“Hi, Mom.” “Love you, Mom.”

It’s not unusual to see those words mouthed by male athletes caught by television cameras on the sidelines of games. In fact, it happens so often that it’s quite easy to see that many Black males–as demonstrated by celebrities from Shaquille O’Neal to Kanye West to Tyrese Gibson–have a special relationship with their mothers.

It is a relationship that has been shaped and is still being shaped by culture, tradition and society.
It is a relationship that extends back to Africa–where many revere the Black mother because of her capacity for giving life, and it continues to evolve today.

According to sociologist Bruce H. Wade, who has taught at Spelman College for 20 years, the relationship between Black men and their mothers is still a sacred one, but it is slowly changing as it is buffeted by societal forces.

“. . . it is changing because of so many problems, including the mother’s relationship with the father. If the relationship between the parents is strained, that causes a lot of stress in the family . . . ,” explained Wade, who added that the mother-son relationship is particularly impacted by the high percentage of African American children born into single-parent households, most of which are headed by mothers.

“You begin to see why the relationships take on extra special characteristics. Part of it is knowledge of who your parent is. It is interesting to me that even in the college environment, how many of the (students) don’t know their father’s occupation. They don’t have a real relationship with their father,” said Wade of the middle-class students he teaches.

The absence of a strong connection with their father sometimes forces young males to connect more with their mothers.

Wade pointed out that the mother’s personality will also play a role in shaping the relationship with her son.

“Some mothers might be seen as overbearing or sharp of tongue, and that may be because sometimes it takes a strong hand to raise kids, especially males,” said Wade.

Bennett College Sociologist Carla McLucas believes how a parent views herself will also play a role in shaping the relationship.

“Are you comfortable with yourself? Parenting is frightening, so it’s a matter of are you comfortable with yourself. Whether you are in a marital situation, committed relationship, how do you view children? Are you developing your child to be an independent adult or as someone you want to hold on to.”

McLucas also points out that the younger a mother has a child, and the closer she is to childhood, the more problems she is going have raising that youngster, because she is still developing a sense of self and boundaries, and may find it hard to instill them in a child.

While McLucas and Wade say there is still a high degree of reverence between Black sons and their mothers, they do note a disturbing shift that is causing growing concern.

Those who were born to teen mothers and were often raised by grandparents or those in situations where there were tensions between their young teen parents, seem somewhat angry and tend to be more disrespectful, said the Bennett College sociologist.

And then there is the increasing number of Black women caught up in the criminal justice system.
According to the Sentencing Project, more than 1 million women are under the supervision of the criminal justice system; and Black women represent 30 percent of those in state and federal prisons.

A significant percentage of women in prison were there for drug offenses (29 percent) or property offenses (30 percent).

The Sentencing Project also noted that two-thirds of women in state prison were responsible for the care of a minor child prior to their incarceration and 40 percent were single parents. While they were locked up, nine of 10 reported that the youngsters were living with a grandparent, other relative or friend.

Those parents whose children were placed in foster care as result of their incarceration face challenges involving termination of their parental rights.

The average time served in California’s prisons, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is two years. However, according to a report in the Justice Policy Journal by Charlene Wear Simmons and Emily Danker-Feldman, incarcerated parents, like all parents, have a limited time to comply with dependency court orders to reunify with their children in foster care. Under the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) of 1997, states must file petitions to terminate parental rights, when offspring have been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months; California also requires termination petitions, when a child under 3 years old has been in care for six months.

Legislation in the state has begun to address some of the challenges incarcerated moms face meeting their court-ordered obligations, but many women still end up estranged from their children.

All of these factors, combined with the other societal issues such as poverty and discrimination, are having an impact on Black mother-son relationships. Changing this, believes McLucas will require young people to begin to respect, not necessarily the person, but the position the person holds.