What I need is for white people to stop calling the Honorable Representative Maxine Waters “Auntie.” For real. It needs to stop.
Look, I get it. The white people who’ve jumped on the “Auntie” train like Waters. They like how smart and strong and unfuckwithable she is. They like that she’s out there speaking truth to power and refusing to back down. They like that she’s totally comfortable giving 21-second press conferences that are all attitude and no fucks. She is a light and a force. Yes. One hundred percent. Yes.
This Women’s March tweet is in the spirit of that new-found love:
I’m glad people like her, glad she’s having fun and reaching a new audience in this spotlight, embracing the naming. All the same, it grates on me.
I’m guessing white folks heard Black people saying, “Auntie Maxine,” and thought that was sassy and clever and latched on. When Black folks call Waters “Auntie,” it doesn’t make me feel a way. But white folks need to get themselves together with this “Auntie” business. I’m asking white people to take that term out of their mouths and love on Representative Waters in some other fashion.
“Auntie Maxine” is one of those things Black people can say that white people can’t because there’s too much history behind “Auntie.” Way too damned much racist history. And white folks don’t get to bypass that because they like Representative Waters and think calling her “Auntie” is sassy and clever.
Yes, I’m thinking about Mammy. I’m thinking about the long story of white people calling Black women “Auntie”—first as owners of enslaved people and then “just” as white people luxuriating in their positions of dominance and power in a racist society.
“Auntie” is a direct holdover from our past of enslavement and subjugation, the mammy fantasy/stereotype of “a black woman who is ‘all-nurturing, servile and caring’ and some combination of happy, silent or invisible as she works tirelessly for others who devalue her and her service,” writes Mariam Williams.
The visual of that stereotype was the older, very dark-skinned Black woman, most often enormously fat, wearing a big smile for white people—and especially, obsequiously, for her white people—always ready to serve, to comfort, to please. This visual, this idea, is a lie, of course. “The Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society in response to the anti-slavery attack from the North during the antebellum period” (Powell-Wright, 2010).
In her essay, “Agony Auntie,” Tamara Winfrey Harris writes: “Mammy historically has been society’s standard for what Black women should be—indefatigable workers and nurturers. And many Black women who raised white children and cleaned their white homes were called “Auntie” by their owners and employers, a twisted sign of respect that simply reinforced Black women’s place as workhorses.”
Calling Black women “Auntie” served multiple purposes. It gave “polite” white people something to say instead of “Miss,” “Mrs.,” or “Ma’am,” terms of respect that weren’t offered to Black women. Plenty of white folks felt no need to bother with such niceties, were entirely comfortable calling women “girl,” no matter the age or standing of the “girl” in question. “Auntie,” then, allowed “good” white folks to pretend to be less offensive. It couched their racism in gentle, familial terms, as if they shared kinship with whichever Black woman they were diminishing. At the same time, the Black woman so addressed knew exactly where she stood with that white person.
Generally speaking, white folks don’t call Black women “Auntie” in 2017. That insult’s heyday is, thankfully, in the past. And yet, my response to it remains visceral. This may be surprising, as I’m not old enough to have ever heard anyone call my mother, or aunt, or grandmothers “Auntie.” From where do I claim my indignation? But, in truth, my response isn’t surprising. After all, I’ve never been enslaved, either, and I feel plenty of indignation and rage and pain about that all-in-the-past state of affairs. And all of my foremothers were and are from the South, from places where the white people in their lives wouldn’t have hesitated to call them out of their names. Imagining that insult is as easy as breathing, as close to home as my own skin.
In his 2007 documentary Banished, Marco Williams visits several towns that drove out their Black residents at the turn of the last century and that have remained all white for the intervening decades. One of the places Williams visits is Harrison, Arkansas, a town that is clearly feeling a way about its racist history, but which also seems unable to fully understand or reconcile with that history. Town leaders made a point of telling Williams about the one Black person who wasn’t driven out of town. She was allowed to stay because her white employer didn’t want her run out of town—a desire he was willing to insist on with his shotgun.
She wasn’t allowed to live on her own after the rest of her community had been driven out, however. She had to move in with her employer and his family, and her safety in town was owed entirely to all the white people knowing she was his Black person.
Harrison put a little money together to create a scholarship in her name, a scholarship that brought young Black women basketball players from neighboring towns to the local college. There was also a big deal made about preserving this woman’s grave site. A member of Harrison’s Taskforce for Race Relations takes Williams to the cemetery to show him where this fabled woman is buried, but she can’t because no one had ever bothered to mark the spot. The Taskforce member leads Williams around an unkempt section of the cemetery, certain the woman is buried there… somewhere.
Why am I telling this story? Because the woman—whose existence in her home town was allowed because the white man she worked for didn’t want to be inconvenienced by her being chased out of town with the rest of the Black population—was called “Aunt Vine.” The scholarship in. her. name. was called the “Aunt Vine” scholarship. They couldn’t even use her actual, given name for the scholarship that was supposed to honor her. Her name was Alecta Caledonai Melvina Smith, but no one ever bothers to use her real name when discussing her. They know her only as “Aunt Vine,” and call her only “Aunt Vine,” maintaining her position as less than even in death, even as they hold her up for supposed honor. And not a single one of the Taskforce members sees anything wrong with continuing to call this woman out of her name.
In the Black community there is a forever-long history of calling revered and dear elders “aunt” or “uncle” whether or not they are actually biological family. I have a number of aunts and a few uncles with whom I share no blood ties. And maybe that use predates the insult, but that use is also a “taking back” of the word.
There is a pull that feels natural, the desire to take on negative terms and make them over, to “reclaim our time” and create new meanings, magic away old ugliness. We’ve done it with “boy” and “girl,” with “nigger.” And perhaps this is why Black folks use “Auntie” and “Uncle” to honor beloved chosen family.
That use of “Auntie” is mostly what white people are hearing when they hear Black people call Waters “Auntie.” But “Auntie” in the Black community is both sweet and sour. There’s some snark in that “Auntie.” There’s the use Winfrey Harris detailed in her aforementioned essay: “The Black ‘auntie’ […] is generally out of touch, unsexy, and uncool.” We saw that same snark when YouTube videos of Nigerian dancer Queen Teddy started going viral and, instead of using the name she calls herself, people were calling her “Your Fat Auntie,” and “Chubby Auntie.” We were supposed to find her comical, laugh at her because she put herself out there, thinking she could dance. (Newsflash: Queen Teddy is fire, and she can dance. Punto).
All of this is wrapped up in Black folks’ use of “Auntie.” And a history of racism and oppression is wrapped up in white folks’ use of the word. What isn’t in either use, old or new, is an invitation to white folks in 2017 to fix their mouths to call Representative Waters “Auntie.”
White people: stop. Waters ain’t your Auntie, in any sense of that word. Everything you hear a Black person say isn’t for you to say. I would have hoped you’d have learned this years ago with nigger, but you’re still messing with that, too.1
We take back these words—boy, girl, nigger, Auntie—we take them and de-shame them, take them and remake them. And it works—for us. It works—except that the terms still hold onto their old meanings when they fall out of the mouths of white people. Always. Always.
I want “Auntie” to be harmless. I want to give in to my own desire to call Representative Waters “Mother Maxine.” I love the alliteration, and it puts us in a different relationship than “Auntie.” My use of “Mother” is still loaded, but it’s also entirely different from white folks calling Waters “Auntie.” I will probably back up off of that usage to keep it out of white folks’ mouths. Instead, I’ll opt for “Queen Maxine,” which gives me a nice rhyme, as I lose the alliteration. And I won’t feel a way about white people calling Waters “Queen.” That sits just fine with me.
The negative, demeaning use of “Auntie” is old. Very. I’m sure some folks will say it’s time to forget all about that and let this fun and funny use of the word take over. And you know what? Sure. Why not? What would be the harm?
Yeah. The harm. That ugly use of “Auntie” is from long ago. But we haven’t actually passed it, have we? We are still in a country in which my whip-smart, Harvard-educated aunt was talked down to and belittled by hospital staff as she advocated for my care. We are still in a country in which a doctor’s help for a sick airline passenger is rejected because flight attendants can’t bring themselves to believe a Black woman could be a “real” doctor. We still live in a country in which the powerful, intelligent words of a Black woman representing her state in Congress can be dismissed by on-air personalities who mock her hairstyle and say she looks like a man.
That old-time use of “Auntie” may be from the past, but the past hasn’t yet become past. And, thanks to THOTUS2 and those who voted for him, that past is now more present than ever.
So, no. We can’t just set racism aside and have a laugh. Would that anything could be so easy. No. We have to remember who we are and where we are and how much work there is still to do.
In “Black Women’s History: From Mammy to Michelle Obama,” Brittney Gathen quotes Dr. Zandria Robinson of the University of Memphis: “We still want Black women to mother us as a society. We still see Black women’s role as caregivers, and when they’re not caregivers, they become angry b——.” Waters is smart and funny and tough. She refuses to be cowed, refuses to be silenced or shamed. And when so many of our leaders pussyfoot around real criticism of and opposition to THOTUS and his masters and minions, Waters speaks her mind. She speaks to our beleaguered hearts, all the strong, on-point things we need to hear. And we want that, want her fire and sass, want to hear her reclaiming her time until the cows come home (or perhaps until the chickens come home to roost …). If ever we were in need of a tough-talking, tough-loving mom, it is now. And we want Waters to fill that role, to take on the evil that’s corroding our country. We want her to stand between us and THOTUS’s promise of “American carnage.” And we want her to make us laugh while she does it.
But white people, Waters can’t be your mother, your mammy, your Auntie. Not everything is or can be for you. It’s a fact that that you’ve been able to live for centuries as if everything was for you, so I can imagine your confusion. But you should be okay stepping back and letting Black folks keep something to ourselves. Time to find a white savior to call your own and leave Queen Maxine for us.
1. Don’t come at me with the “a/ah” not “er” differentiation because that is bullshit, and we all know it.↩
2. “THOTUS” is how I refer to the current occupant of the White House, as I refuse to attach the title to his name and try not to say his name if I can help it. The acronym stands for: Titular Head of These United States.↩
Gathen, B. (2014, March 13). “Black Women’s History: From Mammy to Michelle Obama.” Pittsburgh Courier Lifestyles. Retrieved from Pittsburgh Courier: https://newpittsburghcourieronline.com/2014/03/13/black-womens-history-from-mammy-to-michelle-obama/
Harris, T. W. (2016, August 10). “Agony Auntie.” Retrieved from Bitch Media: https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/some-us-are-brave-agony-auntie
Powell-Wright, D. A. (2010). “Aunt Sarah: Bulletproof Diva.” In e. Carol E. Henderson, Imagining the Black Female Body: Reconciling Image in Print and Visual Culture (p. 112). Palgrave Macmillan.
Williams, M. (Director). (2007). Banished [Motion Picture].
Williams, M. (2014, October 6). “A first step for black women: reclaiming the Aunt(y) Jemima, Mammy stereotypes.” Retrieved from National Catholic Reporter: https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/intersection/first-step-black-women-reclaiming-aunty-jemima-mammy-stereotypes