Motherhood: A Central Role for Black Women
Motherhood is considered a position of high honor and status in the Black community. Linguists have often made much of the ritualized insult game, “Playing the dozens,” yet few have observed that to talk about another’s mother is considered the deepest of insults and the most likely way to lead to physical retaliation. The “mandate of motherhood,” as Russo (1976) termed the societal demand that women become mothers, continues to intrigue feminist scholars. Nowhere is this fascination more clearly demonstrated than in Ireland’s book on motherhood and female identity. In this analysis, Ireland (1993, p. 104) describes “femaleness (pre-Oedipal mother) as the central organizer of female identity, with biology and culture as contextualizing influences. Yet, regardless of whether maleness or fe maleness is seen as the primary influence, maternity is still considered the equivalent of adult female development. There is no normative female identity for the woman who is not a mother.” In Zinn and Eitzen’s (1990) study of inner-city Blacks, they noted that in the Black community a girl “becomes a woman by becoming a mother.” The high value placed on children in Black families appears to convey status and authority; the role of mother serves to protect the unmarried woman and to absolve her from stigma (Collins, 1991; Stack, 1974).
Although motherhood is considered to be the culmination of a woman’s sexual experience, “mother” is ironically construed as asexual. Neither research nor folklore suggests that mother-child relationships are connected to erotic or physical pleasure. Young (1990) noted that there is a dichotomy of motherhood and sexuality that “maps onto a dichotomy of good/bad, pure/impure” and that has become translated into a repression of the body itself. The separation that has been enforced by patriarchal codes, according to Young, keeps women dependent on men for sexual pleasure. She suggests that “lesbian mothering may be the ultimate affront to patriarchy, for it involves a double displacement of an erotic relation of a woman to a man” (p. 198). Clearly, neither Young nor we recommend the social eroticising of motherhood. It does seem worth noting, however, that there is a significant degree of denial about the relationship of moth erhood to sexuality.