“In a child's eyes, a mother is a goddess. She can be glorious or terrible, benevolent or filled with wrath, but she commands love either way. I am convinced that this is the greatest power in the universe.”― N.K. Jemisin Memory can be the damndest thing, especially to a child. With it our minds record and recall the most wonderful moments of our lives while shaping the innermost fabric of our identities. With one firing of the brain’s synapses, memories are translated into moments from which we can derive inexplicable joy or utter fear. A mother or father doting over us, a childhood game, a school play, a first crush; all have the ability to arouse within us emotions of sheer nostalgia and bliss. Yet with these stored reservoirs of psychological and mental treasure often come memories of pain, neglect, or deliberate abuse. Consider the child living in poverty or the willful neglect of his or her basic needs. Think of the young girl that has experienced the horror of sexual abuse. While it may have occurred decades earlier in her life, it still has the ability to emerge out of the shadows and haunt her. Or take into consideration my own memory as a four-year old: the image of a gaping bullet wound in my mother’s chest inflicted by the hands of my own father.
An expert on childhood memory from Chicago Medical School, Dr. Lise Eliot writes, “Anything you learn (in the first five years) is said to store a memory. But we distinguish conscious and unconscious memory. Probably ninety percent of what we do happens at this unconscious level, especially in young children." Seeing that such a large percentage of our ability to remember information comes from our early childhood, it would serve us well to begin to reexamine our childhood memories of the role of the black woman - as mother, wife, and provider. REMEMBERING MAMA
In 1992, First Lady of Gospel Music, Shirley Caesar released the classic Gospel track “I Remember Mama.” Although the song was released relatively late in Caesar’s famed career, the song embodied the spirit and soul of the history and culture of the black woman throughout the 20th century. Born in 1938, Caesar was raised and lived through some of the most tumultuous times of the African American experience. She was the product of a generation that saw the end of slavery, the institution of voting rights for blacks, and the civil rights movement. This song serves as a lyrical time capsule by which the listener is able to peer through the struggle, plight, and triumph of the black woman. Caesar writes: I remember mama, And the love that she gave Kneeling by her bed side I can still hear mama say, "The people are depending on you, Shirley, Don't you let them down" I remember mama in a happy way. We went to school with holes in our shoes
We didn't have much but the Lord saw us through
Mama kept the family together I remember mama in a happy way
She packed our lunch in an old greasy bag
It might've seemed empty,
But it was more than others had It had a lot of love way down deep inside and
I remember mama in a happy way
The tenth of 12 children, Caesar grew up seeing her mother forced to raise the family after her father, a North Carolinian tobacco worker, died when she was 12 years old. Because of this reality, the future Grammy award winner and spiritual inspiration for many in the black church, would receive a panoramic view of black motherhood during arguably the most challenging time in African American history: the civil rights movement. The song strikes an emotional chord with many in her generation and serves as a prototypical model of what the black woman, as mother, is meant to be. The black woman as mother is the personification of enduring strength in the face of constant struggle and challenge. This strength is intensely magnified when one dissects it through the lens of American social and cultural life. From the very onset of the African woman's advent into America, she had to endure brutal and egregious treatment at the hands of her American slave captors. The black African woman was delivered to America through the womb of the slave ship - that torturous vessel that will forever be associated with the worst of American ills. The slave ship was particularly malevolent to the black woman. She was instantly and without warning separated from land and home. This created the immediate severing of the family relationship which, at the core, was motherhood. She would not only lose her statehood of native mother by being instantly separated from her children through slave trade, but now she would be subjected to the subhuman environment of the arduous slave ship. African Americans know far too little of the black woman's plight in coming to the Americas. For African women, the slave ship was a place of isolation and sexual vulnerability; women were valued in price by their bodies and genitalia and not their God-given dignity or as human beings. In her book Slave Women In Caribbean Society, Barbara Bush writes, "Officers were reputed to 'indulge their passions among [slave women] at pleasure’ and were ‘sometimes guilty of such excesses as disgrace human nature.’" Common sailors were also allowed intercourse with “such of the black women whose consent they [could] secure." The very unique features of African motherhood, the bare breasts to nurse and the stoutly hips and thighs to carry and bear children, were exploited as European males saw these characteristics as traits of sexual depravity and vulgarity. It was only natural that these characteristics would be used to create stereotypes that could be used to justify the abuse and enslavement of black women. It could be argued that the forced submission, subservience, and sexual slavery of the black woman were part of a greater indoctrination. How could it be that such a strong race of women who served historically as the backbone to the sub-Saharan African family and government were now being reduced to mere property that was used more for procreating, picking cotton, and pandering, than nurturing and nourishing a family? The African woman would forever be changed because of slavery. If she was going to continue to exist in America, she would have to evolve from Matriarch to Survivor.
THE ETERNAL MOTHER
The survival of the African American woman would come, in part, through motherhood. Despite being beaten and bullied, raped and ravished, subjected and enslaved, it would be through motherhood that the black woman could possess something that belonged entirely to herself (even for a moment in time). In essence, Motherhood would become the salvation of her soul, redeeming past recollections of position and prominence which once again could be portrayed through the progeny of her offspring. Motherhood was something that gave the black woman a sense of pride and responsibility. Motherhood was also embedded with pain. How could a mother bare the trauma of witnessing her children sold on the auction blocks? For many of these mothers, infanticide seemed to provide the innocent child an escape from a life of slavery. Even more of these women chose to abandon the possibility of escape in order to raise their children. The black woman's love for her children was undeniable, uncontainable, and eternal. In her famous poem, The Slave Mother, Frances Harper recalls a mother's personal hell of being separated from her children as they were sold in the slave trade. She writes: Heard you that shriek? It rose so wildly on the air, it seemed as if a burden'd heart was breaking in despair. Saw you those hands so sadly clasped-- the bowed and feeble head-- the shuddering of that fragile form-- that look of grief and dread? Saw you the sad, imploring eye? Its every glance was pain, as if a storm of agony were sweeping through the brain. She is a mother pale with fear, her boy clings to her side, and in her kirtle vainly tries his trembling form to hide. He is not hers, although she bore for him a mother's pains; he is not hers, although her blood is coursing through his veins! He is not hers, for cruel hands may rudely tear apart the only wreath of household love that binds her breaking heart… She is a mother, and her heart is breaking in despair. The last line of this gut-wrenching poem is unmistakable. Yes, the woman is having her heart torn out - but still, she is a mother. Her son has been ripped away by cruel hands - but still, she is a mother. She desperately fears the moment her child will be taken away - but still, she is a mother. She can hear the shriek of fear coming from her baby - but still, she is a mother. The black woman will always be a mother. There is no whip, slur, theft, rape, bondage, and no pain that could ever deny this truth: still, she is a mother.
MOTHER OF ALL
The concept of mother for the African woman goes much deeper than the immediate context of antebellum slave life or even the tribal life that she knew before her transfer to the Americas. This reality is spiritual and theological to the very core of everything we know about God, religion, and spirituality. The location of the Garden of Eden, the place where the first man and woman were created, has been debated by theologians and anthropologists for centuries. But new scientific data seems to coalesce to the conclusion that our first parents derived from Africa. Africa has long been considered the cradle of human civilization. In the early 1970s, anthropologists discovered the oldest human skeleton in East Africa. This human fossil remains one of the best preserved human remnants on record. With this and other recent findings from scientists Andrea Manica and Simon Armitage, history seems to affirm Africa as the birthplace of human existence. It should be no surprise that the black mother – having her roots traced back to the very matrix of creation – has been embedded with such a distinctly unbreakable maternal disposition, even in the face of such pandemic abuse and objectification. MOTHER OF A MOVEMENT
History gives witness that at the most critical moments of black history an African American woman was at the forefront. Entire movements that have saved the lives of thousands, freed an innumerable number of those in bondage, fought for the rights of the oppressed – have been amazingly birthed by black women. When one connects the Theo-spiritual origin of Eve, the mother of all living, these historical accounts only give further witness that the African woman is not only the mother of men, but she is the mother of life-giving movements that are designed to liberate and empower men. Often times, the black woman’s greatest maternal seed has been those whom she has served through historic movements. Harriet Tubman was one of our mothers. Although never giving birth through her own womb, she would give birth to countless generations through her underground railroads. After living as a slave under the constant tyranny of beatings by masters and enduring violent seizures and narcoleptic attacks as a result, Tubman’s suffering would be the soil by which “Moses,” her alter ego, would be formed. After escaping from her captors in 1849, “Moses,” not content with her own freedom, sought the liberty of her other family members. On a cold December night in 1850, Tubman’s first pilgrimage into the south would begin a movement that would go on to secure the freedom of at least 70 slaves – forever freed by their mother. And to think – this mother would never have children. Zora Neale Hurston was one of our mothers. Labeled by many critics as “generations ahead of her time,” she would shed light on the black woman’s experience through her powerful literary gift. Hurston's 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” is a powerful and life-changing work that stood out from the usual embittered pro-black rhetoric of her day. Through her writings, including her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston argued for equality and civil rights with such skill and cunning that most of her contemporaries did not notice it. Even now – 50 years following her passing – a new generation of thinkers are being challenged by her writings, seeking to provoke and conjure up the same spirit of literary contemplation, communication, and call to action. And to think – this mother would never have children.
Rosa Parks was one of our mothers. Her name is now synonymous with the idea of movement. The name of this precious yet frail woman would become indelibly impressed upon the pages of history during the black civil rights movement. Her stand for equality on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955 would catalyze the greater civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. And to think –this mother would never have children. FORGOTTEN PAST
The current generation of African Americans has, in large part, forgotten our mothers. We (I speak for my own Generation X) are not familiar with the Barbara Jordans, Fannie Lou Hamers, Sojurner Truths, and Alice Walkers of our past. In forgetting them we have forgotten their struggles, triumphs, and the inspiration that their memories are beckoning us to embrace. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana so eloquently wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” In forgetting the memory of our mothers, African Americans have dangerously begun to fall into the same deception of objectification and abuse that those dear women on the slave ship were subjected to. DEAR MAMA
In February of 1995, rap star and actor Tupac Shakur released one of his most memorable and heartfelt songs. “Dear Mama” was the first single of his classic Me Against the World album. In this song, Shakur poignantly communicates to his mother his appreciation and awe of her love for himself and his sister through the difficult and poverty-stricken years of his adolescence. Tupac raps: "When things went wrong we’d blame mama I reminisce on the stress I caused, it was hell Huggin on my mama from a jail cell and who’d think in elementary? hey! I’d see the penitentiary, one day and runnin from the police, that’s right Mama catch me, put a whoopin to my backside and even as a crack fiend, mama You always was a black queen, mama I finally understand for a woman it ain’t easy tryin to raise a man You always was committed a poor single mother on welfare, tell me how ya did it There’s no way I can pay you back but the plan is to show you that I understand. You are appreciated." This song had a unique effect on many urban males who were enthralled with the gansta rap era of the 1990s. Tupac gave license for ‘thugs’ to express their feelings about something other than ‘dead homies.’ This song was one of introspection – again, something that was rare in the genre. And when Tupac showed this unique side, it allowed men, even if momentarily, to express love and appreciation for their mothers. When “Dear Mama” is dissected at a deeper level, one should understand that the song is exceptional, not only because of Tupac’s willingness to make himself vulnerable, but because the woman and mother to whom the song is dedicated is also exceptional. WEARY AND WOUNDED
Afeni Shakur was much more than the mother of the world's most famous rap star. Born in 1947, she is an example of the transition of America’s black woman from strength, wisdom, and endurance to poverty, addiction, and brokenness. A former political activist and ex-Black Panther, Shakur was an example of the triumphant cause and the disheartening causality of the civil rights struggle. The question must be asked: why is it that following the civil rights movement we began to see the devolution and relegation from matriarch, activist, author, and abolitionist, to as Tupac would write, “a poor single mother on welfare?” Again, what happened to Mama?
Leading up to the year 1970, we saw the peak of the black family with the highest rate of black family and marriage in history. Sadly, the unity and commonality of spirit that the black community had forged in their common struggle against racial injustice and oppression quickly began to dissolve. In 1945, sixty-percent of black women were married by the age of twenty-four. That percentage would remain steady until 1970 when suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere the African American family would shift, with more than half of all black children being raised in single-parent, female led homes. It should be noted that children that being raised by mothers alone are two times more likely to be impoverished when compared to those raised by two parents. THE DISINTEGRATION OF THE BLACK FAMILY: WHEN, WHERE AND WHY?
Since 1960, the number of black women who were married by the age of twenty-four decreased by an astounding sixty-four percent. The one institution that African American men and women had embraced for two centuries prior was slowly disintegrating before our very eyes. For those black couples that did get married, a 2003 study by Dr. R. Kelly Raley and Dr. Larry Bumpass discovered that 70 percent of black women’s first marriages will end in divorce. Seeing this rising trend in the midst of the civil rights movement, sociologist Dr. Edward Frazier wrote in his book, The Negro Family in the United States: The widespread disorganization of family life among Negroes has affected practically every phase of their community life and adjustment to the larger white world. Because of the absence of stability in family life, there is a lack of traditions. Life among a larger portion of the urban Negro population is casual, precarious, and fragmentary. It lacks continuity and its roots do not go deeper than the contingencies of daily living. This affects the socialization of the Negro child. With a fourth to a third of Negro families in cities without a male head, many negro children suffer the initial handicap of not having the discipline and authority of the father in the home. Negro mothers who have the responsibility for the support of the family are forced to neglect their children who pick up all forms of socially disapproved behavior in the disorganized areas in which these families are concentrated. Writing his work in the 1950s, this extensive sociological work on the black family serves as a modern day prophecy of the danger of the dissolution of black marriage and family unit. Given that this trend sprung forth from the civil rights movement, a movement that has been widely heralded as the crowning achievement of black history, one must dare to ponder: what the hell happened to the black family? THE MORAL COST OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT Every movement has a cost. It costs not only those who are being confronted with the need to change, but it directly costs those insisting on change. The deaths of Medgar Edgars, Martin Luther King, the three civil rights workers, the four beautiful innocent black girls that were killed in bombing of the Birmingham church, and the 33 unsolved civil rights murders prove this fact all too well. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German saint who would lose his life fighting the injustice and inhumanity of Nazism during the 1940s, would pen in his epic tome, The Cost of Discipleship, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our church. We are fighting today for costly grace.” The civil rights movement was one of divine grace to all future generations who would be its recipients. It was not cheap and was not easy. But upon looking further at this movement, there were costs to that generation, and every preceding generation as well. Part of that cost was to the black woman and subsequently to the black family. “The biggest danger in fighting your enemy is not defeating him, but becoming like him,” goes an old southern proverb. This saying summarizes the moral effect of the civil rights movement upon black Americans. During our metamorphosis and struggle for equality, we spent so much time fighting an enemy outside that we forgot that we too had the potential of becoming our own worst enemy. With new found freedom, rights, and opportunities, we, in particular black men, began looking for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at the expense of the black woman and family. BARBARA
There are many social and cultural factors that led to black men’s abandoning of the black family. But for now, I would like to show how this personally affected my life. Both my mother and father were the products of the immediate post-civil rights movement. Both of my parents were born in the 1950s and experienced firsthand the peak and decline of the African American family. My mother (Barbara) had her first child at the age of 16. She was the product of a teenage pregnancy. Her unwed mother, Anne, gave birth to her during her last year of high school. Both Anne and the baby's father Joseph were brilliant students. Therefore it was mutually decided by both families that instead of settling down to raise the child, the grandparents would be left to care for the child while Anne and Joseph went on to college. This occurrence was a normal routine during the 40s and 50s: the abandoning of the family for the sake of progression and better opportunity. As a teenager, Barbara never knew her father and only saw her mother on holidays. She was left to be in the care of her elderly grandmother. Without proper guidance and supervision, she soon found herself in the bed of Sam, a 20 year old high school dropout. At the age of 16, my mother gave birth to her first child; a beautiful baby girl. And Sam, far removed from the concept of marriage, would never hold his daughter in his hands. In her ongoing quest for love my mother hastily married Charles, an army soldier from Ft. Benning, Georgia. She didn't know him well but was allured by his charm, discipline, and promises of family life. This was something that she had never had. So with the hope of having a father for her child and real love for herself, she wed against her grandmother and mother's wishes. After no longer than a year of matrimony, things began to change. "Where was the husband and father I was promised?" she thought as violent blows struck her face and torso from all directions. She had believed a lie. While at times a compassionate and loving father, Charles had an angry streak that would leave her bruised and bloodied. What was it about Charles’ past that made him this way? Was it the military? Was it the pressures of being a black man in a white man's world? Was my mother doing something wrong? Was he sick? Had he not been taught how to raise a family since he too was raised by a military father? The Lord knows. But whether it was one or all of those variables, Charles was an unstable ticking time bomb…waiting to explode. Barbara worked hard for her family. Soon she had three children, two older daughters, and me, the youngest. She worked multiple part-time jobs as Charles was away, seeking to be a mother and provider for children who by all intents and purposes - lived a seemingly normal life based on outward appearances. When Charles continued to show erratically violent behavior she was encourage by a military officer to flee. "You need to take those kids, and get away. Something is not right with him," she remembered the officer stating with a serious glare. She would take his advice, completely unaware of what the near-fatal result would be. A CHILDHOOD MEMORY
The black woman is a survivor. I learned this all too well during a late fall afternoon as a four year old. With the help of family, Barbara had settled back in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia in order to make a new life for her and her kids. Charles was apparently unaware of the move at the time, but through a series of interrogative steps discovered where the family was living. The knock on the door was not unusual. We lived in a neighborhood with many children including a few cousins and aunts that would frequently stop by for different reasons. But this knock was different; more forceful, more direct. I was the first one to the door and was surprised and overjoyed to see my daddy at the door, "Mommy, Mommy. It's daddy!" I cried out. I cannot imagine what my mother must have felt when I pronounced those words. What did she think? What did she remember? What did she expect? I remembered nothing that transpired immediately after. I did not recall, as my mother would tell me, that my father played with us at the house for an hour. I do not remember the frantic phone call that she would make to her grandmother, being told by the elderly woman, "Get those kids and get them out the house!" Nor do I remember how she loaded me and my two older sisters into the car with plans to get us away from Charles as soon as she could. But would I do remember is the blood. Blood that flowed from my mother’s breast like milk after my father shot his wife three times with a 45 revolver. I do remember the blood. Memory can be the damndest thing. SURVIVOR
My mother would live. She would live because of the same reason that that all black women who have been abused, raped, molested, accused, enslaved, or objectified would live. She is a survivor. From the slave ship to the picket lines, to the back of the bus and back of a bastard's bedroom to the hospital room - the black woman is a survivor. She has survived independent of men and despite men. And as the first Eve, and just like the Virgin Mary, she will always survive in order to give life to men who would be given new life by Christ, the perfect Man.
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AUTHOR JOMO K. JOHNSON HERE: