as: portraits of american mothers

Portraits of American Mothers

By Victoria Bond

On a sunny Friday morning, I stood in my kitchen eating fruit, rubbing my pregnant tummy and listening to the radio when a segment aired about James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the civil rights workers who were murdered by the KKK fifty years earlier for peacefully waging battle against Jim Crow. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the story included archival audio of Chaney's mother, Fannie Lee, a bakery worker from Meridian, Mississippi. In a honeyed southern voice, thick with a bottomless sorrow, the grieving mother said that her son was a "brave boy" who refused to sit by silently while anyone faced unfair treatment. I broke out in convulsive sobs. I am not religious, but pregnancy made me optimistic and my supplication to the universe was for my unborn boy to do irreversible good one day, leaving some corner of this world better than he found it. Fannie Lee Chaney's words reminded me of what fate sometimes awaits those called to defend and protect the weak: a brutal and untimely death. And that on the flipside of the sweet anticipation of becoming a mother lays the excruciating abyss of losing a child.

This past summer Geneva Reed-Veal lost her child. The summer before that, Gwen Carr lost her child. And the summer before that the murderer of Sybrina Fulton's child walked free. Fifty-eight summers ago, Mamie Carthan Till-Mobley left her child's coffin open so the world could see the disfiguring hatred white supremacy had visited upon her baby. Authored by forces as varied as slavery, the war on drugs, the school-to-prison-pipeline, and the love affair between elected officials and the gun lobby, the list of mothers who have buried black children stretches to hell and back. The list of black mothers who have beat their children out of a loving and protective impulse may stretch just as long.

Last spring in Baltimore, Toya Graham achieved national notoriety for being a good black mother, meaning a mother who shows she cares with aggression, not love, with hot lashes instead of a warm embrace. The cultural assumption underlying this precept of black motherhood is that our children are too difficult to be shaped with kindness, too rough to be handled gently. After all, our children disturb the peace; it doesn't matter if they do so to achieve justice.

Toya Graham saw her 16-year-old son Michael on television participating in protests. She left her home, found her boy, and slapped the teenager upside the head in front of cameras. Valorized by both the mainstream and conservative media, Graham explained her actions: "I don't want my son to be a Freddie Gray." We all heard and understood this cry. But like many onlookers, at home in the comfort of my living room far from social justice's frontlines, the incident horrified me. All too easily I could see a teenage version of my son on the street, a target. Suddenly, the hopes I had articulated while pregnant took on more of the meaning I intimated in my kitchen that morning months ago, listening to the story about three noble sons murdered in Mississippi fifty-one years ago. Part of being a black mother means that my most courageous and audacious aspirations for my son are also dangerous.

Last summer, during my family's annual Berkshires trip, I encountered another face of American motherhood much different from Toya Graham’s. The 1871 painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) by James McNeill Whistler was on display at the Clark Art Institute, a lovely and extremely white cultural space. The portrait in profile of the elderly white woman wearing a black dress seated and slumping against a sumptuous gray wall has appeared everywhere from a New Yorker cover to America's Next Top Model. In 1937, a statue of the stoic figure commonly referred to as Whistler's Mother was erected in Ashland, Pennsylvania with the inscription, "A mother is the holiest thing alive," though in my personal case "exhausted thing" feels more accurate.

Shortly before I viewed the Whistler on loan to the Clark from the Musée d'Orsay, I carried my then nine-month old through room after room as he angrily babbled at the top of his lungs at canvasses, which sadly for him, were not screens. As I went from harried to resigned, a middle-aged white woman who appeared to be a museum administrator came up to us, put her hand on my shoulder, smiled, and said, "You are welcome here." I smiled back, thanked her, and kept moving because if nothing else pleased my baby motion did. I understood this woman meant to offer a kind word as I dealt with a cranky child. But a few galleries later, blinded by 18th century tea services, candelabras, and other metal works, shapely, stately, and gleaming like the rarefied domestic jewels they were, I went through in my mind all the people of color I had seen since arriving at the museum that day: two Asians and a black guy, all museum staff. I have visited the Clark every summer for years and will continue to do so. Yet, I had never questioned whether I was unwelcome in the space until someone there welcomed me.

Adjacent to the gallery where the Whistler painting hung, there was an exhibit that explained the cultural significance of the piece as a universal depiction of the maternal. Though Anna Whistler reared an expatriate artist son who would make her an icon, she also raised another son who fought on the side of the south in the Civil War. In light of the Charleston shooting last summer, the killer's foregrounding of his murderous actions as a protection of white womanhood, and the controversy about the Confederate flag that followed, Whistler's mother suddenly seemed like a villain.

I have joked with my husband that I didn't really care about kids until I had a baby, but the truth is I care a lot more about everyone since I have become a mother, especially other moms. Yet, there is a breaking point to the stretch of my maternal identification. When I have tried to imagine Anna Whistler saying goodbye to her son as he set out to fight for slavery, I can’t intimate the fear and dread she must have felt. Instead, I brim with disgust. As a black mother, a Confederate scene of maternal love and loss dissolves my compassion and leaves contempt in its place. In the American imagination, Whistler represents an ideal. In truth, she is a symbol of white privilege. Whereas Toya Graham, in contrast, represents black disadvantage. And there is of course a disadvantage to being a black mother. We have to contend with the fact that the world may not only dismiss or ignore our children, but may actively seek to crush them.

Where does this leave me and other mothers of color trying to protect our children and make our lives work from day to day? It leaves us situated between an ideal and a stereotype, representation and misrepresentation, hoping for the best while we acknowledge the possibility of the worst. In an op-ed for The Times called “What Black Moms Know,” Ylonda Gault Caviness celebrates black motherhood for being ahead of the socio-cultural curve. For generations our mothers worked; so do we. As a result, Caviness claims, black mothers have long adopted to what she calls “a threefold commitment to family, career and community” whereas “highly informed, professionally accomplished” white women more easily fall victim to the cottage industry of parenting advice because the demands of balancing work and family, as packaged by the media, have stripped them of their common sense and confidence. In the weeks after I first brought my son home, my mother was taken aback by how few questions I asked and how little I seemed to need her help. With a few parenting manuals, Google, and message boards on tap, I felt like I had access to all the practical advice I needed. What remains a far rarer commodity online and off is wisdom. Caviness ends her piece by saying that when pushed to her limits as a parent she knows “how to go someplace and sit down.” The wisdom I am looking for is not how to sit down. The wisdom I seek is how to teach my child to be brave, to stand up, without being afraid myself.

Victoria Bond is a writer based in New York City. A Lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, she has contributed to The Guardian, The New Republic, The New Ohio Review, The Huffington Post, Curve Magazine, and Al Jazeera America, among other publications. Co-author of the novel for children Zora and Me, in 2011, Victoria won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Zora and Me also received an Edgar nomination in the juvenile category.

Dawn Wu