Dear Mama : A Thank You letter to Rita and Dana Owens for Always Recognizing and Representing the Importance of The Relationship Between Mothers and Daughters of Color
She knew she was a Queen. Not because her jewels were the shiniest, or her robe was the silkiest, but because she was always reminded to walk with her head held high so her crown won't fall. For many of us, we only recognize our own royalty by the reflections of the ones who came before us. And many times, even they never realize it for themselves. When you're so focused on keeping someone else's light bright, you sometimes forget that you don't have to dim your own in order for theirs to shine. And as a result, we become direct products of the women who surround us, along with the experiences and the patterns they've passed down, whether we like it or not. What we do with that, is up to us. But the way we recognize the divine femininity within our personal environments and our ecosystems, both negative and positive, shapes us into the women we are. And we are our mothers daughters.
On March 18th, 1970, Rita Owens gave birth to a Queen. She was born and raised in East Orange, New Jersey, but soon enough would become a woman of the world. She took on the stage name "Latifah", an Arabic word meaning "delicate" and "kind", but it was through her unbridled passion for hip-hop where she became a cornerstone of Black womanhood in the 90's. Dana Elaine Owens built a platform for herself by intentionally using her lyrics as a vessel to speak directly to underrepresented women of color about domestic violence, abuse, harassment, and sexism, through her music. She personally catapulted her career to hold the throne in an industry that was at the time predominately owned and operated by men. She introduced herself to the world as "Queen Latifah", but it was later on through her leading role as "Khadeeja" on the hit sitcom "Living Single", where we saw a more tangible version of ourselves, and a more up close and personal version of Dana. Khadeeja "Don't Need Ya" James was a confident, and often times stubborn, single, twenty-something Black female CEO of her own urban publication in the heart of New York City. And "Living Single" was the kind of television show that allowed each character to thrive but placed special focus on the connections made between Black women among their friendships, relationships, life at home, and workplace representation.
Even though Queen Latifah has built a creative brand around staying true to herself and developing her resume as a musician, an actress, a businesswoman and a philanthropist, even going on to become the first female hip hop artist nominated for an Oscar...but the one title she holds with the most value above them ALL, is being Rita Owens’ daughter. Often referring to her mom as the "Love of her life", she was always proud to be a mommy's girl, no matter how much she grew up, or how grown up she thought she was. Mrs. Owens always made sure to reinforce her daughters self esteem in an effort to push her to be the person she knew she could be and Latifah surpassed all of those expectations. When it comes to her success and celebrity, she says that public reassurance never mattered to her because she'll always feel like she's number one to herself......a trait she developed from her mom and her strong connection to family. I personally remember seeing the chemistry between the two of them on screen and off, and thinking to myself how much it reminded me of the relationship I have with my own mother, and how multidimensional the connection is between Black mothers and daughters. Queen Latifah made it a focal point to share special parts of their relationship with the rest of us and naturally, we adopted them both as our own, and fell in love with their contagious spirit. But, something special happens when we begin to see our parents beyond being just our parents, and we start to see them for the individuals and human beings they really are.
I was around the same age as Latifah when her parents got divorced, an elementary school girl on the brink of experiencing some of the most transitional periods of her life. When young women of color are primarily raised by their mothers, sparks tend to fly all over the place......but that's because its magic. Though you have obvious boundaries as adult and child, you are both still growing, individually as well as alongside each other. Mrs. Owens was always clear explaining that her daughter was no angel, jokingly saying that most of her grey hairs came from raising her....but the resilience she maintained in keeping her daughter close when she often got lost in the world was what kept Queen Latifah grounded. Trust me when I say, nobody can bring a Black woman back down to earth faster than her mama. And Latifah always made that clear, letting the world know her mom is who the real queen is. When Black women look at their mothers, we see a kaliedoscope of roles that are filled. Rita Owens spent most of her years as a young mother working full time while also in college and raising two kids at home. She went on to graduate and became a high school art teacher, a position she not only adored, but one she would hold onto for years. And similarly, to Latifah, I learned so much about my mother, and myself, every day as I got older and began to immerse myself in the details of our relationship. Watching my own mother bloom into her individuality, was the key to discovering myself. As a single parent she did a phenomenal job of keeping us oblivious to the struggles and sacrifice. Like the times she didn't eat lunch just so she could leave work early and make my basketball games on time, or the strict budgets she lived by on one income in order to keep my sister and I in private school, and how she always made sure our clothes were fresh and our hair was LAID. We didn't know what it meant to be broke because we felt rich in love, support, and most importantly family. But what I remember most vividly was how she made time to carve out space for all the necessary components of her womanhood without losing her identity. The concept of paying yourself first doesn't always apply financially, but also emotionally. We have to pay ourselves with peace of mind in order to be available and present within the other important areas of life. Some of my best memories with my mom were spent on Saturday evenings at the dollar movie theater because she never disappointed me on our weekly date night. But I also thoroughly enjoyed watching her get dressed up to go tear up the dance floor with her girlfriends on Fridays, or admire her getting excited to go on a date. She made sure to include me, asking me my opinion on shoes, earrings, etc. And seeing her as a woman with wants, hopes, needs, and her own characteristics outside of being just my mom was a revelation that changed the trajectory of my own womanhood, and came full circle when I also became a mother myself. We were learning each other and adapting to this thing called life as a team..as we got to know each other's likes and dislikes, trade jokes and sharing the loudest laughs (and arguments) as if we grew up together, because well, we kind of did. Don't get me wrong, she was quite the disciplinarian, I was more terrified of my mother than anyone else I've ever come encounter with (and i still am), but it wasn't a fear of punishment....it was a fear of disappointment. Black mothers across the globe have perfected "The LOOK", and depending on how and when it's administered, it will shake the sense right into, or out of you, without having to move a muscle. She was my mother first, but she was my best friend, and knowing that I disappointed her would have been punishment enough. My mother was well into her thirties when she had me, so she was most certainly an adult but she was still a woman juggling to discover who she was amidst two divorces, two children, and an entry level bank position. And there I was, an emotionally reckless teenager determined to make my own rules at every turn. When you have a Black mother going through menopause raising a daughter going through puberty, believe you me, life can become an extreme sport. For single moms of color, every day is a shuffle between being strong enough to raise their daughters to be responsible citizens of society, but also be nurturing enough to mold them into compassionate human beings. Having the capacity to be tough enough to set the rules at home, while being told to leave that "Angry Black Woman" shit at the door everywhere else, is the staple of Black single motherhood. We all know that having double the odds against you always meant that you had to work twice as hard to be just as good without letting it wear you down.
Queen Latifah wasn't just open about her strong connection to her mother, but she she has always been unabashedly honest about her closeness to her family, which only got stronger as her fame unfolded. If you're a fan of the Queen, you know that she lost her brother/best friend in a motorcycle accident just as her career was soaring in the 90's. She purchased the motorcycle for him as a birthday gift, and for years she wore his motorcycle key around her neck to solidify him always being near her heart. As expected, the death of her brother rocked her family, and her, to the core. She felt disconnected from the world, which eventually only pushed her to hold on to her mom much tighter. Unbeknownst to them both, years later her faith would be tested again and that bond would solidify stronger than she ever imagined. One day in 2004, Mrs. Owens had an episode at school passing out and was rushed to the hospital where she would soon find out she'd be diagnosed with heart failure. Latifah's life would never be the same. Parents are trained and expected to be nurturing, and nourishing leaders, but somewhere along the way, the roles tend to reverse, and you discover how vital your village really is. Upon her mothers' diagnosis, Latifah made a decision and a commitment to be the primary caregiver for her mother, making sure she was comfortable, and all of her medical needs were met. She split herself between Los Angeles, California and East Orange, New Jersey and tagged her mom along for any events she wanted. Above it all, she joined forces with the American Heart Association and spearheaded initiatives that encouraged awareness to early detection and treatment of heart failure, especially amongst minorities. And even with all things considered, she still made it a top priority to make sure her mom maintained a strict and healthy diet, which made it all the more possible to sustain a life worth living with heart disease. I'm someone who watched her own mother dedicate herself to being the top caregiver for her parents as well, so I personally understand what a pivotal role this is, as a daughter. Through better, or or worse, sickness and in health, we want to provide our parents with the same comfortable and cultivating environment that they gave us.
Last week, Rita Owens passed away and transitioned into her eternal grace. We watched celebrities from all over cover Queen Latifah with their unconditional love and support, and sharing their own personal stories of how her mother, and their relationship as mother and daughter, impacted their own lives. And inevitably, it prompted me to start thinking about the legacies we leave behind. So, this is my thank you letter to Rita Owens's daughter. As she lays her mother to rest this week after a long and hard fought battle with heart disease, I wanted to express my gratitude from myself, and millions of other daughters across the globe, for sharing her with us. So many of us never had the pleasure of meeting her, but when we saw her, we saw our own mothers. And when we saw you two together, we saw ourselves. The beauty of celebrity is never needing a physical encounter with someone to affect their life, and you made us realize that realistic representation of the relationships between mothers and daughters of color (the good, the bad, AND the ugly), is not only significant, but essential, in regards to us blossoming into the well rounded women we're intended to be. You showed me that its absolutely normal and okay for you a grown woman and be best friends, overly dramatic, extra mushy, and extremely over protective when it comes to our mommy's. The balance of strength and vulnerability you shared with the rest of us in regards to what it means to be a daughter of a phenomenal woman, was a revelation to mothers and daughters not just in the hip hop community, but everywhere. They say you may forget what someone did to you, but you'll never forget the way someone made you feel. With that said, the legacy of the true queen, Rita Owens, will never be in vain. May you forever rest in power.
All of my love, prayers, and support are sent to the Owens family at this time.