Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Dear Black Mothers

A few years ago, I attended a rally in downtown DC against police misconduct and brutality, shortly after the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri. This was sometime in the fall of 2014 following the death of Michael Brown. As a veteran attendee of these kinds of events, this was the first time I went as a soon-to-be mother...I was a couple of weeks pregnant.

Here's the thing, I would have gone anyway, but I was definitely more motivated and compelled to attend at that early stage of my pregnancy. It was still too soon to learn the gender, but my rationale was that in a family with one granddaughter and another one coming, both the daughters of my brothers, surely I could expect to bring forth a boy. (Of course, I was wrong as you all know, and for that we can blame my Dad for not passing on his mathematical genius to me, the Hub for his contribution of that second X chromosome, or my pregnancy hormones.) Nevertheless, the point of going was to stand with the other Black mothers, in solidarity as one of them with the same fears and anxieties for my unborn Black child. As I stood in the crowd and put my hand on the not-even-there-yet poof of a baby bump, I was overcome by tears. 

How can I protect this child from a system determined to regard him as guilty from the moment he enters the world?

Since I opted not to learn the gender of the baby in advance, when I gave birth to my daughter, I have to admit that I let out a brief sigh of relief. Sure, there are anxieties attached to raising a young Black girl in this society, of which I am most keenly aware as she heads into puberty. However, I don't have to set as a goal seeing her live to the age of 18 as a measure of my success or failure as a parent. Sadly, that isn't something that Black mothers of sons can assume is guaranteed. 

I became painfully aware of that fact just a few years earlier when Trayvon Martin was killed and his murderer was acquitted. The entire encounter hinged on the right of a self-styled neighborhood vigilante to determine whether the young Black man he saw was legitimately in his own neighborhood. The fact that the killer made the assumption that Martin did not belong is precisely the moment their fateful encounter derailed. I read so many opinions that framed what happened as a cautionary tale about how young Black men ought to conduct themselves. And no matter how many details pointed to what we knew was obvious, none of it mattered. It was somehow the fault of the 17-year old child who was profiled, stalked, attacked, and then killed to have acted in some way to overcome the presumption of his guilt for merely existing.

Since 2012, this pattern has been repeated too many times. There are too many names we vow never to forget, too many Black mothers in mourning. It doesn't stop. Every death renews the need for The Talk, but with constant caveats and revisions. Don't wear hoodies because you might look suspicious. Don't play with a toy gun because it might be mistaken for the real thing. Don't make any sudden moves that might be misinterpreted as threatening. Don't disclose that you are legally carrying a weapon with a permit. Don't make eye contact with the officers. Don't ask why you were stopped even if you didn't break any laws. Don't try to drive to a well-lit area because then you are leading the police on a 'chase'. Don't hang anything from the rearview mirror, not even a rosary or your graduation tassel because you might get stopped. Don't reach into your pocket for your license and registration even though you were ordered to provide them to the officer. Don't get seen smoking or drinking water in your own car. Don't assume that your good credit rating, advanced degrees, military uniform, or fancy zip code will exempt you from mistreatment. 

Do whatever they tell you, even if it consists of 71 conflicting commands all shouted simultaneously while you're being beaten. The goal is to make it home alive. 

In the cinematic build-up to the release of this video of Tyre Nichols, I had already resolved not to watch. It felt wrong both to anticipate its release and to make every effort to avoid it, but I understand that the Nichols' family authorized the timing of the release so that the world could see it, unredacted and raw. And in my internal debate with myself about why I didn't need or want to subject myself to that horror, I kept asking why must we force Black mothers to summon the courage of Mamie Till-Mobley? Why don't we have the option to mourn our dead children without the gaze of the world looking on while offering no comfort?

Of course, that begs the question of why we put Black mothers in the position of having to grieve for our children in the first place. We are always told that it is unnatural for parents to bury their offspring, but life doesn't happen according to how we think it should. And Black mothers are not unique in experiencing loss. However, unless it is accidental or unavoidable, Black death is always political. We die under circumstance that are engineered to kill us, from chronic untreated health disparities to environmental racism to gang warfare to the kind of state-sponsored lynchings carried out by the police. Grief is a permanent reality for Black mothers.

And no one cares. There are excuses and bullshit explanations for every incident. Here in DC there was a debate on social media over the recent death of an unarmed 13-year-old child who was shot by someone who thought he was trying to steal a car. It was disheartening to see that folks had taken the time to type out how bad they felt, but...and you can fill in the blank of any number of mitigating reasons why it was not outrageous that another Black child had lost his life. 

I won't reiterate the very well-written points that have been made about the spectacle of Black death and how seeing such violence further contributes to our dehumanization. And it isn't just Black bodies because I felt a similar sense of disgust over the calls for the Uvalde, Texas parents to allow the bloody photos of their massacred children to be published. The way these mass shootings have been stacking up numbers and occurring indiscriminately across all communities, I thought it was particularly gruesome to demand to see the bullet-ridden corpses of those Latino children. As if the scene of their slaughter would finally convince America that our love of guns is literally killing us... 

Note how similar requests have not been suggested to the families of other mass shooting victims. Also note the contrast between the way accountability was swiftly meted out in Memphis by its chief but how the finger-pointing in Uvalde dragged on for months. I want to believe that the makeup of each law enforcement agency made the difference but having a Black/Latinx police chief or a force that demographically represents those communities didn't prevent either tragedy. Yet, what happened in Uvalde is the norm, and now the police chief in Memphis is under scrutiny for her past leadership of another specialized police unit. Furthermore, as long as we're caught up in a culture war that treats policing itself as its own demographic that exists apart and above the lives of those whom the profession is supposed to protect and serve, then true accountability is impossible.

Perhaps it is endemic in a system that was built on the mythology of Black inferiority, of bodies bought and sold at auction, that it is our utility that has the most worth, not our actual lives. What else explains the organized backlash against the simplest of statements, that our lives matter too? And what of the self-defeatist denouncements of Black culture that come from our own children? I was dismayed to read a tweet from somebody's Black man-child that there exists within Black culture a pathology that glorifies death. And that truly broke my heart because if he's barely 21 saying something so declaratively ignorant like that on Al Gore's internet, as are prominent Black pundits like Jason Whitlock, then is it any wonder why Black mothers cry out loud but find little comfort?

Our culture glorifies death? Meanwhile white families pose for these pictures and send them as Christmas greetings. No one would dare vilify this mother if something terrible happens to one of her children. Yet, the single Black mother of two sons who worked hard to keep them out of trouble; who sent her younger son to stay with his father (her ex-husband) to give him more structure and discipline; who had to endure watching her family being re-traumatized in the court of public opinion after her son's killer was acquitted--she's the bad mother, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. 

Here's the thing Mr. Jason 'Fearless' Whitlock et. al., it doesn't take a lot of courage to talk shit about Black women on a podcast. True fearlessness is standing up in the aftermath of personal tragedy to demand accountability and justice, not whining to the manosphere. In most of these cases, Black mothers are the ones who lead the transition from mourning to marching. In Memphis, it was another Black mother, the police chief you attacked, who took decisive action to ensure that these officers were held accountable. That was supported by more decisive action taken by an organization of real community-minded men, the brothers of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. And that must really annoy the folks who pay you to keep the focus on the games meant to distract us instead of the struggles meant to liberate us. 

Dear Black Mothers and Aunties, there is a Balm in Gilead, but it will not be prescribed by those who oppress us and kill our babies. Why should we believe that our families are doomed just because someone else's faith claims that the only proper roles for women in God's Kingdom are as servants, virgins, prostitutes, or widows? The same God who anointed a lowly shepherd boy and made him a great king also performed some of His most transformative miracles in the lives of women. Look at what He did for Sarah, Rahab, Ruth, Queen Esther, Elizabeth, Mary, Jairus' daughter, the woman with the issue of blood, the Samarian woman at the well, and Mary Magdeline at the tomb. Beyond procreation, every other gender-based restriction on earth is man-made and benefits those looking to retain their tenuous grip on power. 

If the patriarchy is threatened by strong women, then Black women, who have had to stand in the gap created by centuries of racist practices and policies that removed Black men as the primary providers and protectors, must be especially intimidating. Harriet Tubman didn't wait for her husband, who was not enslaved, to give her permission to escape, nor was she deterred when he didn't join any of her return trips. Mamie Till Mobley, a widow, was advised to bury her only begotten son quietly so as not to stir up trouble, but she had other ideas. Barbara Johns, Linda Brown, Elizabeth Eckford, and Ruby Bridges were children on the front lines of school desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. Claudette Colvin was an unwed teenage mother, but her arrest nine months prior set the stage for Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. So tell us again, Mr. Jason 'Fearless' Whitlock about who and what is God-ordained? Who are you to declare that Black women, who have lost fathers, husbands, and sons, ought not to take the lead in our families and communities as necessary? Just as our ancestors pieced together clothing scraps and rags into beautiful quilts, grieving Black Mothers have sewn together the remnants and keep their families together.

You write/talk about sports for a maybe you need to stay in that lane.

I began with this piece by invoking the memory of a protest I attended back in 2014. It has not escaped my notice that Tyre Nichols must have been about 17 years old at that time (close in age to Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin) and how his parents probably sat him down to have what was then, a revised version of The Talk to avoid meeting their same fate. Here we are ten years later and I cannot fathom the pain his mother must be feeling. I look at Mrs. RowVaughn Wells and see a lot of the women I know--classmates, sorors, women at my church, etc. Any one of us could be in her place, even me as I am old enough to have had a son the same age. 

Like this young mother, I am willing to face down tanks and police in riot gear to protect my daughter, but I shouldn't have to. I should not have to worry that in 10-12 years, my young nephews, cousins, and great-nephews will have to be sat down for The Talk, updated with a new set of prohibitions because some other Black mother's son didn't make it home alive. Nichols' own son will be receiving that same Talk around that same time. 

Dear Black Mothers, we must keep praying and marching for the lives of our babies. There is a parable of a persistent widow who sought to be heard by an unjust judge, and though he initially ignored her pleas, he eventually granted her the justice she sought. Keep the faith, my Sisters, because we are fighting a corrupt system, and if we don't keep seeking justice, who will? 

No comments:

Post a Comment