 years prior, while juggling her young son, husband, and campaign as alderman in Chicago’s sixth ward. While Tia teeters from pushing Jira away and trying to keep her a secret to being too involved in how Daniel is raising Jira, she finds a healthy balance, and the two women begin to heal together. Too bad this series got canceled—it would have been nice to continue following them as they build their relationship over time.

While Black motherhood is usually assigned solely to cisgender women, the hit drama Pose has redefined it by showing the reality of Black trans women in the ballroom scene who take on this role every day, and have been doing so for decades. These mothers may not have given birth to their “children,” but they are the bedrock of the Black and Latinx LGBTQ+ community—raising, housing, and feeding their chosen family. This nurturing act is more than just training their children to win a trophy at the next ball; it also prepares them to survive in a world outside of the ball that is intent on tearing them down. Even more impressive is how Pose, like its diverse characters, offers a range of mothering styles. Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) is “the mother of lost souls” who often puts her children’s dreams ahead of her own, pushing Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) to finish dance school and Angel (Indya Moore) to pursue a modeling career. Meanwhile, mothers like Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Lulu (Sahar), and Candy (Angelica Ross) can be more toxic and narcissistic, but the love for their children and sisters, regardless of what house they reside in, is always there and has been a beautiful thing to witness, particularly in season two.

Like Pose, The Walking Dead proves motherhood isn’t necessarily about DNA, but the families one creates over time. Michonne (Danai Gurira) beautifully embodied this concept in season nine. She is now a mother multiple times over, giving birth to her and Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) son, RJ, as she continued to look after her adopted daughter, Judith (Kinsley Isla Dillon), and served as a matriarch to the Alexandrians. This fierce warrior has evolved from the mostly silent loner in season three to a woman who opened herself up to love, family, and a future, and will do anything to keep that intact. In the flashback episode “Scars,” it’s revealed how far Michonne is willing to go to protect her unborn baby and her daughter, who was kidnapped by a group of feral killer kids and their “mother,” Jocelyn (Rutina Wesley), an old friend of Michonne’s. Most likely channeling her own guilt from not being able to protect her first son during the beginning of the zombie outbreak years prior, Michonne slaughters these children and brings Judith home safe. While seeing a Black woman mothering a white child can invoke a visceral reaction from the history of slavery, midwifery, and domestic work, Michonne is nobody’s Mammy. She is Judith’s mother.

Ava DuVernay’s stunning and heartbreaking limited series When They See Us centers on the “Exonerated Five” (formally known as the Central Park Five) and their unjust imprisonment for the rape and assault of Trisha Meili in 1989, while also paying homage to Black mothers. As in The Twilight Zone’s “Replay,” the mothers of Kevin, Antron, Yusef, Raymond, and Korey—played by Niecy Nash, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Aunjanue Ellis, and Suzzanne Douglas—are all fighting for their sons’ lives by any means necessary. The media and the New York’s District Attorney’s Office may have told these women, especially those who were single mothers, that they failed their sons, but as Candice Benbow wrote for Glamour, DuVernay worked hard to use their stories to correct the myth that “black boys can’t thrive” in homes that aren’t led by Black fathers. Most important, When They See Us also reminds viewers that Black mothers are not monolithic. Though they may have shared a neighborhood in Harlem, these women came from different economic statuses, had different levels of education, conveyed different emotional and physical reactions to their sons being accused, and didn’t necessarily agree on which approach to take when proving their child’s innocence.

When They See Us also provided an opportunity to see a Black mother evolve with her trans child, turning her transphobia into acceptance and love. In episode four, Delores Wise (Nash) kicks her transgender daughter, Marci (Isis King), out of her house in a heartbreaking scene, but it’s later revealed that Delores, perhaps with the help of religion, grew to accept her. While this revelation might have come too late (Marci was tragically murdered), it’s still a lesson in love that needed to be seen.

Of course, even with all of these positive strides forward, television still has a lot of work to do when it comes to how Black women are depicted and the quality of roles they are given (just look at the blinding whiteness among this year’s Emmy nominations and winners). But the evolution of the small-screen depiction of Black motherhood in 2019 has the future looking brighter than ever.

 

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About the author

Kellee Terrell

Kellee Terrell is an award-winning filmmaker and journalist, loving daughter, zombie slayer and not the one.

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