Three mothers who shaped the American civil rights movement
Photo courtesy of Anna Malaika Tubbs
The names Berdis Baldwin, Louise Little and Alberta King might not elicit instant recognition. But they should. These are the women who raised the most prominent civil rights activists in American history: James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Researcher Gates, sociology doctoral student and author Anna Malaika Tubbs wrote The three mothers to piece together these distinct but intersecting stories of these women. She explores our tendency to understand women through the lens of the men in their lives, rather than seeing them for themselves. At the same time, The three mothers is a poetic celebration: of darkness, femininity and the way mothers shape the world by shaping their children.
In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, Tubbs reflects on what makes The three mothers
such a powerful and personal job.
Of The three mothers
Writing about black motherhood while becoming a woman has given me a much deeper perspective than before. As my own life and body changed, it became even more important for me to tell the stories of Alberta, Berdis and Louise before I became mothers. Their life did not start with motherhood; on the contrary, long before their sons were even thoughts in their minds, every woman had her own passions, dreams and identity. Every woman was already living an incredible life that her children would one day follow. Their identity as young black girls from Georgia, Grenada and Maryland influenced how they would approach motherhood. Their exposure to racist and gender-based violence from birth would inform the lessons they taught their children. Their intelligence and creativity have led to fostering such qualities in their homes. The relationships they witnessed in their parents and grandparents would inspire their own approaches to marriage and child rearing. Highlighting their roles as mothers does not erase their identity as independent women. Instead, these identities informed their ability to raise independent children who would continue to inspire the world for years to come.
The lives of these women create a rich portrait of the nuances of black motherhood. Yes, all three were mothers of sons who have become internationally famous, and their stories share many similarities, but by no means can their identities be reduced to one. Each woman carried different values, beliefs, talents and trauma. I hope their rich differences open our eyes to the many influences and manifestations of black motherhood in the United States and beyond.
The stories of these three women have fueled and empowered me, but this work has been extremely difficult at times. Black motherhood in the United States is inextricably linked with a history of violence against blacks. American gynecology was built by torturing black women and experimenting on their bodies to test procedures. J. Marion Sims, known as the father of American gynecology, developed his techniques by opening the vaginal tissues of enslaved women while they were forcibly held. He refused to provide them with anesthesia. Francois Marie Prevost, credited with the introduction of the Caesarean section in the United States, perfected his procedure by cutting the abdomen of laboring women who were slaves. These women were treated like animals and their pain was ignored.
There is a paradoxical relationship between the dehumanization we face, black women and our children, and our ability to resist it. Beyond the normal worries that all mothers encounter as they progress through pregnancy and get closer to their jobs, we black mothers are aware that we are risking our lives. Black women in the United States are more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than other mothers. Beyond the normal fear that all mothers feel when the heartbreaking thought of losing their child makes its way through their minds, we black mothers experience an increased level of worry. We know how differently our children are viewed and treated in society, and our fears are confirmed by articles and reports chronicling the violence black children constantly experience, whether at parties, at school, or in the community. their local parks. This fear persists as our children grow into adults in danger even as they sleep in their beds, sit in their own apartments, call for help, or run.
Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were well aware of the dangers they and their children would face as black people in the United States, and they all went out of their way to equip their children not only to face the world, but also to change him. Knowing that they themselves were considered “less than” and that their children would be too, the three mothers gathered tools to thrive in the hopes of teaching their children to do the same. They found ways to give life and humanize themselves, their children and, in turn, our entire community. As history tells us, all of their sons did indeed make a difference in this world, but they did so with a price. In all three cases, mothers’ worst fears came true: every woman was alive to bury her son. It is an absolute injustice that far too many black mothers today can say the same thing.
In the face of such a tragedy, every mother has persisted in her journey to leave this better world than when she entered it. Yet their lives continued to be largely ignored. When Malcolm X was murdered, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed soon after, and even when James Baldwin died of stomach cancer years later, their works were righteously celebrated. title, but hardly anyone has stopped to question their mothers’ grief. focused towards. Even more painful for me is the fact that their fathers were mentioned, while their mothers were largely erased.
I chose to focus on mothers of sons. Black men were certainly not the only leaders in the civil rights movement; mothers of revolutionary daughters have also been forgotten. I simply chose three characters who are often brought into conversation and who demonstrate the painful erasure of identity in the mother / son relationship. Coincidentally, I gave birth to a boy, my amazing baby boy, and I have already faced the attempts of others to erase my influence on his identity. Phrases like “He’s strong, just like his father!” or “He’s already following in his father’s footsteps” when he hits a milestone causes more harm than people realize. By choosing three mothers of sons, I do not want to erase the daughters or the other children. Instead, I emphasize that it doesn’t matter what gender we are, it all starts with our biological parent.
In telling the stories of these three mothers, I hope to join others who have answered Brave’s call for “black women to conduct self-determined inquiries into themselves in a society that, for racial, sexual and class oppression systematically denies our existence…. “It is essential to understand the layers of oppression that black women face, while remembering that the mere study of oppression prevents us from honoring ‘the way in which we have created and maintained our own intellectual traditions as as black women I pay particular attention to this balance and bear witness to the many challenges Berdis, Alberta and Louise have faced while recognizing their ability to survive, thrive and build in spite of themselves.
Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were all born within six years of each other, and their famous sons were all born within five years of each other, showing nice intersections in their life. Because they were all born around the same time and gave birth to their famous sons around the same time, and two of them died around the same time, I’m thinking about black femininity in the early 1900s, black motherhood in the 1920s and their influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The first of three mothers was born in the late 1890s and the last of the three was deceased at the end of the 1990s. Their lives offer us three incredible perspectives on a whole century of American history. Seeing the United States develop through the lives of Berdis, Alberta and Louise, you will find yourself with a richer understanding of each world war, the Great Depression, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, the riots. racialism, police brutality, debates over welfare. , the effects of policies proposed by each president they lived to witness, and much more.
But their stories go beyond a new understanding of American history, especially the civil rights movement of the 1960s. An ode to these three women is an ode to black femininity – perhaps black women today can also be found in the life stories of Berdis, Alberta, and / or Louise, like me.
Extract of The three mothers. Copyright © 2021 by Anna Malaika Tubbs. Excerpted with permission from Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.
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