Mama's Gon' Buy You a Mocking Bird: Why #BlackMothersStillMatterA Short Genealogy of Black Mothers' Maternal Activism and Politicized Care
The Black mothers of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, including mothers who have lost a child through ritualized state violence, have now begun to speak out, positing Black motherhood as a site of resistance and contestation to state violence. They have also dismantled much of the racist and sexist imagery that surrounds Black motherhood as an institution and praxis. This essay will explore past Black maternal activism and current labor and politicized care as embodied through Margaret Garner, Korryn Gaines, Lezley McSpadden, Geneva Reed-Veal, and cofounder of the #BlackLivesMatter network, Patrisse Cullors, to elucidate the many ways in which their images and voices complicate and layer society's many misconceptions of what Black motherhood represents. Utilizing Black feminist, queer feminist, and reproductive justice scholarship, this essay will argue that the mothers of the #BlackLives-Matter movement represent the past and current noncomplacency of Black mothers. It will also rearticulate how their maternal activism and life stories show that love enacted as politicized care continues to dismantle the gendered and racialized assumptions of Black mothers as an institution and a subjective identity.
Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.
When writing "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Refining Difference" in 1980, Audre Lorde did not know Trayvon Martin. Yet the similarity between what Lorde is describing and our political situation today is chilling. In 2013, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter, even though he shot a Black American teenager in the street in 2012. Of the jury who acquitted Zimmerman, all were women and five out of six were mothers (Alcindor). One might think that these jurors, especially the ones who were mothers, would have empathized with the anger and sadness of Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon's mother, who had buried her child a year earlier. They did not. They did not see their own praxis as mothers aligned with Sybrina's. Instead, these jurors related to Zimmerman's fear of Trayvon. They viewed Trayvon as a menace and a thug, not a child, thus inevitably seeing his murder as justifiable. Further, and just as insidious, the jury did not view Fulton as a mother like themselves. They viewed Fulton as the root of the problem. Fulton, a Black mother, was viewed by the Florida jury as Black mothers had been before her. Through their own socialized lenses of racism, sexism, and classism, these jurors evaluated Sybrina's, and [End Page 876] by consequence, Trayvon's humanity as worthless. Their acquittal of Zimmerman did not just mean that he would be free of the consequences of his actions, but also signified that Sybrina's grief and heartache and Trayvon's young life did not matter. They did as Lorde imagined—turned their backs on the reasons why Trayvon died.
One of the most treacherous outcomes of anti-Blackness is the continual denial of Black humanity. This denial continues to be deeply tied to the racist, sexist, ageist, and classist mythology of Black motherhood. Constructions of Black motherhood still serve as one of the crucial aspects of maintaining the white supremacist project, and "as both biological and social reproducers, it is only natural that Black mothers would be a key focus of this racist ideology" (Roberts 9). The dominant US portrayal of what is and what it means to be a Black mother continues to reiterate various racialized and gendered pathologies and to pigeonhole their mothering. For instance, various state and federal programs continue to reiterate Black mothers' incompetence, using language and law to deny to their families' equitable treatment. Further, popularized imagery and stereotypes of Black mothers as backward, selfish, drug addicted, and wanton have allowed many institutions and media to replicate these reductive and inhumane sentiments.
In writing in 1980, Audre Lorde knew that Black motherhood and white motherhood were felt and experienced differently. Lorde also knew that they were understood and seen differently. Until today, and over and over again, we continue to see countless videos, news stories, reports, and statistics about Black children dying, about Black mothers suffering, and hearing policy after policy being created or used to justify it all. Scholars continue to contest the assumptions and projections of white supremacy onto the Black mother, and the current visibility of the network and social media campaign of #Black-LivesMatter has in many ways aided in this dismantling and rupture.
The Black mothers of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, including mothers who have lost a child through ritualized state violence, have now begun to speak out, positing Black motherhood as a site of resistance and contestation to state violence. They have also dismantled much of the racist and sexist imagery that surrounds Black motherhood as an institution and praxis. This essay will explore past maternal activism and current Black mother labor and politicized care as embodied through Margaret Garner, Korryn Gaines, Lezley McSpadden, Geneva Reed-Veal, and cofounder of the #Black-LivesMatter network, Patrisse Cullors, to elucidate the many ways in which their images and voices complicate and layer society's many misconceptions of what Black motherhood represents. Utilizing Black feminist, queer feminist, and reproductive justice scholarship, this essay will argue that the [End Page 877] mothers of the #BlackLivesMatter movement represent the past and current noncomplacency of Black mothers. It will also rearticulate how their maternal activism and life stories show that love enacted as politicized care continues to dismantle the gendered and racialized assumptions about Black mothers as an institution and a subjective identity.
when your body and your children aren't yours: margaret garner and infanticide as a political act
Black motherhood has been scrutinized, policed, and locked within a racist and sexist prism since the beginning of the Black African presence within the United States. In Killing the Black Body, law professor and Black feminist scholar Dorothy Roberts contends that American definitions of womanhood, and by consequence, motherhood were never permitted to enslaved Black women. Seen and thought of as abject and nothing more than property, Black women were exiled from the institutional and vernacular praxis of mothering and womanhood. Treated as laborers and eventual incubators for prospective enslaved beings, Black enslaved women were routinely subjected not only to callously cruel views of their humanity, but also to the psychosocial imaginations of the white supremacist project. Instead of being viewed as human beings with free will, choice, and certain value systems that were to be inhabited by generations to come, Black women and men, and by consequence Black children, were only viewed through the lenses of racialized and gendered pathology. During enslavement, what Patricia Hill Collins identifies as the "controlling images" of the Jezebel, mammy, and matriarch all came to serve as the rationale for why Black enslaved women were and needed to be treated in the way they were (72–92). White supremacist violence that was often sexual violence against Black women systematically twisted in ways that served at once to blame or pathologize Black women for their subjugation while also attributing to them a ball-busting strength and power that continually denied their material conditions. Roberts contends that the mammy and matriarch stereotypes served to regulate and police enslaved Black women's bodies in the same way that the Jezebel stereotype did. Roberts argues that the Jezebel controlling image promoted the invented belief that enslaved Black women were inherently promiscuous, lacking the moral virtue of white women, and had lascivious impulses that needed to be regulated through the institution of enslavement. This belief also served to rationalize the brutal and routine raping of Black enslaved women, and the inherent immorality thought to be inhabited within Black enslaved women was also projected onto their abilities to serve as "proper mothers" to their children. Roberts asserts that the viewing of enslaved Black women as inherently promiscuous also led to the belief [End Page 878] that Black women had their children "with abandon," inevitably requiring the government and/or the slave system itself to regulate their pregnancies and procreation (10–16).
The mammy served as a maternal and enslaved ideal. However, the mammy was not an ideal mother to her own children but only to the enslaver's children and was consistently regulated by the enslaver's wife and therefore did not exhibit maternal control over these children but only functioned as a babysitter of sorts. The mammy "had no real authority over either the white children she raised or the Black children she bore" (13). The matriarch was the opposite side of the same coin to the mammy. The matriarch was seen as the negligent Black mother used to justify the slave system's regulation and control over Black children. The matriarch was the enslaved Black mother who never attempted to control her fertility in any way, a mother who had such little regard for her children that she never cared how many she had, nor cared much for what would happen to them once they arrived. While the mammy stereotype applied to enslaved Black women while they were under white supervision and within the confines of the enslaver's household, the matriarch stereotype was applied to enslaved Black women within the confines of their slave quarters. The matriarch was controlling, belittling, violent, and inhumane to her children. The matriarch was also careless, incompetent, and never kept her children's best interest in her heart or mind. These three invented images of Black womanhood and motherhood sought to regulate, redefine, and justify the insidious nature of enslavement and to erase the brutality that enslaved Black women, mothers, and children had to endure to survive its tangible, philosophical, and psychological structures (Roberts 11–13). Black enslaved women had to mire through and resist these restrictive confines using few means and tools.1
In Arn't I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South, White argues that not only did enslaved Black women resist the institution of enslavement in a myriad of ways, but they sought to regulate their fertility and wield loving authority over their children, and over their own subjective identities. White specifies that enslaved Black women "sometimes violently resisted sexual exploitation. Since Southern laws did not recognize the rape of a Black woman as a crime, often the only recourse slave women had was to fight off their assailants" (78). As she recounts,
When Jermaine Louguen's mother was attacked she picked up a stick and dealt her would-be rapist a blow to the head that left him staggering. She stood her ground even as he rebounded with a knife and finally she knocked him out cold. Gus Feaster's mother had help in doing what Cherry Louguen managed to do by herself. Along with another woman Feaster's mother was approached by an overseer who [End Page 879] tried to abuse them both. Their protestations that they were religious women did not halt his advances, which were made under the threat of the lash. The women had the choice of fighting or yielding. After the overseer had taken off his clothes, the women pounced upon him, wrestled him to the ground and then ran away.(78)
White argues that the above incidents of resistance weren't typical and that acts like these were few and far between due to the insidious violent and deadly nature of enslavement. However, this historical example cuts away at the very crux of the projected Jezebel image that says enslaved Black women were inherently promiscuous and never once resisted the many various forms of sexual violence and servitude. This characterization ultimately becomes a lie, myth, and invention when judged against the actual and accurate historical record.
When it came to procreating with abandon, the projected tenet of the matriarch stereotype, White contends that enslaved Black women often practiced what she calls "passive forms of resistance," poisoning their enslavers, regulating their fertility, feigning illness, faking pregnancies, and self-inducing miscarriages (81–84). There isn't any conclusive evidence of this, save historical records and logs of enslavers, according to White. She does assert, however, that in these records enslavers kept articulating their suspicions that enslaved women were regulating their pregnancies as well as practicing various methods of birth control. Further, she argues that enslaved Black women certainly "had reason not to bear and nurture children who could be sold away from them at a slave master's whim. They had ample cause to want to deny whites the satisfaction of realizing a profit on the birth of their children" (86). These resistive acts of regulating their fertility were some of the tangible ways enslaved Black women sought to override the many injustices they faced when it came to bodily autonomy and actualizing their personhood within an institution set out to deny them and their children their humanity.
Another resistive act that some Black women practiced during enslavement was infanticide. Although some historians may have seen infanticide as cruel or as an act of a mentally ill or incapacitated person, when it came to enslavement, infanticide in many ways can be seen as a deliberate act of maternal activism and love. One of the most famous cases of this act is found in the story of Margaret Garner. Garner was enslaved in Kentucky and escaped with her family and a group of other enslaved Blacks in 1856 when they crossed the frozen Ohio River one night. After making it to Ohio, the group split up in fear of being caught and ultimately planned to meet up later in Canada. Some of the group did eventually make it to Canada, but Garner's family did not: "The family was found by slave catchers and US Marshals at the home of Margaret's uncle, former slave Joe Kite" (Salamon). When faced [End Page 880] with the reality of her and her children returning to enslavement, Garner slit her young baby daughter's throat, killing her, made a four-inch cut on the throat of her other son, while hitting her other child on the head with a shovel. Garner's experience with the legal system played out as follows:
If charged with murder, Margaret Garner could be tried in a free state and later be pardoned for her crime. Ultimately, the judge ruled that the Federal law—the Fugitive Slave Act—took precedence over the state law, and Margaret was returned to a slave-holding state with two of her children. Later, Ohio authorities obtained a warrant to arrest her for murder, but were never able to find her as her master kept moving her from city to city. She died in 1858.(Salamon)
Some journalists during the time of the case who wrote about Garner and her children saw her as a hero who took the idealized constitutional pursuit of liberty and freedom for herself and her children into her own hands. Toni Morrison, who was one of the first to present Garner's story to audiences worldwide with her novel Beloved, in many ways solidified the continued interest in Garner's maternal narrative today. Others wrote of Garner as a callous and unfit mother who put herself and children in harm's way by escaping in the first place, using her story to further validate the idea that Black mothers were inherently unfit and pathological. Garner's case highlights the many ways in which enslavement, slave catchers, the criminal justice system, and the state conceived of a Black mother and her children. This is what Garner knew, and this is exactly why she asserted her authority over her children through infanticide. We might understand that infanticide, to Garner, was not an act of violence, nor did it inscribe her as an unfit mother. To Garner, it was the exact opposite. Her praxis of motherhood, using infanticide as politicized care for her children, let the state and her former enslaver know that because they had been born of her body, she owned her children and they did not. She asserted that it was her right to take their lives, as she was the one who gave them life in the first place. Just as Garner anticipated, the court, instead of recognizing that Garner took an actual human life, ultimately decided not to charge her, nor try her for murder. Instead, the Federal Fugitive Slave Law took precedence and only charged Garner for the destruction of her enslaver's and the state's property. The murder of her own child was seen by the racist public as Garner's destroying property that belonged to any and every one outside of herself. Just as Garner did not own her body, she did not, according to the state, own her children's bodies either.
Garner's narrative we know to be one of many that tells of a mother who sought to wield loving control and determination over her children rather than having a slave system or the state take this power. This period [End Page 881] of American history is exactly when the conception of the Black mother as "pathological," "bad," and "unfit" comes to be solidified within the social and political fabric of the American consciousness. These restrictions on the liberties and freedoms of Black mothers would continue for centuries, with the creation of policies, laws, and remixed controlling imagery that have all aimed to stifle, silence, and repress the authority and love of Black mothers. Simultaneously, as the oppression of Black mothers has continued, so has Black mothers' resistance.
"you see these fucking rebels back here … they'll live on forever": the real role of the police, korryn gaines, and black mothering as politicized care
A neoliberal and post-racial mythology continues to blame Black mothers for society's decline today. Black mothers now have to traverse these racialized and gendered maternal imaginaries not only from the state but also from their own communities. In Mama's Gun: Black Maternal Figures and the Politics of Transgression, Marlo D. David asserts that although within Black communities "black mothers signify origins, tradition, family cohesion, strength, and survival among their racial familiars," these significations, coupled with "prescriptions of respectability and expectations of racial conformity often place black mothers under undue scrutiny by members of their own family and community" (4–5). To David, it is America's continued "emphasis on respectability, marriage, domesticity, self-reliance, normative gender roles, and heterosexuality" that ultimately enables society to continue to code "all black mothers as 'bad mothers' who are unfit child-bearers for the idealized white, heteropatriarchal nation" (5). Just as Garner's love for her children was questioned by white supremacist coding that existed outside of herself, Korryn Gaines's love for her children comes to be questioned in the same way, not only by the heteropatriarchal and racist state, but also by her racialized male familiars. Gaines's resistance to the state's authority, the police, as well as her teaching her young children to question and resist this same authority by remaining steadfast in their suspicions of white supremacist patriarchy are all used to justify her subsequent death and her ultimate unsuitability to be thought of and remembered as a good mother. Gaines's videotaped interaction with the police illuminates the ways in which the police within a neoliberal America function more as a moral judge and jury than as enforcers of the law.
In The History of Policing in the United States, Gary Potter asserts that this neoliberal reality is born from the actual history of the police system. Potter contends that while law enforcement was created in part to protect [End Page 882] business owners' property and ensure capitalist and specifically mercantile investments, the police system's beginnings also have their roots within the systems of enslavement and white supremacy, the very systems that came to define Black bodies in particular as threats to capitalist interests. Mirroring the structure of Europe's night watch system, policing in the United States began in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia around the late 1600s and early 1700s, and "was composed of community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn of impending danger" (Potter). Potter explains that most individuals who volunteered for the night watch were in actuality trying to evade service in the military and were made by their towns to serve these night watch duties as some sort of punishment. The formalized structure of law enforcement today did not become actualized in various parts of the United States until around the 1830s. Therefore, idealized neoliberal prescriptions of honorability, heroism, and courage that are currently associated with US law enforcement are not part of the historical record when it comes to the founding of the police system.
Additionally, Potter argues that the impetus for a more centralized structure was not due to a rampant crime wave in cities, but rather had to do with city growth and urbanization. The "United States was no longer a collection of small cities and rural hamlets. Urbanization was occurring at an ever-quickening pace and [an] old informal watch and constable system was no longer adequate to control disorder." The formation of a more centralized law enforcement structure was established within Southern cities, however, in a completely different way. The roots of the police system in the South were directly birthed out of what was known as the slave patrol, which was expected to perform three specific duties:
(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules. Following the Civil War, these vigilante-style organizations evolved in modern Southern police departments primarily as a means of controlling freed slaves who were now laborers working in an agricultural caste system, and enforcing "Jim Crow" segregation laws, designed to deny freed slaves equal rights and access to the political system.(Potter)
While the Southern policing system had its roots in surveying and policing Black bodies' movements, and the Northern policing system had its roots in protecting businesses and securing proprietor interests from disorder, both policing systems essentially had to establish what constituted crime and [End Page 883] disorder and who was deemed criminal. The systems also expanded their social control to include crime prevention.
To Potter, this social control was inevitably based upon the modern police force's conception of "dangerous classes" of people. In Northern cities, dangerous classes were thought to be made up of immigrant populations—workers who were pro-union and wanted more workers' rights, and communities who were formally uneducated due to racism, conceptions of citizenship, and classism. Although maintaining the different origin stories of Northern and Southern police practices, Potter argues that after becoming centralized and municipal, all police had an established objective of policing people and communities that represented these dangerous classes. The Southern slave patrol that sought out and apprehended Margaret Garner during enslavement would eventually merge with a centralized Northern system of policing that would now question Korryn Gaines about her parenting skills, infringe upon her freedom of movement, and ultimately murder her because of its assertion that she was dangerous, a bad mother, and inevitably a thug.
In March 2016, a few months before Korryn Gaines was brutally murdered and her son shot in her Baltimore home, Gaines was pulled over by the Baltimore police department due to a lack of tags and a license plate on her vehicle. The video posted online by Wade Daniel is terrifying to watch, to say the least, but the video also serves as a sort of foreboding as to what awaits Gaines in the months that follow. Nine minutes into the video of the traffic stop, after Gaines gets her citation from the officer, Gaines asks for her car keys back, which the officer had taken out of the ignition a few minutes earlier. The officer informs Gaines that she will not be getting her car keys back, as a tow truck is set to arrive to impound her vehicle, and he tells her if she does not comply by removing herself and her children from the vehicle when it arrives, she will be subject to arrest.
Gaines responds to the officer saying, "Listen you're not going to kidnap me, I've never been arrested, I'm not committing a crime, there is no victim here, so the first chance you put your hands on me, I promise that I will own your ass and that department over there." The reality of Black mothers being taken away from their children by the state is not only a part of the historical vestiges of enslavement, but also of Jim Crow. This separation continues in the contemporary relationship that many Black women have with the judicial system and prison industrial complex. Gaines is calling not only on an accurate reality that Black women and Black mothers have with the state, but also a real relationship that they have with racist law enforcement. The officer looks back at Gaines and responds jokingly, all the while laughing, appearing to consider Gaines's threats idle. The officer also scoffs at Gaines's own knowledge about herself and about her history by laughing directly in her face [End Page 884] in response to her statement about the kidnapping of Black mothers by the state. Gaines, visibly more enraged, proceeds to explain to the officer that he is planning to steal her car, kidnap her and her children, and that she is not planning to comply with his orders. After the officer leaves, Gaines instructs her five-year-old to take over video recording for her because she explains to him that "they're going to try to fight me. Do you understand? And I want you to record every part. Do you understand? Don't be afraid."
She then explains to the officer that she has warned family members as well as her children about them, and that she is "not complying to [their] criminal fucking ways." Gaines calls the officers "pigs," keeps asking them for a "delegation of authority," and asserts that the officers are only there to "get money" and that she refuses to participate. After Gaines's son, who is still recording, begins to cry, Gaines instructs him to stop crying while hugging and kissing him and says, "you stop crying, OK? You let them know that they stole your mother and you're gonna fight them."
"What did I just tell you?" she asks her son.
The child stops crying and repeats after his mother: "don't cry."
After the tow truck arrives, Gaines brings her son and daughter into the front seat of the car to sit with her. As the officer attempts to grab her baby daughter, Gaines yells, "Don't put your hands on me. This is my child, get off of her!" and the officer backs off. Gaines then proceeds to tell her son, "Don't be afraid."
"You see what they do to us right? You fight them!"
"They are not for us."
"They want to kill us, and you never, EVER back down from them."
The officer, hearing this exchange, interrupts Gaines midsentence and says, "We don't want to kill you. We're your friends." Gaines retorts to her son "Do you believe that?" and he replies "no." Gaines continues, "he's seen videos of ya'll shooting people that look like his father and shit. So, don't even talk to him." The officer, now angry, tells Gaines, "you know the way you're raising your children is wrong." Gaines responds with heightened anger:
Oh, to go against the fucking law that wants to kill them? Of course, I won't raise no submissive-ass fucking children. Absolutely not! I don't have to lie to him. I can pull up a video for him right now of you killing people for no fucking reason. People that look like his uncle, his brother, his sister, his—anybody! [End Page 885]
After the last bit of dialogue, the video ends and fades to black with Gaines caressing her daughter in the front seat, her son still recording, and all the while the officers are trying to pull her out of the car. This bone-chilling traffic-stop video and the video of the August 2016 seven-hour standoff between Gaines and the police, which ended with Gaines's murder, are clouded in mystery and discernable conspiracy. Although it seems as if the traffic stop video does not go viral until after the standoff video, what is clear is that Gaines was actively engaged in social media to share her thoughts, her mothering journey, and, from her perspective, a healthy suspicion of law enforcement. Gaines, only twenty-three years old, felt that law enforcement functioned as a gang of thugs who conspired in Black harassment and murder and was never really interested in serving or protecting citizens.
The traffic stop and standoff videos as well as Gaines's conversation with her young son provide hints and questions about what Margaret Garner might have communicated to her young children before she tried to take their lives. What did she say to them? Did she let them know that she loved them? Did she have to say? Didn't killing them imply and translate to them that she did love them? Perhaps Garner saw her act of infanticide as the ultimate form of love and subjectivity she could give to her children in the context of enslavement. And although we are only privy to conversations Gaines had with her children through the videos she shared on social networks, Gaines seemed to also think that teaching her children political acumen and history, and giving them a dose of reality that the police were not their protectors nor their friends, was her way to honor her children's subjectivity as well as her own. Gaines's teaching them to know and speak truth to power about state violence was one of the ways Gaines expressed her love to her children in the form of politicized care.
After her murder, Gaines's beliefs about mothering, law enforcement, and what she saw as her rights as a citizen began to be debated by various news outlets. In "Korryn Gaines May Have Been a Sovereign Citizen: Here's What You Need to Know," published by The Root in September of last year, author Stephen A. Crockett, Jr., argues that Gaines might have seen herself as a sovereign citizen based on her responses in the traffic stop video. He explains that Gaines repeatedly asks for the officers' delegation of authority, and repeatedly states that she doesn't "follow their laws." In his article, Crockett defines what a sovereign citizen is and believes:
A sovereign citizen is a person who holds complex anti-government beliefs and doesn't believe in government-ordered practices like paying taxes or registering a car with the state. Sovereigns also believe that by denouncing their citizenship, ripping up their Social Security card, and refusing to pay taxes or register their vehicle with the appropriate state, they are no longer ruled by federal law. [End Page 886]
Gaines, despite her critics' assertions of her fragile and deteriorated mental state, felt she was protecting her own liberties and her children's freedoms by refusing to comply in the traffic video. As a sovereign citizen, Gaines may have felt that she was also well within her rights to refuse to come out of her house and surrender to police. Although Gaines's state of mind, beliefs, and how she went about raising her children were questionable to some, considering the historical and contemporaneous nature of Black communities' relationships with police, it is not hard to see why Gaines might have believed and behaved in the way she did.
Even after Crockett's article shed light on Gaines's possible view of herself as a sovereign citizen, many Black men also came to criticize Gaines and her parenting skills, utilizing many of the same American strongholds of respectability, patriarchy, and individual responsibility that have always sought to define Black motherhood as pathological and unfit. The history of enslavement, white supremacy, and the police system in the United States, coupled with the continual systematic and institutional praxis of using Black mothers as embodied examples of what is wrong with our society, left Gaines to face a double bind when it came to other people's judgment of her parenting—not only by the heteropatriarchal and racist state but also by her racialized male familiars. Navigating through these oppressive binds and building upon the aforementioned legacies of Black mother resistance and Black mother love as a verb, Lezley McSpadden, Geneva Reed-Veal, Patrisse Cullors, and the collective network of #BlackLivesMatter have all worked not only to disrupt the myths around Black children and Black motherhood but also to call for de-constructing and recreating a police system that doesn't concentrate its energies in the surveying and terrorizing of Black communities but rather serves the actual interests of society's individual members and communities.
my love is a political act. my love is deliberate and afraid of nothing: black mothers of the movement as subjects of empowerment and resistance
Just as Garner and Gaines attempted to enact their love for their children as a verb through the praxis of infanticide and politicized care, the maternal activism of Lezley McSpadden, Geneva Reed-Veal, and Patrisse Cullors also elucidates the many ways Black mothers historically and continually remain steadfast in their assertion of their own subjectivities and their children's when they proactively posit their love as politicized care. In 2016 Lezley McSpadden wrote her memoir, Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of My Son Michael Brown, detailing her life, her love for her son, and all of the madness that surrounded his untimely death. Within that [End Page 887] same year, McSpadden gave an interview to the Associated Press about her forthcoming book, explaining that her son Michael Brown, Jr., was a gentle and sweet person who "always tried to do the right thing" ("Michael Brown's Mom's Book"). McSpadden also wanted people to know that before the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson murdered her son, the Brown family was a regular one. McSpadden told AP that they were "just regular people, ordinary people that sent their kids to school, went to work, and fried fish on Fridays and barbecued on Saturday." McSpadden's grief, mourning, and activism, which have now become ubiquitous throughout mainstream media, have been not only motivated by seeking justice for her son, but have also been her attempt to assert the humanity of herself and her son in light of law enforcement and societal projections of criminality, danger, and ill intent on his person. McSpadden's interest in telling the truth about her son's life and her own life in conjunction with seeking justice for him and other sons and daughters who have been cruelly taken from Black communities fits within a particular genealogy of Black mothers' resistance and life writing, one that uses love as an action, a verb, in conjunction with a feeling, in the interest of moving their children and themselves from objectification and inhumane treatment to a relationship with the state where they and their children are treated with dignity, humanity, and ultimately subjectivity.
In "Mothering as Revolutionary Praxis," Cynthia Dewi Oka argues that enslavement, capitalism, racism, and sexism have all worked in tandem to distort and erode the sociopolitical lens through which Black mothers and Black children are thought of and viewed by the state (52). Further, Oka asserts that it is this marginalization that engenders the valuing and devaluing of certain individuals and communities. Oka contends that women of color in general and Black women specifically have not historically and are not contemporaneously seen as having produced or mothered valued members of society. While white children are given value and humanity, "Black, indigenous, and Third World children are lamented as drains on state resources, [and seen as] prospective criminals" (52). How Garner's children were seen in the nineteenth century US is how Korryn Gaines, Sybrina Fulton, and Lezley McSpadden's children are regarded now: as having no worth or humanity. Therefore, to Oka, when Black mothers show and express love for their children in raising them, fighting and advocating for them, when they are intentional in continuing their communities "even as white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal capitalism has intensified its efforts to deprive [them] from the means of mothering [themselves] and [their] communities" (52), it is this act of defiance that transforms love from a feeling to politicized care. [End Page 888]
In the face of white supremacy and the double bind of being judged as a Black mother within the interiors and exteriors of Black communities, Black mothers' resistance neither takes any one shape nor creates a monolithic action. Gaines's demand that her son and daughter be vigilant in their aversion to law enforcement and to fight back whenever accosted by police was Gaines's way of transforming her love as a Black mother to politicized care. Similarly, Garner's act of infanticide in the face of enslavement transformed her love as a Black mother from a mere feeling into politicized care. Black mothers' resistance should be seen as varied, layered, complicated, and diverse. Although Gaines's and Garner's resistive praxis as Black mothers doesn't mirror Mc-Spadden's resistance, it still solidifies the idea that when Black mothers have been and are put in a place to protect their children and/or themselves, their responses directly come from a place of politicized love. Geneva Reed-Veal, like Gaines, Garner, and McSpadden, also had her heart and mind set on bringing about justice in the aftermath of the killing of her child. She is also a mother who felt the need to advocate for her child's humanity, demanding that society see her child as a child, as a human, as a human who had a life that mattered.
In 2015 Reed-Veal's daughter, Sandra Bland, was pulled over and subsequently arrested for failing to signal during a lane change. When footage from Trooper Brian Encinia's dashcam surfaced via social networking, viewers of the video footage could tell that at first Encinia was just planning on giving Bland a citation for failing to signal, but when the trooper asks Bland to put her cigarette out and she refuses, the trooper's mood escalates. Encinia begins to raise his voice, ordering Bland to exit her vehicle. When she refuses, Encinia pulls his Taser out, ordering her to exit, yelling, "I will light you up!" Bland is arrested and taken to jail. Three days after her arrest she is found dead hanging in her cell. Texas law enforcement ruled that Bland's death was a suicide, but to all who knew her this ruling seemed absolutely implausible. Bland's friends and family, and namely her mother Geneva, all felt that Sandra hadn't exhibited any signs of depression and the fact that Bland was traveling to begin a new job that she was eagerly anticipating did not add up to her committing suicide in a jail that was holding her on a traffic violation. After a subsequent investigation, questions began to arise about race and police interaction as well as the use of excessive force by law enforcement when it came to Black citizens.
In "I Could Have Been Sandra Bland: Black America's Terrifying Truth," published in Salon shortly after the investigation into Bland's suicide and Trooper Encinia's culpability were underway, Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper asserts that it was not the failure to signal that changed Encinia's [End Page 889] mood and disposition during his interaction with Bland, but rather Bland's attitude and frustration with the officer that ignited his rage. Cooper argues that Trooper Encinia "firmly expected to be able to harass a citizen going about her business and have her be okay with it. He expected that she wouldn't question him. He wanted her submission. Her deference. Her fear." This is exactly what Bland's mother, siblings, and friends also knew. Reed-Veal echoed Cooper's sentiments in a speech she gave at the Library of Congress during a symposium convened by the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls a year after her daughter's death:
I'm here representing the mothers who are not heard, I am here representing the mothers who have lost children as we go on about our daily lives. When the cameras and lights are gone, our babies are dead. … Let's get something straight. I as a mother do not believe she committed suicide. I will say that until it's proven. But if you want me to believe that my daughter—that I sent down there sitting up, driving her own vehicle—would be sent home in a capsule in the bottom of a plane with luggage on top of her, that I'm going to shut up? I will not. I will not. I will continue to speak for every mother paralyzed because of the loss of their child. … God forbid you go up to another grieving mother and say you know how she feels, that is a lie. Unless you have lost a child. Am I angry? Absolutely. I'm not angry enough to create a riot where I burn things down, but I will create a riot, I will set off so that people will understand that this is real. Movements move. Activists activate. We have got to stop talking and move. So I leave you with this: it is time to wake up, get up, step up, or shut up.(qtd. in Meyerson)
Bland's mother, like so many mothers before her, used her grief not only to convey her anger and frustration to congressional leaders but also to the world. She refused to give up fighting for the humanity of her daughter because she saw this fight as one that mirrored the battles of so many other Black mothers before and during her crusade for justice. Bland's mother, like Mike Brown's before her, refused to believe the white supremacist, classist, racist, and sexist narratives that law enforcement, prosecutors, and the criminal justice system tried to conjure up in an attempt to represent their children more as criminals, less as victims, and ultimately to convince society to see their children's deaths as justified, self-inflicted, and/or indicative of their familial background. These mothers' passion and love for their children is extraordinary, as is their advocacy for their children postmortem, which ultimately is something that no one should have to do. These mothers, through their grief and heartache, had to muster articulation while mourning the deaths of their children. They had to be courageous in the face of a system that assuredly tried to suppress their subjectivity. Just like Gaines had to demand that law enforcement recognize her and her children's humanity and [End Page 890] how Garner realized that a slave system wouldn't, McSpadden and Reed-Veal, through tears, heartbreak, and surely depression, still had to continue to fight a system, the media, and various communities' scrutiny of their children and their identity as mothers.
Patrisse Cullors, one of the Black queer women cofounders of BLM who recently became a mother herself, continues to challenge the projected racist and sexist narratives around Black children and Black motherhood through her work within and outside of the #BlackLivesMatter network. As a longtime activist and advocate who was tired of witnessing and hearing about Black death, who was tired of juries' failure to honor these victims' humanity and to carry out justice, and who was tired of law enforcement and the state seeing Black lives as worthless or undeserving of empathy or grief, Cullors continues to use her platform to challenge the racist and heteropatriarchal assumptions and projections about Black lives and Black mothers. Further, her visibility around her life and new family also erodes these stereotypical narratives.
Cullors, who has argued that advocacy and activism for society's most vulnerable is an act of love, has worked since her early twenties to start the process of undoing white supremacist and capitalist interest in the policing, harassing, and ultimately the killing of Black people across the country. She married her longtime partner Janaya Khan in 2016, they both welcomed their baby into the world within that same year, and she continues to work tirelessly for all of our freedom from persecution and violence at the hands of the state. When it comes to her loving and spiritual marriage with Khan, Cullors underscores the sociopolitical significance of their union in terms of what their marriage's visibility represents. In "A Black Lives Matter Leader Opens Up about Marrying Her Partner," Cullors explains how her marriage not only creates more visibility around marriages and love between queer people of color but also disrupts the racist and heteronormative assumption that marriage is only reserved for the straight and white:
I knew without a doubt that Janaya, a black transgender immigrant born and raised in Toronto, was my life partner. I also soon realized that part of our destiny was not just a union through a spiritual bond but through a legal one as well. Together, we could challenge marriage as a white, heteronormative, religious construct. We could build a new narrative steeped in the intersections of black love.
Further, Cullors also discusses how neither she nor her partner will give up their activist and advocacy work just because they tied the knot: [End Page 891]
Our fight does not end with marriage. It is part of a larger conversation that pushes the LGBTQ community to think beyond the confines of the state; to understand the value of relationships, whether you have a license or not; to focus on vulnerable communities and demand that people, no matter their marital status, have access to healthcare and education. For some, Obergefell was a fight for the recognition of the humanity of LGBTQ people. For queer black families, it is only the beginning.
Cullors's intersectional analysis of her marriage's visibility and her articulation of the urgency around the work she and her partner plan to continue erode the neoliberal idea that partnership and marriage must be apolitical, white, and heteronormative to be valid. It illuminates the many ways in which love as politicized care is not just reserved for an intimate partner and/or a couple's individual child; rather that politicized care can also manifest through communal action and advocacy. Cullors's mothering praxis as politicized care not only falls in line with the aforementioned mothers, but it also directly mirrors other queer voices of color, particularly those who are also doing work within the network and Movement for Black Lives.
In addition to sharing her love journey and marriage with the world, Cullors has also shared her feelings around recently becoming a mother, joining the national organization, Moms Rising, as their senior fellow for maternal mortality. In "No Mom Should Have to Bury Their Child: This Is a Fight for Maternal Justice," Cullors argues that maternal justice is very necessary at this exact sociopolitical moment. Like many of the aforementioned mothers, Cullors did not see her Black motherhood just as biological process or praxis but as an opportunity to use her love as a political act. Cullors asserts, "The worst feeling for a parent is imagining your child dying. … No mom should have to bury their child. There are certain things that are unacceptable, and that is one of them." Cullors further contends that during these trying sociopolitical times, maintaining and securing Black life is a must. Cullors argues that local and federal governments should all ensure that Black life figuratively and literally matters. To Cullors, this not only means investing in communities of color through local and federal initiatives and programming, but she also believes that "ending the criminalization of Black people, demilitarizing law enforcement, and guaranteeing community control of public institutions like civilian review boards of the police" are some of the many ways to ensure these outcomes for Black children, Black mothers, and Black communities.
Like Cullors, the Mothers of the Movement represent the unbroken history of activism of Black mothers through their subjective identities, visibility, and through their advocacy for themselves and their children. Their maternal activism and politicized care continue to dismantle the many racist, sexist, and classist projections and assumptions about themselves, their children, [End Page 892] and their communities. Yet their struggle and refusal has ultimately failed to be received and believed by a large section of the American public.
Their mothering praxis of politicized care has facilitated and maintained one of the most significant movements for change within our lifetimes. These Black mothers have not only inspired multiple communities by their tireless and consistent efforts for justice and humanity, but they have also made visible a longstanding hidden tradition within many Black communities, a tradition only witnessed and felt between Black mothers and their children. Through these mothers' words, subjective identities, and activism, we are now able to witness the historical and present praxis of Black mothers' politicized care—a preciously kept secret that not many people have been privy to. Despite the state's attempt to stifle, suppress, and/or police the praxis of this type of love by Black mothers, Black mothers have continued to show up and show out for their children in a myriad of loving ways. Their actions, intentions, and motives have been unapologetic and unafraid of the consequences that might befall them. They have been historically and presently the subjective and embodied sites of resistance and empowerment.
Kaila Adia Story is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Women's & Gender Studies and Pan-African Studies and the Audre Lorde Endowed Chair in Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Louisville. She is also a co-creator, co-host and co-producer of WFPL's Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Pop Culture & Black Gay Life, a popular award-winning weekly podcast focusing on social justice and pop culture. Her research examines the intersections of race and sexuality, with special attention to Black feminism, Black lesbians, and Black queer identity.
1. Many Black feminist scholars have expanded and continue to move this conversation forward, establishing and creating a far more complex narrative about these matters since Roberts, Collins, and White first began discussing controlling images. See Berry; Mustakeem; Story; Smallwood; Morgan; and Glymph.