Lessons From Numinous Black Women

As our nation mourns the deaths of Coretta Scott King and Rosa Parks, I've been struck anew by the positive portrayal of older black women in pop culture. The Oracle in the Matrix. Gloria Dump in Winn-Dixie. Madame Zeroni in Holes. Even Oprah comes to mind. Basically, when an older black woman enters a story, we're cued to know that she will help the young hero achieve his or her quest.

You could argue that this "Mammy" stereotype hearkens back to the days of slavery. But going beyond a simple "Hollywood is racist" explanation, I have two theories about why pop culture is open to the voices of older African-American women. First, it's easy to listen to their insights because they have suffered and survived many trials in their own journeys. As David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum, puts it:
The horrors of Jim Crow are not so easily ignored. The children of Jim Crow walk among us, and they have stories to tell. They remember Emmitt Till, murdered in 1955, for whistling at a white woman. Long before the tragic bombings of September 11, 2001, blacks that lived under Jim Crow were acquainted with terrorism. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a black church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed. Twenty-three people were hurt, and four girls were killed. The blacks who grew up during the Jim Crow period can tell you about this bombing -- and many others. Blacks who dared protest the indignities of Jim Crow were threatened, and when the threats did not work, subjected to violence, including bombings. The children of Jim Crow can talk about the Scottsboro boys, the Tuskegee Experiment, lynchings, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, and they have stories about the daily indignities that befell blacks who lived in towns where they were not respected or wanted.
Second, pop culture (a.k.a. youth culture) is hungering for maternal hospitality. Teens long for someone to pour them lemonade, serve cookies fresh from the oven, and just plain be with them. Even if they don't realize it themselves, they need time with older people who aren't in too much of a hurry to welcome them; parents and grandparents who can provide the incomparable refreshment and rest of good company.

This open window provides an opportunity for middle-aged and white-haired people of all races who long to connect with young people — including teachers and librarians (and authors) who feel out of it when it comes to pop culture. Our response is two-fold. First, we need to tell them our own stories of survival and suffering. And second, we must carve out time to sit on the porch of our lives with an empty rocking chair or two beside us. Fill a plate with the product of an ancient comfort recipe innovated once upon a time. Listen. Laugh at their jokes. Basically, exude an aura of acceptance when we welcome teens into schools, libraries, or even the pages of a book.

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