In Terry McMillan's first novel, Mama, Mildred's husband is holding fiercely to his notion of being the "man of the house" within the nuclear family:
Crook...found his thick brown leather belt.... Then he made her drop
her coat next to it, then her cream knit dress, and then her girdle. When
all she had on was her brassiere and panties, he shoved her into the
bedroom where she crawled to a corner of the bed. Crook kicked the
door shut and the kids cracked theirs. Then they heard their mama
screaming and their daddy hollering and the whap of the belt as he
"Didn't I tell you you was getting too grown?" Whap. "Don't you
know your place yet girl?" Whap. (7-8)
I juxtapose this disturbing scenario with the following from Jean Bethke Elshtain's Power Trips and Other Journeys in which she writes of society's need for the re-instatement of conventional nuclear family values:
Familial authority...is...part of the constitutive background required
for the survival and flourishing of democracy. Family relations could
not exist without family authority, and these relations remain the best
way we know anything about to create human beings with a developed
capacity to give ethical allegiance to the background presumptions
and principles of democratic society. (54)
This is not from a Pat Roberson supporter. Elshtain, who explicitly identifies herself as a feminist (xiii), makes a case for "the family"--a specific household arrangement of mother, father, and children. She is talking about traditional, mainstream family values--firm, unchanging entities--as the means to secure democracy. Ironically, her stance puts her in the camp of the socially conservative right, those who cheered George Bush when he maintained that we need a nation closer to The Waltons, who applauded Dan Quayle's condemnation of Murphy Brown as a single parent, and who want the Legal Defense Fund abolished because it helps poor women get divorces.
McMillan, however, resists following the script written by mainstream American discourse that imposes the cultural ideals of White patriarchal domesticity across the borders of race, class, ethnicity, and sexual preference. In her first three novels, Mama (1987), Disappearing Acts (1989), and Waiting to Exhale (1992), this hegemonic discourse is reconfigured, and her families look nothing like the Waltons. Despite Bush's endorsement, the Waltons represent a damaging American myth, one that idealizes the patriarchal family as the necessary configuration for emotional security and psychological health, the sine qua non for a smoothly functioning, moral democracy. As this myth denies racial, ethnic, and class diversity, it encourages debilitating feelings of guilt, betrayal, and rage, since both minority and mainstream American families often cannot or refuse to conform to the myth's prescriptive ideological values.
The monolithic family values the Waltons represented in the 1970s were reinscribed in the 1980s by the Cosbys, another idealized, intact family with professional parents whose first priority was always their well-dressed, Waltonized children. McMillan's polemical novels reject the dominant patriarchal family values reinforced by the Waltons and the Cosbys and propounded by the Christian right. However, such values are an historical arrangement, a construct that is neither "natural, biological, or `functional' in a timeless way" (Thorne 4), nor, indeed, descriptive of the majority of families in this country. McMillan's fiction promotes alternatives to the dominant by reconfiguring family arrangements--what they are and what they might become. Her work is important because it depicts Black family life outside the norms idealized by the White middle class. Furthermore, she refuses to define the Black family as a pathological unit that can do nothing more than sustain the conditions of its oppression. Her novels inscribe a counter-narrative to the popular oversimplification of Black family life.
In a clear feminist gesture, McMillan's contemporary African American families allocate to men a different space than the patriarchal center. In fact, her fiction appears to be affirming African American patterns of kinship groups based on mutual aid and community participation. The women in her novels rediscover their own sustaining power in kinship bonds which have historically served African Americans well in surviving the physical and psychic atrocities of slavery, as well as the hardships of Reconstruction (Staples 194). In Mama, for example, a woman must rely on centuries old, "jack-of-all-trades" survival strategies as she struggles to raise five children. Then, in Disappearing Acts, a young woman with the apparent necessary ingredients for a happy family learns how these desiderata can be eroded by racism and sexism. Finally, in Waiting to Exhale, McMillan depicts four single women struggling to create a sense of kinship for themselves without husbands. Each …