In last week’s column, I shared how some women consider being called an aunt a slur because of how it made them feel. Yet there are others like politician Maxine Waters; classic R & B singer Anita Baker, and former First Lady Michelle Obama who have embraced being called an aunt.  The question is why do some embrace being called aunt while others shun it?   The answer might be found in an unlikely place: popular culture.  In this week’s column we’ll take a look at dynamic television depictions that show how being an aunt is complicated but a positive thing.

One of my first lessons on how to be an aunt came when I was 7 years old and watched the television show Sanford and Son.  “You old fish-eyed fool” I remember thinking “What does that even mean?” and who was this woman saying it?   Aunt Esther was tall, statuesque, had a hat on her head, purse on her arm and a bible in her hand.  She established for contemporary audiences what the Aunt should be: powerful, God fearing, loyal, courageous and a truth teller.  Even though the show was focused on the relationship between Fred Sanford and his son Lamont, even Redd Foxx knew that his show would be incomplete without the special touch and love of an aunt.  Aunt Esther was fiercely loyal to the family and committed to maintaining the family legacy.

Fast forward to 1990 and another beloved television aunt is introduced in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.   This time she is a college professor who opens her Bel Air mansion to her west Philadelphia born and raised nephew. Aunt Viv (both dark-skinned and light skinned) gave an enormous amount to love to Will and instilled values that would help him become the best young man possible. Just over a decade later in 2001 comes Aunt Wanda and The Bernie Mac Show.   Despite a demanding career and the pain of an unfulfilled desire to have children, Aunt Wanda loves her two nieces and nephew with a protective maternal love.

A more recent depiction of the television aunt is Aunt Olu from the comedy Bob Hearts Abishola.   In Aunt Olu’s case, she supports her niece Abishola’s professional dreams and sometimes blurs the line between being concerned and intrusive.  But it is all designed to bring out the best in Abishola.

These aunts from television shows in the last 50 years have shown aspects of the African American woman’s life, experiences and how she transforms the African American community.   More importantly, they show the full spectrum of the African American aunt’s influences both inside and outside the home.   Each one of these aunts illustrate the truth in the words of Proverbs 31:26 “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.”  They each instill wisdom, show kindness, and share love with their respective family members.

Shewanda Riley (Aunt Wanda), PhD, is a Fort Worth-based author of “Love Hangover: Moving from Pain to Purpose After a Relationship Ends” and “Writing to the Beat of God’s Heart: A Book of Prayers for Writers.”   Email her at or follow her on Twitter @shewanda.   Find out more about her new podcast “The Chocolate Auntie Podcast” at