Last week, this site featured a trailer for the documentary, Dear Daddy, about young black women who grew up without fathers. In these last few months, it seems to me that documentaries about black women and their relationships to men and their relationship to the standards and mores of larger society have been of interest to documentary filmmakers. There was Bill Duke’s Dark Girls, which I discussed previously; there’s also a new film, Black Girl in Suburbia, whose subject matter I’m sure you can infer from the title. (See each trailer at the bottom of this post.)
I’m glad there are new eyes behind the camera. I think black women’s stories need to be told, need to be expressed. And these are all subjects that, I suppose, have not been given proper attention. I know and love many black women who have similar stories and still endure similar experiences. I understand the validation of hearing someone else echo your own thoughts and feelings. I can appreciate what it’s like to witness some version of yourself on screen, sharing a space with those who have a similar journey, being able to talk about the hurt and trauma that accompanies growing up in a culture that devalues you. These narratives are real. These projects are necessary.
I’m wondering, though, about the requisite sadness that seems to accompany these films. Furthermore, I’m wondering how these narratives implicitly play into the very structure their subjects do not belong. It seems that the core of these documentaries and other stories currently circulating about black women is an exploration of black women’s lack–their lack of beauty, their lack of marriageability, their lack of a father. To be clear, I don’t want to diminish the pain these girls have undoubtedly felt. But how do we tell these stories without devaluing the (non-patriarchal, non-white) support systems that do exist? How can we discuss these narratives without articulating a sadness that seems tied to an inability to assimilate? How can we unpack the emotion that comes with the realization that one cannot “blend in” by questioning the very structure we’d like to blend into? How can we show the range of black women’s emotions without having the underlying “See, black women are human, too,” argument? How can we tell these stories without implicitly devaluing mothering?
All of those questions remind me of a Toni Morrison interview I read the other day where she offered the following wisdom:
Well, neither of those things [single-parent households, teenaged pregnancies] seems to me a debility. I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family. It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community — everybody — to raise a child. The notion that the head is the one who brings in the most money is a patriarchal notion, that a woman — and I have raised two children, alone — is somehow lesser than a male head. Or that I am incomplete without the male. This is not true. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for black people. Why we are hanging onto it, I don’t know. It isolates people into little units — people need a larger unit.
As high as the divorce rate is, as common as single-parent homes are, we continually allow the idea that having a father around would make things easier. That a present father somehow ameliorates many of life’s problems. But men, people come with their own sets of issues. And I think we can tell these stories and trouble those assumptions. I think we can tell these stories and acknowledge the hurt while teaching that this sadness stems not necessarily from a lack of a father, or other blacks in the neighborhood, but by the desire to fit a mold, by a culture that devalues the structure that supports us.
The longer we hang on to the idea that adhering as closely as possible to a white, heterosexual, patriarchal structure solves pathology, the longer we reinforce our own trauma. The structure doesn’t work. Even Toni Morrison said so. There’s a way that we can tell these stories without the assimilative or black girls are human angle. In the end, we all (should) end up in therapy, anyway.