Malia Hamilton | Williams College ’20
Malia Hamilton | Williams College ’20

Malia Hamilton | Williams College ’20

she/hers

Revisited: How Black feminism and womanism perceive the incomprehensible beauty of Black motherhood

Black motherhood encompasses a milieu of paradoxes. One in which a mother’s love is big and unbreakable, yet fragile and unbalanced. Or one in which the tight hold of a mother’s embrace is riddled with tremors and shakes; She holds steady to her child in constant fear that they will drift off into the treacherous waters of police terror and societal erasure. The creation of a Black child, regardless of how joyful it may be, exists alongside an inescapable awareness of a history of Black death. Womanism sees this death and vows to replace it with life. In contrast, Black feminism re-negotiates Black women’s bodies as sites for reproduction and instead proposes that they fight death through activism and collective action in order to avoid more instances of structural violence and state-organized death. In order to observe the differences in how the two traditions would contend with motherhood, one might consider how womanists and Black feminists view: the inception of life, child rearing, and a mother’s grief.

Firstly, the reproduction of Blackness, whether it be between a Black woman and a Black man or a Black woman and a white man, is steeped in a history of enslavement. Even if the parties are not consciously thinking about the historical management of Black sex during the act, like muscle memory it is still apart of Black sexual politics. Both the rape of Black women by white men and the control of Black fatherhood by the institution of slavery have had ensuing impacts on the ways in which Black women and Black men parent. Patricia Hill Collins argues, “far too many Black men who praise their own mothers feel less accountable to the mothers of their daughters and sons.” Slavery did not allow Black men to parent outside of a white male patriarchal mindset. Even more, they were battling the bruised psyches that resulted from their dehumanization and hyper-sexualization. Now, Black fathers and Black mothers are caught in a white heteronormative spider web spun by colonization.  

Womanism and Black feminism survey this web differently. Both acknowledge the precarity of Black motherhood, but womanism seeks to pour love and light into a role that has so often been a source of pain and uncertainty for Black women. Conversely, Black feminism assesses ongoing misogynoir and peers at Black motherhood with a raised brow and head tilt, questioning the lives to be led by both the mother and child. This is not to say that all black feminists reject motherhood, but they view reproduction with as critical of an eye as they do government policies that translate into the continued oppression of Black women. Whereas womanism invites Black women to look upon their “partner in reproduction” with a kind eye, in light of the toxic masculinity that he has likely inherited. She then views her child’s inception as a chance to undo past injustices and subvert the torment and suffering that have been associated with Black womanhood. 

Black Mothering persists even considering the complexities of reproduction. Collins says, “some women view motherhood as a truly burdensome condition that stifles their creativity, exploits their labor, and makes them partners in their own oppression. Others see motherhood as providing a base for self-actualization, status in the Black community, and a catalyst for social activism.” Although these two descriptions do not completely synthesize how a Black feminist versus how a womanist may view motherhood, they do offer frameworks for how either might approach the prospect of becoming a mother. For instance, a Black feminist might critique the tendency for motherhood to suppress individuality and misplace a woman’s sense of self. She might fully account for the history of the abuse of Black mothers at the hand of capitalism, and how in this abuse, her vulnerability as a Black woman is heightened even more. A womanist holds the belief that motherhood will strengthen her spirituality and self-awareness. Although womanism is a metaphysical concept, a womanist will view parenthood as a practice in working to extend selfless love to all deserving beings. 

Moreover, Black feminism is particularly concerned with the history of Black women becoming mothers even though they did not want to do so. As Collins asserts, “many Black women have children they really do not want. When combined with Black community values claiming that good Black women always want their children, ignorance about reproductive issues leaves many Black women with unplanned pregnancies and the long-term responsibilities of parenting.” Black feminists will likely criticize womanists as women who have not fully accounted for the depth of systemic injustices that exist, and thus naively desire motherhood. However, it is not so much that they ignorantly desire it, so much is it that they welcome it as a potentially healing experience; Womanists view motherhood as a mode of expanding their eye’s inspection into the kindness and capability of all people. Nevertheless, Black feminists will observe the systemic oppression that potential soon-to-be Black mothers will face and theorize how past government practices may further subjugate them and their children. A Black feminist will interlock the history of Black female enslavement to the current ways that Black women are still unable to enact complete agency over their own bodies. 

The culmination of these complexities is the fear of many mothers that their children’s lives may be cut short. This is the slipperiness of Black motherhood—the expectation that death whether it be biological or social, will claim ownership of the life that Black women defied history to create. For the mothers who have lost their children to police brutality or a more insidious government-orchestrated murder (i.e., Fred Hampton), there is a looming modern-day anticipation that Black mothers will have to publicize their grief for the Black movement. Black feminism recognizes that grief should ideally be kept to the mother, but sees a child’s passing as an opportunity to prevent more death via activism and revolution. For instance, Emmett Till’s mother’s decision to have an open-casket funeral, given the state of her son’s body, was a decision to not only make her private grief public, but to make the symptoms of systematic racism visceral. Even now, Black mothers who, along with their children are victims of police terror, are having to make the decision of whether to materialize their pain and loss through activism. It is not that womanism has no place in Black mother’s grief, rather that womanism is not formulated to hold this expectation for activism. However, womanism’s aim to make peace between life and death could work in tandem with Black feminism to help a Black mother come to terms with her loss. 

The complexity of Black motherhood lies in its intrinsic ties to death. From the time of the child’s inception to the lingering possibility of police murder as the child reaches adulthood, Black mothers are tasked with trying to parent in a world that prioritizes Black erasure. Black feminism and womanism allow us modes of contemplating the depth to which the precariousness of Black motherhood runs. Whereas, Black feminism seeks to analyze and perhaps even critique the endorsement of Black motherhood given the pervasiveness of racism and sexism, Womanism finds possibility amongst Black pain and death. Womanism sees the introduction of new life, not as an opportunity to try and override former deaths, but to find beauty in the reproduction of Black and brown bodies, where white society only sees fear. While the two certainly have different takes on the enterprise of Black motherhood, they both recognize that it is non-normative and should not be viewed in the same way as non-Black motherhood. The two frameworks can work together to both fight against the systemic ills that Black mothers are up against and employ spirituality to recognize the beauty of the role.  

Endnotes 

[i] Hill Collins, Patricia, “Black Women and Motherhood,” in Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000), 188.

[ii] Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 191.[iii] Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 211.

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