On 'Beale Street', The Cost Of Protecting Black Men Is Harsh For Black Moms
The impossibility of Black motherhood
If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful, cinematic ode to Black love in its purest form; powerful, tragic, and triumphant in the way roses grow from concrete. True to the novel, this story aptly depicts the brutal and systemic violence Black families face in the criminal justice system. Though this is an important implication of American history, I could not help but be struck by the overwhelming burden of life placed on Black mothers. As a Black man born of and raised by Black women, I saw much of the story arc through the eyes of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Sharon (Regina King) as they navigated their relationship with Black men, society, and the trauma they bore in service of others.
The movie begins with Tish announcing her pregnancy and Fonny’s (Stephan James) impending fatherhood. Within the first few scenes, we see both the support of Sharon and family as they celebrated new life and the simultaneous dehumanization of Black women’s bodies by in-laws, including Fonny’s mother. After a particularly triggering display of domestic violence at the hands of a Black man, Sharon grabs Mrs. Hunt’s (Aunjanue Ellis) arm and exclaims “This is your grandchild!” At this moment, I felt the weight of her words, asserting that regardless of the circumstances, the life of a child is the most important. We have seen this archetype of Black motherhood before through films like Baby Boy, Fences, and Boyz in the Hood - Black mothers cleaning up the messes they didn’t make. An indicative byproduct of the prison industrial complex, Black mothers are heavily impacted by the responsibility of providing and caring for the family in the absence of fathers. As Tish persevered in Fonny’s absence, her mother was there as a pillar of emotional, financial, and mental assurance. Even in silence, the intergenerational strength of Tish and Sharon’s relationship can only be exemplified by what Alice Walker describes as womanist knowledge and theory in practice. At all costs (including an expensive flight to Puerto Rico) Black women are quite literally here and there for everyone, even at the expense of themselves.
Despite their care, the protection of Black men throughout the film reified the often thankless work of Black mothers. In countless scenes, Tish and Sharon went through hell and fire for Fonny, at times physically safeguarding his innocence from police, the criminal justice system, and the stereotypical perceptions of society. Still, their protection was seen as counterproductive to the aims of men like Fonny feeling defenseless and hopeless against a perpetual barrage of anti-Black racism. Conversely, Black women are forced to face the weight of the world on their own, encountering racism, sexism, and violence at the hands of White women who hate them, Black men that do not respect them, and White men that exploit them like props on a perfume counter. As Fritz Fanon states in Black Skin, White Mask, “She is not tolerated in certain circles, because she is a colored woman...instead of allowing them to fulfill their infantile fantasies, the other should help them get over these fantasies.” Even while all the kids are sleep and the fears of Black men and boys are put to rest, Black women are left to deal with the fear, disappointment, and expectations of their identity.
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While the root of Beale Street portrays the effects of violence and racism on the Black family structure, what do we make of the irreparable harm done to Black women? As an outsider to the experience of Black mothers and women, there is not enough gratitude I can give to their ability to put themselves on the line for the family without so much as a “thank you”. It is in this tragedy we see the impossibility of Black motherhood, existing and living in a world that discredits and invalidates their burden. Yet, in the morning, they get up and do what only Black mothers can - smiling through the pain of loss, love, and trauma.