Director Ava DuVernay doesn’t want anyone calling her “Auntie.” Oprah Winfrey says she cringes at the title and Gayle King thinks it should be reserved for the “old lady who lives in the neighborhood.”
This doesn’t apply to actual nieces and nephews, of course. The problem occurs when people who aren’t related to them or who have never even met them choose to put the title in front of their name.
According to these accomplished women, labeling a woman as auntie reeks of ageism. Perhaps it does. But I prefer to consider it as a badge of honor in a village of caring adults that fosters every child and shares the responsibility of raising them.
Auntie is used frequently in countries such as India and throughout Africa, where age signifies dignity and the elderly are considered an asset to the community rather than a burden. In African American culture, younger people sometimes use the title to signal respect toward an older woman who has proven to be audacious and wise.
Congresswoman Maxine Waters, for example, acquired the title “Auntie Maxine” because of her feisty verbal confrontations with Donald Trump. She sealed her position as black America’s favorite auntie during a 2017 congressional hearing where she interrupted a disrespectful Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin by repeating the phrase, “Reclaiming my time.”
At age 80, Waters seems to savor the title that millennials and others have bestowed upon her on social media. But some African American women want nothing to do with that kind of recognition, which some argue desexualizes black women.
Appearing on the podcast, “The Red Pill,” DuVernay, a 46-year-old Oscar-nominated director, told host Van Lathan that she doesn’t want people calling her “Auntie Ava,” on Twitter.
“Why? Am I that old?” she asked. “Because I don’t feel that old. And it’s not a respect thing … Auntie Ava, like … Aunt Jemima?”
Winfrey chimed in later, telling O magazine that she cringes at being called “Auntie” or “Mama” by anybody other than her nieces or godchildren — except when she is in Africa, where everybody refers to anyone older as “sister” or “auntie.”
King said she thinks the title should be reserved for people around the age of 85.
“I get that it’s a sign of respect, but no one’s calling Beyoncé Auntie Beyoncé,” she told O magazine.
The question of how young people should address adults is nothing new, and it’s not just an issue within the black community. Many people likely have pondered whether it is appropriate for a 7-year-old to call a 65-year-old by his or her first name.
DuVernay tweeted that she would happily respond to “Ms. DuVernay,” “Sis,” “Queen” or “Family” but she prefers simply, Ava. Winfrey says her preference is Oprah or “Lady O,” as fans sometimes call her.
Auntie is a more complex matter, though, especially for African Americans. To understand it, let’s first explain who this illustrious woman is.
Every family has one. She may be a real aunt, or she could be a cousin or a close friend of the family.
She is often the backbone of the African American family, the seasoned older woman who dispenses wisdom as readily as the sun releases its rays on a bright summer day. She always tells it like it is, even if no one appears to listen.
When it comes to matters of the family, she is not always right but regardless, she is never wrong. And she balks when anyone stationed beneath her perch on the familial hierarchy presumes to know more than she.
She insists on living her life on her own terms but has no qualms about exerting control over the lives of others. This is a woman who pulls no punches. She says what has to be said when no one else has the courage to say it. She speaks with a voice of authority, yet her tone is surprisingly gentle and comforting.
And when a family member needs her, she is the first to stand up and let you know that she’s got your back.
It is obvious why the black community as a whole would try to embrace this woman as its symbol of strength. Strong women always have been a staple for survival within the African American community. When black men have been unable to fulfill leadership roles — whether it was because they would not or could not due to societal circumstances — black women held families and communities together.
At a time when black children — boys, in particular — are at such high risk, our village can use as many aunties as we can get. The color of your skin does not matter. What’s important is the commitment in your heart.
Growing up, there were at least a half dozen aunties in my village of supporters. To most of the younger people in my family and some of their friends, I am Auntie Dahleen. Sometimes, I’m just auntie but rarely am I simply Dahleen.
I relish the title, but I do have limits.
Shortly after turning 50, I recall walking through a parking lot past a group of African American teenage boys who were standing around talking.
One of them yelled out, “You still got it, grandma!”
I’m sure he meant it with all due respect, but to a middle-aged woman stepping out in designer jeans and Jimmy Choo sandals, it sounded like an insult.