The Persistent Joy of Black WomenRoundup
tags: family history, African American history, motherhood
My first two children entered the world to the sound of my laughter—peals of uncontrollable laughter. When my third child was born on a cruelly hot night last summer in a sterile delivery room, his experience was no different. My reaction to birthing a child may have seemed bizarre to a besieged and battle-weary hospital staff in the midst of a pandemic, but I believe that my joy was a normal response to my scenario.
Celebratory joy felt particularly appropriate for the occasion given the reality of Black mothers’ experiences in America: a global health pandemic, a nationwide racial reckoning, and horrifying rates of Black maternal mortality. My choice to laugh in the face of all of this was a reflection of what the historian Kellie Carter Jackson calls “violent joy”—a kind of joy that is rooted in an insistence on Black humanity and an assertion of Black personhood. “Joy is a weapon,” Jackson told me over Zoom recently, especially against an ethos of white supremacy, an ideology rooted in “ideas that Black people are not human ... that they’re not worthy of anything good in the world.” As Imani Perry wrote in this publication last year, joy is a choice for Black people that, while intimately tethered to pain, simultaneously “exists through it.”
For many people, though, a Black mother choosing joy is in stark contrast to the most prominent stories about Black motherhood. Throughout generations, society has rendered Black mothers dangerous—just think of the American mythology surrounding the so-called menace of the pathological Black matriarch of the 1960s, the treacherous welfare queen of the 1970s, and the drug-addled crack mother (and her babies) of the 1980s. In her groundbreaking 1998 book, Killing the Black Body, the legal scholar Dorothy Roberts observes that “white childbearing is generally thought to be a beneficial activity: it brings personal joy and allows the nation to flourish.” Black mothers, however, are seen as harmful degenerates and a drain on the nation—a group to be controlled and disciplined. Even within Black communities themselves, as Eva C. Haldane, a 39-year-old doula from Windsor, Connecticut, relayed to me during a Zoom interview, there are confining boundaries around what constitutes authentic and acceptable motherhood. Black mothers’ private lives are consistently subjected to public surveillance, scrutiny, and judgment, as if to suggest that these women cannot be trusted to be responsible for themselves, or that they are unfit for motherhood.
Recently, social-justice movements have helped expand and shift ideas about Black mothers and motherhood for the better, most notably through increased attention to the Black maternal-health crisis and through the advocacy of Black mothers who have lost children to police violence. Yet much of the American public still understands Black motherhood as an idea rooted in crisis, as the feminist theorist Jennifer C. Nash explains in her new book, Birthing Black Mothers. Black motherhood, she has written, has become a “political position made visible (only) because of its proximity to death.” The Black mother as a figure, Nash argues, exists as a kind of public symbol, synonymous with pain.
One of the earliest iterations of the Black mother figure in the American consciousness is that of the forced maternal caretaker. Enslaved Black women nursed and reared their owners’ white children—an act of labor that was both intimate and exploitative, and that never translated into reverence or respect for Black women and their ability to mother their own children. Nineteenth- and early-20th-century tropes of the “pathological” Black mother were especially powerful in shaping public perception, the scholar Melissa Harris-Perry noted in an essay titled “Bad Black Mothers.” She used the example of a southern white woman who wrote in a 1904 pamphlet, “They are the greatest menace possible to the moral life of any community where they live. I cannot imagine such a creation as a virtuous black woman.”
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