Politics

Kamala Harris Isn’t Americans’ ‘Momala.’ She’s Our Vice President.

On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris appeared on “The Drew Barrymore Show,” and in a lighthearted moment, explained — as she did during the last presidential election cycle — that in her blended family, her stepchildren affectionately call her Momala.

Barrymore responded that we all need “a tremendous hug” right now and told Harris, “We need you to be Momala of the country.”

I don’t think Barrymore intended any harm, quite the opposite, and the vice president was magnanimous, taking the comment in stride and with good cheer. The studio audience applauded.

But even gentle and oblivious stereotyping can be harmful, and it’s important that we explore why this comment, which may seem innocuous to some, is offensive to others.

Black women and girls spend their entire lives in flight from a society insistent on de-individualizing and dehumanizing them, insistent on forcing them to fit broad generalizations.

There’s the Sapphire caricature from “Amos ’n’ Andy,” the emasculating shrew who is rude, meanspirited and prone to fits of rage. There’s the Jezebel, ruled by a lascivious spirit and lacking a moral compass or self-control. There’s the welfare queen — a stereotype popularized during Ronald Reagan’s 1976 presidential campaign — rooted in the toxic combination of promiscuity and work avoidance. And of course, there’s the idea of the angry Black woman, a stereotype that often overlaps and amplifies others.

But in this case, the stereotype at play is that of the mammy — the caretaker, the bosom in which all can rest, the apron on which we have a right to hang.

In the American psyche, it’s the Miss Millie story line from Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” about someone so blinded by a conception of her own virtue that it doesn’t register when she condescends.

When Miss Millie, the mayor’s wife, encounters Sofia and sees the care that she has taken of her children — and the fancy car in which Sofia drives and the wristwatch she wears — Miss Millie not only wants that care for herself, but she also seeks to reduce Sofia. She immediately asks Sofia to be her maid. She fully believes that it is her right and that her request, politely spoken, must be honored.

The way that Harris and her family express love and connection is theirs, even when Harris shares it. It remains part of her private life, not her professional and political obligations. She deserves separation between the two, and we ought to respect that boundary.

That she would be called upon to comfort and nurture the country, rather than dutifully represent it, is demeaning and holds Black women captive to historical mythologies. Our country may indeed need moral guidance and collective counsel, but Black women are not obligated to provide it.

In elections, Black women are frequently heralded by liberals as the saviors of democracy because of their high rate of voting for Democratic candidates. Here, even unwittingly, Barrymore isn’t far from suggesting that Black women — at least this Black woman, arguably the most powerful in the world — should not only save the country but also nurse it.

It’s an illustration of the nanny-fication of Black women that casts them as racialized human security blankets — forgiving, tranquil and even magical.

With this stereotype, Black women are viewed as possessing a preternatural capacity to soothe, to provide a safe harbor for others even though they find no safe harbor for themselves. As the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality reported in 2019, its researchers found in a 2017 study that “adults believe Black girls ages 5-19 need less nurturing, protection, support and comfort than white girls of the same age.”

In this, there’s an expectation of selflessness that erases the very possibility of a private self, held apart, with wants, needs and desires of its own.

Barrymore seemed to think that asking Harris to be the country’s Momala was a form of praise, as honoring the high regard in which she holds her. But she did so with a historical blindness that America often demonstrates when talking about Black people.

It is the contradiction of elevating while reducing.

As James Baldwin wrote in “Notes of a Native Son”: “Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle.”

In an attempt to convey intimacy in her conversation with the vice president, Barrymore allowed informality to veer into disrespect.

The country doesn’t need and shouldn’t ask Vice President Harris to be its mama or its mammy. The country needs her to continue to advance the agenda of the administration in which she serves — and for which Americans voted — like every white man before her.

And America needs to grow up and be accountable for its own actions and whatever repercussions flow from them. Comforting the country in this moment of crisis isn’t Black women’s burden.

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