Postmortem Fame, Public Shame for Black Mothers

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Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother.

Credit: Daniel Cima, CIDH, Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos on Flickr, under Creative Commons

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother.

AUSTIN, Texas (WOMENSENEWS)–The other night when my 8-year-old son predicted I would be famous one day, I was confused, then shocked: "I have a feeling I am going to die as a teenager, and then you will be on TV."

His explanation was painfully simple: "because black teens get shot by cops and then their mothers go on TV and give speeches."

He has a point.

As the process slowly grinds toward justice for Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old slain by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, his mother, like Trayvon Martin’s and others, must continually reckon with another horrifying fact of American life: The postmortem fame of black mothers in the aftermath of their son’s deaths.

These mothers are pushed into a public spectacle during a difficult time that compromises their grief. Their fame comes at the cost of burying a child, plus also the public scrutiny of their dress, diction and demeanor. For example:

  • Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mom, led a quiet life with few people knowing her name, but after her son was murdered she was giving speeches and standing next to political figures at rallies in several cities, making guest appearances on CNN, MSNBC and FOX. Yet when she did this, she was criticized for her hair, her clothes and a host of other unfair things.

  • Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother has been thrown into the grief spotlight, only to be picked apart for her hair color, her clothes and her anger.

  • Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, killed by a police officer in an Oakland, Calif., Bay Area Rapid Transit station, has been thrust in front of cameras as well. Yet, she was accused of capitalizing on his death when she started the Oscar Grant Foundation. But think about how she felt watching "Fruitvale Station," the movie made about her son’s killing, at premiers where she was asked to speak. Why does postmortem fame include public shame? Isn’t it bad enough that these mothers lost their sons?

Rare Cover Appearances

Grieving black mothers have made the covers of such magazines and newspapers such as Time, Life, People, The New York Times and USA Today. This is not to say mothers of other racial and ethnic groups don’t experience postmortem fame. Rather, black women are hardly ever on the cover of mainstream publications or standing in front of television cameras with a sea of microphones in their faces hanging onto their every word, unless they are famous actresses, entertainers, public figures or … their sons were murdered.

Many of us remember vivid images of Mamie Till Mobley in the summer of 1955 as she cried over the open casket of her son Emmett Till, lynched by a mob that probably included law enforcement officers. Pinned to the inside of the casket were three photos of how he looked before his murder, how she wanted to remember him. She chose an open casket so the world could see his violent death and learn that racism is real.

In all of this, black fathers are rarely granted center stage. Black men are almost always portrayed as extras in a movie, taking a background role. It is not fair to them either. Also, I think about all the daughters killed who did not make the news.

How many of us can name the four little girls in the Birmingham Church bombing on 1963? Addie Mae Collins, 14; Carol Robertson, 14; Cynthia Wesley, 14; and Denise McNair, 11.

As I love my son and keep him close, I mourn the loss of his innocence. It’s a tragedy he connected the dots so early in his life, but prophetic, too, in predicting the cost and the twisted form of fame that mars the experience of growing up black in the United States.

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