Reprinted with permission from Crunk Feminist Collective
I planned to write a blog about the unconscionable, inconsolable injustice that is plaguing the black community right now. I was going to write about how black lives matter (always have, always will), how condemning black folk for hurting, and calling them animals and savages for being treated like animals and savages, is just that bullshit disguised as being deep, and how the protests in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death and funeral, while still waiting for explicit details on why the hell he died, are just and justified.
But as I search for words they feel overly familiar. Like so many folk, I feel like I have written that post, said those words, made those arguments (for so many other black and brown folk who were unnecessarily taken), yet they keep coming back to me on repeat like a cassette tape on rewind. The names are different, the circumstances are different, but the systemic and perpetual racism and disenfranchisement of black and brown folk who have the audacity to be poor and/or imperfect and/or disillusioned with the police is consistent. The failure of a system that creates and perpetuates this injustice to punish itself gets conveniently lost in the storyline while the people on the frontline are maligned. I don’t want to have to try to explain to folk that just because the media frames something as a riot, that doesn’t make it one. I am tired of telling people that righteous rage is righteous, even if it makes folk uncomfortable, and you can’t keep telling people to “wait for justice” when it seems to never come. I can’t conceive of why it is necessary to keep defending their frustration, or my own.
So, when I sat down to write my blog this morning, I couldn’t bring myself to repeat myself. Instead, I thought about a video circulating Monday night of a black mother confronting her son for participating in the protests. We don’t know her name, and the footage captures her slapping her son in the face and directing him away from the crowd, presumably home. The boy, her child, her Trayvon Martin, her Jordan Davis, her Tamir Rice, her Ezell Ford, her John Crawford, her Mike Brown, her Freddie Gray, looked at his mother respectfully if not indignantly and led the way home, away from the crowd, likely embarrassed by her spectacle, but breathing.
We have seen the way black mothers have been represented during the years-long movement for justice. Sybrina Fulton (Trayvon Martin’s mother) was respectable. Lesley McSpadden (Michael Brown’s mother) was not. Lucia McBath (Jordan Davis’ mother) was respectable. Samaria Rice (Tamir Rice’s mother) was not. The media portrays “respectable” mothers as compliant, quiet mourners who demand justice but do so solemnly. Respectable mothers are constructed as married or marryable, God-fearing, well dressed and visibly middle class. Mothers who are young (or had their children young), who are single or struggling, mothers who may have multiple children or no father-figure present, mothers who are mad as hell about the death of their child and who refuse to be silent are blamed for the supposed bad choices of their sons (Tamir Rice and Michael Brown were blamed for instigating their murders by police officers, and their so-called lack of respect was attributed to their parenting, or lack thereof—Moynihan report anyone?).
I find it fascinating that the same folk who would condemn this black mother for putting her hands on her son in any other context are celebrating her “parenting” because they assume it is evidence that she, like them, is “respectable,” and against the protests. She is being heralded as a good mother (one who refuses to allow her son to organize) even though her presentation is likened to the presentation of the so-called “bad mothers.”
I don’t have a son, but I do have a mama, and she has never prioritized my feelings or my pride above my safety. And her fear for me (staying out late, going anywhere alone—fears she still has now and I am well into my 30s) is not always based on logic; it’s based on possibility, it’s based on knowing what can happen to a person in black skin in this country just for walking down the street or trying to get home. I imagine that fear is magnified when you are the mother of a boy-child who is black and working-class in an urban city. I don’t think the mother’s interference was a result of her anger (as it has been characterized by news outlets), but rather her fear. A black mother’s fear might look like anger (or embarrassment to hear the Baltimore mayor tell it) in public. It might seem aggressive or abrasive or too much on the outside looking in, but a black mother’s love is desperate and deep. I believe this woman wasn’t just pleading with her son to go home, she was pleading with her son to live. In my opinion, she was trying to save her son’s life, protect him from the possibilities of danger or recognizability that could put him in danger, if not immediately then later for being seen as an agitator or troublemaker. I don’t believe her reaction was an attempt or intention to vilify the folk who were there, it was about protecting her son so that she doesn’t have to know what it is like to stand in protest because something happened to her child.
The image of this mother, ignoring cameras and onlookers and directing her stare and concentration on her son, is a nuanced layeredness of loss, fear, sadness, rebellion, reaction and love. The news station undoubtedly captured this mother loving on her son in public accidentally (because the news, particularly CNN, was too busy making a spectacle of and making light of people’s pain, victim-blaming, insisting and implying that material possessions mean more than material bodies), of mothering him the only way she knew how, of having that love looked at as something different, something political, something radical (though loving ourselves and each other, as black folk, is an act of rebellion and radicality) .
The mother in the clip, not unlike most black mamas I know, is not implying that there is anything wrong with protesting or acting in response to yet another injustice. She is scared as hell that the presence of her child is dangerous because his black bodied-ness and maleness and open defiance to authority could cost him his life. I saw in her my mother and the mothers of sons who have died who wish they would have had the opportunity to tell their son to shut the hell up, to go the hell home, to turn the music off, to keep walking and not turn around, to not pick up the pellet gun in the store, to not play with a play gun in the park, to not run, because if it means pausing your protest so you can live, masking your masculinity so you can walk out of here alive, your life is more important than the principle (and oh yeah, life is also more important than property, but I digress). To me, this mother demonstrated what a black mother’s love looks like in public. Unfortunately a mother’s love, however powerful, cannot save the lives of her children in a world that ain’t never loved us (and probably never will), but it’s a beautiful start.