For Black Daughters of Grieving Black Mothers

In Ileana Jiménez’s high school feminism class I was introduced to new concepts and texts that taught me language for the conditions of my Black woman experience. In this class I realized that if we, as women of color, are not constantly seeking liberation, it is easy to fall into numbness and silence.

Our high school feminism class attended a Black feminist internationalism conference at the People’s Forum in New York for our first trip. (photo courtesy: Ileana Jiménez)

This class worked to stop me from normalizing master’s tools I had grown numb to, such as sexual violence, stereotypes of Black women, capitalism, and gender roles. The readings and trips in this class rekindled an internal struggle that is necessary for my self-discovery and liberation. 

Denial of Black pain and the right of Black women to valid emotions is as American as apple pie.  Therefore it is extremely vital for Black women and girls to actively unlearn harmful notions about Black womanhood in order to allow us to redefine ourselves. Over the past year as both a high school sophomore and junior, I have become increasingly aware of the unfair expectations of strength, endurance, and indifference that I’ve placed on my mother and myself in the face of violence and dominance. 

Through examining the dynamics of my relationship with my mother alongside feminist works such as the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement,” Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” I have begun to understand and acknowledge the deteriorating effects of racist and sexist systems of dominance on Black women, and more specifically, I have thought about the impact these systems have on Black mothers and how that intergenerational trauma is passed down to us, their daughters.

Throughout my childhood, I have often been in situations where I had to mother myself because my mother, having never resolved her own traumas and losses, was unable to support me. It is unfair to me and all the other Black daughters whose mothers have just begun grieving their own losses to have the burden of caring for our mothers as they should have cared for us. I have spent hours crying for my mother as she has for her mother because as daughters, we can feel the pain our mothers endure. Over time, I’ve grown resentful of my mother for never fully grieving her losses and forcing me to grieve them with her, but now I understand how systemic oppression prevented her from accessing both the pains and joys of what Audre Lorde calls the “erotic” and cultivating how to appreciate those pains and joys within me. In one section of her essay, Lorde writes that the “erotic” for her is “that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of [her] capacity for joy comes to demand from all of [her] life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible.”

To me this means that Lorde’s notion of the “erotic” is the freedom to express any emotion out of all emotions that exist and to express them at their varying levels of intensity whenever and however you see fit. It is about not letting emotions overwhelm you, but being present and feeling what you truly feel in a moment, acknowledging it and using it to enrich whatever you are doing. My inability to acknowledge my own vulnerability and my rejection of my own mother’s vulnerability were manifestations of my internalized racism and sexism against her, which I know now are part of what the master’s tools are designed to do against the both of us. 

Here is a passage from the “Black Feminist Statement” that illustrates what I have begun to understand: 

The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is very low value placed upon Black women’s psyches in society. Which is both racist and sexist.

– Combahee River Collective, (1977)

Kitchen Table Press: left to right: Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Cherrie Moraga, and Hattie Gossett

When I came across these lines in the “Black Feminist Statement,” I quickly made the connection to Black motherhood and how it has been devalued throughout the history of America. All women are expected to bear and raise children and a woman’s worth is dependent upon their ability to reproduce. Having children is established as a milestone early in a girl’s life and caregiving is one of the first things little girls learn how to do.

Despite the pressure placed on women and girls with vaginas to reproduce, Black motherhood has long been confined to detrimental archetypes such as the “mammy” and the “welfare queen,” which act to stigmatize and depreciate all that Black mothers give to their children and the world. More ways in which Black motherhood have been devalued throughout history can be found in this enlightening article I came across while researching.

Enslaved Black woman poses with the master’s child 

The “mammy” trope, in particular, focuses on Black women’s bodies and their maternal and sexual capacity (or lack thereof). During slavery, a Black woman’s purpose was to service white men and children whether it be through sexual gratification for the former or breastfeeding the latter, while simultaneously reproducing Black children to further the cycle of subjugation of slave labor. This is a prime example of Black children being robbed of their mothers by white institutions that use and dispose of Black women’s bodies, psyches, and motherhood. Even well-meaning tropes such as the idea of the “strong Black woman” lead to the dehumanization of Black women. This idea is similar to the “angry Black woman” stereotype, as it limits the emotional experiences of Black women by depriving us of Lorde’s notion of the erotic. These tropes are forms of racist and sexist stereotypes that erase the vastness of Black girls’ and Black women’s sadness, happiness, anger, etc. as they work to discount the validity of Black women’s and girls’ feelings, including the ability to mother. This toxicity permeates into the present, most evidently through the lack of strong healthcare for Black women, including when they are both pregnant and after they have given birth. For example, Black women are 3.5 times more likely to die from being pregnant than white women. Media attention around this issue erupted after Serena Williams opened up about her traumatic postpartum experience in an interview with Vogue. In a Tonic article, Sanithia L. Williams, MD wrote:

As an OB/GYN and a Black woman, I know first-hand that Black women experience pregnancy and postpartum complications at an alarming rate, Williams’s experience — as well as the recent death of activist Erica Garner due to apparent complications that began after her son’s birth — put a familiar face on the deplorable state of maternal health for Black women in the United States.

It is clear that Black mothers are still seen as expendable. With no support from their government, their doctors, or their communities, Black mothers still make sure to raise their daughters to be independent and resilient so that we are able to survive once we enter the real world. But when a population of Black women is so focused on survival, there is no time to teach self-love, growth or the erotic to their children. This leaves generations of Black women and girls without the skills needed to navigate and heal our traumas.

I am grateful for the hard feminist work my mother has done and continues to do to overcome her oppressions and mine; but now I must seek out healing spaces and learn through reading, talking, and reflecting with other Black women and girls how to give myself what my grieving mother could not give me.

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