Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Womanist Mothering: Loving and Raising the Revolution

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Womanist Mothering: Loving and Raising the Revolution

Article excerpt

I honestly believe I am the only woman in the United States who ever traveled throughout the country with a nursing baby to make political speeches.

--Ida B. Wells-Barnett (Giddings 2009, p. 369)

Womanist Mothering, Identity, Oppression and Empowerment--

Ida B. Wells was 33 years old when she married Ferdinand L. Barnett. The two "met in the work of journalism and agitation," (Schechter, 2001, p. 176). Mrs. Wells-Barnett gave birth to the first of four children just a year later. By the time of her marriage, Ida B. Wells had already become known as one of the most outspoken orators and anti-lynching crusaders of the era. She had challenged segregation, helped to give life to the Black women's club movement, emerged as one of the most respected Black journalists in U.S. history, and averted several attempts on her life and property. Despite her intense dedication, her newfound status as a mother would cause White feminists like Susan B. Anthony to overtly question her commitment to the movement (Giddings, 2009, p. 390). Ever the womanist, Ida B. Wells remained entrenched in Black liberation struggles, relying on Black clubwomen for support, and forging ahead as one who fought against injustice in every form- even while nursing a newborn (Abdullah, 2007). The story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett is illustrative of how the identity of motherhood complicates race, class and gender. The conflict that arose between Wells and Anthony illuminates the oft contrasting views of Black motherhood between Black communities and White society. Where the traditional treatment of Black mothers both on the African continent and in African America has been one of respect and reverence (Dove, 2002), Black motherhood within Western society has brought subjugation and even oppression.

A "mother-centered matrix" predominated many precolonial African societies. Nah Dove (2002) builds from the work of Cheikh Anta Diop to detail the presence of a "mother-centered matrix" dating back to ancient Kemet (modern day Egypt). "Within the Mother-Centered Matrix, balance between feminine and masculine principles is sought from the physical and material to the spiritual planes. Mother-centered literally means mother-led societal and cultural constructs" (Dove, 2002, p. 5). This mother-centered balance is indigenous to African cultures and embodied in the female Maat divinity, "an interrelated order of rightness, including the divine, natural and social" (Karenga 2004, 7). In contrast, Western patriarchal societies seek not balance but domination, resulting in the oppression of Black women and mothers. "The modern states, particularly the United States, are built to the cultural specifications of European patriarchy.... [P]atriarchal power relations are unable to provide the social environment conducive to the wellness of African people, specifically of women and children, and of all people generally" (ibid., pp. 8-9).

The targeted oppression of African American mothers took shape under slavery and came in the forms of rape, "breeding," and natal alienation (Patterson, 1982), for enslaved women's childbearing abilities were major economic and political considerations for White owners (White, 1999, p. 98). Such considerations continue to inform the treatment of Black mothers in contemporary Western society, which oppresses them along political, economic and ideological dimensions (Hill Collins, 2000). Politically, policies that penalize mothers, and disproportionately Black mothers, abound. Examples include tax codes that limit childcare deductions, breastfeeding laws, and welfare-to-work requirements. Economically, the clearest example is the wage penalty for motherhood, which is estimated at roughly 5% per child (Budig, et. al., 2001). Ideologically, there is the myth of the welfare queen, the assumption that Black mothers became mothers for nefarious reasons, to game the system and collect public benefits. The title of Ange-Marie Hancock's text on the subject sums up the view of Black motherhood by White systems of domination perfectly: The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen (Hancock, 2004). …

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