Life for Us Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair

By: Danielle Moss Lee

Langston Hugh’s famous poem “Mother to Son” conjures up images of generations of Black mothers in this country, seeking to instill necessary survival skills, and to raise the kind of thick-skinned men that unbridled racial oppression demands.

America has had a long, volatile, and dehumanizing history with Black mothers — reviled, brutalized, forgotten. Zora Neale Hurston aptly called us Black women “the mules of the world,” but it took me growing up to finally realize why.

When I see the video of panic-stricken Toya Graham, I see myself, and all the other Black mothers who are desperate to keep our children physically, spiritually and emotionally safe in a society that doesn’t honor their childhood. It’s a special desperation known mostly by the oppressed — it’s about sending your children onto the battlefield every day knowing that even when they are careful, they will be judged, seen as threatening, and that their destruction for some will be considered almost compulsory.

I identified with her reaction, but I do not trust the embracing response she received. I understand context is everything. Some folks viewed the Baltimore riots as a fire-breathing monument evidencing the failure of the Black family, and Black mothers in particular. And while many could relate to her love-filled fear and rage, her attack was also seen as the restoration of violence as the only language Black boys understand.

On most days, someone videotaping this incident, with or without context, would have forwarded the tape to the evening news and/or child services. In recent years, we’ve seen Black women’s ability to take care of their families decimated by disproportionately long-term sentencing in lieu of other interventions, low wages, poor health care, and high rates of eviction and homelessness. Black women at every level of the educational spectrum still make less than white women according to a fact sheet released in 2013 by the Center for America Progress.

There is an “economy of Black pain” that exists to uphold and maintain the systemic oppression of Black families broadly and Black women in practice. When the NYPD engaged in an unsanctioned work slowdown in 2014, it was the bail bondsman and lawyers, whose livelihood depends on the cycling of Black bodies through the criminal justice system, who cried out the loudest.

During slavery our very status as mothers was mostly viewed as biological. Were we capable of giving birth? Yes. Were we capable of forming meaningful, loving, emotional bonds with our own children? No. Were we permitted to form parental bonds within a legally binding family structure? No.

In the early 20th Century, we saw the rise of “Mammy” as the quintessential pop culture representation of Black women and mothers. Mammy, who often was caretaker to white children, was quick to comfort and extoll the virtues of her small white charges and as cruel to her own children as she was nurturing of white children. Mammy was overweight, wide-eyed, simple and asexual — even though Black women’s bodies were the battleground of racial oppression during and after slavery. Eventually, Mammy evolved into the “Welfare Queen;” and, after centuries of fueling capitalism’s economic engine by way of our exploited labor, America reimagined Black mothers as promiscuous, lazy and ignoble.

Even Congress got in on the fun with the help of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s infamous “Moynihan Report”, which seemed to purport that the unraveling of traditional gender roles and moral turpitude were at the root of delayed social, political, economic mobility rather than structural and systemic racism and the policies that go with it. The imagery stuck, even as Black women continued to strive. And, eventually, those terms gave way to “unwed teenaged mother,” and a host of other euphemisms.

Today, popular culture serves up terms like “THOT” and “Ratchet,” offered with a generous helping of misogyny and gender-based violence on the side, that all mean the same thing: Black women and mothers, no matter how “heroic”, are still on the firing lines of our culture. And, folks Black and white, have gotten comfortable with the exaggerated visibility of the mythic Black mother (the one we all thank when we win an award) who pushes against the odds to help her children thrive — note that she pushes against mysterious and amorphous “odds” and not insidious structural racism. In fact, that oft told narrative rarely reflects the reality of how systemic racism has thwarted our collective ability as Black mothers to reach our full potential as parents free from state-sanctioned exploitation, and societal violence and invisibility in general.

I hope that when the interviews with Toya and her son are over, she’s given a good-paying job that allows her to adequately provide for all of her children (and to do so free from any judgment about where their father’s role in their lives), offered housing in a safe neighborhood thriving with municipal and quality-of-life services, and afforded the opportunity to live in a community where rampant police abuse is not on the menu. Because the next time she raises her hand to one of her children, I’m not convinced the world will be so kind.

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