The Persistent Joy of Black Mothers

Characterized throughout American history as symbols of crisis, trauma, and grief, these women consistently reject those narratives through world-making of their own.

A Black mother holding her newborn
Much of the American public understands Black motherhood as an idea rooted in crisis. (Bethany Mollenkof)

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.

But in classifying Black mothers as symbols of crisis, trauma, and grief, society robs them of their agency, flattening their complex identities. Black women’s “worth is seen in our bodies,” the Reverend Theresa S. Thames, the associate dean of religious life at Princeton University, said in the recent Netflix documentary In Our Mothers’ Gardens. “And so we are not applauded until we produce something for someone else. We are not celebrated or validated until we do something for someone else.” Merely seeing Black mothers as vessels, or symbols to be harnessed and deployed for political aims, denies a far richer understanding of Black women, including the needs, wants, and experiences of Black mothers themselves.

Over the past few months, I’ve interviewed a number of Black mothers about those very needs, wants, and experiences. Our conversations were centered on one question: “What does free Black motherhood look like to you?” I posed this question partly in an attempt to grapple with my own experience giving birth during a pandemic, but also because it seemed like national conversations about Black mothers did not actually include Black mothers. Our discussions were revealing, with everyone offering different ideas of motherhood unbound by societal assumptions, expectations, and restrictions. Even so, a consistent refrain began to emerge: Black mothers see choice, control, and self-definition as integral parts of their visions of freedom.

Picture of Bethany Mollenkof pregnant with her child
In classifying Black mothers as symbols of crisis, trauma, and grief, society robs them of their agency, flattening their complex identities. (Bethany Mollenkof)

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.”

There are innumerable historical examples of Black mothers rejecting these rigid boundaries and definitions in pursuit of their freedom. Perhaps the most prominent one is that of Mamie Till-Mobley, who emerged as a national figure in 1955 after two white men kidnapped, tortured, and murdered her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, while he was in Mississippi visiting family. Till-Mobley became a symbol of a specific kind of Black mother—one whose heroism was linked to the trauma of losing her child to white-supremacist violence. But she also served as a model of a Black mother who embraced choice and control as a means of subverting the blame and the stereotypes of deviance that were assigned to Black mothers.

Till-Mobley’s radical and defiant public mourning—demanding an open casket to show her child’s mutilated body, attending the trial of her son’s murderers, touring the country denouncing white supremacy, and becoming a prominent racial-justice and education activist—upset conventional ideas about Black motherhood. Wangui Muigai, an assistant professor of African and African American studies and history at Brandeis University, told me that Till-Mobley was a “vessel for other people’s ideas,” but she also “[pulled] back the curtain so, so forcefully and so vividly ... [exposing] what Black mothers were up against ... The fears they carried every day, how terrifyingly they can be made real—and also [rejecting] this expectation that they’re supposed to kind of keep that deep loss and that pain and that trauma to themselves.”

Her story is all the more important given that it existed alongside the proliferation of social science that portrayed Black women as dangerous, such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 federal report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” When Moynihan, who was President John F. Kennedy’s assistant secretary of labor, issued this influential and deeply damaging report, it entrenched ideas of Black mothers’ degeneracy, explicitly blaming Black matriarchy for a “tangle of pathology” plaguing Black communities. Backlash to the report was immediate. The activist Kwame Ture (previously known as Stokely Carmichael), for instance, challenged it during a landmark speech on Black Power in July 1966, saying, “To set the record straight, the reason we are in the bag we are in isn’t because of my mama, it’s because of what they did to my mama.”

This kind of rhetorical defense of Black mothers was a strategy employed by a diverse set of Black organizations, including the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the Nation of Islam, as a means of countering dehumanizing perceptions of these women. Yet in doing so, these groups put forth the idea that Black women’s strength, resilience, and value emerged solely from their status as mothers. Black Power activists in the 1960s and ’70s expanded the concept of the sacredness of Black motherhood to include the idea of the Black “warrior mother.” It was a powerful symbol during that era, the historian Ashley D. Farmer, author of Remaking Black Power, explained to me via Zoom—showing up most noticeably in the artwork of the activist Emory Douglas. His depiction of a commanding Black woman carrying a baby in her arms and a gun on her back was deeply symbolic, highlighting Black women’s duty to both their own children and their racial community. But, Farmer told me, the art was also limiting in its rendering of Black women as caretakers and saviors, virtuous vaunted “mother[s] of the figurative Black nation.”

Emory Douglas poster
Black Power activists in the 1960s and ’70s expanded the concept of the sacredness of Black motherhood to include the idea of the Black “warrior mother.” (Emory Douglas / Artists Rights Society)

It made sense then, Farmer observed, that when Black women, such as Joan Tarika Lewis, started producing artwork for the Black Panther Party, they rejected male artists’ designations in favor of their own self-definitions. Lewis, for example, sidestepped motherhood completely. It was a crucial shift that didn’t necessarily mean that Black women didn’t see themselves as mothers; it mainly meant that they wanted to choose their own identities, control how they were depicted, and create a space where their value lay in their humanity as opposed to society’s restrictive definitions of motherhood. Women like Lewis exhibited what the historian Robin D. G. Kelley calls poetic knowledge—knowledge that grants participants in social movements the ability to “imagine something different, to realize that things need not always be this way.”

When I initially posed the question “What does free Black motherhood look like to you?,” many of the mothers I interviewed had no answer. Several women told me that they had never really thought about what freedom meant to them, while others said they didn’t have a language to articulate what it meant. But over the course of our discussions, it became clear that they actually did have strong ideas. As Thames, the Princeton dean, explained to me, when Black women examine questions of liberation, they are “always writing from a space of speculation” while “creating a new language and paradigm for advancing freedom.”

I spoke with academics, corporate executives, stay-at-home mothers, essential workers, unemployed mothers, single mothers, and married mothers. Some mentioned wanting medical advocacy and parity, bodily autonomy, economic equality and stability; others named affordable child care, rent, and homeownership. A couple of women argued that the ability to just be ordinary indicated a measure of autonomy. Many spoke of being unburdened from the weight of blame, judgment, and surveillance. Almost everyone spoke of rest.

Kellie Carter Jackson, the historian, who is 39 and recently bought a home in Sherborn, Massachusetts, told me that land and property were an integral part of her sense of motherhood and freedom: “I needed to be able to have a space that’s mine where I can say to my kids, ‘Go run and play outside,’ on land that belongs to us. And no one’s going to tell them they’re too loud … It’s the first time I’ve felt like I can kind of do whatever I want in my own house and outside of my house and not be bothered.”

Along similar lines, Tia Silas, a 40-year-old human-resources professional from New York City, explained to me that she was always in “protection mode” for her children: “It’s a constant battle to keep them unharmed that I will inevitably lose.” She said that the pandemic, in some ways, represented a kind of freedom for her. “We had a whole year of sheltering our Black children from experiencing racism—it felt safe.” Silas understood the abject horror of the pandemic, and she also understood the reality of racism. As such, she decided to use the isolation of quarantine to define a haven for herself and her family.

Jackson’s and Silas’s definitions of freedom rest on a degree of class and economic privilege, but a number of poor and working-class Black mothers also viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to push back against racist institutions. SciHonor Devotion, a doula from Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose clientele includes women who are uninsured or on Medicaid, told me that for one of her clients, freedom looked like having the option to choose home births for her children.

Perhaps the best summary of all the responses was Thames’s observation that “freedom for Black mothers looks like walking through the world living and thriving, without bracing yourself for the trauma that results from white supremacy” and rampant inequality. Last year’s racial reckoning and the pandemic have magnified this sensibility, pushing a lot of Black mothers to acknowledge that their experience of motherhood is compounded by a unique kind of suffering. Still, the women I spoke with rejected a framing that rooted their experience of motherhood in pain. Their ideas of free Black motherhood were connected to a unified understanding of agency. As a Black mother of three children who has lived her entire life under the heaviness of racist limitations and violence, I am exhausted. But Black women have consistently found value in creating new visions for ourselves—even when that new vision simply means welcoming your child into the world with peals of uncontrollable laughter.