Construction of the Crack Mother icon.
The collateral consequences of war-on-drugs policies instituted during the Regan era continue to disproportionately affect African American communities. Although congress rescinded disparate crack sentencing legislation, the numbers of incarcerated women of color continues to escalate. This article explores the ideological processes behind widespread support for unequal punitive policies, focusing particularly on the Crack Mother as an icon rooted in a tradition of misrepresentation (and misrecognition) of African American women. By focusing on characterizations of Crack Mothers in film and discourse around the crack epidemic, I point out links between stereotypes, public policies, and punitive governance tactics that scapegoat African American women. I locate the Crack Mother icon within a genealogy of representations of African American women in literature, film, media, and politics that continues to perpetuate misinformation about African Americanness.
African American Icons
The term icon conveys the larger-than-life, beyond-truth nature of mythologies. The term accommodates multifaceted representations of African American women in literary and cinematic depictions and political and media portrayals. We often use the term icon to define images of larger-than-life figures [e.g. Malcolm (X), Martin (Luther King, Jr.), and Michael (Jordan)]; images of historical figures larger than humanity (e.g. Jesus Christ, the Madonna, King Arthur); images of mythological figures representing human attributes (e.g. Hades, Pan); and computer images of programs or complex sets of data (e.g. Microsoft Word, Skype). Icons are symbols that represent people, values, ideas, or functions, but they can never be that which they represent. Although we instantly recognize the symbols that represent Michael Jordan, Jesus Christ or Skype, the icon itself is empty and meaningless; it simply points to an idea or concept about a person or thing. I appropriate this term to describe the Crack Mother, an image anxiously repeated in our social consciousness, which has come to define everything that is wrong with women and African Americans. According to Wahneema Lubiano (1992), distorted images of people from marginalized groups function as shortcut representations in the sense that they are recognizable symbols that instantly reinforce existing assumptions about a group. Shortcut representations inform public opinions and reinforce social assumptions, which in turn lead to unequal social policies. There is always the risk the mythology will swallow any contradictory data, making it impossible to present a narrative that humanizes former and current women drug users. Nevertheless, I complete the article with a discussion of visibility as it relates to possibilities for changing perceptions of African American women in the social consciousness.
Caricatures of African American Women
The genealogy of the Crack Mother begins with early American literature when representations of blacks not only defined blackness, but also defined an American identity. According to Toni Morrison, characterizations of African American inferiority in American literature date back to slavery (1993). Morrison coins the term American Africanism to describe African American characters that constructed literary whiteness and literary blackness. Morrison states, "I use it as a term for the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people" (Morrison, 7). Africanisms framed the American identity by symbolically positioning blackness as a point of opposition or mediating force against which a pure American identity (i.e. whiteness) was conceptualized. Icons of blackness pervaded the American racial ideology and race relations by justifying slavery, which defined blacks as second-class citizens in American society.
Minstrel Shows traveled widely and exposed Americans to Africanism-informed images of African Americans. In live performances, whites acted out stereotypical characters in black face, dancing in exaggerated motions and performing skits using a distorted form of African American Vernacular English. Distortions of African American song, dance, and speech styles took on a visual form and became a performance genre that parodied imaginary African American traditions. When blacks were permitted to perform on stage after slavery, they too darkened their faces to perform the genre. According to Eric Lott (1993), white performers acted out class, race, and sexual politics, illustrating the contradictory relationship between black and white cultures. These performances came to represent who black people were for a nation of people with little exposure to or interaction with blacks. Minstrel shows were integral to the spread of African American iconography. Beliefs about blacks were linked to the distortions people saw in minstrel acts.
Realism, as a literary and cinematic form, generates authenticity from recognizable stories and characters that are based on audiences' existing conceptualizations of reality. According to Robert Stam, symbolic structures within realistic art blur distinctions between reality and ideology in ways that reflect existing social relations. Audiences perceive extreme or distorted visual images as realistic if they are familiar. The widespread use of distorted images of African Americans in realist texts are built upon existing mythologies of blackness from early American literature and minstrel shows. Efforts to maintain spectatorial belief perpetuated African American stereotypes and reinforced the notion of African American pathology. Blackface in movies quickly burned out as audiences turned to realism, but realism appropriated many of the conceptions of African Americans introduced in blackface performances.
The film, Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith and based on The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, established stereotypical character types that continue to be staples in contemporary films. The book and the film reacted to the social, political, and economic strides African Americans achieved during reconstruction and fueled the emergence of the Klu Klux Klan. Characters representing African Americans in the film became firmly established African American screen types, like the Buck, Mammy, and Tragic Mulatto. Birth of a Nation generated widespread controversy and protests, but it continues to be recognized as a cinematic masterpiece, which partially explains its far-reaching influence.
In his discussion of the history of black film, Donald Bogle identifies three character types introduced in this film: faithful souls, who loyally defended and nurtured the white family; the brutal black bucks, who committed acts of sadism and bestiality; and the mulatto, a tragic character, who hates whites and wants power (Bogle, 13-16). Whereas African American caricatures had previously taken on a comedic role in entertainment, Griffith's characters introduced a particular threat to white people and white culture. Bogle states, "The naive and cinematically untutored audiences of the early part of the century responded to the character types as if they were the real thing" (17). Griffith's African American women character types extended beyond the screen and morphed into permanent parts of the cultural landscape. The Mammy figure, as outlined by Griffith, is fiercely loyal to and nurturing of the white family and independent of any African American cultural context. The Mammy figure is asexual in the sense that she is antithetical to European standards of beauty. Collectibles, advertisements, and cartoons distorted the Mammy's look, making her literally larger and darker than life. Duchess Harris (1994) suggests that such distortions when juxtaposed with icons of European beauty, such as Snow White and Cinderella, further reinforced overdetermined and differential social roles. As an Africanism, the Mammy figure explicitly offers darkness that is the backdrop of American identity. The Mammy figure evolved into the Aunt Jemima image, which has perhaps survived the longest as a cantankerous cook, who finds joy in serving American families breakfast foods.
The central relationship these two figures have to the ideal family, establishes them as fixtures of American success. The tragic mulatto is a pathetic soul, in anguish over her place in a white world. She is at once a treacherous seductress and a pathetic soul, often attempting to pass for white and marry a white suitor. The tragic mulatto character traits were split between the Jezebel and Sapphire. Rooted in slavery, the underdressed Jezebel promotes the stereotype of black women's promiscuity in everyday items, such as postcards and ashtrays. The Jezebel morphed into a hypersexual and manipulative seductress with a fair complexion and European features; she eventually became the black whore, who continues to he a fixture in urban, realist dramas. Sapphire, on the other hand, is a cantankerous, overbearing, and emasculating black woman. The image was popularized by the character Sapphire Stevens from the wildly popular Amos 'n' Andy minstrel-style radio show, which aired from 1928-1960. The Sapphire characterization grew beyond the screen into the social realm, where she became the angry black woman. These icons set the stage for the Crack Mother character-type.
The Crack Mother (and Crack Whore) characters incorporate the characteristics of each of these character types. Like the Mammy, her features are so distorted that she is asexual, almost subhuman. She is at once lascivious and manipulative, like the Jezebel. She embodies the sassiness and anger of the Sapphire, spewing obscenities and emasculating anyone who gets in her way. Without a male partner to accept her insults, her children are the most common targets of her verbal and physical assaults. According to K. Sue Jewell, "[C]ultural images that symbolize African American womanhood have undergone some modifications; yet, in spite of the introduction of a few cultural images that reflect the strengths of African American women, these traditional cultural images persist" (46). Like stereotypical characters developed and perpetuated in early American literature and minstrel performances, caricatures of African American women in film have a broader political function evidenced by their political counterparts. Understanding the genealogy of the Crack Mother warrants an exploration of the social, political, and legal dynamics that have fostered the establishment and persistence of the stereotype.
Icons in Political Discourse
Caricatures morphed into political forms, such as the matriarch, welfare queen and crack mother when they spread into political arenas. Discourse about African American women disaggregated images from their social, historical, cultural, and other contexts. The resulting associations between African American women, stereotypical attributes, and perceived dysfunctions justified legislative inequities. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall coined the term disaggregation to describe the practice of dividing situations from their meaning-giving contexts. According to Gary Pellar and Kimberle Crenshaw (1995), decontextualization that "divorces events from their time and space" enables such events to be transformed when they are reincorporated into the institutional discourse. This transformation results in the establishment of shortcut representations that instantly signal a chain of associations and blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. The Crack Mother icon is a disaggregation, removed from the tradition of stereotypes, caricatures, and policies that preceded her. She is integrated with existing discourse that suggests black inferiority, like welfare reform. She is associated with existing icons like the matriarch and welfare queen. This process of disaggregation makes the Crack Mother a signifier wrought with subtext that reifies African American pathology. My goal is to place the Crack Mother in the proper social, historical, cultural, and political context and draw connections to the allusions that inform her characterization: the caricatures, stereotypes, political icons, historical movements an so forth. Such connections reveal that the Crack Mother is simply an updated version of distortions historically imposed on African American women. The Crack Mother icon of the 1990s and 2000s was a logical extrapolation from the matriarch and welfare queen discourses of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Their formation is intimately linked to the widespread adaptation of the Crack Mother.
African American Women and Dependency
The relationship between entitlement programs and African Americans is the source of discourse around African American dysfunction. This association between welfare and African Americans has more to do with worthiness than numbers of recipients, inherent dependency, or pathology. The Social Security Act of 1935 produced two tiers of entitlement programs. The first tier includes social security insurance, survivor benefits and unemployment insurance. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), comprises the second tier. According to Linda Gordon, first-tier welfare programs like Social Security were designed primarily for white men. Women have historically gained entitlements to the first-tier programs through their husbands; they accessed the system as dependents, rather than citizens. Gordon states, "The second track receives less money than other kinds of public assistance, and it was designed to be not only extremely stingy, but also personally invasive and highly stigmatized" (1994). The paternalistic blueprint of the second tier targeted "deserving" recipients: white middle-class women, who were widows or abandoned by their husbands. AFDC provided support to women in the absence of male breadwinners so they could stay at home with their children. By not entering the workforce, women remained dependent and adhered to culturally and racially mandated gender role assignments. Poor women and women of color were "undeserving" recipients because they were expected to work outside of the home.
Considerable cultural resources were also--wittingly or unwittingly--devoted to foregrounding the mostly white, mostly middle-income women who went to work "by choice," against other women, often poor and African American, who were defined, when they were noticed at all, as having no choice but to work.... White women were perceived as thrusting themselves into the workforce because they were psychologically disturbed, while African-American and other women of color were described as fully alienated from the civilized complexities of psychology. (Solinger, 1998)
Notions of racial, class, and gender inferiority and conceptions of innate worthiness influenced decisions about dependency status. The narrative of governmental patriarchy behind the development of entitlement programs did not apply to poor women of color.
The focus turned to women of color when increasing numbers of white, middle-class women entered the workforce. The Moynihan report, published in 1965, constructs the Matriarch as the source of social problems in the African American community. The report holds an overbearing female head of household responsible for the breakdown of the family and resulting problems of poverty, social deviance, low intelligence, lack of education, juvenile delinquency, and economic dependency. The characteristics Moynihan assigns to the Matriarch closely resemble the Sapphire stereotype. Though Moynihan contends that a matriarchal family structure is not inherently deviant, he frames matriarchy as an obstacle to assimilation within a dominant patriarchal culture. To construct the Matriarch, Moynihan decontextualizes his conception of African American women from historical and contemporary social institutions and policies, such as slavery, black codes, Jim Crow, redlining, widespread unemployment, and urban economic decay. He also does not account for entitlement programs with rigid biases against African American women, as well as poor families with men. Solinger suggests that the report outlines all of the Matriarch's choices as bad choices and indicative of intrinsic deviance.
In 1965, the Moynihan Report enumerated the consequences of bad choices: African-American women were making a mistake by taking jobs and status from black men; they were making a consequential mistake by presiding over families constructed, non-normatively, as matriarchies. They were making bad choices when they didn't marry and had babies anyway. All these mistakes and bad choices inexorably led African-American women (and other poor women of color) deep into welfare dependency (Solinger, 1998).
The Matriarch stereotype set the stage for the Welfare Queen and Crack Mother icons by illustrating characteristics that render black women incapable of making constructive and healthy choices. This perceived inability to choose a normative lifestyle and assimilate into the mainstream transformed behaviors and physical distortions of the Mammy, Jezebel, and Sapphire into innate characteristics of the Welfare Queen and Crack Mother.
The welfare queen icon was the target of media sensationalism during the Reagan Era. The image of a black welfare recipient wearing a fur coat and gold jewelry while driving a Cadillac to purchase steak, alcohol, and cigarettes with her food stamps became the poster child for welfare reform. The image of this woman defined all welfare recipients until welfare was synonymous with black motherhood. Purportedly, the behaviors of black mothers, rather than structural issues, social and economic conditions, and political agendas, propagated dependency and economic failure.
The many widely accepted stereotypes associated with the behavior of "welfare mothers" are predicated on a belief in the incompatibility of dependency and sensible or good choices. More pointedly, the stereotypes explicitly connect dependency and bad choices or scamming.... By the 1970s, many middle-class women may have achieved the status of choice-makers, but poor women generally remained trapped by a label of dependency that, by definition, excluded them from that status. (Solinger, 1998)
The popular narrative constructed mainstream, middle class people as having to pay for social problems that correct the mistakes and poor choices of "undeserving" poor African American people. This narrative accused women of widespread abuse of the system never intended to serve them in the first place. Discourse around the Welfare Queen relied on the disaggregation of the image of African American womanhood from the social, economic and political realities of the time.
When policymakers and commentators accused poor women of color of making bad choices, the charge was complex. Often it referred to the fact that these women were unemployed. Just as often, it referred to the fact that they had jobs, while men of color did not. Once women of color were associated with making bad choices, though, the charges spread to cover all the important areas of their lives: work, sex, marriage, family, and motherhood. (Solinger, 1998)
Any choice was inadequate because their supposed deviance was at the core of their existence. The narrative did not consider behaviors and choices to be reactions circumstances.
Discourse around the Welfare Queen built on existing images and racial coding. The Welfare Queen is controlling like the Matriarch, but she manipulates the system and chooses dependency over productivity, like the Jezebel. The media is complicit in propagating the Welfare Queen iconography. One example is the 1986 Bill Moyer's documentary, The Vanishing Family --Crisis in Black America, which focused exclusively on young African American young welfare recipients. According to Jewell, this documentary, like other media portrayals, fueled the notion that the mother's inherent deviance traps the African American family in a cycle of pathology. Through systematic generalizations, it took up where the Moynihan Report left off, drawing connections to the characteristics of the Matriarch and the Welfare Queen and setting the stage for the Crack Mother.
War-on-Drugs: Race, Class, and Gender
Increased media and research attention to drug epidemics fueled anxieties about drug addiction and its accompanying social burdens. At a time when drug crimes were declining, the Reagan administration instituted the war-on-drugs (Alexander, 2010). According to Michelle Alexander, the Reagan administration triggered a media campaign with images and reports of drug-ridden black communities and crack babies to garner support for drug policies that targeted African Americans. The media attention changed mainstream perceptions of users and dealers and set the stage for the mass incarceration, criminalization, and demonization of the African American community (2010). By the late 1980s, the print media declared that an epidemic of crack babies plagued hospitals and social services and predicted that an entire generation of mentally and emotionally damaged children would drain health and social resources. Dorothy Roberts asserts that a 1988 study conducted by the National Association for Perinatal Addiction Research and Education (NAPARE) reported 375,000 crack cocaine exposed babies, which initiated a widespread frenzy about a crack epidemic. Roberts states:
The media parlayed the NAPARE report into a horrific tale of damage to hundreds of thousands of babies. A review of newspaper accounts of the drug exposure data reveals a stunning instance of journalistic excess. Even the most careful reporters felt free to make wildly exaggerated claims about the effects of prenatal drug use.... Some articles attributed all 375,000 cases to crack, although experts estimate that 50,000 to 100,000 newborns at most are exposed specifically to cocaine (both powdered and crack) each year. (Roberts, 156)
This set the stage for policy implications, such as widespread convictions of women who used drugs during pregnancy. The first such murder conviction occurred in South Carolina, where a drug-addicted, African American woman was sentenced to 12 years in prison when her child was stillborn. The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld this decision and eventually, social policies around the country required medical facilities to report pregnant women who tested positive for drugs. The media focus on particularly raced, classed, and gendered populations associated with crack cocaine promoted the pursuit and widespread conviction of African American women. Roberts states, "In the focus on maternal crack use, which is stereotypically associated with African Americans, the media left the impression that the pregnant addict is typically a Black woman" (156-157). Images of black crack babies screeching and trembling, supposedly from crack withdrawal permeated the mainstream consciousness. In 1991 contradictory evidence emerged that attributed fetal morbidity to poverty and lack of prenatal care (Murphy & Sales, 2001), as well as a multitude of other harms, such as tobacco and alcohol use, workplace hazards, accidents, and illness (Murray, 1991). Despite this evidence, initial reports of crack babies prevailed in the public consciousness. Drug-using women were discouraged from seeking care by threats of incarceration as efforts to incarcerate drug-using mothers were just starting to gain momentum.
The differences between widespread public education campaigns to prevent prenatal tobacco and alcohol use among white middle class women, the consequences for (African American) male drug addicts, and the widespread punitive measures directed toward poor women of color reflects structurally racist institutional practices. Kimberle Crenshaw proposes intersectionality as a framework for addressing oppression that incorporates considerations of race, gender, and class. According to Crenshaw, social categories interact and exponentially shape the material conditions that result from racial discrimination and simultaneous gender and class oppression. This generates unique consequences for African American women. One the one hand, white middle class women are rarely tested, much less incarcerated, for using alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs while they are pregnant because they do not fit the stereotype of the black, poor, crack-using pregnant drug addict. On the other hand, men who use drugs, despite evidence that their drug use, drinking, smoking, and lifestyle choices can damage a fetus, escape guilt. Fathers have been excluded from the policies designed to protect babies despite research linking paternal drug use to fetal health outcomes. "Since at least the late 1980s ... studies have shown a clear link between paternal exposures to drugs, alcohol, smoking, environmental, and occupational toxins and fetal health problems" (Daniels, 1997). The narrative of prenatal harm was decontextualized from contradictory medical evidence, but also from normative conception and the responsibility of a male counterpart. Women in marginalized racial, class, and gender categories experienced unique consequences when their drug use resulted in charges like aggravated assault, administering and delivering drugs to a minor, manslaughter, and murder.
Discourses of the Welfare Queen and the Crack Mother deeply influenced notions of the "crack problem." Their destructive choices and failure to adhere to mainstream values and standards "legitimate[d] the downsizing and defunding of services for poor women and their children in the inner cities, who were also disproportionately women and children of color" (Murphy & Sales, 2001). African American women fell victim to the good mother/bad mother dichotomies that have defined them since early American literature as the antithesis of whiteness. The power, pattern, and consistency of larger than life icons, like the Crack Mother and those that came before her, subsumes and assimilates other representations into the existing iconography. "[T]he pregnant crack addict was the latest embodiment of the bad Black mother. The monstrous crack-smoking mother was added to the iconography of depraved Black maternity, alongside the Matriarch and the Welfare Queen" (Roberts, 157). The Crack Mother is hypersexual, promiscuous, and hopelessly dysfunctional like the Jezebel and Tragic Mulatto. While the Tragic Mulatto always fails at her goal to join white society, the Crack Mother threatens the mainstream by giving birth to children that drain society's resources. She is loquacious and headstrong like Sapphire. She is fiercely independent in a pathological way: aggressive like the Mammy and cantankerous like Aunt Jemima. Like the Matriarch, she is a single-mother (the Crack Mother is never represented alongside a crack father) responsible for the pathology of her children and hence, the African American community. Finally, the Crack Mother relies on and abuses social support services like the Welfare Queen. The Crack Mother is a gestalt of sorts, formed from disparate characters from fiction and worse case scenarios from life.
Film Representations of Crack Mothers
Crenshaw uses the term intersectionality to frame the interaction of race and gender in the context of violence against women. I propose another element of intersectionality: addiction. I suggested above that race, class, and gender interact and uniquely situate the Crack Mother as the target of punitive policies. Addiction magnifies the collateral consequences of marginalization and oppression for women. These interactions are present in characterizations of Crack Mothers in landmark films from the 1990s and 2000 that permanently secured the Crack Mother in the mainstream consciousness.
In the early 1990s, a series of new wave street movies introduced characters like the Crack Mother to the mainstream cinema as concepts of American life (Bogle, 329). Many of the characters revamped an old set of stereotypical responses for a new generation. Boyz n da Hood, New Jack City, and Jungle Fever, all released in 1991, introduced variations of African American drug using women that were the foundation of the crack mother caricature.
In Boyz n da Hood (1991), directed by John Singleton, the female drug user is labeled as a dopehead. Boyd states, "while the film idealized Furious [the father of the main character] and stressed the role of African American fathers, it rarely drew its women with much insight or sympathy.... Tough and foul-mouthed, [Tyra Ferrell's character], like the neighbor on the block, [Sheryl] who lets her little girl wander out into the street, is indicted as an insensitive, irresponsible mother.... Singleton does not seem willing to consider the pressures with which these women live" (Boyd, 344). The young men in the film categorize women as bitches, whores, and dopeheads and warn each other about the risks of any kind of sex with dopeheads. Minutes later, Tre, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. encounters Sheryl, the neighborhood dopehead played by Ceal. Sheryl has two lines, which she repeats almost mechanically: "You got some blow? Got some rock?" When Tre returns her child from the street, she responds with those two lines and offers him oral sex. Later, she approaches Doughboy, played by Ice Cube, as he philosophizes about the conditions that led to his brothers' murder. She interrupts his grief with the statement: "Hey Doughboy. You got some blow, got some rock?" Instead of selling to her, which he had just done with a man at the beginning of the scene, Doughboy curses her and sends her away, yelling, "Get the fuck out of here. And keep them damn babies out of the street." Doughboy's statement appears to be his attempt to change the overall situation in the community by pushing her to become a responsible mother. It marks an ethical turning point for Doughboy, but fails to make Sheryl an agent, capable of changing herself. Singleton's dopehead is lower than low, unworthy of sex, respect, or humanity.
Chris Rock's performance as Pookie in New Jack City (1991) established the image of the quintessential "crackhead" dressed in rags, skinny with ashen skin color and white lips, high strung, and unpredictable. This became the visual standard for African American crack addict characters. Crack using woman characters in New Jack City, like the other women in the film, function as props for the men's stories. In one scene, Pookie attacks a companion, played by Laverne Hart, when she refuses to have sex with him. She declares, "I was prom queen of King High" and even wears a crinoline as if she is still dressed for the prom. He attacks her physically and verbally, calling her a "prom fiend." When people intervene, Pookie begs for help and his testimony about the power of crack humanizes him. The event leads Pookie to treatment, but the beaten companion just disappears. A black woman in treatment, played by Tina Lifford, testifies that her drug use caused her child to be born blind and labels herself as a junkie, stating, "I'll be a junkie the rest of my life" (1991). The statement foreshadows Pookie's eventual relapse; however, it also attaches the label "addict" as a permanent part of this woman's identity. This woman is a prop in the sense that she foreshadows Pookie's eventual relapse. One woman is comic relief with her sassiness making her a target of Chris Rock's sarcastic wrath. The other is a permanent addict who wrought destruction on her child, a crack baby.
In Jungle Fever, released in 1991, director Spike Lee addresses the drug "epidemic." The film features breakthrough performances by Samuel Jackson and Halle Berry as crack addicts, Gator and Vivian. The differences between their performances illustrate how the crack mother caricature conforms to traditional characterizations of black women. Samuel Jackson, who was detoxifying from his own crack cocaine addiction during filming, stated in an interview that his goal was to portray how crack use affects relationships (2002). Halle Berry's goal was to position herself as a serious actor by "being as much like a crack whore as I possibly could without toking on the pipe (2007)." She didn't bathe for a month and scrubbed egg in her hair to convince Spike Lee to give her the role. Spike Lee did not want to cast Berry for the role because of her good looks. He recalls, "I said, 'Halle, I can't believe you as a two dollar crack whore.' She said, 'Spike, believe me.' She came to the set the first day; I didn't recognize her" (Washington, 2004). To portray a recognizable and believable version of an addict Berry conforms to the crack user stereotype with a disheveled and unclean physical appearance intended to generate disgust from Spike Lee, the other characters, and audiences. Berry also brings the Sapphire stereotype to the forefront in her performance as Vivian. She is emasculating when verbally and physically assaulting Gator; lascivious when she prostitutes for drugs and indiscriminately offers oral sex; manipulative when she sizes up everyone she meets; and out of control when she aimlessly spews obscenities.
Vivian's character is a prop that illustrates the devastation of Gator's addiction. She is an easily identifiable picture of crack addiction (dirty, nervous, ungroomed, agitated, and violent) that provides insight into Gator's problem rather than revealing her own experience. Through his family, the audience gets a sense of who Gator was before he started using drugs; Vivian is isolated from any references to family, culture, or background. She can only ever be what audiences see now: a crack whore. In one scene, the contrast between Gator and Vivian is impossible to ignore. He is lethargic from the loss of his relationship with his brother, and Vivian is almost animalistic as she hits and pushes him to smoke crack, ultimately putting the pipe in his mouth to make him smoke. Vivian's speech and actions further illustrate her solitary interest in using drugs and total disregard for others. In another scene, as Flipper, Gator's brother played by Wesley Snipes, walks his daughter to school, Vivian approaches him, half dressed in a bra and a denim jacket, and offers oral sex for three dollars. Flipper roughly pushes her away and drags to daughter away as he threatens her with severe consequences if she ever uses drugs. Flipper transfers Vivian's behavior onto his child, who it seems is subject to becoming a crack whore. In the final scene, another young woman approaches Flipper and offers him oral sex for less money. Samuel Freedman states, "So central did the issue of drugs become to 'Jungle Fever' that Mr. Lee chose to end the film with Flipper's wordless cry of anguish when, as he walks his daughter to school, and an addict offers to perform oral sex for $2" (Freedman, 1991). It appears that through Flipper's cry of anguish, Spike Lee is urging the black community to address addiction by embracing it, rather than pushing it away. However, the female addict is an "it," a flat caricature, rather than a "she," a character with depth and context. The audience has a relationship with Gator, but Vivian is simply a fixture, a prop, and plot device.
Each of these films addresses racial dynamics relative to impact of drugs and violence and war-on-drugs policies on black communities. However, they fail to illustrate plight of women, especially those directly affected by the war-on-drugs. Regarding black films from the 1990s, Bogle states, "Women were rarely developed characters, sometimes treated like little more than disposal items" (Bogle, 347). Audiences identify and empathize with the male characters, whereas the women are marginal to the experiences and downfalls of the men. Characterizations of drug users simply conformed to existing stereotypes and reinforced the contemporary political discourses about African American motherhood, setting the stage for the criminalization of African American drug user mothers in the early 2000s.
By the early 2000s, the recovery film genre began to incorporate the experiences of women in films like When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) and 28 Days (2000). Other films broadened the depiction of African American crack users by considering their lives before and/or after drugs. Yet, the subtext remained faithful to the Crack Mother stereotype in the sense that black women never seemed to truly get better or overcome their drug problems.
Halle Berry portrayed crack mother, Kaila Richards in Losing Isaiah (1995), a film that asks the question "What makes a good mother?" by situating Kaila, a poor, single, illiterate, underemployed, former crack cocaine addict in opposition to the Lewins, upper middle class, married, educated, professionals. Three years after she leaves her baby in a trashcan to use drugs, Kaila regains custody of her child. In the first half of the film, she presents the characteristic disheveled appearance, unpredictability, and lasciviousness of the Crack Mother, but then transforms into a well-kempt woman, tastefully dressed with pearls. Kaila visually fits the Crack Mother stereotype even after she has abstained from drugs for several years. She changes her appearance and rents an appointment only with the help of her attorney and the motivation to win the case. In the end, despite her abstinence from drugs and change in appearance, Kaila cannot take care of Isaiah without the help of the Lewins. Berry's performance earned her critical acclaim and positioned her as a serious actor only because it adhered to the audiences' expectations of the Crack Mother character.
The Crack Mother character in Robert Townsend's Holiday Heart (2000) is also ultimately incapable of taking care of her child. Wanda, played by Alfre Woodward, meets Holiday, played by Ving Rhames, when he intervenes in her domestic dispute with a boyfriend over drugs. Holiday, a gay performer and cross dresser, helps Wanda get on her feet by taking her to church, showing her how to apply make-up, helping her get a job, and encouraging her to write. Despite his help, Wanda eventually relapses. She abandons her daughter and disappears into the drug world. Unlike the Crack Mother stereotype, Wanda continues to call and visit her daughter. Her behavior illustrates the contradictory dilemma experienced by women torn between their responsibilities for their children and family members and addictions that pull them away from family. A scene in which Wanda leaves a tattered card for her daughter as she also takes valuables from the house illustrates this dilemma. Wanda's disappointment and embarrassment after her child sees her in the last stages of addiction motivates her to seek help. The crack mother stereotype postulates a loss of mothering skills and claims that drug using mothers lack concern for their children. The stereotype fails to account for the moral and psychological dilemmas addicted mothers experience when they are unable to care for their children or when they lose custody of their children. Kandall notes, "Motherhood offered one opportunity for enlisting female addicts into treatment. Addicted mothers expressed remorse, fear, and guilt regarding their children and drug use" (225). Rather than providing women with the support and resources they need to change their circumstances, policies threaten them with incarceration and women respond to by simply avoiding the system. Wanda's decision to change warrants the availability of resources, such as treatment facilities that accept women and provide gender-specific interventions.
Eventually, a drug dealer kills Wanda as she tries to save her daughter's Christmas present. This emblematic event relies on the stereotypes of parental ineptitude and the harsh inhumanity of the crackworld. Woodard's portrayal of Wanda provides depth that extends beyond the stereotype, but ultimately, she is never able to be the mother she wanted to be. She is trapped in the permanence of addiction.
Although they have shortcomings, portrayals of Kaila and Wanda differ from previous films because they show addiction and recovery as processes. The films attempt to contextualize the lives and choices of the women, rather than reducing them to repetitive two-line statements or cliched behaviors. The cinematic crack epidemic was phasing out by the early 2000s and audiences, tired of the Crack Mother caricature, wanted complex characterizations of African American women (Bogle, 372).
In the mid 2000s, the Tyler Perry enterprise exhumed the old Crack Mother stereotype in the movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005). Tyler Perry's crack mother is an amalgamation of shortcuts and characterizations from historical and contemporary films and popular culture. In Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Debrah, played by Tamara Taylor, is piteous in a manner reminiscent of the tragic mulatto. Her passiveness is disconcerting, especially when she gently reproves her friend for judging her or begs her husband, Brian, played by Tyler Perry, for help. Despite her silence and passiveness, she victimizes her husband and children. She tempts her husband with sex for a place to stay. She returns home not to see her children, but to get food and money. Her behavior prompts Brian to prohibit their daughter Tiffany, played by Tiffany Evans; from singing in the church, for fear that she too will start using drugs. It is unclear how and why Debrah began using drugs in the first place. It is apparent that Debrah has transformed from a respectable and talented women to a drug addict, who "abandons" her children to live in the streets. Other characters are elusive about the circumstances that led to Debrah's drug use. Madea, played by Tyler Perry, says life happened to Debrah. Her friend suggests that singing led her to drugs. In the end, Debrah seeks help when Tiffany invites her to church to hear her sing; although she initially tells her daughter she had nothing to wear to church. Debrah seems to only have a voice when she is singing, belting out at the opportune time, "I know I can't do this by myself. I surrender" (2005). However, after she sings and reconciles with her family, she becomes silent again and appears to choke at times with the desire to speak.
Debrah's drug of choice is also ambiguous. Other characters refer to drugs as "that stuff," which commonly refers to crack cocaine. Her husband calls her as a junkie. She attends a rehabilitation center, where she undoes the stereotypical detoxification with sweats and shakes. She seems more Lady Sings the Blues than New Jack City. She appears to be depressed and lethargic, symptoms more characteristic of narcotics use. Critics, like Charles Blow (2010), who denigrates Perry for regenerating the crack addict stereotype, subsume to the iconography of the Crack Mother when they assume that Perry's characters are crack addicts, despite the ambiguity in his films. They also fail to see that Perry's use of stock caricatures perform ideological work that is broader than the Crack Mother mythology. Perry's women characters fall into three categories: righteous church (grand) mother, successful potential wife, and bad mother. In most Tyler Perry productions, bad mothers place her children into a precarious situation. Drugs and men are not the necessarily the cause of the bad mothers' behaviors; their selfishness and immorality causes such behavior. Perry proposes that only God can change the women and save the community from their immorality. In other words, Perry's women are incapable mothers not because of drugs or racism, but because of moral failing. Tyler Perry has not revived the Crack Mother; he brings together the historical caricatures of African American women to introduce a new icon: the Bad Mother. The Bad Mother has replaced the Crack Mother as the symbol of African American pathology, a time when the mainstream is concerned with prescription and designer drugs, traditionally associated with white, middle class communities. The new drug dealers are doctors and chemistry students. In the absence of looming social devastation at the hands of black drug users and dealers, the system must adjust to maintain the status quo of black inferiority. Tyler Perry's Bad Mother does that work.
The Crack Mother simply illustrates the perpetuation of mythologies about African Americans that resist alternate stories. Movies that present thoughtful representations of the lived experiences of white men (Clean and Sober, Drunks) and white women (28 Days, When a Man Loves a Woman), who overcame addiction, have changed popular perceptions about addiction. Yet, the stories of African American women in recovery are absent from the genre. The perspectives of African American female former drug users are absent from the mainstream discourse. Could the stories of African American former drug users and their experiences put an end to punitive drug policies that target them? Alfre Woodard portrays a recovering drug addict in Passion Fish (1992), directed by John Sayle. In his analysis, Bogle says, "When it is revealed that the black woman is a former drug addict (whose young daughter has been in the custody of Chantelle's rigid father in Chicago), we also ask: why couldn't she have had another problem, besides the old drug-addict routine? (It's almost enough to drive you to drink!)" (Bogle, 372). Despite its shortcomings, this was one of the only portrayals of a former African American drug user as a human being capable of contributing to society in a meaningful way. She is not grotesque, sassy, lascivious, foul-mouthed, violent, or manipulative; she is a nurse, who lives and helps others. Bogle's failure to recognize the uniqueness and value of the representation of an African American woman in recovery reflects the general lack of familiarity with their experiences. It also suggests that the iconography of African American dysfunction is more powerful than intermittent alternative representations.
The increased visibility of African Americans in the mainstream (from African American academy award winners to an African American president) has not changed mainstream perceptions of people and cultures of African Americans, LGBTQ, Latinos, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups. Suzanna Walters states, "there are also moments when the visibility appears as a smokescreen for continued oppression and discrimination, when it does appear as simply window dressing and eye candy" (26). Despite breakthroughs in the recognition and success of African Americans, portrayals continue to perpetuate the stereotypes of the past. Ultimately, Walters contends, "To be seen, therefore, is not necessarily to be known" (12). Visibility and invisibility does more than construct inaccurate assessments of African American women; it does ideological work. In essence, representations are conversations that rely on the normalcy and visibility of whiteness, reflecting institutionalized discourse that is perpetuated cumulatively by science and medicine, politics, policy, and media. Discourse that positions whiteness as normal also perpetuates its invisibility. With this comes an unconscious expectation of whiteness, whose perspectives, features, and so forth are articulated in relation to distortions of the Other. The same dynamics Morrison claims led to the establishment of Africanisms in early American literature (1993) inundate our culture through repetitive messages that take many forms. What motivates the relentless perpetuation of the stereotype? The issue is not simply the exclusion of variations of experience or that researchers claim they cannot see (or find) those diverse experiences. Alternative representations that challenge the stereotypes need to remain invisible to sustain the model. As long as stereotypes remain visible, whiteness is invisible and the American model of normality is sustained.
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TRACY R CARPENTER-INDEPENDENT RESEARCHER
Tracy Carpenter has a Ph.D. in Comparative Studies from the Ohio State University with specializations in African and African American studies, qualitative research methods and ethics, and critical theory. Her research interests include the criminalization of women substance abusers, the participation of women of color in twelve-step programs, and the role of culture in healing trauma and drug addiction. Her article in this journal draws from ethnographic research she conducted with African American women members of Narcotics Anonymous.
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|Author:||Carpenter, Tracy R.|
|Publication:||The Western Journal of Black Studies|
|Article Type:||Movie review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2012|
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