‘The Three Mothers’ Shines a Light on Untold Herstories of Black Motherhood

Anna Malaika Tubbs urges us to acknowledge the contributions of mothers: “These men that we still revere couldn’t have been who they were without the women who came before them.” 

Martin Luther King Jr. (left) with his mother Alberta King (right) and Henry Elkins (center). (Wikimedia Commons)

In her debut book, The Three Mothers, author Anna Malaika Tubbs tells the stories of Berdis Baldwin, Alberta King and Louise Little—the mothers of James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively. Although these men are some of the most recognizable names in the civil rights movement, writes Tubbs, the movement didn’t start with them.

“We always seem to forget that there was a full, not only one generation, but multiple generations of people who came before the civil rights leaders and who were fighting these battles, long before we termed it, quote-unquote, the civil rights movement,” she said. With this book, Tubbs gives life to these previous generations, exploring the lives and passions of the mothers who are almost never given the attention they deserve.

Tubbs’s mother was a lawyer and activist who emphasized the important role of mothers in society. “She always said that we need to pay more attention to how mothers were being treated in different societies and that the treatment of mothers was an indicator for how successful those communities could be on every other kind of scale and measurement,” Tubbs told Ms. “So I always had this idea in mind that mothers deserve more attention, mothers were very powerful and influential, and that their role was being taken for granted.”

Through her research, Tubbs uncovered the vibrant lives of these women and mothers, as well as how they directly influenced their sons. “It was clear that the erasure of them was even more intentional because you have to work at separating them from the story, because these similarities are undeniable,” she said.

Alberta King believed in the intersection of faith and social justice, although she did not have the word ‘non-violence’ as her son would later. Louise Little believed in “non-apologetic resistance and achieving by any means necessary Black self-sufficiency,” similarly to her son’s teachings. Berdis Baldwin was a writer, just like her son. 

If an entire system of healthcare was built by reinforcing the notion that Black women were not human beings and you’re still seeing those biases exist today, then that means to me a lot of people are not aware of that history.

Anna Malaika Tubbs

Tubbs has always been an activist—at Stanford, she was president of the Black Student Union and worked on service projects like Alternative Spring Break experiential learning program. She quickly realized that her writing could be a tool for her activism: “I have a skill that I can use to bring more people together to celebrate difference, to understand each other to correct some of the past wrongs that have been inflicted on certain groups of people.”

More so than fathers, mothers are expected to sacrifice their personhood for motherhood, making their identity fundamentally defined by their biological facilities and relationship to others. Tubbs counteracts this in the book, working to tell these women’s stories in their own right. “Even beyond biological motherhood, they are creating life through their teachings, and through their activism and their own creativity,” Tubbs said.

This social and emotional labor is expected but never acknowledged, and ushers in a reduction of the severity of maternal identity. As a result of this, health issues are swept to the wayside. “If an entire system of healthcare was built by reinforcing the notion that Black women were not human beings and you’re still seeing those biases exist today, then that means to me a lot of people are not aware of that history,” Tubbs told Ms

During Women’s History Month, it is crucial to acknowledge the physical and emotional risks of pregnancy, specifically in Black women. The United States has the highest maternal mortality rates of any industrialized nation, with about 700 people dying from pregnancy complications each year. Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes. “People almost become numb to this, they become numb to the pain of Black women,” said Tubbs. “But the more that we can emphasize stories, people, the humans behind these numbers, I think we can get more people on board.”

President Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) infrastructure package contained vital funding to address the U.S.’s maternal mortality crisis. The legislation passed in the House, but could not survive Senate gridlock. The impacts of BBB would have included funding postpartum Medicaid for an estimated 117,000 new mothers each year and funding loans and scholarships for nurses, doulas and maternal mental health and substance abuse professionals. “When it comes to maternal health and maternal medicine, we must make sure that Black moms can have equal access to high-quality care from trusted doctors who not only take their healthcare concerns seriously but actually act on them,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in a recent address.

Despite the ongoing challenges faced by mothers in the U.S., Tubbs is hopeful about the future—and hopes to continue uplifting the silenced voices of Black mothers. “I know what is possible, and I will push this country to see it the way that I do,” she said. “And I think if we go back and look at multiple moments in history, you’ll see that a lot of it was pushed by Black women, who also happen to be Black mothers.” 

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Meredith Abdelnour is an editorial fellow for Ms. magazine. She studies English and Environmental Studies at Tulane University and enjoys crossword puzzles.