Mothering While Black: Meditations on Coping With Anti-Black State Sanctioned Violence

by Jallicia Jolly

Four Walls of Sorrow

A couple months ago, I attended a conference in Charleston, which explored the communities, cultures, and politics of the African Diaspora. The space offered a moment to reflect about the sociopolitical significance of Black diaspora(s) in these heightened moments of state-sanctioned anti-black violence.

I walked into a panel that discussed the meaning of Black motherhood and anti-black violence. The seminar room was filled with Black women intensely engaged in panelists Christen Smith and Riche Barnes’ discussion of how Black women deal with the oppressive notions of Black motherhood amidst the growing brutality of transnational anti-black(woman)ness.

Emotions grew intense as we discussed how Black women respond to incomprehensible violence against their children, sisters, brothers, and partners. The sounds of soft cries surrounded the cacophony of “mmhmms.” Each ethnographic description of Black women’s responses to dehumanizing abuse invited discussions about Black women’s affective labor, particularly the sorrow they feel after losing their children.

This experience was painfully transformative. In contemplating the trauma of mothering while Black while living in an anti-black patriarchal world, it shed light on the reoccurring psychological, emotional, and physical trauma that Black women face as they strategically address the chronic dehumanization of black life.

The Politics of Black Female Care

Black women have historically reconstructed and transformed alien definitions of Black womanhood through the practice of woman-centered networks of care. As noted by social theorist Patricia Hill Collins, the outgrowth of the systems of care produced by “community othermothers” were critical for Black women as they sought new ways to mother beyond those embodied in Euro-American archetypes. These extensive systems of care incorporate various forms of support such as childcare responsibilities, economic needs, and social activism.

From plantations to street sides, the dynamic caretaking practices of Black women have defied their systemized oppression (via rape, separations from, assaults and murders of their children and spouses, etc.). Amidst their systematic denigration and dehumanizing objectification, Black women displayed the extensive labor required to produce and sustain black life within the lethal boundaries of the dominant American culture.

Yet, these experiences of deep intimacy and love face an intense dualism: Black women must prepare children for how to navigate a life of dynamic domination while sharing with them their visions of resistance. It begs the question: Amidst their deep tradition of resistance, is there space for Black women to feel sorrow? Can they openly grieve without forgiving as they pass the torch while double dutching the thin lines between the life and death of their own children?

Mothering While Black: Gendered Violence & Sorrow

These questions reveal a striking reality: Black motherhood is the direct antithesis to the ideals of the 21st century militarized, carceral state. Its proliferation of black life in uteri and beyond frames it as contrary to the goals of white power structures, particularly their historical investment in the dynamic dispossession of Black people through calculated exploitation, structural violence, and lethal abuse.

Amidst the growing wave of state sanctioned anti-black violence, Black women’s pain has become a public spectacle as well as a political tool. Their grief is now commonplace amidst the vicious slaughtering of Black youth by various state agents. Their public mourning is often marked as excessive, unwarranted, and unworthy of meaningful justice (as can been seen by the public and private character assassinations of their children following their public murders).

While largely ignored by a politically and socially unconscious American public, their cries wreak havoc on morally decadent American landscapes. Even amidst the deafening demands for their silences, their painful screams echo in the murderous shadows of white supremacy. With every gesture of rage and grief, their petitions, protests, alliances, and collectives in cities across the country reflect the dynamic nature of their responses to dehumanizing violence.

Four Walls of Survival

Black women’s sorrows continue to shed light on the paralysis game that comes with mothering while Black. Trying to live while confronting the systematic denial of their personhood, recognition, and quality resources as they secure protection for children treated as unentitled wards of the state is burdensome.

What happens when political mobilization is no longer the default strategy? Or when the pain hurts so much that resistance seems more like a glimpse of fantasy rather than a terror of our reality? When the sea of anti-black(woman)ness swallows your soul in ways that subject attempts for restoration to the nostalgic pastimes of black (female) liberation?

Envisioning death in mind, spirit, and/or body as a possible recourse to anti-black(woman)ness yields a critical realization of the power of state-sanctioned violence after death. In considering what happens to life and the living who have been subjected to such soul-killing abuse necessarily invites a meditation on the “What now?” after the petitions have been signed, the protests are done, and the alliances forged.

These questions will continue to haunt, as do dead faces on placards and banners. They will trouble our minds as they plunge our souls deeply, like names of the slaughtered engraved on cement street corners. They will teem in the throes of our contested survival even after the court proceedings, million-dollar settlements, and political statements.

Photo: Shutterstock

Jallicia Jolly is a co-founder of Resist.Restore - a "global health-arts" initiative that addresses health and state-sanctioned violence in Haiti, Jamaica, and the U.S. Currently based in Kingston, Jamaica conducting Fulbright research, Ms. Jolly writes on trauma, health, HIV/AIDS, and reproductive justice among African American and Caribbean women.

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