Like many loyal fans of Keyshia Cole’s show, The Way It Is, I watched the premiere of Frankie and Neffe with bated breath hoping to see black reality drama at its finest. Of course, when people learn of my guilty pleasure many people are downright appalled that I, black feminist girl advocate Fallon, would want to watch these shows because of how they pathologize black mothers as absent, drug addicted, selfish, sexually promiscuous, and at the end of the day simply irresponsible. And my response is I watch these shows because in many ways Frankie and Neffe remind me more of my mother and sister than Claire Huxtable and Denise or Claire Huxtable and Rudy or Claire Huxtable and Vanessa. Furthermore, where else on television am I able to see a black mother and daughter tear into each other driven by their love for each other. Yes, sometime their love is explosive, like when Neffe is ready to fight Frankie’s new lover because he mistreats her and sometimes it is downright toxic like when Frankie becomes jealous and angry at the other women who have mothered Neffe and Keyshia because she was strung out on drugs for 20 years.
Of course, this is not to say that Frankie and Neffe are “perfect” models for talking about black mother-daughter relationships. But it is to say that their story is important even if it reifies dominant notions of black mothers because at the end of the day it’s my story. Unlike Frankie, my mother did not leave us for long periods of time to get high. But, she did spend a considerable amount of time psychologically not present and at times physically absent from us because she like the wife in the Selkie (Seal) Myth was never meant to live on land and wed. You see the Selkie is a mythical creature who lives in the sea. However, sometimes the Selkie would shed its seal skin to walk on land as a woman. Well, one day as she walked on the beach a fisherman stole her seal skin making her forget who she was and where she lived. So, to make a long story short she married the fisherman and had several children, it was not until she accidentally found her seal skin that she remembered who she was and where she belonged. I say all of this to say that my mother was created to swim in the sea. However, she like many women was tricked by the belief that one could live happily ever after on land by simply being a good black mother and a good black wife. Yes, living away from your home (i.e. the sea), your center, and your purpose could drive any woman crazy even the beloved and iconic Claire Huxtable.
So, Frankie and my mother are not that dissimilar meaning they are the causalities of an unjust system that privileges whiteness, wealth, maleness, and heterosexuality forcing them and their daughters into a type of land locked madness a madness that shapes how they love and struggle with each other. Ya know, I think Alice Walker understood this idea of land locked madness when she wrote the essay In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. She states that our mothers were “driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release. They were creators who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality—which is the basis of art—that the strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent drove them insane.” And, by default shaped how they mothered their daughters. I say all of this not to render black mothers without agency as if systems of oppression are just acting upon them because there is always an element of choice.
But, I mention these systems—racism, patriarchy and heteronormativity—to shed light on why Frankie and my mother, Sandy, have trouble understanding why their daughters are angry with them and also angry with themselves. It hurts Neffe to see her mother, Frankie, used by men and it doubly hurts my older sister and me to see our mother at the mercy of some man because she needs his help financially. But the hurt goes both ways because our mothers are deeply wounded when we are closer to other women who have stepped into our lives to mother us when they were seeking short-lived freedoms to compensate for the soul enriching freedom that was stolen away when they took off or was forced to take off their Seal Skins to walk on man’s land.
At this point, many of you are thinking that this reality is only true for a certain class of black women. But, it’s also evident in Alice Walker’s and Rebecca Walker’s mother-daughter relationship. All one has to do is read Rebecca Walker’s Baby Love and see how even a mother’s adamant critique and rebel against patriarchy (i.e. resisting being land-locked) can also create difficulties when relating and loving her daughter. In many ways, this shows how pervasive and enduring patriarchy is that even a mother’s resistance of it can still create pain for both parties.
All in all, there are few shows on television now where I can see black mothers and daughters dealing with the difficulties of being in relationship with each other. It is the intensity of Neffe’s love for her mother that sears my heart. It is Frankie’s wavering desire for her daughters’ acceptance and forgiveness that makes me think of my mother. As much as I want to celebrate the happiness of our mother and daughter relationships I have to be conscientious of the hurt and pain that comes from living in a society that forces our mothers to live their lives metaphorically on land when they are destined to swim in the sea.