Mother Peril

How America endangered and profited from black motherhood

From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.

Last year, having consolidated their individual trauma into a political goal, eight women embarked on a national tour of maternal grief. They had been gathered first by fatal police or gun violence, and then in November 2015, by the Clinton presidential campaign, at the behest of the candidate herself.

By now, it is a ghastly custom for the mother of a slain black child to assign herself custodian of the cause of dead children: speaking when they cannot. The women, who are Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton, Maria Hamilton, Wanda Johnson, Lucia McBath, Lezley McSpadden, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, and Geneva Reed-Veal, made their endorsement of Clinton at the Democratic National Convention last July. Their year had been spent “appearing with Mrs. Clinton in churches and barbershops from Ohio to South Carolina.” McBath's son, Jordan Davis, was murdered by Michael Dunn in a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, in 2012. “His life ended the day he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job didn't,” McBath said at the DNC.

McBath and the women with whom she has forged a sorority find ways to continue nurturing the idea of their children now that their physical presence has been obliterated, ways that will never stand in for the physical thing: the texts, the errands, the buying and then exchanging of clothes. In the first-world arenas of scientific advance and enlightenment feminism, the right to have an abortion presents a crisis at the same time that it provides a chic channel to express political identity. The preservation of the right to mother is an equally prolonged emergency that beckons no lifestyle trend.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes's massive Death Without Weeping is a Western anthropological account fraught with the ideological features of Western anthropology: Scheper-Hughes's near 30-year relationship to the women of Bom Jesus de Mata favela in northern Brazil reveals that assumptions are never neutral. The anthropologist's observations upended the assumed knowledge that all women who are mothers follow an “innate script” that results in love for the child. Scheper-Hughes's book, which sent ripples of controversy throughout Brazil and beyond, found that “mother love” didn't exist in the favela. Poor women, Scheper-Hughes concluded, adapted to the 40 percent mortality rate by practicing a sort of cultural resourcefulness: They focused their love on the babies that had a chance to survive the paired onslaughts of childhood illness and nonexistent governmental support, and just buried the ones who didn't.

Interrogation of natural maternal virtue is certainly a feminist occupation. Jacqueline Rose's essay for the London Review of Books consults the memoirs of mothers like Rachel Cusk and Adrienne Rich and puts forth an argument about the condition of modern motherhood. Says Rose: “But in so far as mothers are seen as the fons et origo of the world, there is nothing easier than to make social deterioration look like something which it's the sacred duty of mothers to prevent (a socially upgraded version of the tendency in families to blame mothers for everything).” No class of mothers has been scapegoated more than black women in America.

Our cultural images of black motherhood cannot decide: Are black women the doting, desexualized mammies who offer their teats up to translucent white newborns? Or are black women lazy and sexually crazed? In either case, they are anything but mothers.

The origins of American black motherhood are entangled in the blurred histories of production and reproduction, along with dirt, blood, and makeshift graves. Dorothy Roberts's Killing the Black Body relays a horrific 19th-century scene in its first chapter, “Reproduction in Bondage.” It begins with slave work, and then weather. Women are working in a cotton field, and not so far in the distance, their babies are resting in a ditch they've dug to serve as a collective cradle. Then there is rain, rain that is too surprising and too heavy for the working mothers to outrun. The agony of drowned children was memorialized in the master's ledger as a loss of future slave labor.

The scene foretells too many of the realities of compromised mothering in America today. More than half of the states of the union permit the use of “shackling,” the practice of handcuffing and chaining women to hospital beds while they give birth. Mothers figuring out survival for themselves and their children outside of the prison system experience exorbitant punishment. Black children are represented in foster care at 1.8 times their rate in the general population. Another analysis by Professor Roberts argues that the criminalization of poverty targets non-nuclear black families: “Because they perceive black single mothers as incapable of providing adequate supervision of their children, officials believe they are justified in placing these children under state control.”

The use of numbers and statistics to pervert the social potential of black mothering bedrocks social policy. Roberts writes: “White childbearing is generally thought to be a beneficial activity; it brings personal joy and allows the nation to flourish. Black reproduction, on the other hand, is treated as a form of degeneracy. Black mothers are seen to corrupt the reproduction process at every stage.” In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan published “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Moynihan infamously correlated black poverty and “crime rates” to the “failure” of poor, single–black female households. The possibility that the wrecked fruits of failed black female labor, black men, could endanger the white family through the simple fact of their existence animates some of the country's most racist social policy.

The thinking behind Moynihan's deeply flawed sociological attack buttressed and then swelled long-held stereotypes about the nature of child-bearing black women: They were unproductive sucks on the government who desecrated the nation's character by populating it with criminals. “Welfare queens” (though 40 percent of food stamp recipients are white non-Hispanics). “Uneducated” (though black women are among the most educated demographics in the country).

Perhaps the most dystopic reality: Black motherhood in peril has saved others' lives. Too many lives to count. As a sort of oblique, unconsenting mother figure, Henrietta Lacks and her immortal line of cells have become the most important in medical research history. Lucy, Anarcha, Betsey — some of the slaves J. Martin Sims experimented on during the mid–19th century — have been called, horrifically yet understandably, “mothers of modern gynecology.” There are women who were sterilized in the '50s during birth control trials who are still living. Black domestic labor ensured the degree of freedom white women needed during their climaxes of suffragist action. The promise of a reproductive black female body has delivered for so many.

But black mothers have not always been able to save their children. Each generation of black mothers has contended with political, social, and environmental forces that have compromised their ability to nurture a child. Each generation of black mothers has mothered at the end of the world.

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