This week marks the end of an eralike the long-running ABC sitcom Blackish comes to one close. For eight hilarious and heartwarming seasons, millions of viewers and I have watched the Johnson family navigate the nuances and complexities of blackness in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Los Angeles. One character I will particularly miss is the family matriarch, Rubeline Eveline “Ruby” Johnson, played by national treasure that is Jenifer Lewis. A vivacious, church-going, bingo-winning paternal grandmother whose bravado often mimics that of a Baptist preacher, Ruby lived with her son Andrew and his family of seven for nearly the entirety of the show, and Through it all, we’ve seen her be an extra source of support, especially to her grandchildren, whom she has helped with everything from fashion choices to relationship issues and working out their moral codes.
I can’t name many TV shows where I’ve seen the shades of a black matriarch brought out so well. Cult classics like The golden girlsand Laverne and Shirley to the more recently acclaimed series Grace and Frankie and hacksas well as the not-so-acclaimed recent series And just like that…, it really feels like older white women are having a moment on screen. Black women in their 50s, 60s and beyond, on the other hand, are still overlooked or stereotyped in most Hollywood projects. Such a limited offering portrays an empty, one-dimensional view of the rich and colorful lives of older black women, and as someone who grew up in a strongly matriarchal family, I know that portrayal is inaccurate.
In my family, great-grandmother Surula was our Ruby. Although my great-grandmother and I never lived together, I was able to make countless memories with her over the first 25 years of my life, spending summers at her home nestled in the Missouri stand with her expert hands carefully running a hot comb press through my thick curls during our Saturday night ritual before church. Years later, she will proudly wear the Essence magazines I had been published in on his coffee table and hanging framed articles and photos of my historic Georgia high school basketball championship in his living room.
Although I knew her as a grandmother (I call my grandmother her daughter, Nana), I also knew her as a woman with a robust life apart from her nine children and her seemingly endless number. grandchildren and great-grandchildren. When she died in 2019 at the age of 93, the seams of her return service burst with members of the community sharing stories: her leadership roles in the church, her decades-long involvement in events jocks from the local high school, her vicious moves in boxing class (while faithfully sporting her ankle-length denim skirt like Pentecostal OG ladies do), and her famous Sock-It-To-Me bundt cake. I had the chance to know the multiple human dimensions of my grandmother, to see her in all her fullness.
Compare this kaleidoscopic reality to Hollywood’s hackneyed perceptions of the black matriarch, particularly the Mammy, one of Hollywood’s most racist tropes. Typically depicted as a tall, dark-skinned black woman with a motherly personality, this cartoon dates back to slavery in the antebellum South when black women worked for white slave households and cared for the family children. She devotes her entire existence to the domestic sphere and takes care of the family of the people who enslave her more than her own family. Actress Hattie McDaniel’s (notoriously) historic Oscar for her performance as Mammy in the 1939 film carried away by the wind seemed to lay the groundwork for this trope to persist in film and television.
Even today, in some forms of contemporary art, we still see a one-dimensional view of black matriarchy. Take Madea, the beloved character of entertainment mogul Tyler Perry. To be clear, I was a Madea long before blockbuster hits and Netflix deals, back when plays arrived on burned CDs sold at swap meets, in car trunks and at the hair salon. (Sorry, Tyler!) So I can save room for the character-specific portrayal of black femininity and motherhood (Madea is based out of Tyler’s mother and aunt, mind you), while acknowledging the limitations of its role as a beacon and port for loved ones in times of distress, especially when a pot of hot oatmeal is needed. Where are the storylines that show Madea independent of those who look to her for help, rescue, and healing? Where’s the movie about her and her best friend on a girls’ trip to Vegas? Madea’s version of dark matriarchy isn’t necessarily fake, but it certainly lacks the layers and complexities that make up a compelling, nuanced, and real person.
In Atlantic writer Hannah Giorgis’ 2021 cover story on the unwritten rules of black TV shows, black writer and producer Felicia D. Henderson and Giorgis discussed an issue that Henderson and his other black colleagues are tasked with producing in writers’ rooms: negotiated authenticity. “Darkness, sure, but only of a type acceptable to white showrunners, studio executives, and viewers,” Explain Giorgis. This is why the multifaceted depictions of black matriarchs like Ruby in BlackishAngela Bassett in MaternityAlfred Woodard in Juanitaand even Suga Momma in The proud family and the new Disney+ reboot has power. They challenge white and narrow imaginations and flesh out varied, shaded versions of Blackness across the spectrum. They nurture the idea that, like my own grandmother, older black women deserve a fully realized and self-determined life.
In a recent Blackish episode, Ruby spends some time with three of her five grandchildren, Jack, Diane, and Junior, as she prepares to move into her own home with their grandfather. “Watching you all grow up has been the greatest joy of my life,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade a second of it.”
“Neither do we,” says Junior.
With the show now coming to an end, we are left with another gaping hole in the portrayal of the black matriarchs. The erasure is two-fold: scant evidence of the bond many grandchildren share with their black grandmothers, and a narrow, incomplete view of what life for black women can be like after a certain age.
When Grandma rose to fame in 2019, I made sure to grab one of her famous Sock-It-To-Me cake pans from her kitchen cabinets. My sweetest dream is to cook her recipe in this skillet alongside my own lineage one day, showing them how to flour the inside like she showed me as I tell them all about who she was, what she did and the 25 years we shared together.
I wouldn’t trade a second of it either.
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