The M-Word

I recently had the pleasure of having dinner and lunch, on separate occasions, with a couple of friends and a cousin whom I haven’t seen or spoken to in a while. We all have busy schedules so a few weeks had passed since we were last in touch.

These are all-around fantastic women. My oldest, dearest friend Lena is a social worker who specializes in geriatric issues. She is also taking care of her mom, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Hannah is as an accountant in one of North Jersey’s inner city schools and is pursuing a graduate degree in counseling. Sharon is a senior accountant for a major firm specializing in corporate tax. Aside from all of their degrees and interesting jobs, they care deeply about the people around them and put in a lot of their personal time to ensure that their parents, future charges and, in Sharon’s case, her teenage nephew, are properly looked after. I am the only married one in that bunch, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Many women, like my friends, are capable of being fulfilled without a husband, and they should be applauded.

So why am I extolling their virtues? I’ve noticed a recent groundswell of vitriol among other black female bloggers, who use the word mammy to describe some black women, and I couldn’t help but think that they could very well be taking digs at people like my near and dear friends. According to these bloggers, many black women have neglected their overall vitality to bury themselves under an avalanche of duty and obligation. Worse still, they insist, these women are wasting valuable time tending to other people’s needs when they should be mining for a husband — perhaps white — and a family. Therefore, say some, their efforts are all for nothing!

This is unacceptable for many reasons and the use of that word needs to be beaten back with the same fervor that it is being pushed on us. The word mammy is just as offensive as the word nigger. It has its roots in the Antebellum South, originally describing a rotund, unattractive black nurse maid for the plantation master’s children. Al Jolson also shored up the negative connotation in our pop culture while performing “My Mammy” in black face! While waiting for our food at a downtown restaurant the other day, I asked Sharon what she thought of the word ‘mammy.’

“Slavery,” she said.

Trust me, Sharon is no one’s slave, her single status, hard work and devotion to her family notwithstanding. She travels. She loves her job. The same applies to Hannah, who has visited India and is planning a trip to South Africa. Yet these bloggers are willing to defame awesome single black women with this word, especially those who show no particular inclination to ‘date out’ or recommend that their black female contemporaries do the same. All in the name of the so-called dating out movement. Using the word mammy and its variations to describe these women — or any other black woman who hasn’t taken up the ‘dating out’ banner — is narrow and ill-informed. It is thinly veiled name calling and a rather bratty way of dealing with people who hold different points of view.

I think this whole ilk should spend less time ripping into good people who are not doing bad all by themselves and make allowances for the fact that black women have made significant social and economic progress in the last five decades. The stigma of being single has been lessened significantly, so it is a mistake to try to turn back the clock on black women’s accomplishments. The alternative is to bray the same shrill message to an increasingly insular audience, until what is left is not a movement, but a bad idea, stagnant and marginalized.


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