An MLK Day Reflection: On Black Mamas, or, The Scapegoat is Never the Real Problem:
By Darnell L. Moore, Head of Strategy and Programs for Breakthrough U.S.
In 1976, the year I was born, former actor and governor Ronald Reagan sought to secure the Republican Party’s candidacy for presidency in a challenge against incumbent President Gerald Ford. He surfed on a wave energized by populism, and used stereotypes and fear-inducing rhetoric to connect to “the people.”
During one of his rants, following reports first published by the Chicago Tribune, Reagan chastised Linda Taylor, the infamous Black “welfare queen” from Chicago who, according to him, “used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare” and whose “tax-free cash income alone [had] been running $150,000 a year.”
There was no need to feign ignorance. The public understood what Reagan had implied. He had cast women of color, Black women, in particular, as problems. In his mind, this caricature of a Black woman was imagined as a greedy and idle leech, who zapped the state of its resources. Even as a child, I understood what Reagan had inferred. When my peers and I wanted to crush another young person’s spirit and win the most laughs during a verbal joust we’d spit off some insult about someone else’s mama. Welfare queen was just one of the slurs we used. Most of our mamas were Black. And some of our Black mamas, as we used to say, were “on welfare.” My peers and I had ingested, and spewed, the anti-Black misogyny that shaped the public conversation. “Welfare queen” would be a metonym for women like our mamas forevermore.
My Black mother dropped out of school to raise me. She was 16 and unmarried when I was born. She had yet to receive her diploma. She worked low-paying, physically demanding jobs. She relied on government assistance to feed our family and to ensure our healthcare needs were met.
I sometimes visited the municipal welfare office with her. The office was bare, unspectacular, and busy. It was filled with working poor Black, Latinx and white residents from Camden County, NJ. Once while traveling with my mom to visit a caseworker I watched as she walked into a glass door. I gasped. She must have been so focused on getting the help that she needed, or so distracted by the fact that she needed help, that she didn’t see the door in front of her. She was hurt, holding one hand over a bulging knot on her head, but she made her way to her appointment.
My mom’s accident was metaphorical. How many Black women end up getting hurt on their quests to help their families and communities? How many Black women end up bumping into doors that are closed despite them being wide open for so many? And how many Black women keep moving, keep pushing, even after suffering blows? Glass doors, like glass ceilings, injure. But my mother survived despite the president-to-be’s not-so-hidden contempt for poor and working poor, Black single mothers like her.
In 1983, when my Black mama was in her early 20s, then President Reagan reluctantly signed a law commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a legal public holiday. Reagan officially observed Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but he didn’t think King deserved to be commemorated by way of a national holiday, however. This was, of course, the original MAGA crusader whose presidential campaign slogan was “Lets Make America Great Again.” This was, of course, the elected official who had originally opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was a political leader who opposed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act and affirmative action and policies that sought to create more equitable housing conditions within Black neighborhoods, which, by the way, he once referred to as “jungles.” The leader who called a Black woman “welfare queen.”
When I was a young person, I didn’t know as much about Reagan’s anti-Black racism (and animosity towards queer people and his stigmatization of HIV/AIDS; or his xenophobic responses to Mexican and Mexican American people; or his neoliberal desire to decrease government services; or his staunch opposition to women’s reproductive rights). But I was an inquisitive and suspicious Black child coming of age in a country that did its best throughout its history to give Black (and other non-white people) solid reasons to lack trust in American idealism. I sensed, with the type of sense that allowed me to know a lie when it was spoken, that Reagan had no more love for King and other Black people than he had for our mamas.
Looking back, the early commemorations of MLK day were my first lessons on discernment: We should always question and unpack the rhetoric and actions of this nation’s political leaders, especially its presidents. At the center of the most populist, political talk are people who are made out as problems, the scapegoats. Those scapegoats — whether they are Black mamas, Mexican rapists/gang bangers/drug dealers, or shithole countries — are invented distractions meant to take the public’s focus off of the real problems. And those scapegoats are almost always persons and groups who exist, and survive, on the edges of the margins — borders that are almost always built and secured by the state.
The edges of the margins, I know now, are where our political analyses and coalitional work should begin, and not with the lies perpetuated by those who seek to secure (and benefit from) power. My Black mama, Reagan’s imagined welfare queen, her Black sisters and brothers, her Black mama and papa, people who lived and loved in a Black American city that was pitied as one of the nation’s most poverty and crime stricken cities, were never the problem. In fact, they are the reasons I am here: alive, aware, and free.
What will you do, and how might you work, to upset the status quo, to debunk propaganda, and to bring about transformative justice? How will you respond to our individual and collective need to be honest, because honesty is a sign of love, especially as we bear witness as undeniable truths about the state of things are fashioned into lies and lies are propagated as global truths every day — as is the American way? What will you do bring about material freedom, equity, safety, and, ultimately, radically loving and beloved community during a moment that is but a remix of white populist, nationalist political deception that masquerades as patriotism?
Author note: This reflection was originally presented as a portion of a longer keynote speech given at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration at the College of Wooster on January 21, 2019.