Published on June 6th, 2019 | by Feminista Jones0
RECLAIMING BLACK MOTHERHOOD
In 2009, My ex-husband and I separated and agreed that he would become primary caregiver of our then three-year-old son for a while. Though it was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever made, it was done in the best interest of my son, who did not ask to be born, much less into such a tumultuous time in his mother’s life. My mother dying brought a lot of things to the surface for me. I felt like every trauma I’d experienced came back to me, hitting me like a ton of bricks. I wasn’t in a good place at all. I knew that in order to be the best person I could be, the best mom I could be, I would need some time to get myself together. I identified the areas in my life that needed improvement—namely my mental health—and took the terrifying, but necessary, steps to heal, grow, and become stronger. When I opened up about this online a while back, there was quite a bit of negative backlash, but mostly positive support. A few people spoke up sharing that they were going through something similar. My ex even wrote a guest post on another blog of mine, sharing his side of things. We were both struck by how many people had a problem with how we’d worked things out for our son. First, it was insulting to him as a father to suggest that he should be allowed less time with our son than I am simply because I’m his mother. Second, it was insulting to me to suggest that I did not love my son or that I was being selfish because I want what’s best for him; what we decided was best does not have to fit someone else’s ideal, and that should have been understood and accepted. Third, with all of the talk about “fatherlessness” in Black communities, you would think he’d be commended for having such a strong, leading role in our son’s upbringing. As many women lamented the absence of their own children’s fathers, I admit I was shocked and hurt to read some of them insulting me for making this temporary decision. I struggled with the dark thoughts convincing me that I was a horrible mother—what mother willingly lets her child’s father have more time with him during the week than she had? What kind of neglectful mother sees her child only on weekends? That distorted, backwards thinking was how I’d been raised to regard mothers who aren’t primary caregivers. Something had to be wrong with a mother who did not provide primary care to her child(ren) because fathers had nothing on a mother’s love and nurturing. I’d not yet evolved in my thinking about fathers’ roles in child rearing, and as a child raised in the hood among single-mother-led households, the idea of a father having primary custody or providing primary care of a child wasn’t an idea to which I could relate or even fully understand.
It was around this time that I began digging deeper into the historical experiences of Black mothers in America, seeking understanding and perhaps answers to the questions I had about my own ability to be a “good” Black mother, according to whichever cultural prescriptions were written for me, even before I was born. I’d heard the “rules” and had received advice, but I thought it important to challenge what I’d been taught, how I’d been raised, and whatever ideas about Black motherhood did not resonate with me. By way of my collegiate studies, I did at least understand that many of the things we understand as guidelines for rearing Black children, particularly as mothers, are deeply rooted in our historical experiences with racism and sexism, and feeling obligated to both protect our children from White society’s loathing of them and prove that we are, indeed, “good” mothers.
The lives of Black women have been regulated since we were first brought to this new world as servants and slaves. As owned laborers with no access to rights or freedoms, our bodies and production (and those of our children) belonged primarily to White men. Over time, the assumptions about Black womanhood were shaped by our ability to work for and serve White people. Over time, Black women have been denied access to the notion of standard womanhood and femininity; we continue to be seen first as workers, not mothers and wives as White women are. This likely contributes to the lack of empathy afforded Black women who face incarceration and makes for more difficult experiences when others may be granted empathetic leniency. And since, historically, Black women have not been accepted as legitimate mothers or wives, because we had so long been denied claim to our own children and legally prevented from being married, we have not been afforded the same consideration for our humanity as White women.
Are Black women allowed to simply be mothers? Are Black women allowed to experience motherhood fully, from conception to rearing, without being subjected to doubt, criticism, or all-out vilification? And are Black women allowed to become mothers without carrying the burden of perpetually owing someone, somewhere, something? I argue that we are beginning to see a change in the ways in which Black women embark on the journey of motherhood, and the changes are positive and supported by promising discourse and imagery on social media. From blogs that center the experiences of Black mothers, to the pregnant belly pics on Instagram, to the conferences that focus solely on the lives and experiences of Black mothers, we’re seeing an increase in positive representation of Black motherhood that directly counters a generation of vilification. Whereas the Moynihan Report burned into people’s minds the idea of a dangerous Black matriarch who is primarily responsible for the destruction of the Black family by way of emasculating the Black man, alienating him from his rightful role as leader and decision maker, many Black mothers of today are thriving in loving intimate relationships, being supported by close-knit families, and are the driving forces behind the positive growth of their communities. And they’re doing all this while raising Black children who are loved, valued, and come into earlier understanding of their importance to their world and the strength of their own humanity. Online communities provide safe spaces for Black mothers and have been instrumental in creating support networks for minority women, who often feel left out of mainstream discourses on motherhood. Mainstream websites have long featured content and advertising catering to pregnant women and mothers, though primarily geared to White women and families, and the participants could not always relate to the things Black women share or answer the questions Black women had about their pregnancies and their first years as new mothers. With every topic, from managing the work-life balance discussions to breastfeeding, Black mothers have struggled to fit into many of the major motherhood communities and discussions online. So, as we often do, we created our own. In the early 2000s Black women were creating our own chat rooms and message boards on sites like Babycenter.com or iVillage.com called “Black Families” or “African American Mommies” to create space to discuss parenting with cultural nuances others might not appreciate or understand. It was in these spaces we could ask questions about taking care of our babies’ hair without getting answers like “Ooooh use Johnson & Johnson No More Tears!” or “Why would you put olive oil on a baby’s scalp?!” We could have a nuanced, often heated discussions about spanking and how Black mothers struggle with being ridiculed or accused of trying to parent like White mothers for not spanking our children. Despite being accused of being separatist or even racist, in some instances, because we gravitated toward our special interest communities, we continue to find our ways to each other and these spaces that welcomed and connected Black women from all over the world.
The support systems created and sustained online play a key role in bringing mothers together to share their experiences and collectively advocate on their own behalf. It begins with changing the narratives around Black motherhood and it continues with creating, building, and strengthening the communities and networks that specifically cater to issues affecting Black mothers in the twenty-first century. Anthonia Akitunde is a Black female journalist and creator of Mater Mea, a “website that tells the stories of women at the intersection of motherhood and career [that] offers a more realistic depiction of Black women in the many spaces they occupy: as mothers, daughters, employees and employers, lovers, and friends.”23 Launched in 2012, Mater Mea has grown into a hub for all things related to Black women’s experiences as mothers, and the high-quality content, including well-researched educational material and intimate profiles of Black mothers from all walks of life, is one of the best sources of information for and about Black mothers.
One woman who has been able to take this community offline is Tanya Hayles, a Black mother living in Toronto, Canada. Hayles created Black Moms Connection (BMC), a digital space that began with twenty mothers and now boasts over ten thousand members worldwide. It began as a Facebook group in 2015 and became an incorporated nonprofit in 2016. Hayles, an event planner and writer who has contributed to Blavity, Teen Vogue, and Today’s Parent, set out to combine her various skills to bring together Black women from around the world to network and engage in discourse about what it means to be a Black mother in today’s world. As Black women find themselves feeling empowered to proclaim the joys and struggles of their motherhood experiences boldly, owning their truths about the great moments and the truly awful parts, they are taking to social media and other digital platforms to share their stories and create new narratives of Black motherhood in the twenty-first century. Less than two hundred years ago, enslaved Black women had no claim to their own children and wrestled with their inability to protect their children from harm and sufficiently nourish and nurture those children they were able to keep close. And within the last hundred years, Black mothers have been vulnerable to the racist whims of White liberal social workers who arbitrarily make decisions about Black mothers’ fitness. Too often, the state separates Black mothers from their children under the guise of “protective services.” Black mothers have the right to experience healthy pregnancies, have safe deliveries, be protected before and after childbirth, have smooth and fair foster and adoption processes. They have the right to adequate paid time off and access to affordable and safe childcare options, and to know that their children’s health and well-being are not jeopardized by the pervasive discrimination that follows from the assumption that Black women and their children do not need the same level of care as White women and their children, which leads to negligence at various stages of their lives. I envision a world in which Black moms and Black children who go missing receive the same attention as White mothers and children who go missing—the world stops spinning and every news channel has nonstop twenty-four-hour coverage that includes interviews with everyone who ever saw the missing woman or child even once. I imagine a world in which Black mothers do not have to choose between working to keep roofs over their children’s heads and being satisfactorily present in their children’s lives as they grow and develop. I hope to see a world in which Black mothers, and all mothers, be they teenagers, trans women, adopting mothers-to-be, married, or disabled are afforded the same access to healthcare, education, and growth opportunities. Mostly, I want to live in a world in which people no longer disregard Black mothers’ laments and outcries for support based on a centuries-old assumption that Black mothers not only can “do it all,” they must do it all, for themselves and for everyone else.
Excerpted from Reclaiming Our Space: How Black Feminists Are Changing the World From the Tweets to the Streets by Feminista Jones (Beacon Press, 2019). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.