The Refusal of Motherhood in African American Women's Theater

By Meier, Joyce | MELUS, Fall-Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

The Refusal of Motherhood in African American Women's Theater


Meier, Joyce, MELUS


As Darlene Hine and Kate Wittenstein show in their recent study of slavery, African American slave women practiced sexual abstinence, abortion, and infanticide as strategies of resistance, exemplifying their refusal to participate in and help perpetuate a system that treated their bodies and their children's bodies as property. But the reality of the black woman who refused participation in a racist and patriarchal system by refusing motherhood continued even after slavery was abolished in this country, as early twentieth-century drama by black women writers attests. Though written past the period where, as Margaret Wilkerson writes, the institution of slavery "made the black woman the legal instrument of her people's slavery" and injustice "intruded into her most private moments" (viii), these plays express a strong melding of the personal and the political, as they show how historical oppression recurs in the present, and how the black woman's body continues to be the site of both domination and resistance. As thematic antecedents to Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved, Angelina Grimke's Rachel (1916), Georgia Johnson's Safe (1930?), Shirley Graham' s It's Morning (1938-40), and to a lesser extent Alice Childress's Mojo (1971) and Aishah Rahman's Unfinished Women Cry in No Man's Land While a Bird Dies in a Gilded Cage (1977) all demonstrate the difficulty of black motherhood in this country.

These plays feature heroines who refuse motherhood and/or child rearing because they cannot bear the alternative of birthing and raising a child in a culture that discriminates on the basis on race, class, and gender. Instead of critiquing the heroine's actions, these works clearly explain why such decisions are made in a society that at worst resorts to lynching and at best withholds employment and educational opportunities for black youth at the same time it renders black mothers powerless to protect their own children from experiencing the wrongs of racism. Finally, May Miller's Thorns and Nails (1933) takes this theme a step further to suggest how the system of racism wrongs white mothers and their children as well. The play shows how terribly wrong a white mother's privileged assumption is that she can actually protect her own (white) child against the wrongs of racism and by extension classism and sexism as well.

What such works demonstrate are the peculiar ramifications for black women of what Lindsay Patterson calls the "Nigger Moment": when, in Patterson's words, a black person "loses his innocence ... discovers he is a `nigger' and his mentality shifts gears" (quoted in Brown-Guillory, "Images" 234). For the black women depicted in these plays, such moments often relate to their realization of their powerlessness as mothers when through the examples of a relative or a family friend or even a casual acquaintance, they are forced to witness the murder or pain of a young black person, usually male. Experiencing the boy's pain as an extension of their own, these mothers then make their decision. Denied voice and power, they choose to give up the child they are having or already have.

Perhaps because of their "morbid" subject matter, the word applied to Grimke's play when it first appeared, the first three of these plays have not exactly had a high production rate. Rachel was first performed on March 3, 1916 by the Drama Committee of the NAACP; while there were two other productions within two years (one in New York City, the other in Cambridge, Massachusetts), the play was not performed again until the Spelman Players (of Spelman College) revived it in 1991. Of the several plays Johnson submitted to the Federal Theatre Project, a government-sponsored arts program that was part of the Works Projects Administration of the late 1930s, none, Safe among them, was ever produced. Moreover, while plays by Grimke, Miller, Childress, and Rahman are available in several anthologies, only one of Graham's plays has been published, and Johnson's Safe has only recently been published, thanks to the recuperative efforts of Kathy A. …

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