Most of us black folks who came of age in the '60's and '70's grew up with at least one matriarchal figure in the family who held things together and held up the triflin' folks in the family. This matriarch was usually older, someone who always kept a roof over her head, paid her bills, and always had a meal available for anyone who crossed her threshold. She always seemed to be able to dig down in her bra and find a twenty for someone to "hold," knowing full well she'd probably never get it back. She'd co-sign for some young'un in the family trying to get a car or some furniture and wouldn't think twice about mortgaging her house to get her child or grandchild out on bail. She was the kind of woman who maybe worked a menial job, cooked up a storm on Saturday night for family card games, and pulled herself together for Sunday school and making a huge Sunday dinner. She was Big Mama. And if there were an Olympic sport for putting everyone else first and ignoring your own health, the Big Mamas would have medaled for sure. They were overweight, ate a fat-laden diet, were often hypertensive or diabetic, and oftentimes smoked like chimneys.
Well, I've got news for the generations of black folks behind me. Big Mama's dead, so get your shit together.
Anyone in the generations behind me looking for that same kind of black matriarch to fill the shoes of the Big Mamas before her is destined to be disappointed. No one wants the role. I know I don't.
Times have changed, and nobody, least of all elderly black women, can afford to carry any other grown-ass adults who make unwise decisions and end up in need because of them. The financial setbacks that can come for co-signing for folks or mortgaging your house to help someone are far harder to overcome now than since the Great Depression. As my late mother, SWIE (She Who Is Exalted) used to say, "Money's as tight as Dick's hat band." As a child, I never knew who Dick was, but he and his hat band were always invoked when my mother didn't have it to give.
The Big Mamas of my childhood WERE the social safety net that government wasn't, or wasn't on time enough to be. They were the ones who would take folks in when they lost their jobs, who'd keep a drug-addicted niece or nephew from losing their kids to the foster care system, who not only raised their kids and their grandkids, but their great-grands as well.
Black mothers today do well just to raise the children they have. Elderly black women do well to keep a roof over their heads. Taking on the created problems of grown-ass people who don't have their shit together is more than most black women of any age can handle. And given how the Big Mamas of the past ignored their health tending to everyone else, well, that's not a model my generation wants to emulate.
So, if you don't have your shit together -- a steady job, a roof over your head, a way to take care of your own kids and stand on your own two feet, well, don't go looking for Big Mama. Big Mama's dead, and nobody's going to to replace her. Nobody wants to.