The Love of Black Mothers and the Care of Black Children

18 Mar

I

In august of 2011, I had to call my mother – on a cell phone with not a lot of power left because I had been checking Facebook and texting friends, hoping to be released from a CT Scan clinic at Duke Hospital – to tell her that in less than two hours, I would be under anesthesia and that there was a chance (50 percent, I later discovered) I might not wake up. Things, for me, felt as quick as this opening sentence: no time to think about what was happening: just hazy, blurry, rapid movement. It was difficult for me to tell: the forceful speed with which a visit to student health for what I thought to be a painful pulled muscle (and no need to inform my mother of such frivolity) turned into no less than 13 doctors visiting me in the Operating Room prep area within the span of 30 minutes, all saying “we’re surprised you’re alive!,” and hinting that had I waited another 24 hours to see about that pain – pain thought only to be the residue of a new Bikram yogi – I would likely have died. How to tell that to your mother on the phone when she is hours away in New Jersey; to receive a phone call from a nervous father not moments after speaking with said mother, attempting to explain to him that you don’t even know what the doctors meant while he sat at work, trying not to sound baffled and tear up a bit; to try to explain the severity of the issue at hand without understanding. This was the context of my visit to Duke Hospital in late August 2011. And there was a hurricane in the New Jersey area that made travel impossible so though I had a hospital stay of six days, it was not until the day after I was released that my mother made the trek to North Carolina to attend to me, to take care of me, to cook and talk and help me walk. Still, mostly I remember how I felt moments before I was wheeled into the Operating Room: on the phone with my mother while a friend from church held my hand, me laid out on the bed: and as my mother prayed that God would protect me and my theological convictions shattered because of my agnosticism, I cried like I was a five year old: confused: dazed: hoping, above all, that that would not be the last time I’d hear her voice.

Though unemployed at the time, “even if I had been working, I would have taken off to be with you,” is what my mother said, and what I knew to be true. She was with me for two and a half weeks and just having her here was of grave importance. The woman who changed my diapers and fed me in high chairs and with whom I made chocolate chip cookies while my older brother was at school when I was no more than three years old; the woman who potty trained me, who showed me how to tie my shoes – the blue Nikes with the yellow swoosh right before we walked to the Five and Dime store around the corner on South Orange Avenue – all this I remember about the interactions between a mother and her son. And all I could think about on that hospital bed not moments away from an incision and a very serious operation was, “I hope this is not the last time I talk to her.” But many recent events are making me revisit the love of mothers, the love of black mothers, for children, for black children. And I keep thinking that I, at least, had the opportunity to call my mother and say something before the unexpected erupted in our lives. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

 

II

The capacity for black women to be mothers is radically under attack presently. Of course, this is nothing new: from antebellum legal declarations that the “status” of children would follow the “status” of mothers because those persons were the reproductive force of degraded station; to the report of one such Moynihan that ostensibly blamed black matriarchy for the failures of black social life without ever interrogating the normative modes of family that Negroes “failed” to produce; to recently, the incarceration practices of black mothers who have the purported nerve to “steal” public education from municipalities.

Though Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, lived with her father part-time and, thus, was within the lines of the of Copley-Fairlawn school district, she was sentenced to ten days in prison, having stolen “quality” education for her daughters. The school district’s stance was that the tax dollars needed to stay with “their” students. Of course, it did not matter that Williams-Bolar’s father paid the very same taxes to the very same municipality. What mattered is that the person who stole education was not a primary resident of that municipality.  The idea that Williams-Bolar, or anyone really, “stole” public education should give any of us pause because such claims, particularly when thought about as a theft of tax dollars in particular areas, do not take into account the economic structure that makes such declarations of theft possible. That is, ours is a political-economic system that necessitates inequitable distributions of wealth and, attendant to wealth, healthcare, educational and job opportunities. The desire to make out of Williams-Bolar an example is nothing other than a war against the poor who point out the fundamental injustices that persist in our political-economic system that makes a poor class out of the majority. For the Copley-Fairlawn school district to prosecute Williams-Bolar was nothing other than a claim that all persons are not worthy of equitable resources in educational practices but only those born, quite literally, in the right lines. Though pardoned, the very fact of the prosecution should tell us that something is fundamentally wrong with the way resources are hoarded by some and refused to others.

Unfortunately, Tanya McDowell has not been pardoned and has a mandatory prison sentence of five years with another five probation. Though homeless, with her most recent residence being Bridgeport, Connecticut, she enrolled her then five-year-old son in the Norwalk School District. She did not plead guilty, but rather entered a plea under the Alford Doctrine, refusing to admit guilt but conceding that the state had enough evidence to convict her [and when does the state not? especially when it can fabricate…but more on that soon]. We live in a world where the very concept, that someone could possibly “steal” education, is possible. This should force us to ask some serious questions about what is at stake in educational practice as it does not seem to be raising awareness, making people critical thinkers or the affirmation of the capacity to learn. When education can be “stolen” and one “convicted” of such action, it appears that education is nothing more than a commodity that participates in the inequities that many of us are committed to dismantling. This is especially preposterous for McDowell because the folks responsible for her conviction will not say that she “stole” from a fundamentally, foundationally inequitable institution. Robin Hood be praised; black women mothers be damned, so it seems. McDowell’s purported theft only shows just how discriminatory the structure of education is.

Both McDowell and Williams-Bolar illustrate what is, quite literally, class-based targeting … no one in “good” (economically viable) school districts would be accused of such theft because, at base, they would not need to “steal” these goods in the first place. And sure, they’d argue that their taxes provide for such an occasion for educational opportunities but then obscure the fact that these possibilities for economic viability are made from the same inequitable political-economic structures that animate the educational and judicial system. The residents within the lines of the “good” school districts are there because of inequity, not in spite of it.

Hannah Arendt, though sympathetic to the Negro cause for justice in the 1950s, could never bring herself to the American south and “even avoided occasional trips to Southern states because they would have brought me into a situation that I personally would find unbearable.”[1] This while she likewise stated that she could not understand how a Negro parent would allow the school to be a politicized space, how a Negro parent could send the girl in the photograph – Elizabeth Eckford – into conditions of such violence and violation. In another version of the same “reflections” about Little Rock, Arendt stated, “My first question was, what would I do if I were a Negro mother? The answer: under no circumstances would I expose my child to conditions which made it appear as though it wanted to push its way into a group where it was not wanted.”[2] When Mamie Till had an open casket funeral for her son Emmett and had the photographs published in the Chicago Defender and elsewhere because she wanted the world to see what had happened to her son, the response from some was ‘what kind of mother would do such a thing?’

In the cases of both Williams-Bolar and McDowell – and with the persistence of such queries; and with the excessiveness of punitive response to their maneuvers and choreographies rooted in a love for their children – at issue is the question: what kind of mother would do such things? Arendt, the critique of Mamie Till, Moynihan’s “report” all show that the Negro/Black/African American Mother is a general problem for theological-philosophical thought: just how do they do the thing that they do; just how do they show care, show love, give joy, give hope, in the midst of perpetual violence and violation? From what resource do these persons draw in order to move forward, and move ever forward, faces like flint, in joy, in love, given the brutal conditions under which these persons are forced to live? Williams-Bolar and McDowell are philosophers and theologians of black maternity and we do well to listen to their resistance to the given world. But not every black mother is so lucky to have an end-date to her suffering.

III

“Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.”[3] Thus begins Hortense Spillers’s fascinating “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” focusing on the very specific, very particular material conditions of black people since historic passages through mediums and middles on bateaus, ketches and skiffs, named with conventions such as Jesus, or the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. Spillers prophesied the telling of Trayvon Martin’s murder to his parents: an unmarked, unnamed body, Trayvon’s father, Tracey Martin, “thought that he was missing, according to the family’s lawyer, Benjamin Crump, but the boy’s body had actually been taken to the medical examiner’s office and listed as a John Doe” for a day.[4] Spillers’s being marked converges here with Trayvon’s being discovered, the normativity of the conflating of blackness and anonymity, enunciated and rehearsed by some people not knowing a name, by some people not giving a damn. It is important to note – as a sign of irrepressible, irresistible life – that Spillers says “not everybody” because if she is unknown, and if Trayvon is John Doe, this is limited and not absolute, no matter how pessimistic we may appear to become.

Being marked, being discovered. What we have here is an ontological set of concerns. What when your marking is the point of your discovering; what when the thing that you constantly manifest is the thing that constantly must be found elsewhere? The manifestation of Trayvon’s being marked by George Zimmerman occurred through the refusal to be earnest. Rather, Trayvon appeared as “a real suspicion guy,” Zimmerman’s was a gaze attesting the idea that Trayvon was “up to no good” and that he seemed to be “on drugs or something.” Though raining and night time, in Zimmerman’s mind donning a hood was nothing more than an accouterment to such criminal behavior, grounded in the fact of Trayvon’s presence: “he looks black.” Literally walking down the street looking around, basic behavior in which many of us participate daily, was criminally suspect to Zimmerman, enough so that he called 911, registered a complaint, trailed Trayvon in a car, got out the car, confronted Trayvon, scuffle ensued, ending in two shots: one in the air, one in Trayvon’s chest.

There appears to be a conspiratorial nature to the Sanford Police Department’s engagement with this particular case. No longer, even no longer primarily, is this operative at the level of the individual and interpersonal, and thus, Zimmerman’s claim for “self-defense.” The institutional practices of justice are being obscured and obstructed from even an initial movement into the search for justice. The PD at best appears to be misinformed, at worst lying, about what occurred, when it occurred, who said what, and how they said it. The PD is covering up the fact of Zimmerman’s past in favor of saying that he had a “squeaky clean record.” The PD is not even willing to arrest because they feel they have no “grounds” upon which to act, though their inaction is justified only by their refusal to be earnest, to be truthful.

It seems that the Sanford PD thinks that “self-defense” is only possible as a reasonable response when the force of such purported “defense” exceeds that of the one against whom such force is supposedly necessary. That Trayvon could not ask “what’s the problem?” to a dude who was slowly trailing him in a car did not register as a desire to guard his own personhood. It is only the continual elevation of force, turned fatal, that gave Zimmerman license to claim he was merely, only acting in “defense” of his “self” (not a little problematic category in the general, given the necessarily violent and violative history of such a concept in the west. Certain folks, through privilege, can claim such status, it seems and a black boy threatened such “selfhood”). Zimmerman’s theological-philosophical understanding of “self” is the problem and we find this out based on his discovery of a marked, suspicious boy.  What Zimmerman guarded, what he fundamentally defended, was his “right” to make a claim, here in this case, that someone was “suspicious” and his “right” to protection against the very appearance of that which bodied forth his claim. He was guarding against a general antagonism – a black boy walking home, not unlike Elizabeth walking to a Little Rock school, not unlike Emmett whistling.

How does one tell and tell a mother, a black mother, that a son, a black son, was murdered for suspiciously having Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea? Sybrina Fulton – Trayvon’s mother – knew Trayvon’s name. And each time, each and every time, I watch an interview of her, I am moved by her being moved, and angry by her being angry, and upset by her being upset, and confused by her being confused. Zimmerman, as of this writing, has not been arrested yet nor charged with any wrongdoing because he claimed self-defense. Fulton has appeared in several news conferences and interviews simply asking for justice to be done…for her son. The anger and rage, the sadness and melancholy of Fulton [and, but of course, Tracey Martin as well] must unfortunately be bottled up, be channeled into niceties, sitting in seats answering erroneous questions about Trayvon and if he enjoyed eating chicken.

But most poignantly, and most upsetting, is the way Trayvon’s voice will be, no doubt, etched in his mother’s mind: the release of a 911 call clearly has the cries, the pleas, the wailings from a young black boy for help seconds before the chilling sounding out of two gunshots. And then, silence. The cry for help, the plea for aid, the wailing for release is fundamentally on the edge between the particular and the general: it is his particular lament but rehearses and improvises a long history of such lament. Trayvon’s voice echoes and is echo; it reverberates and is a moment of previous reverberation. It is this haunting, chilling and quite simply, heartbreaking sound that his mother knows is the last sound he made. His shriek shares in, and gives, eternal force. But I understand something of his crying out in despair: hoping his mother would hear him, feel him, love him…still, even under such unequivocally horrendous conditions.

I want for Fulton what I want for Williams-Bolar and McDowell: justice. I want for these mothers, these black mothers, what I want for the world: an end to suffering that we cause by the inequities we set into motion and refuse to interrogate. Trayvon’s murder is part and parcel of a political-economic system predicated upon lack rather than abundance, hoarding rather than sharing.

IV

Tarrying. Having grown up in the Black Pentecostal sect of Christianity, I learned early on what it meant to tarry: to wait on the indwelling, the infilling, of the individual with the Holy Spirit, announced by the “initial evidence” of glossolalia, of speaking in tongues “as the Spirit gives utterance.” What so fascinates me about tarrying is that it literally means, “wait” but in that waiting, a sociality is both fashioned and in process of being fashioned, is both made and being made. The sounds of wailing and moaning, of “Jesus” and “have your way!” and of hand claps and foots stomps and tambourine jingles jiggling: cacophonous transcendence that is not always and everywhere loud but is dynamic, dramatic changes in volume and breath allow for the inhabitation of the Spirit. And then, one person breaks out, speaking in tongues. Then another. And maybe, and perhaps, another. And at the end of such tarrying is praise for those who “came through.”

I end by a brief discussion of tarrying because of a fundamental concern that Williams-Bolar, McDowell and Fulton presence for us: how long must we wait for justice to be done in the world, for justice to “come through”? They are but specific examples of an ongoing, general trend for certain lives to be treated as tenuous. But from our position, the position of the underground and submerged, the position of the marginalized, we know of our lives differently. The sorta political-economic world in which we exist needs for joy and love to be a limited resource rather than a radical commitment to allowing others to live, and thrive in that living. But this other position, we know of the joy of inhabitation, of the new song. We know it because we experience it daily but there are massive and strident attempts to make such abundant life unavailable. But we make this abundance life, not because of the brutal conditions of the world, but in spite of those conditions.

People would get frustrated and not a little angry if they tarried all night long and still not have an experience of glossolalia; it seemed – because of theological conviction – the Holy Spirit was refusing to indwell a particular believer. To have some folks speak of the joy and pleasure of the experience while others – pining and climbing and reaching for such ecstasy – have it refused is not a little bit disheartening. That same frustration and anger I carry against the radical assault on women in politics today, from reproductive health rights to incarceration for the theft of public educational goods asking: How long? How long must we wait? And though we create beautiful, radical sound and sociality in such waiting – as with the tarrying YouTube clip above – we still want for such waiting to break forth and burst free into the “coming through” from it all. Williams-Bolar had to fight to have her sentencing reduced from felony to misdemeanor. McDowell will be separated from her young son for five years. Fulton? Fulton does not know if justice will be served…she knows that her son has been murdered. At least I got to call my mother and hear her pray over and for me as I laid on the hospital bed. I want that for everyone.


[1] Hannah Arendt and P. R. (Peter R. ) Baehr, The Portable Hannah Arendt (New York: Penguin Books,, 2000), 232.

[2] Hannah Arendt and Jerome Kohn, Responsibility and Judgment, 1st ed. (New York: Schocken Books,, 2003), 193.

[3] Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” in Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2003., n.d.), 203.

[4] Charles M. Blow, “The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin,” The New York Times, March 16, 2012, sec. Opinion, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/opinion/blow-the-curious-case-of-trayvon-martin.html.

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9 Responses to “The Love of Black Mothers and the Care of Black Children”

  1. borderdwelling March 19, 2012 at 12:28 AM #

    the combination of creative prose and intellectual critique is manifested beautifully here.

  2. tony smith March 19, 2012 at 3:16 AM #

    Great essay – but the “chicken” thing is fake. http://youtu.be/71Ytt7zTB6A

  3. damidwif March 19, 2012 at 6:42 AM #

    you can write your ass off

  4. phillytravels March 19, 2012 at 7:02 AM #

    Beautifully written.

    Have you seen the documentary film, ‘Crips and Bloods: Made in America’? The insight given by former gang members reminds me of the cases of Williams-Bolar, McDowell, and Fulton.

    From the film:

    Kumasi, on the 1965 Watts Riots:
    “When you send me the message that my life is of no value, then how can your property, how can your society, how can your civilization, how can any of the moors and rules or any of the monuments, how can any of that be of any value to me, when all it has on the door for me is a rejection notice? I’m not allowed to look, I’m not allowed to touch, I’m not allowed to partake, I’m not allowed to participate. All my life – I was rejected before I was born. I am the most rejected. Nothing is open to me. And every time I knock on the door and get rejected, it takes a little something out of me. So how does it really mean anything to me that I should try to salvage it, or I should respect it, or I should try to preserve it? It stands as a barrier before me. It was there when I was born, it will be there when I die.”

  5. flyblkgirl March 19, 2012 at 8:24 AM #

    beautiful piece on the ugliness that we unfortunately endure in this world.

  6. A Writer's Work March 20, 2012 at 6:10 AM #

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful, spiritual, emotion-full post, Ashon.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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