by Joy KMT
Do you know how they practice shaming your sisters?
All of us
For every decision
We have to make to survive
The declaration that “the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb” is an assault on our bodies, our choices, and our reproductive freedoms, yet once a child has “safely landed” outside the most dangerous of habitats, Black mothers continue to be attacked and scrutinized. When a black mother chooses to give birth, she deals with assaults on her ability to raise children, the conditions under which her child was conceived, her finances, her character, the way she dresses, the way she speaks, where she lives, the value of her children’s lives, whether or not she has a social life, and her sexuality. Indeed, a black woman who has children is often seen as a societal leech, the quintessential welfare breeder, even if nothing else is known about her besides the fact that she has children.
I have five children and have had two abortions. To counteract the negative propaganda of Black motherhood and what it looks like, stories like mine are flattened, silenced, and relegated to invisibility. To many, I am a symbol of what is to be resisted.
The systemic actions to control, monitor, and exploit the reproduction of POC is a fundamental tenet of white supremacy. Resistance against coerced motherhood is necessary for liberation. Oftentimes, however, what passes for resistance against reproductive oppression is simply the regurgitation of stereotypes that are held within the dominant culture about mothers of color, especially Black and Latina mothers.
After being asked to help organize an event under the auspices of a presumed sisterhood, I asked if childcare would be available and was told no. I offered to provide childcare as a volunteer and was denied. When pressed on the issue, both the organizer and the main speaker told me that mothers needed to be able to pay for childcare. The organizer told me that Black mothers needed to be more “responsible” and if she could not afford the childcare, she likely shouldn’t have had children.
While organizing with other black women, I caught buses to go to meetings. When people drove, sometimes they would drop me off at a bus stop, in the cold, with sleeping children in tow. What would have been an extra 10-minute drive became a 45-minute wait, ride, and walk for me. When people would offer to “support” me through rides to the grocery store or to community functions, it would be made clear these more tangible resources had been given to me as charity while outright denying the resources that I offered in the way of nurturing and mothering beyond my children.
I have frequently stayed on the phone until early in the morning counseling people. I’ve offered herbal medicine and spiritual advice to those I thought were my family through shared vision, despite not having the same space to discuss the experiences of my own internal life. Because of my nurturing contributions, the community saw me as quasi-human and devoid of the need of emotional care and support. Though Black people chafe at the ideas of stereotypical black womanhood perpetuated outside of the Black community, it has been my experience that we have not relieved ourselves of the idea of Black mothers as mammies, however radical and progressive we might believe ourselves to be.
As Audre Lorde reminds us, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and mothers are not symbols of hegemony. Mothers are people, and their and their children’s liberation are bound up in yours.
When we speak of people being undervalued for their work, keeping in mind that capitalism needs a permanent underclass, remember that mothers are the largest unpaid workforce. When we talk about the worst and poorest conditions in Black and Brown communities, we are talking about mothers and children. When we talk about fear of retaliation through organizing efforts, we are talking about mothers afraid to lose their $7.25/hour jobs because their children depend on them.
When we speak about gender-based violence, we acknowledge that many mothers stay in abusive, life-threatening situations because of a lack of resources and support outside of the relationship, but we don’t talk enough about the fact that low income black women, mainly single mothers, are the most likely to be evicted because they are unable to pay their rent. When a mother does not have housing, the State becomes involved and the likelihood of a mother losing her children increases. This is state-sanctioned violence against mothers and children, yet there is only silence from radical communities where mothers are shamed for being black and poor, even as we develop models of cooperative housing and bemoan the gentrification that continues to displace people of color.
When we are talking about free healthcare for poor people, we are standing on the backs of Black mothers who use welfare, who brought about the first concessions in Medicaid and Medicare from the government through the welfare rights movement of the ‘60s. When we discuss alternative economies and living wages, we are standing on the shoulders of those same mothers who demanded money for women, seeing it as the first step toward a decent standard of living.
These are just a few of the ways in which motherhood is central to our understanding of oppression and to our liberation movements. From prison abolition to food justice,
Mothers stand at the front lines, with their children, in the war against Black and Brown bodies.
It is not enough to simply support empowered choice. Motherhood is made up of a million choices, and every choice is a choice that can be based upon oppression, liberation, or both. Choice only begins with the decision to have or to not have children.
Some people do not have children because of the state of the world and the continuous assault on Black bodies. This is a choice based upon external oppressions, not a choice based upon solely internal considerations. Some people have children because motherhood is the only option they see to assert their value in the world. This is based on internalized oppression. It is oppression that we need to attack, not mothers, not children. We must begin to ask questions that encompass the full realm of what it means to have children as a Black mother in America. What would it look like for people to make the choice to have children or to not have children, knowing that they will be cherished, loved, supported, and respected regardless of the decision? What does it look like to make liberated choices around childbearing? What does it look like for all people to make decisions around childbearing and child-raising that suits and supports who they are holistically?
In order for liberated reproductive choices to happen, we must stand in solidarity with people who live the conditions which make the idea of motherhood intolerable. We must challenge the discrimination around housing, around state-sanctioned terrorism of Indigenous, Latina, and Black mothers; the stigma of the work of motherhood not being work at all; the prejudice of reproductive health care providers; the criminalization of Black children; the narrative of the worthlessness of our lives; the unworthiness of Black mothers of care, of support, of love, and of respect. We must support the resistance that comes from the continued transmutation of the dominant narrative about Black and Latina motherhood.
I am a brilliantly prizmatik queer mother of five. I am here to tell you that I exist: I exist as a flattened statistic that charities build their budgets upon and as a human being who creates a life for her children and herself every single day. I am here to tell you that neither my womb nor my care is the most dangerous place for Black children. I am here to tell you that my story is not your enemy. I am here to tell you that we, mothers and children, require a lot of space and support and that we are worth it. I am here to tell you that I am an Afrikan mother of many, and I too am necessary for our liberation.
I am here to tell you that I am your sister and that I am here.
Sister I see you
With your heartbreak and triumph
Your desperation and hopefulness
Your rage and your resilience
With your scars and your flawlessness
I see all of us
With our Access Cards and PhDs
Apple-Bottom Jeans and mud-cloth
With 27 pieces and our heads shaved clean
Sister – only you have the brilliance, tenacity, ingenuity and audacity to survive in America.
*Italicized text comes from Bekezela Mguni’s “For Sethe and You” and “The Benediction.”
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Joy KMT is self-taught &queer&black&prizmatik&hood&
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