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Black motherhood: image vs. reality

Cynthia Gibson and Lisa Fitch | 5/4/2011, 5 p.m.

You may write me down in history
with your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
-- "Still I Rise," a poem by Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou's words are a timeless mantra for African American motherhood--particularly single motherhood--which has so often been subjected to controversy and political fodder.

It was 45 years ago that Patrick Daniel Moynihan, who was at the time assistant labor secretary in the Johnson administration, wrote the contentious "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," also known as the Moynihan Report.

In the report, he concluded that "there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future; that community asks for and gets chaos.

"Crime, violence, unrest, disorder . . . are not only to be expected, they are very near to inevitable."
These were fighting words. Civil rights groups such as the NAACP, CORE and leaders in the African American community spoke out against what they deemed a naive "blame the victim" mentality, as well as an insult to Blacks in general and single mothers in particular.

Almost 20 years later, Ronald Reagan, during his 1976 presidential campaign, recounted the story of a so-called "welfare queen" from Chicago's South Side who was arrested for welfare fraud: "She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran's benefits on four non-existing, deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, is getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free, cash income is over $150,000."

Although Reagan never named names, studies show that the term "welfare queen" carries gender and racial connotations and is a stigmatizing label most often placed on single Black mothers.
Although the perception of the "welfare queen" and other negative stereotypes still lingers among some, today's image of the African American mother--both married and single--varies along a much broader spectrum. Black women with children have options that the previous generation never dreamed of having.

Cynthia McClain-Hill, is a proud mother of two adult children--one a professional athlete and the other a senior in college. She is among the second generation of women who sought to have both a thriving career and motherhood. A lawyer by trade, McClain is co-founder of Strategic Counsel, a Los Angeles-based firm specializing in strategic public policy, and is a former president of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

McClain said that pressure of motherhood in the workplace has decreased as women have learned to better define success. "Baby boomers felt pressure to prove that they could be counted upon at work, notwithstanding families and other outside responsibilities. As a result, they tried to downplay or hide the difficult conflicts that were created by simultaneously trying to excel in both roles," she said.