Janelle Harris shares how her mother kept her in line during questionable times.
Finally, the “stuff so-and-so says” says mania has died down. Everybody and their cousin’s nephew had a video. Stuff Malaysian cooks say. Stuff tall kayakers say. Stuff Macy’s shoplifters say. My all-time, hands down favorite, though, was the one about what White girls say to Black girls. Back when I was a teenager who fooled around and thought a little too highly of myself, my mother knocked me down a peg or two by moving me from the city to Amish (and redneck) country in Pennsylvania, where I had the distinct experience of being one of seven—count ‘em, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—Black kids in a student body of more than 1,600. So that video was especially hilarious to me because I’ve been on the receiving end of just about all of those comments more than once during my Misadventures as Representative Black Girl.
The real hilarity behind those videos—even though they are wrought with stereotypical, borderline offensive potshots that put the subjects in the comedic crosshairs of their creators—is that there’s at least a little bit of truth behind them. But some of them went way over the top, and that includes one I watched about Black moms. It was one of the drier ones I’ve seen so I didn’t make it all the way through before I clicked it off, mainly because it depicted our mothers as belt-wielding and crass-talking. And it would have been completely forgettable, had it not been for #Blackmomscatchphrase, a trending topic on Twitter last week that basically saddled us with the same sweeping generalizations as the video did. Dang, I thought to myself, do Black mamas say anything that doesn’t involve threatening physical harm? ‘Cause word on the street is we can’t communicate with our children without making cutting remarks or breaking some poor child’s spirit (or worse).
I am a Black mom. And my mom—she’s a Black mom, too. And so was my Nana. And never not once did my mother address me with a three, five or twelve-letter slur (I’ll let you figure out what those are on your own). Sure, I got lectured about running in and out of the house and jumping on the furniture. And if I asked her to go to McDonald’s, she would whip right back and ask me “You got McDonald’s money?” That much rings true. But she didn’t spend the preponderance of her time devising new ways of saying she was going to kick my tail.
Matter of fact, Mommy didn’t do a lot of threatening at all. If it was going to go down, I knew just by seeing her go to the closet, pulling open the door and reaching for that dangblasted Popeye paddle. You know those little plyboard sets that have the ball dangling from a piece of elastic stapled to the back? You’re supposed to amuse yourself by hitting it back and forth. I somehow never learned my lesson that when the ball fell off—and oh, the ball was definitely going to fall off—my mama was going to tuck it away and use it against me in my less than shining moments of bad behavior. Foiled by my own toy.
Most of our parents believed in that kind of discipline, that used hands and sometimes belts and switches to get the point across that we had done wrong. We don’t do too much time outing as a people. But that’s not what I remember most about my mom or my grandmother who, bless her heart, never laid a hand on me, even when I’m sure I could’ve benefited from a little yoking up. And it’s certainly not what sticks out in my mind as my mother’s catch phrase. If anything, I remember her telling me it didn’t matter what I did on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, come rise and shine time, we were going to get up and go to church. That was the catch phrase in our house.
It’s enough to be Black and, more specifically, a Black woman with all of the stereotypes that hang over our head from that. We crack jokes, we share some laughs, we have collective memories that run across our culture about how we have been raised in general. But it doesn’t mean that’s all that our mamas are about. They did more than whoop us into shape and cuss us into acting right. They raised us into relatively productive, even successful members of society. It takes more than a belt and a snarky comment to do that.