Do Black Mothers Black Love?

by Sariyah Benoit 18C

If Black love situates emotion within a racialized body politic, what realities substantiate “the black body?” What imaginaries fill the body? What about other emotional experiences are involved?

Taking Dr. Dianne Stewart’s Black Love course last year confirmed my research interests. Her innovative, pedagogical approach to teaching the Religion-African American Studies cross-list led students through an interdisciplinary journey, which outlined the topic of “Black Love.” Recently, this concept took social media by storm. Social media users have highlighted Black Love hashtags, memes, selfies, and then subsets of hashtags, memes, and pictures. Naturally, as all viral things do, “Black Love” ignited a movement. Human labor fuels the movement: providing the voices to raise awareness, to share language informed by the past. Movements are about change. Merely verbalizing “Black Love” evokes a rich narrative of self-determination in spite of exploitation, autonomy and pride in spite of systematic degradation. These narratives comprise a collective memory that counteracts historical accounts—even historical remnants in contemporary societal structures. Such as the disciplinary actions taken against little girls who love and rock their ‘fros at school, or the instances where police violate young black children leaving a pool party. There are plenty of other examples, this is just where my ideas culminated.

Stewart’s class put my entire college education into a pan—and whipped up a recipe for this thesis. In order to define black body politics, I needed to understand the relationship between representation and performance. In order to define representation, I needed to understand the history of blackness, subjected to public scrutiny; as for performance, I needed to know how black bodies embodied self-determination and how, in any capacity, they drew attention to their experiences. All of my AAS classes identified instances throughout history and within ideological pools where these two collide. Often, this clash occurs within the black body politic. Locating the collisions within its own corporeal politic helped me to organize identities, lived experiences, and external systems within my research. In my thesis, I will capture the racialized tensions between two sets of opposing forces. While the first set finds incongruences between self- and imposed-definitions, the second set describes systems of retribution assigned to actualized identities. Thus, is my understanding of the experiences of black bodies within an American body politic.

Once invigorated by the viral magic and lessons in black love, I turned to other emotions. In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates focuses on the publicly represented black body and opens up a political conversation on the importance of self-love in the face of systematic abuse. He teaches readers about a love that is grounded in the knowledge of structurally inflicted violence and also grounded in the resistance that is necessary to love a black body. This love hinges upon an African diasporic memory: a historical body of knowledge, which includes violence and culture. Such as negative black representations in the media, physical safety and harm, spirituality, and mental and emotional health. With this knowledge, occupants of black bodies surely feel and experience emotions besides love. What about loss, grief, and trauma? In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Audre Lorde invites readers to reimagine love established in bodily knowledge. When love manifests as the erotic, it is a feminine and spiritual resource, firmly rooted in the power of unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. This includes loss, grief, and trauma. While not strictly sexual, erotic love incorporates the satisfaction fundamentally rooted in an African diasporic imagination. Diasporic imagination makes erotic love accessible to black bodies. This feminine, spiritual, resource paves ways towards self-respect, -exploration, –reflection, and -empowerment for all people in the African diaspora.

Narratives of black motherhood in popular culture historically clash with actual black mothers—often resulting in violence, punishment, or neglect. Adding other intersections of identity, such as low socio-economic status, further perpetuate retribution against motherhood. These narratives transcribe or depict black motherhood as criminal, because of blackness. The sacred ground of “motherhood” disintegrates once intersected with blackness and poverty. Such a combination of identities eliminates their value and citizenship in society.  

Written articles and private correspondence—between activists, law enforcement officials, and politicians—criminalized Black mothers during the Atlanta Child Murders of 1979-1981. While the Atlanta Police Department, the Mayor’s office, and the FBI would distort the investigation and the case, the mothers of the victims refused to be deterred in their quest for justice. With each missing child, families throughout the city became concerned. Who was looking out for these children? As American consciousness would decree, while fathers are out doing business, mothers are the heads of households and the ones who raise children. Due to popular myths regarding Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” and Daniel Moynihan’s “Black Matriarch,” black mothers during the epidemic did not have access to positive images of motherhood inscribed into American consciousness. After four children went missing between July and October in 1979, with headlines finally blazing, and with no perpetrator to be found, three black mothers (Camille Bell, Venus Taylor, and Willie Mae Mathis) of several of the victims banded together, to form The Committee to STOP Children’s Murders.

Sariyah Benoit is a senior majoring in African American Studies. Her honors thesis engages the representation and performance of black motherhood during the Atlanta Child Murders, 1979-1981. Within her paper she focuses on the role socio-economic class played in intraracial conflicts, which gave way to publicly coding black mothers’ love and activism as distracting to federally funded investigations and emotionally unscrupulous to the American public.