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. This sage even has the right to talk about God — one of the few archetypes in pop culture still able to make the name of Jesus sound sweet in our culture's ear.

America, of course, has major issues with race, and 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 women who aren't in too much of a hurry to welcome them; mothers and grandmothers who can provide the incomparable refreshment and rest of good company.

This open window provides an opportunity for middle-aged and white-haired women of all races who long to connect with teens. 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, exuding an aura of hospitality and acceptance. Pour some hot tea. Fill a plate with the results of an ancient comfort recipe innovated once upon a time. Listen. Laugh at their jokes.

The church, also, would be wise to incorporate these two "strategies" into youth ministry instead of trying to compete with the glitz, buzz, and fast pace of pop culture. Let's share stories of suffering and offer God's hen-like hospitality in circles of inter-generational community where, as the Rolling Stones put it several decades ago, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try some time, you might find, you get what you need."


Anonymous said...

I love every single one of your posts! Thank you for your encouragement and incredible insight!

~Mark said...

I've come by way of your addition to the Crosswalk bloggers and this post is truly the most stimulating one I've read in awhile! Thank you!

Mitali Perkins said...

Leslie? Is this my friend Leslie W.?

And Mark, thanks so much for your kind words. I wasn't sure how Crosswalk readers would react to my posts as they may not be traditional evangelical fare, but I've decided to take a risk and see what God does. Your comment is such an encouragement to me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mitali,
No, I am actually Leslie H. I heard about Ambassador Families from my acquaintance Nancy Worth here is Oak Park/River Forest, IL.

No, you might not be the "regular" evangelical fare, but you are what we all need to hear! We can't hide in our evangelical closets till Jesus comes back! Thank you for encouraging me and articulating for me many of the things that I feel and see, but can't explain to friends. Now I just parrot you!