Saturday, October 24, 2009

Stop Scapegoating Black Women

Leave it to Oprah to finally bring me out of hibernation.

On her Friday live show, she brought together the principals in the Indianapolis case of the check-cashing clerk who prayed down the brother who walked in and tried to stick her up.

By Friday, everyone knew the story and had seen the video of Angela Montez screaming and crying and praying with would-be robber Gregory Smith. Very touching, no? The recounting of the narrative isn't what bothered me. It was the fact that, once again, a Black woman was essentially held out to blame for this.

Smith's mother, his "baby mama" -- a woman identified as Sherrie, and their 2-year-old daughter Amaya (who was celebrating her 2nd birthday that very day...) also joined the check-cashing clerk in-studio with Oprah.

When it was Sherrie's turn (, she burst into tears, saying that she thought she "drove" him to commit the attempted robbery by "riding" him to take care of his family. Smith has said repeatedly that he attempted to rob the store because he was unemployed and allegedly headed toward homelessness.

The girlfriend, through tears, revealed that she was a full-time student and that she was working full-time to support their family. She said, unequivocally, that she was the sole provider for their young family. She said that she was tired and stressed out and that it was hard -- which is why she "rode" him so hard to find a job.

Said Sherrie on Oprah: "I partially blame myself for constantly fussing at him, telling him what he's not good for and stuff like that."

Wow. Now, here's a young woman doing everything right -- working full-time and going to school full-time and parenting a toddler. Struggling? Yes. Overworked? Yes. Stressed out? Yes. Driven to commit a crime? NO. And yet the only thing Oprah had to say to this was, "So, you nagged him?"

Oprah, who has claimed for 20+ years to be all about the empowerment of women, left this young sister hanging. This young sister who was clearly in pain and still in shock about the irresponsible choice that the father of her child made to engage in criminal behavior.

Smith was applauded several times by the audience -- from the jail where he was speaking on satellite -- for being an Army veteran, for "doing the right thing" by not shooting the store clerk with the loaded gun he brought to the store, for praying and calling on Jesus to help him. Meanwhile the mother of his child -- the one who is working full-time, the one who is going to school full-time, the one who is paying ALL the bills, the one who has stayed on the right side of the law -- gets derided on national TV for being a "nag."

Not only that, despite the fact that his own mother encouraged him to turn himself in after seeing him on surveillance video shown on the news, Smith credited Angela Montez with speaking to him "like a mother" and with a kindness and generosity of spirit that he seemed to claim he had never experienced before. So despite listening to his mother talk about how she had supported and encouraged him always, and certainly recently through his unsuccessful efforts to secure employment, this young man credits the non-Black store clerk with gentle loving kindness -- and not his own mother, or the mother of his child who was keeping his butt afloat all this time.

Oprah's response to this? Nada.

I sat, frankly, flabbergasted by this and disappointed that yet again stereotypes about Black women were reinforced and underscored on this show. That we're hard and cold, that we're "nags," that we don't appreciate Black men and that the only women to show them love, affection and understanding are non-Black women.

And there Oprah sat, saying nothing. This woman who never misses a chance to let us know what she thinks -- whether it makes any sense or not -- who talks all over her guests and experts because she, of course, knows more than us all. This woman who, heretofore, never missed an opportunity to support, defend and uphold women.

This woman, Oprah, she said nothing. Except to ask the tearful young mother who is essentially single-parenting the would-be robber's child "So, you were a nag?"

At the end of their segment, the couple's daughter--celebrating her 2nd birthday on Oprah's stage--was brought out and squealed upon seeing her father on satellite, "Daddy! Daddy!" Over and over and over again. Squealed with delight and with love for this father with no idea that she was watching him from Marion County Jail. Ultimately I wondered what would happen to her.

Because Gregory Smith had a choice. He had a choice. He could have done what Black women do everyday and taken a job where he might have been underpaid and overworked, but at least was contributing to supporting his family. He could have done that. As a Veteran, he could have tapped into a myriad of resources available to him at the federal and local level -- including GI Bill educational benefits, to help provide for his family. He could have chosen to do what his girlfriend did -- work hard and go to school.

Let's be clear that although it is a blessing that he neither stole any money nor hurt the store clerk, what he did was not heroic. What he did was desperate and cowardly and it is only through the grace of God that he spared himself any worse trouble than he's already in.

Since Oprah didn't have the insight to say it, I'll say it: The real "hero" here is Sherrie -- the girl who has dated this fool since they were 15, who works full-time and is a full-time student and, clearly, takes very good care of Smith's beautiful daughter. She needs to know, unequivocally, that she is not to blame for what Gregory Smith did. She needs and deserves as much support as he will inevitably continue to receive.

We need to stop scapegoating Black women for standing in the gap and doing what they must -- for themselves and their families -- to survive.

Appropriately pissed,