The Power of Mother/Daughter Relationships as Depicted in African American Fiction
(In Honor of Mother’s Day)

By Dr. Maxine Thompson

Recently, I completed a novella called Summer of Salvation, which was part of a larger anthology, All in the Family, spearheaded by prolific romance writer, Janice Sims. This collection will be issued in August 2006 through Dreams Publishing Company.

The mission of the anthology was to look at mother/daughter relationships and to turn that relationship inside out. It was also a chance to look at how people raised in the same family often had a different view and recollection of what really went on in the family. When I completed Summer of Salvation, I suddenly realized that many of my stories have the recurring theme of Black mother/daughter relationships. I guess I am obsessed with this idea, perhaps because I am a mother of two daughters and I am/was the daughter of a mother with three girls, each of whom she had a totally different relationship to, when she was still living.

In my first novel, The Ebony Tree, I examined four generations of African American women and how slavery impacted the mother/daughter dynamics over the years. This included looking at physical separation between mothers and daughters, such as daughters who were raised by maternal grandmothers, and that history somewhat repeating itself in that cycle in my second novel, No Pockets in a Shroud. In this novel, a birth mother is haunted by the ancestors because of a child she gave up for a closed adoption as a teenager and she returns to her hometown in search of this child.

In my novella, Second Chances, (which is part of the anthology, Secret Lovers, issued by Urban Books/Kensington in June 2006,) although my heroine, Caprianna, is an orphan, she still has posthumous communication with her deceased mother at a pivotal point in the story.

So what is the purpose of looking to the past you might ask? One is to help dispel stereotypes about Black women, and the other is to help replace/heal faulty thinking/behavioral patterns (on the parts of Black women) with healthier ones. Believe it or not, all of this affects our relationships with our own mothers and our own daughters.

Let’s face it. How many races of women were exposed to four hundred years of captivity? This poses the question, how can you transmit self-love when your daughter can be sold away from you? How does this love get twisted? (Such as Sethe’s love for the infant daughter whose throat she slit in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved.) And how has this love been jaded as a consequence of this collective dehumanizing experience?

Although African American women haven’t been subjected to genital circumcision/mutilation such as in third world countries, they have suffered (in addition to rape, slavery, lynchings, and beatings,) psychological trauma, which is equally as damaging. This is why the mother/daughter dynamics can’t be mined enough in literature. Writers from other races have often perpetuated stereotypes about the strong Black mother image, (such as the character Dilsey in William Faulkner’s novels,) but who is the real Black mother today? As for the daughters, today’s media has not helped the images of young women, either.

It’s no secret how Black women have been maligned as gold diggers, nymphomaniacs and prostitutes since they’ve been in America. Early studies and literature pointed to black women as a group who tended toward early intercourse, teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. These studies did not take into account different social classes, family structure, economics, or religious training. Unfortunately, these accounts lumped all black women together.

According to Black Pioneer Sex Scholar, Gail Wyatt, the even sadder fact is that “Many of them (young Black women) believed these stereotypes, and the stereotypes were driving them.” (Los Angeles Times, Saturday January 3, 2004, p. E 1, in regards to the women she researched.) Wyatt contends that women tend to buy into these stereotypes, and today, they are played out in the “bootylicious” videos, movies, and even in popular books.

“It wasn’t that easy being a little black girl in this country—it was rough. The psychological tricks you have to play in order to get through—and nobody said how it felt to be that.” (Toni Morrison to Gloria Naylor, re: The Bluest Eye, Quote taken from Ron David’s Toni Morrison Explained: A Reader’s Road Maps to the Novels, p. 39.)

In Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the grandmother of the protagonist Janie, advised her that the colored woman was “de mule of de world so fur as Ah can see.”

How have things changed since that time? Today, in spite of the fact that Black women own businesses and run large corporations, as a group, individually, she continues to lag behind in receiving equal pay, finding satisfying marriage mates, and living fulfilling lives. Economically, many Black women’s pay to this day continues to fall below the poverty line.

So what is the answer? Many scholars feel there needs to be a debriefing from what has been termed as the “Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome.” It is contended that the real medicine is in reconnecting with our past, with our roots. In order to debunk years of negative programming and negative portrayals in the media, it is important that we affirm ourselves holistically, psychologically, and spiritually.

For those who have a good relationship with their mother, that is wonderful. For those who don’t, healing can take place through bibliotherapy—or reading. And much of this can be done through the literature that we write.

Classics such as Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Morrison’s Sula, Dorothy West’s When The Living Is Easy examine these relationships in a historical, sociological, and psychological manner. I particularly liked Alice Walker’s book of critical essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden for a look at what happened to Black women’s creativity under oppressive conditions.

Not only will these type of books spark a catharsis, it is sure to initiate a healthy dialogue and a spiritual healing of the rift between African American mothers and daughters where they have them.

In my 1989 poem, “The Ebony Tree,” I asked the question for African American women, “Why does no one ever laude me whose sable hands calmed troubled seas?”

One way African American mothers can be lauded is through our literature. We can use literature as a way of examining the strengths and vulnerabilities of our mothers. It can also help us to appreciate and to communicate with our mothers on a more authentic level.