Saturday, December 17, 2022

When Big Mama Dies

A few months back, the movie Soul Food (1997) was in the queue on one of the premium cable movie channels, which meant that for a few weeks, it aired every other night. Because it is one of those bad Black movies that I will stop and watch whenever, I got to see different parts of it a few times. In one of my FB groups, someone else must have done the same, and he started a thread about all of the ways we had misjudged the eldest sister, Teri, portrayed in the film by Vanessa L. Williams.

His shot across the bow--how it was time to have an adult conversation about how Teri was constantly mistreated by her ungrateful family. He argued that her bitterness was justified, and basically that Cousin Faith was lucky that Teri was too smart to actually kill her or whup her ass when she had the chance. He listed various other transgressions, and we had a great discussion of the many ways that her family had taken advantage of her, especially Big Mama Joseph, who presided over the entire dysfunctional mess. I mean, think about how eff'd up it is for your Mama to allow the dude who two-timed you with your younger sister to marry into your family and then eat dinner every Sunday without the constant threat of food poisoning hanging over his head? And that same Mama lets everybody treat you like the Joseph Family Building and Loan, even though she has a stash of cash she's been stockpiling in the house for years?

Yep, it's true. Big Mama Jo was terrible, yet we all cried when she died because that's what we're supposed to do when the family matriarch passes away. We're supposed to forget that she enabled a lot of unhealthy shit because she also was a kind and loving Mother/Grandmother/Auntie/Big Sister who fed all of the neighborhood stray cats. We have watched this movie for years and I have never seen anyone argue that maybe Teri was right to want to sell the house to get some of her money back from her family of freeloaders who were never going to treat her any differently anyway, so why not just be that bitch and finally break free?

The next time you watch that movie, tell me that your eyes have finally opened to see what I saw years ago, but didn't dare speak it lest I be branded a hater. Because I always thought the Joseph family was trash and that the depiction of Teri was too shrill and bitter as if she was just an upper-class snob instead of tired of their broke asses. (Hence why I deem it a bad Black movie, one that is problematic on many levels while still entertaining and watchable.)

At some point, I had an epiphany about another beloved figure in popular culture...I'm not naming anybody just yet, nor will I offer a list of the ways that she was just as bad as the fictional late Big Mama Jo. I will simply suggest that maybe now that she's dead, folks should look more objectively at the terrible shit she enabled and how that might have impacted various members of her family. 

Having lived through the death of a beloved family matriarch myself (around the same time Soul Food was released), I can attest that it blows a gigantic hole in the heart of the family that never refills. My extended family hasn't gathered for a joyous holiday since her death; instead, we have come together for funerals. And at each one, we all sit around at the repast and recall how great things were when we were younger and how we need to get together more often under better circumstances, and then another year passes. Somebody else dies, I skip past their name in my address book, and life goes on. 

Some of us chose to center our lives around a different matriarch. That could be our own mother, and/or some other woman whose mother-like aura has that same magnetic power to draw everyone to her for comfort and refuge. And like the Big Mamas that came before her, she does the best she can to keep her family and the assorted strays together, in spite of the bullshit that goes on in the background. She is polite to the new girlfriend who has replaced the daughter-in-law. She welcomes that troubled grandson who only comes around to borrow money, unannounced and at inopportune times, which she sends to him even though she has promised to stop. She cares for the babies of all the single unwedded women because she knows how hard it is, and she doesn't judge them for continuing to make bad choices with the wrong men. She has co-signed bad loans, hidden unmentionable contraband in her home, listened to every sob story, cooked a lot of comfort food, and keeps on giving and loving for as long as the Good Lord allows.

I want to be clear that I am not poking fun at Big Mama (considering the obvious connection to being a Busy Black Woman), so on general principle, she is not a bad person. She's just very complicated like all human beings. She's giving and loving and strong-willed, which are qualities that not enough people seem to understand these days. If some of y'all had been raised by a Big Mama, I wonder if you would still be such unrepentant jerks. (On second thought, she's the reason why some of y'all are what you are, so carry on.) Some of you reading this are already Big Mamas or in-training without even realizing it. 

I happened to be watching A Raisin in the Sun (2008) recently, and because it is the version with Diddy, it definitely qualifies as a bad Black movie. Watching a few of my favorite scenes reinterpreted by Phylicia Rashad, I saw some of the conflict with different eyes. Her Lena Younger has all of the same overbearing Big Mama presence that made Claudia McNeil so iconic and definitive in this role for so long. However, I noticed how Lena treats her daughter-in-law Ruth (Audra McDonald) like the only other responsible adult in the household. In essence, as her equal, and I missed that for years. As such, it makes so much sense to me why Walter Lee is so resentful and spiteful to his wife as she is the Big Mama in-training. (No worries, we're not going to examine the mother-son relationship nor how it was understood to be a point of contention between role originators Sidney Poitier and McNeil.)

However, the tension captured in the play/movie highlights how Big Mamas occupy a larger-than-life presence in the lives of others, especially their children. Walter Lee Younger is a 35 year-old man whose Big Mama Lena still makes all of the decisions for the family. In Soul Food, Big Mama Jo looms over family conflicts even as she is comatose and dying. Another Big Mama exercised her prerogative to meddle in the lives of her children and grandchildren, which is kind of why everything is so messy right now. Big Mamas mean well, but remember that saying about the road to hell and good intentions?

Like I said, Big Mamas are human. While we should honor and revere them, there comes a point when Big Mama's word isn't sufficient to resolve our problems. While her home can be a place of refuge, it can also become a cage. She can feed our souls, but sometimes she feeds our bad habits and unhealthy indulgences. Big Mama Lena Younger expects her son to act like a man but constantly berated him like a child. Big Mama Jo was clearly a great cook, but she didn't adopt healthier alternatives and it killed her. That other Big Mama kept silent when her voice was needed to silence the viciousness that was aimed at the women who married into her family (probably because the negativity heaped on them contrasted with the praise and honor reserved for her).

Because Big Mama is keenly aware that her time on earth is finite, she often selects an heir. And let me tell you, whew! Sometimes the choice is easy because most women don't want the trouble. It's obvious that Beneatha Younger has dreams beyond taking care of a family. Part of the enmity between two of the Joseph sisters was about who was Big Mama's favorite and heir apparent. Although Teri expected to inherit the mantle with everyone financially indebted to her, second-born Maxine steals earns the role by rekindling the weekly Sunday dinners. In that other family, the lines of succession having already been established, the idea that there was even the need for conflict is one that appears to have been manufactured to sell newspapers...

So, if you hadn't guessed which dearly departed Big Mama I keep alluding to, well here is one last clue: she was THEE Big Mama, even though nobody would have dared to call her that in life. But maybe if the world had regarded her with a little more humanity, then perhaps we wouldn't feel compelled to take sides and make demands regarding what is a very public after-the-funeral squabble that has been going on for these past few months.

I mean, why else do average people in these tweets think they should have a say as to whether one of her grandsons ought to be disinherited because they don't like his wife? Because that is the gist of this--y'all don't like his American wife and feel some kind of way that she didn't much care for how she was mistreated by the British tabloids. So she did what every other self-respecting celebrity does when they want to tell their side of things--she bore her soul to Rich Auntie Oprah.

Which, by the way, is exactly what happens when one feels that their appeals to Big Mama have gone unheard. Somehow, as if out of thin air, a Rich Auntie appears to sprinkle in her special blend of chaos and stir the pot. Mind you, she isn't a rival to Big Mama, just another powerful woman who serves her own important function in family drama. She knows everything Big Mama knows, but with neither the time nor interest in managing petty family business. She's like the therapist who guides you to the breakthrough and then sends you on your way to do the work of fixing your own life.

For all of this self-righteous British indignation over that Oprah interview, it isn't as if she hadn't taken on this same role in this same family in the past. Sarah Fergusen, Duchess of York, gave an interview to Oprah a year before Princess Diana died (and apparently Di was ready to spill the tea as well). And if you pay close attention to that clip, a lot of the stuff Fergie revealed tracks with everything Meghan has said about living in the royal fishbowl and braving the British tabloids (minus the racism). This notion that Meghan should have been made of sterner stuff is utter bullocks considering how the press not only helped to destroy Fergie's marriage and reputation, but some of you forget that Princess Diana developed bulimia as a result of her unhappiness in the Firm.

If Big Mama could have had her turn on the Oprah confessional couch, I'm guessing there is a LOT she would have to say about every last person, from the minor royals to the groupies hanging about the palace. I'm convinced part of the reason she never did was because talking shit about your kids in public is the one thing Big Mamas never do. It is against the Big Mama code, so now you know why she never banished her pedophile son. However, there is a LOT this Big Mama should have done differently, beginning with her failure to protect these unsuspecting women from the tabloid trolls and press ogres. But there's no point in condemning her now that she's dead. Instead, the living need to learn from her mistakes and make better choices. 

In full disclosure, I have yet to watch their Netflix special, pre-order his memoir, listen to her podcast, or binge-watch any episodes of The Crown, so before anyone accuses me of being unabashedly Team Them or Anti-Royal, that isn't the point. This is all about a family and the messy bits that get exposed when Big Mama dies. Since the Royals are too dignified to be caught fighting in the church parking lot after the repast, they dispatched their PR teams to trade barbs. If these were medieval times, William and Harry might have been jousting.

There was a line in The Queen (2006) wherein the fictional Prince Philip referred to all of the drama in the aftermath of Diana's death as a bunch of hysterics who needed help processing their grief, and well...

That 'keep calm and carry on' stuff is a great slogan to put on tee shirts and mugs, but a lot harder to follow in real life in the midst of conflicting emotions and while coming to terms with the inevitability of one's own mortality. Big Mama is no longer around to fix this mess. Somebody needs to man up and not wait until his coronation to declare that certain aspects of his family's lives are off limits. The same press establishment harassed your ex-wife to death, disparaged the physical appearance of your current wife, and referred to your newborn grandson as a chimpanzee. Your majesty, when do the beheadings start??!! Most of the people who claim to care so much about the Firm aren't your friends, Sir, they are friendly to the Crown because it benefits them. Public opinion is fickle and unpredictable, so if it sells more papers, they will rebel like American colonists. Furthermore, when you opened that cage and let those birds fly free, accept that you gave up the right to control their song.

Here are a final few words of benediction over the other Big Mamas, lest I leave the impression that I thought they had more bad qualities than good. Big Mama Younger was right to be suspicious of her son's proposed business venture, but her ability to forgive and ultimately support his other decisions allowed him to feel the dignity he felt had been so elusive. Mama Jo's insistence on keeping her family unified at all costs was something of a double-edged sword, but in the end, it proved to be wise and fortuitous. And hopefully Teri learned that being the Rich Auntie isn't a lesser position in the family--it just comes with a lot less responsibility. To anyone reading this who is herself a Big Mama or one in-training, you already know how much we love you.

Now here's my best hood-Rich Auntie advice to our nephew Prince Harry (even though he didn't ask). Move on. Keep sending Christmas cards and exchange gifts among the children and give your brother a heads up when you're going to be on the same continent. Otherwise, live your best life and perform whatever duties you owe to your Dad as King. You have another Big Mama in your corner for whom it is no imposition or breach of protocol for her to protect your babies and wife. She would gladly lay down her very life for you as well, so let those people across the pond worry about whatever it is the royals do. Big Mama Doria will be here for you as long as the Good Lord allows.

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