How Empire's Cookie Sheds Light on the Struggles of Incarcerated Black Mothers

by Raisa Habersham

What’s not to love about Cookie Lyon, the hood matriarch at the center of FOX’s hit show, Empire?

Played by Taraji P. Henson, Cookie is street-smart, fierce, and unapologetic, while still managing to be a sympathetic and vulnerable character. Everything about Cookie is bold—from the way she dresses to her quick-witted snaps at Lucious (Terrence Howard), her ex-husband and semi-nemesis, who built the successful Empire Entertainment using initial investment money she provided by dealing drugs. It is her drug dealing that landed her in prison and kept her away from her three sons.

Though Cookie is the family’s matriarch—and its her sacrifice that has set them all up in the lap of wealth, fame, and, luxury—she still has to fight for respect from Lucious and their sons—especially from her youngest son, Hakeem, who often lobbies insults about her incarceration.

While many may be wrapped up in the cosmic mix of glamour and OG attitude that is Cookie, her background provides the character with a depth and complexity that still lacks from portrayals of black women on TV. Cookie represents the substantial number of black mothers who are separated from their children while serving prison sentences.

Already neglected and made invisible by our society, African American women represent more than 50 percent of women in prisons. And according to data by The Sentencing Project, Black women have a 1 in 19 likelihood of spending a lifetime in prison, the highest likelihood of any racial group. Across the board, women are also more likely to enter prison for drug or property offenses, much like the fictional Cookie Lyon.

And while there has been heavy discussions within the Black community about how the prison industrial complex unjustly targets and affects black men, few even mention how the incarceration of black women—especially black mothers—cuts just as deep. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics 28 percent of black women had minor children at home were also more likely to be raising their children alone. Thus, not only does the incarceration of black mothers separate children from their mothers, but it separates them from the only caretaker and provider they have. The number of black incarcerated women also correlates with roughly one-third of black black children in foster care. From these statistics, it is arguable that the number of black mothers and children affected by the prison system are further subjected to social inequities, further dismantling the black home.

The splintering of the black home is further compounded by the 1 in 15 likelihood that black children are more likely to enter the prison system. Not to mention young black girls who are victims of abuse are more likely to proceed through the justice system as an offender than white girls, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. In comparison, white girls are more likely to be treated for their abuse and are often viewed as victims.

These statistics prove Cookie’s role is even more imperative given the voice many black women in the judicial system don’t have. It’s not to say that all black mothers should be excused for their crimes or that they are not responsible for the crimes they’ve been incarcerated for committing. Rather, I’m saying that we should be looking at the social, economic, and cultural influences that led to the women ending up in prison; as well as looking at how their incarceration will have long-term impacts on their families. There should be a better system in place for them to provide for their children while in prison, as black women in prison face different challenges than black men do.

Cookie's character, along with with characters on Netflix’s acclaimed “Orange is The New Black,” humanize black women, who are just as much victims of the prison industrial complex as their black male and white counterparts. They provide a more nuanced look at who these women are—before, during, and after they enter the correctional system. So often, we paint those labeled as “criminals” with broad strokes, failing to empathize or seek out understanding of the circumstances that landed them in prison. By creating complex characters, who happen to have been incarcerated, these representations battle the stereotypes lumped on women of color who have been locked up.

Hopefully, these depictions will also lead to more understanding of real-life incarcerated black women.

Photo: Taraji P. Henson stars as Cookie Lyon in FOX's Empire

Raisa Habersham is regular contributor at For Harriet.

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