The way Black writers offer guideposts for the many ways we have and will continue to mother ourselves and others.
by Lisa Ze Winters
One Sunday afternoon this past August, my five-year-old daughter, her dad, and I were driving home when we saw at least four, maybe five police cars pulled in askew from north and south directions, blocking the driveway of a bank’s empty parking lot. A bicycle lay on the ground, in front of one of the police cars. A Black youth, in his late teens or early twenties and dressed in a white tank top and blue jeans, stood in the center, surrounded by cops, who appeared relaxed.
Her dad and I knew our daughter could see what we saw too, so, translating our rage and terror for her ears, we talked about how it wasn’t fair to have so many police officers surround a kid on a bike.
In response, and matter of fact, my daughter declared, “If he runs, they would chase him.” I responded as neutrally as possible. “Yeah. Yeah, they would.”
This is how Frederick Douglass describes his relationship with his mother, Harriet Bailey, in his 1845 narrative:
I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. […] She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. (Douglass 2-3)
Douglass’s mother died when he was seven. He tells us, “Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” (Douglass 3).
When Harriet Jacobs discovered a gimlet in the first days of her confinement in her grandmother’s garret, that sloping 7 x 9 foot “loophole of retreat” that would be her prison for seven years, she “rejoiced,” writing, “It put a lucky thought into my head. I said to myself, ‘Now I will have some light. Now I will see my children.’” Working only at night, she:
succeeded in making one hole about an inch long and an inch broad. I sat by it till late into the night, to enjoy the little whiff of air that floated in. In the morning I watched for my children. […] At last I heard the merry laughing of children, and presently two sweet little faces were looking up at me, as though they knew I was there, and were conscious of the joy they imparted. How I longed to tell them I was there! (Jacobs 175)
In William Wells Brown’s 1853 novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, the title character escapes her slaveholder in Mississippi and successfully arrives in Cincinnati only to return of her own volition to Virginia, where she is known as a slave, in order to rescue her enslaved daughter. Clotel never reaches her daughter, and instead, is discovered and arrested by slave catchers. Having come to the mistaken conclusion that her daughter is no longer in the state, Clotel flees and, refusing certain capture, leaps to her death in the Potomac River.
When my daughter tells me if the boy runs the police will chase him, and my heart screams, run, run, always run, and my head stills my tongue desperate for a response that will keep her safe, in this moment, I remember that the precursors to the police today were the slave patrols, and I am struck dumb by the impossibility of it all: of seeing and loving in Black children their innocence and beauty, of feeding their dreams, of delighting in their exuberance, while in the same breath, of having to decide whether to tell them to run or to be still, to talk back or to keep quiet, to risk freedom or to stay in place.
My daughter was born in 2011, less than one year after the Detroit Police’s murder of a sleeping 7-year-old Aiyanna Stanley-Jones. My little girl was already climbing and had just started walking when Trayvon Martin was killed. She is becoming, unfolding, discovering herself just as I have come to more fully understand the paralyzing truth of Audre Lorde’s words: “Raising Black children—female and male—in the mouth of a racist, sexist suicidal dragon is perilous and chancy. If they cannot love and resist at the same time, they will probably not survive” (“Man Child” 74).
And I think if we, in this time of what Saidiya Hartman calls the afterlife of slavery, if we who are Black mothers of Black children must conjure safety, must do the profoundly speculative work of imagining and creating a freedom for them we could only dream we ever had, then what of enslaved Black mothers?
The examples I cite here, the evidence of Harriet Bailey’s formidable determination and physical will to mother her son who will not remember her enough to mourn her death, of Harriet Jacob’s insistence in her joy at seeing her children and hope that their own merriment may be bolstered by her watchful yet invisible presence, and of the fictional Clotel’s resolute commitment to risk her own tenuous freedom to rescue her daughter from captivity, these literary moments are devastatingly ordinary, examples of the quotidian powerlessness of enslaved Black mothers.
But read from a different perspective, one grounded in Black feminist methodologies that are profoundly speculative, that seek and invent disruptive and sometimes redemptive epistemologies, that stretch from Pauline Hopkins to Zora Neale Hurston to Ntozake Shange, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Gloria Naylor, Hortense Spillers, VèVè Clark and Barbara Christian, and so, so many others, through recent work by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Vanessa K. Valdés and Kimberly Juanita Brown, read from this perspective, there is something else, too. So in this moment, here, it matters that there is a brilliant thread in 20th– and 21st-century Black feminist thought that invokes and theorizes diasporic iterations of the orisas Osun and Yemoja, mothers known for the devotion and fierceness with which they love and protect their children, as figures central to Black women’s navigation of this seemingly endless afterlife of slavery.
The extraordinary difficulty of Black mothering, the ways Black mothers of Black children are persistently thwarted, assaulted, and demonized in this world, is of course a difficulty that has been made legible and theorized precisely through the work of Black feminist thinkers. I am trying to press on something else here, to suggest to mother Black children is an impossible task, one not permitted by the reality of Black life in this place.
I want to consider that to mother Black children is to engage in an ontological labor, one that must refuse, thwart, and disarm governing epistemologies of what is possible. It is, as VèVè Clark says in her articulation of diaspora literacy and marasa consciousness, to enact “formulation[s] of another principle entirely” (“Developing Diaspora Literacy” 43). This perspective resists reinscribing some kind of mythical, matriarchal power to enslaved Black mothers. So too does it refuse to assert or reify a notion of motherhood predicated on biology or heteronormative gender categories and familial relationships. Rather, I situate myself in this perspective in order to attend to the tension in the impossibility of legal, political and social power of Black mothers against the persistent desire and will to mother enslaved children, and to theorize the possibilities for what that mothering looks like and what it is able to imagine and enact.
And so I wonder, what it might mean to read nineteenth-century representations of real and fictional enslaved mothers through the lens of an ontology rooted in African diasporic religious practices. How to theorize Black mothering that at once recognizes and refuses the prevailing material evidence of a child’s perpetual captivity. How mothering Black children means to inhabit and make sense of a time-space continuum of slavery and freedom that is neither linear nor coherent. To attend to the intimacy of this labor, how individual these mothering practices are, and to examine how enslaved Black mothers navigated the tension between sheltering one’s children and the ability to participate in collective resistance and action. It is not to argue that Harriet Bailey, Harriet Jacobs, or Clotel practiced African diasporic religions. It is to illuminate the labor of enslaved motherhood and to underscore the depth and complexity of its ontological work in imagining the freedom of one’s children. This is a selfish project for me. I need to understand how to do this.
Lisa Ze Winters is a teacher, student, writer, and scholar who wonders at the limits and possibilities of freedom. Her book, The Mulatta Concubine: Terror, Intimacy, Freedom, and Desire in the Black Transatlantic was published in 2016 by the University of Georgia Press for their Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900 series. “Untitled” holds the seeds for her current research and writing projects.
Christian, Barbara. “Fixing Methodologies: Beloved.” In Female Subjects in Black and
White: Race, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Barbara Christian, and Helene Moglen, 363–70. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
Clark, VèVè A. “Developing Diaspora Literacy and Marasa Consciousness.” In
Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, edited by Hortense Spillers, 40–61. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Written by Himself. Boston, 1845. Documenting the American South. 1999. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. October 1, 2016. < http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html>.
Jacobs, Harriet A. (Linda Brent). Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Written by Herself.
Boston, 1861. Documenting the American South. 2003. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. October 1, 2016. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html>.