The Misrecognition of Black Motherhood

by Briana Perry Motherhood is a topic that has been heavily scrutinized for centuries. Until the 1960s, it was thought that a woman’s...

by Briana Perry

Motherhood is a topic that has been heavily scrutinized for centuries. Until the 1960s, it was thought that a woman’s primary goal in life was to fulfill the societal expectation of producing and raising children, as she mainly served in the private sphere as a wife and mother. In fact, it was believed that a woman was not whole until she attained the experience of motherhood. After the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, women began challenging the ideology that their sole contribution to society was becoming a mother. This marked the onset of second wave feminism, which included a push for women to be included in the public sphere with respect to participation in the workforce, and the ability to have autonomy over their bodies.

While second wave feminism has often been deemed as a pivotal period in the ongoing fight for reproductive freedom, it is important to note that Black women have always had a unique experience in this movement, especially with exercising their “right” to parent. Since the onset of chattel slavery, Black motherhood has been dehumanized, regulated, and criminalized. As slaves, Black women were forced to reproduce for the maintenance of the Southern economy and the institution of slavery. This often included their slave owners raping them to ensure that there was a ready supply of laborers. Once slavery was abolished, Black women were subjected to involuntary sterilization because they were perceived as a group of people who possessed undesirable traits. They were falsely portrayed and labeled as hypersexual and sexually immoral individuals—characteristics that were considered antagonistic to “good” motherhood.

Today, such reproductive regulatory practices have for the most part been legally repealed, but there is still an inhumane treatment of Black motherhood. Black motherhood continues to be criminalized with legislation such as Senate Bill 1391, the Tennessee Pregnancy Criminalization Law that was enacted last summer. This new bill allows mothers to be charged with assault if it is found they used illicit drugs during their pregnancy. Though the law does not specifically reference Black women, it is clear that it is targeting them, as Black women are more likely to be reported to the authorities for their addiction than their White counterparts. Additionally, low-income women—who we know also happen to be Black women due to intersectionality—are less likely to have the financial and childcare resources to complete treatment for addiction. Moreover, Black motherhood continues to be regulated with cases like Shanesha Taylor and Debra Harrell, two women who were arrested and charged with felonies for essentially not having what the government deems as “adequate and proper” childcare.

Black motherhood continues to be dehumanized with the growing number of individuals who have become victims of police brutality such as Aiyana Jones, Yvette Smith, Mike Brown, and Eric Garner. Included in someone’s right to parent is the right “to parent a child without fear that he or she will be hurt or killed.” Black mothers have been stripped of this freedom because their motherhood is not fully recognized due to negative depictions that continue to linger. There has been a notion embedded in society for centuries that Black motherhood does not matter and in turn, the lives that these women give birth to do not matter. This lack of concern for Black lives is made clear when the perpetrators are acquitted of the murders they committed, even after sufficient evidence has been presented.

As reproductive justice activist Loretta J. Ross so eloquently states, “For some women, motherhood is glorified while others have their motherhood rights contested.” Though we have been fighting for individuals to obtain the freedom to reproduce and parent if they so freely choose, Black women continue to have the experience of their motherhood rights contested. While I appreciate the work that second wave feminists began by expanding women’s opportunities outside of motherhood, I believe that it is important to examine how some women have never been fully recognized as mothers. This then calls for us to acknowledge the power relations that surface within motherhood, with some people being empowered to nurture and reproduce while others are disempowered. Some people have the freedom of letting their kids explore and frolic in a park while others do not want their children to leave the house out of fear that they will be shot dead for sitting on a bench.

Despite these challenges and stigma, Black mothers have shown resiliency. In order to counter the negative images, they have worked to develop creative networks of support, including sharing mothering responsibilities through the system of othermothering. Othermothers assist biological mothers by offering parenting advice, financial support, and childcare services since Black women still lack societal recognition and support. Additionally, Black women are taking a stand against the brutality that befalls their loved ones. 

Mothers for Justice United is one group that is taking a stand this upcoming Mothers Day weekend. Founder, Maria Hamilton, lost her son to police brutality last spring and is calling for the mothers and family members who have similar experiences to join together in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, May 9th for the Million Moms March. This march will call for justice and demand our government to take action against the murders of Black people.

It is time for America to recognize that Black mothers, and the lives they produce and nurture, do in fact matter.

Photo: Shutterstock

Briana Perry is a graduate of Vanderbilt University. Her research interests include reproductive justice, storytelling, and education reform. She can be reached at

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