What Black Motherhood Has to Teach Us on Mother's Day

Retha Ferguson/Pexels
Retha Ferguson/Pexels

This Mother's Day, many of us are wondering how to be close from a distance. That physical space means that some family traditions may change, but in the quiet of the shutdown, there's also time to break routine and take stock of what mothers really mean to us.

So, POPSUGAR sat down (via FaceTime) with Margarita Rosa, a scholar of Black women and Black motherhood at Princeton University, to discuss and honor Black women's legacy as mothers. It's a history that teaches us about love that endures loss and underscores what every mother stands to gain if more women have the agency, as she said, to "enter willingly and lovingly into motherhood."

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POPSUGAR: What attracted you to scholarship on Black motherhood?

Margarita Rosa: I've always been interested in the ways that, through experiences of subjugation and exploitation, Black and Indigenous women have insisted on mothering their children, even when these children were taken from them — even when these children were sold away. So, I love to think about the ways that Black women have creatively sought to "mother" their children and how that history can inform a new radical politics about what it means to parent a child in the present day.

Black feminists have been writing about Black motherhood since the '70s, and I was attracted to the idea of finding "traces" of women in the archives. I have found newspaper clippings of enslaved women who killed their children in order to save them from slavery. I have also found clippings of women who were sent out by masters to be prostitutes. Being a scholar of Black motherhood is like finding new worlds no one ever thought could be there and bringing them back to life.

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PS: On Instagram, you've said that the freedom of women to "choose" motherhood and embody motherhood also means the freedom to choose how to mother. Could you expand on that?

This Mother's Day, we ought to acknowledge all the people who "mothered" us, along with our biological mothers.

MR: Absolutely! I've been sharing short notes on Black feminist theory and queer studies on Instagram, and one of the recent Stories was about Black women's ability to "choose" motherhood rather than have it be imposed upon them. You know how some people say that "love" is a verb? Well, I think that mothering is like that, too. When you "choose" to mother, you are choosing to parent that child, whether or not that child looks like you or is even biologically related to you.

Black women have been caring for a community of children for all of modern history, yet so much of womanhood is still defined by the ability to bear children. This usually leaves women who are unable to have children or who choose not [to], out of the picture. Yet, they parent children, too, whether adoptive or community-raised children. This Mother's Day, we ought to acknowledge all the people who "mothered" us, along with our biological mothers.

PS: I love what you have to say about kinship and how we define family. It reminds me of an essay about "half"-siblings we published by Lacey Johnson, who wrote: "I believe we limit ourselves when we glorify the idea of genetic connection so much that it limits other connections that ask to heal and bless us."

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PS: I want to bring up infertility. You've written, "Were we to live in a different world, one in which people [approach] parenthood as an attempt rather than a given, we could avoid many heartbreaks as women and individuals." How do we begin to shift the approach?

MR: So many women who suffer from infertility — or who cannot have children for whatever reason — often feel "less than" within their womanhood. The same goes for women who struggle to become pregnant, or who feel the pressure of the "biological clock" ticking. I feel like we have a lot here to learn from queer communities. Queer people have had to wonder whether one day they could have children and how they would have children, if not biologically.

Many people have not even asked themselves how they would have a child if they couldn't rely on their bodies. I feel like we have reached a point socially where it needs to become more acceptable to have adopted and foster children and children conceived through surrogacy or sperm donation. One thing that I've stopped doing is assuming that a child is a biological child. We find it so easy to do this in front of a queer couple, but when it comes to a straight couple, the questions that they receive are endless. We can only culturally shift into a society where all kinds of parenting become acceptable if we stop attaching a stigma or special quality to nonbiological children.

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PS: How would you envision a better future for Black mothers, one defined by equity, compassion, and love?

I envision a beautiful future for Black motherhood, but one that addresses Black women's material reality, first and foremost.

MR: That is such a beautiful question, and an important one, too. Black women suffer disproportionately from poverty, illness, and the dispossession of their children by the government. I think we ought to think about the ways we can enact structural changes to ensure that Black women receive the healthcare that they need, job security during and after pregnancy, and universal child care. Black women have historically been exploited for their labor, and the need to labor more and more to make ends meet means that Black women are disproportionately dispossessed from the ability to "mother" their children or spend enough time with them. My vision for Black motherhood starts with an economic model that reverses the effects of an exploitative global market.

Culturally, though, we can begin to shift what it means for Black women to "mother" in the present day and what role motherhood has to play in conceptions of womanhood. We can begin to change how often we ask women when they will have children, or why they have so many children. We can begin to minimize the impact of unplanned pregnancies by providing proper reproductive care and sex education, especially in communities of color and poor communities. We can begin by asking ourselves, does my neighbor have healthcare? Can she afford yearly Pap smears and birth control? Should [access] depend on whether or not she has a job? I envision a beautiful future for Black motherhood, but one that addresses Black women's material reality, first and foremost.

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PS: You've written about how Black women have a legacy of caring for children that spans all of modern time. How does that position Black women today to define motherhood on their own terms?

I simply want women to be free. And, as Black feminists have noted, no one can be free until Black women are free.

MR: I think that Black women have an opportunity to decide for themselves "how to mother." This is the first time in modern history that we have that choice. And so, to enter willingly and lovingly into motherhood is an opportunity I want more and more women to have. We are learning to create those opportunities by breaking away from the notions of motherhood based on the loss of personhood or individuality. I want women to feel "whole" as mothers and as women; I want women to experience the depth of a long career, if they choose one, along with the depth of mothering children, if they choose to have any. I simply want women to be free. And, as Black feminists have noted, no one can be free until Black women are free. If we ought to toast to anything on this Mother's Day, it should be that.