The Movie “Precious” and African American Self-Esteem

March 6, 2010

Based upon a true story, the lead character of this movie has been abused so severely by her parents that she has developed a whole host of issues outside many people’s understanding. However, so many seem affected by this movie. My mother told me she saw a line, comprised mostly of African Americans, wrapped around the block to see “Precious”. I believe the movie addresses issues rarely openly discussed in our communities.

On a basic level, the desire to be a white woman and have a “light-skinned” boyfriend shown when she is in a dissociative state (dream sequence) is a form of cultural low self-esteem that is rampant in our communities. It has become so internalized and in the back of our minds but always there. We do not even see the need to have discussions about this most of the time. I had a 9 year-old girl I was seeing for therapy whose classmates were calling her “Flava Flav” simply because she had dark skin. She was a resilient child, but frequently depressed.

Another issue is Black intellect. Until she enters the alternative education program people expect very little from Precious. As a result, she delivers what is expected. Recently, some high school students told me that they were regularly teased by other African American children because they were bright. In fact, these kids were told (in 2009) that they were trying to be white.

What can we do?

There is nothing new about these issues, but we have to do something for the sake of our children. How will they be able to succeed, and feel confident if they believe that there may be something wrong with fundamental aspects of who they are?
Having open discussions with African American children about their beauty and value is important. I know so many families are already doing this, but the assault from the media is so pervasive that it is a difficult battle. Whoopi Goldberg, in a recent interview, said that she did everything she could to teach her daughter that Black is beautiful, but when her daughter was a certain age, much to Ms. Goldberg’s surprise, her daughter wished to have long straight blond hair.

Because we have been exposed for so long to these media culprits (television, movies, magazines, etc.), we often devalue African features and intellect ourselves. Therefore, we must get in touch with our own self-hatred since we are all victims of the assault. So, if you believe “good hair” is straight hair, or lighter skin is better skin, you need to acknowledge and examine those beliefs because they are not in and of themselves true. Even though I cried about it as a child, my mother would never let me have a Barbie. She thought it was an unhealthy representation of beauty for a young African American girl. Now, looking back I know she was right (but it was hell trying to fit some of my oversized dolls into the Barbie Townhouse that she did let me have).

A recent study noted that African American children who have positive feelings about their ethnic identity tend to have fewer mental health problems. See, http://www.thegrio.com/opinion/ethnic-pride-can-improve-mental-health-in-black-children.php and http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091113083259.htm.

When the children you know are old enough, I say by middle school age, speak openly about the assault so that they will be able to consciously resist it.

More blogs to come on “Precious”. There is so much going on in that movie to talk about.

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2 Responses to “The Movie “Precious” and African American Self-Esteem”

  1. Trudy said

    Interesting post. Certainly parents must address issues of self-esteem within their children, especially Black children in regards to appearance. What I notice in myself was that my parents emphasized who I was based on my intellect and my mental capabilities. I always had normal self esteem in appearance but even greater self esteem in intellect. While taking care to raise Black girls to love and appreciate themselves, at the same time it must not be to the point that their only value is to make a political statement with hair, dress or style. We have to be valued as human beings by what we contribute and not how we look alone. So the tight rope exists between teaching a girl about beauty regardless of hair texture/hair style choice and not emphasizing beauty to the point that she thinks nothing else about who she is can be relevant.

    I don’t buy into the belief that all with “natural” hair are beyond in love with themselves and those with relaxed “hair” hate themselves. It is never this black and white or that simple. I don’t have to wear my hair in any style to prove anything to anyone else, including loving myself regardless of physical appearance. I think living in a society with choices on so many greater issues about how we live our lives should also be one where choices about personal appearances are made as well. It is a parent’s job to instill healthy self-esteem in their children. However, it is then each adult’s choice to decide their personal appearance, something often easily changed and non-permanent. And their reasons for making appearance choices are not always what everyone chooses to theorize. I doubt Michelle Obama loves herself any less with a relaxer than Toni Morrison does with dreads. People claim to be concerned about the self-love and self-esteem of women who change from their physical state at birth but often this concern is more about their own personal need for moral superiority and nothing else. So many women struggle with self-esteem issues outside of hair texture and complexion yet no one hears their cries. Beyond hair and being un-married, when are Black women’s issues ever really discussed in mainstream? I do agree that the issues of hair have to be addressed but we must not be disillusioned and think that growing a fro will cure all.

    Thanks for sharing this post. Good read.

  2. Trudy: Thank you so much for your comments. I agree with you, so much attention is paid to these issues and there is so much more that needs to be addressed with regard to self-esteem issues. My concern is that the issues in the post are so basic and essential to who we are.

    I have relaxed hair and it is working for me right now. But, if I were to return to the dreadlocks I had a few years ago that would be alright too. I think I am just concerned about the folks who do not think their hair in a natural state is beautiful.

    make it plain

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