February is all about reflecting on black history. As a mother, our black history is a tale of troubling beginnings followed by triumphant gains. Of course, I’ll never forget the moment Michelle Obama became First Lady of the United States. She epitomizes everything modern black motherhood is about, career success, loving partnership, and commitment to being the mom-in-chief of your own family command center.
But getting to Michelle Obama has been a long and sometimes troubling journey. The black motherhood experience in this country had a painful start with lingering effects that still hover overhead today. First, let’s go back. As enslaved black mothers we were viewed as breeders not humans and we had no control over our experience in motherhood or our children. As slaves, our children were ripped from our bosoms and sold as we stood helpless in despair.
"Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work and the Family from Slavery to Present" by Jacqueline Jones http://www.amazon.com/Labor-Love-Sorrow-Slavery-Present/dp/0465037569 details how pregnant slaves were forced to lie face down in a specially dug impression in the ground when they were whipped. Perhaps in the demented mind of the slave owner, he was simultaneously protecting his economic investment in the fetus while still punishing the mother.
Our experience as black mothers was always laced with pain.
But we always wanted more for our children. And even as freed-men and -women, it was also clear that we saw the role of mother as tantamount to preserving our families, our communities and to the progression of the black race. Contrary to popular belief, we have a history of being thoughtful and resourceful about our duty and power as mothers.
Witness this excerpt from a speech by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a 19th century African American abolitionist, teacher, women’s rights advocate, writer and poet. She spoke these words on November 15, 1892 in a speech called Enlightened Motherhood, an address to the Brooklyn Literary Society.
"The work of the mothers of our race is grandly constructive. It is for us to build above the wreck and ruin of the past more stately temples of thought and action. Some races have been overthrown, dashed in pieces, and destroyed; but today the world is needing, fainting, for something better than the results of arrogance, aggressiveness, and indomitable power. We need mothers who are capable of being character builders, patient, loving, strong, and true, whose homes will be uplifting power in the race. This is one of the greatest needs of the hour."
In 1902, the book Twentieth Century Negro Literature, included an essay on the responsibilities of educated black women on the black race written by Sarah Dudley Petty, a writer, teacher and preacher’s wife. What were her thoughts on black motherhood?
"A faithful, virtuous and intelligent motherhood will elevate any people . . . True patriotism, obedience and respect for law, both divine and civil, the love and yearning for the pure, the sublime and the good, all emanate from mother’s personality . . . I would urge then, as the first prerequisite for our work, a pure, pious and devoted motherhood."
Years later, our quest to define motherhood moved to the television screen. When I was growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s we looked to successful working women like Claire Huxtable on the Cosby Show and Vivian Banks on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air for a glimpse into what black motherhood looked like. Every Thursday night on television, Claire Huxtable, Esq, showed a generation of future lawyers, doctors and accountants that upwardly mobile black women could indeed have it all. We could raise five kids without a nanny, take care of a house, maintain a high-powered career, be adored by our husband and still look glamorous and sexy. Whether having it all is truly possible for any woman (white, black or green) is still debatable, but this was new territory for black women. For decades, this was something that only seemed possible for white women.
This black history month, I’m asking all black mothers to remember our history as women who carried our families and communities. Mothers who didn’t listen when the world said we were thoughtless breeders and our children were mere commodities to be bought or sold. In more recent history black mothers have been publicly shamed as crack mothers, welfare queens, and the face of "baby mama drama." Black single motherhood is blamed for all sorts of social ills from crime to drugs to "wilding" teens. And black mothers are often represented in popular culture as neck-rolling domineering household managers who run circles around our men. Even the critically acclaimed movie, "Precious" has raised eyebrows for perpetuating ideas of black women as abusive mothers.
But I’m asking you to stay true to what you know: These stereotypes are very far from the truth. In truth, black women today have redefined black history and created a new conversation about our roles as mothers. For example, when I watched the Brady Bunch and Happy Days and reruns of Leave It To Beaver, the subtle messaging was that being a stay at home mom and catering to your child’s every need was a white woman’s pleasure. Black women have always worked–as slaves, as cleaners, as teachers, as doctors, as lawyers. Even our TV mamas (Claire Huxtable included) always worked.
Today more and more black women are stay at home moms (myself included), we have robust national organizations like Mocha Moms http://mochamoms.org/ to support women who are making motherhood their career (even if just for a few years or so).
This shift in our motherhood experience may seem subtle, but in the framework of our history, it is groundbreaking. And thrilling. It not only speaks to how far we have come as a people, but how far we have come as black mothers, who went from having no control over our children to taking control of our children, our lives, and our families’ financial future. We now have varied and different motherhood experiences yet we still know we are doing important work that goes well beyond our home.
As we celebrate our history as black Americans, take a moment to reflect and celebrate your history as a black mother. Take a moment to celebrate you!