How many of you remembered the scene from the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy finally understood where her home place was? She was searching for this idyllic place to belong, the power to access that place and the means to get to it. When she clicked her heels three times and chanted, eyes closed, “there’s no place like home” she moved us all. Even as a young black girl growing up in the San Francisco Bay area during the 70s and 80s – I was moved. Many of you might have seen this from the perspective of Judy Garland your first time around. For me, it was the afro-wearing, slim, energetic and veritable force of nature that was Diana Ross that gave me my first glimpse at Oz, and at seeking personal empowerment for the first time.
Diana Ross as Dorothy was in itself interesting. She didn’t have the long flowing hair, the wigs and beaufont hairdo from her Motown performances, nor her trademark upper eyelid eyeliner. She was a grown woman, not a girl like the young Judy Garland. She was a school teacher living with her mama in the hood, not some naive farm girl wandering with her dog around the barnyard with the farm hands among sweeping fields of mid-western corn and soybeans. No sir, Diana as Dorothy was like my neighbor down the street, with that neat afro. She was nice enough, but definitely no nonsense. She was like your auntie that you liked but wouldn’t hang with too tough because if you did some dirt, you knew she would definitely tell your mother on you. She was that school teacher, the one you knew would make sure you were on task and wouldn’t let you hang yourself, because she would tell your mother too if you didn’t perform to her standards, which were high ones.
Diana as Dorothy was like the women I knew and she was different. She was a black woman with no children, a job, living at home with her Aunt and still trying to find her place in the world. She was grown up, but clearly still had some growing up to do. That is what made her relatable and her character one of intrigue: what would happen to her once she went to Oz? How would she, in the words of her last song from the movie, “maybe… convince time to slow up, giving me enough time in my life to grow up”. Dorothy was afforded a luxury many black mothers don’t have: the luxury to figure her life out, and an imaginary place to go to away from her current reality to help her in her quest for self-actualization. The home-place for Dorothy as a black woman was really from her seat of power. That is what Dorothy learned. Her seat of power was the place from which she could “grow up”. It was the place for her to be empowered to fight for the scarecrow when he was stuck on the pole, rescue the cowardly lion when he was in a jam, help the tin man be freed from the crushing tyranny of his old love Teeny, and fight Evilene. Like other black women, Dorothy found that her homeplace for empowerment was not only for herself, it intricately tied to the freedom for all others, even the Great and Powerful Oz – who himself, in The Wiz, was a prisoner of his own making. As sociocultural theory explains, Oz was the societal context that helped make meaning for Dorothy as she discovered through her travels with her friends, that her black woman empowerment and her ability to lead in the gap when it counted, was her source of power and her source of liberation.
The context of the story of Dorothy’s trip to Oz was a fictive tale, but a telling one of the experiences of black mother activists and the sense of home-place. The current knowledge of activism and models that inform activism are all from models that are either white male dominated, or contextualized within power battles that aim to pit those that are oppressed against the oppressor, which is at times a one-dimensional narrative. Like Dorothy, black mother activists work to engage others to fight for themselves, which carries a different outcome than winning against the opposition. By encouraging others to fight for their own freedom from oppression, the shift in the power struggle is multidimensional and requires different types and levels of communication to accomplish a goal. The win against an external adversary requires a strategy of communication that assumes that the opposition wants to hold on to power and that by working to engage the opposition, one is taking away something the opposition wants to hold on to. Sociocultural theory reminds us that the role the community plays in shaping the cognition of individuals is paramount to how they see themselves in the world and interact accordingly.
Black mother activists are not only facing an external opposing force, but also facing internal struggles with family, friends, and community members that are in many ways like Dorothy’s friends. Some are like the scarecrow: naive, intelligent, and encumbered by how others thoughts of their limitations directly influence their perceived capacity to act on their own accord. Having a black mother activist that believes in them and helps them to see their own intelligence and potential greatness and to silence those critics that threaten their potential, is a critical role that can facilitate an empowerment process. This is something that black mothers do when working with children in the home-place, much in the way that bell hooks describes:
Historically, African-American people believed that the construction of a home-place, however fragile and tenuous (the slave hut, the wooden shack), had a radical dimension, one’s homeplace was the one site where one could freely construct the issue of humanization, where one could resist. Black women resisted by making homes where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world (hooks, 1990 p. 384).
Some are like the tin man, self-aware of their potential to change their situation, but pin their success or failure on external realities, absent of their own intervention. For tin man, it was a can of oil and Teeny dealing the crushing blow of heartbreak. For the black community, particularly for black men, it can be the myriad realities that make up the structural oppression that keep them weighed down and unable to be present as fathers, citizens, and support systems to communities. Or like the cowardly lion, are just not able to find their inner roar, who are empty inside. Like the lion in the Wiz, they hide behind a concrete exterior, an imposing figure by sight, but use it as a way to protect themselves from a world they find scary, overwhelming, and threatening. Black mother activists contend with these and many other imbalances in the black community to construct and maintain a home-place of resistance within the public sphere. But to get there, black mothers must first condition and nurture their own respective home-places of resistance, both for themselves and for their children. Those places of resistance are training ground for black women. Childrearing for black mother activists means digging past the scarecrow, tin man, and the cowardly lion to unearth the dignity, self-respect, and inner-voice that lies beneath, or is oftentimes scarred beneath. Reconstructing the home-place as a place of activism and resistance is the work that black mothers do. Dorothy saw it activated in Glenda, the Good Witch (played by the unconquerable Lena Horne), and was reminded by Glenda when she sang:
If you believe
Within your heart you’ll know
That no one can change
The path that you must go
Believe what you feel
And know you’re right, because
The time will come around
When you say it’s yours
Believe there’s a reason to be
Believe you can make time stand still
You know from the moment you try
If you believe
I know you will
Believe in yourself, right from the start
You’ll have brains
You’ll have a heart
You’ll have courage
To last your whole life through
If you believe in yourself
If you believe in yourself
If you believe in yourself
As I believe in you
As community psychologists, we can incorporate our understanding of the importance of constructing and maintaining a home-place as a site of resistance for black mothers. Our role is to support and facilitate empowerment, and by focusing our efforts toward dismantling oppressive structures in communities that are barriers to the important practice, we are supporting the continuity of a long-held tradition that has served a vital role in black communities.
Was there a home-place of resistance to structural oppression that was part of your home or community environment growing up?
How did you experience that home-place while growing up?
Do you find the need to construct and maintain a home-place of resistance for yourself and your loved ones?