Three mothers who shaped the American civil rights movement


Illustration of a black woman with birds behind her

Anna Malaika Tubbs shoots

Photo courtesy of Anna Malaika Tubbs

The names Berdis Baldwin, Louise Little and Alberta King may not evoke immediate 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.

  1. Anna Malaika rubs three mothers

    Anna Malaika Tubbs
    three mothers
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Gates scientist, doctoral student in sociology and author Anna Malaika Tubbs Three mothers to put together these different women, but the stories intersect. It explores our tendency to understand women through the prism of men in their lives, rather than seeing them for ourselves. At the same time, Three mothers is a poetic celebration: Blackness, femininity, and the way mothers shape the world by shaping their children.

In this passage from the book’s introduction, Tubbs reflects on what he is doing Three mothers
such a powerful and personal business.

From Three mothers

Writing about black motherhood as I became it gave me a much deeper perspective than before. As my own life and body transformed, it became even more important for me to tell the stories of Albertine, Berdis, and Louise before they became mothers. Their lives did not begin with motherhood; on the contrary, long before their sons even thought of their thoughts, each woman had her own passions, dreams, and identity. Every woman has already lived an amazing life that will one day be followed by her children. Their identities as young blacks in Georgia, Grenada, and Maryland influenced the ways in which they could access motherhood. Their exposure to racist and sexist violence from the moment they were born will inform the lessons they have taught their children. Their intellect and creativity have led to the encouragement of such qualities in their homes. The bonds they witnessed with their parents and grandparents would inspire their own approaches to marriage and raising children. Emphasizing their motherly roles does not erase their identity as independent women. Instead, these identities have informed their ability to raise independent children who will inspire the world for years to come.

The lives of these women create a rich portrait of the nuances of motherhood of blacks. Yes, all three were mothers of sons who became internationally famous and their stories share many similarities, but by no means can their identities be reduced to one. Each woman carried different values, faiths, talents, and traumas. I hope that their rich differences will open our eyes to the many influences and manifestations of black motherhood in the United States and beyond.

The narratives of these three women encouraged and empowered me, but this job was sometimes extremely difficult. Black motherhood in the United States is inseparable from the 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 cutting the vaginal tissues of slave women while forcibly holding them. He refused to give them anesthesia. François Marie Prevost, who is credited with introducing the C-section in the United States, perfected his procedure by cutting into the bellies of pregnant women who were slaves. These women were treated like animals and their pain was ignored.

There is a paradoxical relationship between the dehumanization that we Blacks and our children face and our ability to resist it. Aside from the usual worries that all mothers face as they go 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 while pregnant and giving birth to other mothers. Aside from the usual fear that all mothers feel when the thought of losing their gut and losing a child creeps into their head, we black mothers have an increased level of worry. We are aware of how differently our children are viewed and treated in society, and our fear is confirmed by articles and news that report on the violence that black children constantly experience, whether at parties, at school or in local parks. That fear continues as our children become adults who are in danger even as they sleep in their beds, sit in their own apartments, when they call for help, or when they run.

Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were well aware of the dangers they and their children would face as Blacks in the United States, and they all worked hard to train their children not only to face the world, but to change it. Knowing that they themselves were perceived as “less than” and that it would be their children as well, the three mothers gathered tools to progress in the hope that they would teach their children how to do it. They have found ways to give life and humanize themselves, their children and, in turn, our entire community. As history tells us, all their sons did change the world, but they did so at a cost. In all three cases, the mother’s worst fears became a reality: every woman was alive to bury her son. It is an absolute injustice that too many black mothers today can say the same.

Faced with such a tragedy, every mother persevered on her way to leave this world in a better place than when she entered it. Yet their lives were still largely ignored. When Malcolm X was killed, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed shortly afterwards, and even when James Baldwin died of stomach cancer years later, their deeds were rightly celebrated, but almost no one stopped wondering about their mother’s grief. to face. Even more painful to me is the fact that their fathers were mentioned, while the mothers were mostly erased.

I decided to focus on mothers of sons. Blacks were certainly not the only leaders of the civil rights movement; the mothers of revolutionary daughters are also forgotten. I simply chose three people who are often interviewed and who show a disturbingly strong erasure of identity in a mother / son relationship. I accidentally gave birth to a boy, my amazing little boy, and I have already faced attempts by others to erase their 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 reaches a turning point and inflicts more damage than people think. By choosing three mothers of sons I don’t want to delete daughters or other children. Instead, I point out that regardless of gender, it all starts with the parent.

Telling stories about these three mothers, I hope to join others who have responded to Brave’s call “Blacks to conduct autonomously defined investigations about themselves in a society that through racial, sexual and class oppression systematically denies our existence …”. “It is crucial to understand the layers of oppression that Black women face, remembering that only the study of oppression prevents us from respecting the ‘ways in which we have created and maintained our own intellectual tradition as Black women.’ I pay close attention to this balance and witness the many challenges that Berdis, Alberta, and Louise faced, recognizing their ability to survive, thrive, and build in spite of them.

Louise, Berdis and Alberta were born within six years of each other, and all of their famous sons were born within five years, representing wonderful crossroads in their lives. Since they were all born at about the same time and gave birth to their famous sons at about the same time, and two of them passed away at about the same time, I think about Black Women in the Early 1900s, Black Motherhood in the 1920s, and their impact on the civic movement. rights of the 1960s. The first of three mothers was born in the late 1890s, and the last of three mothers in the late 90s. Their lives give us three amazing perspectives for an entire century of American history. Seeing the United States evolve through the lives of Berdis, Alberta, and Louise will leave you with a richer understanding of every world war, the Great Depression, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, racial riots, police brutality, welfare debates, the effects of policies proposed by every president. which they lived and much more.

But their stories transcend a new understanding of American history, especially the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The ode to these three women is an ode to the femininity of a black woman – perhaps today’s black women will be able to find themselves in the life stories of Berdis, Alberta and / or Louise, as well as me.

Separated from Three mothers. Copyright © 2021 by Anna Malaika Tubbs. Separated from License Flatiron Books, Macmillan Publishing Department. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.

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