Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Construction of the Crack Mother Icon

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Construction of the Crack Mother Icon

Article excerpt

Stereotypical representations of African American people and culture comprise a mythology of African Americanness that serves as a backdrop of mainstream consciousness. Repeated distortions and omissions in literary and cinematic portrayals of African Americans are a tradition that reifies notions of black pathology. Misrepresentation is not exclusive to entertainment. Grand narratives of addiction consist of social, legal, policy, and scientific elements that perpetuate racial ideology and related material conditions. This dynamic has occurred repeatedly over time, when images of black inhumanity, immorality, immaturity, hypersexuality and so forth were used to justify slavery, black codes, sterilization campaigns and Jim Crow laws, to name a few. Racial ideology is behind war-on-drugs policies that target African Americans. Legislators, like Joe Biden, admitted that media reports and popular culture influenced their support for discriminatory mandatory sentencing for crack cocaine offenses. Legal scholars have outlined the social, educational, and financial impact the widespread incarceration of African American men has had on the black community (Chin, 2010; Alexander, 2010).

The collateral consequences of war-on-drugs policies instituted during the Regan era continue to disproportionately affect African American communities. Although congress rescinded disparate crack sentencing legislation, the numbers of incarcerated women of color continues to escalate. This article explores the ideological processes behind widespread support for unequal punitive policies, focusing particularly on the Crack Mother as an icon rooted in a tradition of misrepresentation (and misrecognition) of African American women. By focusing on characterizations of Crack Mothers in film and discourse around the crack epidemic, I point out links between stereotypes, public policies, and punitive governance tactics that scapegoat African American women. I locate the Crack Mother icon within a genealogy of representations of African American women in literature, film, media, and politics that continues to perpetuate misinformation about African Americanness.

African American Icons

The term icon conveys the larger-than-life, beyond-truth nature of mythologies. The term accommodates multifaceted representations of African American women in literary and cinematic depictions and political and media portrayals. We often use the term icon to define images of larger-than-life figures [e.g. Malcolm (X), Martin (Luther King, Jr.), and Michael (Jordan)]; images of historical figures larger than humanity (e.g. Jesus Christ, the Madonna, King Arthur); images of mythological figures representing human attributes (e.g. Hades, Pan); and computer images of programs or complex sets of data (e.g. Microsoft Word, Skype). Icons are symbols that represent people, values, ideas, or functions, but they can never be that which they represent. Although we instantly recognize the symbols that represent Michael Jordan, Jesus Christ or Skype, the icon itself is empty and meaningless; it simply points to an idea or concept about a person or thing. I appropriate this term to describe the Crack Mother, an image anxiously repeated in our social consciousness, which has come to define everything that is wrong with women and African Americans. According to Wahneema Lubiano (1992), distorted images of people from marginalized groups function as shortcut representations in the sense that they are recognizable symbols that instantly reinforce existing assumptions about a group. Shortcut representations inform public opinions and reinforce social assumptions, which in turn lead to unequal social policies. There is always the risk the mythology will swallow any contradictory data, making it impossible to present a narrative that humanizes former and current women drug users. Nevertheless, I complete the article with a discussion of visibility as it relates to possibilities for changing perceptions of African American women in the social consciousness. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.