Mamie Rearden died at the age of 114 last week in a Georgia hospital, after holding the title of oldest U.S. citizen for two weeks. According to her daughter Sara Rearden, “My mom was not president of the bank or anything, but she was very instrumental in raising a family and being a community person.”
While her life received notice only because it lasted so long, it was noteworthy and historic in its own way. Rearden, an African American woman, was witness to enormous change in America and doubtless overcame many obstacles.
With the support of her father, she earned a teaching certificate, and though she stopped working as a teacher to raise her family, she learned to drive a car in her 60s so she could reach other children who needed her gifts. She was married for 59 years, until her husband’s death, and raised 11 children. Sara, the youngest, remembered a mother who taught them never to speak badly of others.
In contrast, there promises to be plenty of trash-talking if a planned television special titled “All My Babies’ Mamas” ever lands on the schedule of the Oxygen channel. The show involves a family of 11 children, but all similarities to the Rearden clan end there. It would chronicle the home life of Atlanta-based rapper Shawty Lo (real name Carlos Walker), his 11 children and their 10 mothers.
An Oxygen announcement said the show “will capture the highs and lows of this extreme ‘blended family’ that is anything but ordinary, while also showing the drama and the passion behind life’s most unexpected situations.”
But a Change.org petition urging that the show be cancelled — part of a wave of outrage that has erupted in advance of the planned springtime debut — anticipates something different.
“This is not just an attack on African-American parents and children….but ALL PARENTS AND CHILDREN!,” the petition reads: “As dysfunctional and violent as so-called reality shows are, could you ever imagine a one-hour spectacle where 11 children are forced to witness their 10 unwed mothers clamor for financial support, emotional attention and sexual reward from Shawty-Lo, the apathetic ‘father’?”
“Sign today,” writes Sabrina Lamb in the petition, “to tell Oxygen that their viewers will not tolerate a show that exploits and stereotypes Black children and families, and we will boycott any advertiser who chooses to support the show.” Last time I looked, the petition had close to 20,000 signatures.
Perhaps all the bad publicity will be good for Shawty and Oxygen, which has defended the show, not as cautionary tale but as entertainment. “Oxygen’s one-hour special in development is not meant to be a stereotypical representation of everyday life for any one demographic or cross-section of society. It is a look at one unique family and their complicated, intertwined life,” Oxygen Media told Radar Online.
And if you believe that…
It’s true that out-of-wedlock births are on the increase for women under 30 for every demographic except the well-educated, a trend The New York Times explored.
And sure, it’s just a TV show, albeit one that ups the ante and lowers the bar set by housewives and rehabbing celebrities. Everyone knows the “reality” in reality TV is a relative term, from Honey Boo Boo to the characters of “Jersey Shore.”
The reason people tune in is to gawk at exaggerations that satisfy views many hold. It’s why Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) sent a letter to MTV objecting to its “Buckwild,” saying the show “plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.” Manchin wrote, “Instead of showcasing the beauty of our people and our state, you preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior — and now you are profiting from it. That is just wrong.”
It was also a ratings hit when it aired last week.
Though the adventures of Shawty Lo may be nothing more than proof of total irresponsibility and unwillingness to use birth control by a particularly dysfunctional crew of so-called adults, it is dragging helpless children into a shameful spotlight. (Every cent the “blended family” earns from the show should be put in a fund for the therapy all will undoubtedly require.)
It’s also a grotesque display of a stereotype of black life that persists, despite the example of a strong African American family named Obama in the White House, despite the quiet dignity lived by Mamie Rearden and mirrored in the unheralded achievements of so many just like her.
The ugly stereotype was used throughout America’s history to justify enslavement and inferior treatment and still finds its way into policy and politics today, when welfare and bad behavior is often depicted with a black or brown face. The 2012 presidential campaign saw ads and words from Mitt Romney that implied an Obama worldview of freeloaders on a middle-class funded dole that took us there once again. After the election, the echo remained, in comments on “gifts” to particular groups not willing to be contributing American citizens.
It’s disheartening when pop culture dives into the same muck, just because it can, especially when there is more human drama in the Mamie Reardens of the world than all the housewives and misbehaving rappers put together.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3