The Embodied Politics of Black Motherhood

The Embodied Politics of Black Motherhood

The Embodied Politics of Black Motherhood

Alienating Black women from our bodies is a strategy for domination. Yet we continue to rise and resist.


There is a boldness to black pregnancy, an insolence to it. it disrespects the order of things. The frank audacity—to publicly parade the intention to continue to exist within a nation that has monetized your disappearance—is itself a sort of act of defiance. It disobeys all the typically unstated arrangements that govern the relationships between women and femininity—and Black people and power.

Black women are supposed to resign ourselves to the idea that we possess neither the feminine appeal nor the personal agency reserved for whiteness. Yet jutting out of one embattled human and literally rising atop her abdomen is another—another chance, another reckoning, another attempt at autonomy. And so, as pregnant Black bellies protrude into America, fecund with possibilities, they flout the rules. They mock the very idea that white women are the only ones who get to be precious or that white men are the only arbiters of potential.

And for that—for simply existing and for harboring continued existence—Black mothers are made to pay: with their children, and with their lives. The price to hold your head or keep your wits is so high that those of us who survive often deny or disavow our power. That, or we revel in it.

I know a woman who laughed during childbirth. Not the polite giggle that may befit the vulnerability of having your interior come forth as your limbs are splayed about. And not the strained performance of amusement commonly contrived for social media’s censorious gaze.

She roared.

As 10 tiny fingers preceded 10 tiny toes, she let out a thunderous, roaring revel at her own capacity. In the face of the decay intended for Black lives, she unfolded herself and birthed a new one. And she survived to see herself do it. Now she is a mother to three.

One of the particular cruelties unique to American white supremacy is that the machinations of apportioned loathing have not only shortened the national life span but, in disproportionately stealing the lives of Black babies and Black mothers, they have stolen possibilities. The loss that accumulates from such theft is both individual and collective. It is the loss of who and what those individuals might have been—but also who and what our nation might be capable of becoming. And so national conversations about Black motherhood have taken on an air of mourning, about who and what has been, and is being, stolen.

But to memorialize Black motherhood and recount it merely as a story of loss misses the rapture. It misses the wonder that is possible only because a Black woman was brazen enough to shape-shift, unfold herself, and bend the world around her vision of the future. When we as a nation embrace Black motherhood only as an experience tainted with tinctures of death, we miss altogether what it is and what it could be.

Toni Morrison taught us that.

In the final pages of Beloved, Morrison’s haunting and clarion account of the thefts too frequently visited upon Black mothers, Sethe, the protagonist, says through tears, “She was my best thing,” referring to her dead daughter. As she says this, she is lying in a stupor of her own grief and the stillness of her bathwater, despondent. The man holding her hand responds, “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.”

It is as if her own force is too foreign to register.

“Me?” she says. “Me?”

If the boldness of Black pregnancy betrays itself physically, as an ever-rising sign of what newness remains possible amid the rot and ruin proffered as our inheritance, the transgressive power of Black motherhood just hides in plain sight.

We are our best thing.

Like the losses we endure, this reality is both individual and collective. It is true for Black mothers in relation to themselves. And it is true for Black mothers in relation to their progeny. And their country.

We are our best thing.

I know a woman who grew her own food as a child, fed a small town as an adult, and, when the time came as a young teen, walked into an all-white school alongside a handful of other Black students and dared to learn. Once, she even slapped a white boy right in his face for knocking her down. He threatened, as so many do, to catch her one day, alone. But, as she reassured me, she never was. And so, he never did.

Even then, even the children who protected her knew: She was our best thing.

I know a woman who served her country in wartime and whose prayers and generosity kept whole families afloat. She was the kind of woman who could hold her chin at an angle reminiscent of royalty, yet shared nearly everything she had. She would often attend the funerals of strangers just so, in the end, they weren’t alone.

I can’t say whether either of these women knew what those around them never questioned. But I do know that not every woman who has tamed the earth or walked among soldiers knows her own greatness.

There is a reason for this unknowing.

Perhaps the most intrusive aim of the colluding systems of domination—patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism—is to render Black women, in particular, foreign to our own selves. Said another way, this particular mode of economic exploitation and racial degradation functions by making Black women unrecognizable to ourselves so that, ultimately, our bodies can be made unavailable to us.

Those who are not familiar with their own utility and power are uniquely vulnerable to other people’s conception of what their best, most important parts are, and to the appropriation of those parts. Within this predatory political economy, Black women can come to exist just to be used up by other people. Our bodies—used just to fulfill other people’s desires. Our talents—employed just to meet other people’s needs. And our time—squandered just to satisfy other people’s sense of urgency. Even the space we hold in our own minds, for our own emotions, can come to be filled up with other people’s tears.

The goal is outright domination—and a selective prosperity for those whose profits, garnered from racial or gender subordination, are most effectively culled through extraction. But it is accomplished in pieces, initially by alienating Black women from our bodies and then by supplanting any sense of self-sufficiency that might take root within us.

The process is slow, asynchronous, and occurs over generations. It is ritually carried out by everyone, sometimes even our own families, like a national pastime. The result is, our past bodies and our future selves are deemed, again and again, unworthy of protection. The result is also a leaving, a disconnection, a disassociation, and a disembodiment from our selves.


I know a woman, accomplished and stable, who feared that the stress she bore—to achieve accomplishments and stability—rendered her own womb an unsafe space for her baby. She knew the figures about Black women and preterm births and Black babies and low birth weights. And she wondered if her own body could be a protected ground.

I know women who gathered, each with lips pursed at their own recollections of their own fears, to listen to other women speak with caution about Child Protective Services and the white people who can question their fitness with a glance. These women’s bodies also held a truth not quite captured in the numbers: that even when you survive to see yourself release your insides, there are those who will remake such moments into criteria that label you unfit to care for them.

I know women who have been denied their own interior.


The result is a greatness that, for some, remains undiscovered and a power that, if unexplored, can go unknown. And so Black women’s reproductive capacity can be reduced to yet another lever of power to affirm the reign of white patriarchy. And any national attention to our untold depths can be dimmed to weak lamentation.

Yet we are our best thing.

I know women whose bodies are the kind of place where people belong, where they can curl up and rest a while. Displaced and scattered, generations return like tides, not to homes or neighborhoods or towns, but to the gravitational pull of their hips swaying in the kitchen or rocking on the porch.

Our bodies could be a resting place for ourselves, too. But if we lack comfort there, our own frame can become an uninhabitable shelter. And for those in exile from themselves, even our own skin may not hug us. In spite of the power of our orbit, some Black women will reflexively spin away from themselves. Others may accept numbness in place of respite, or a kind of busyness that distracts from whatever waits in the solitude of their own recesses.

This too is a result of having our personhood under siege. It is a forced abandonment and a stealing—of our bodies as spaces for rest and realization; of that power derived from bodily autonomy and knowledge of self; and of the collective possibilities that could be availed us through democracy. And so, generations of Black mothers have had their bodies, their power, and their possibilities stripped, whipped, cut, and chased from them. And when not snatched, then hidden. And when not hidden, then shamed away. And when not shamed, then legislated just beyond their grasp. Even now, centuries removed from slavery, Black mothers might still be unable to disentangle ourselves from the conditions and forces and people that conspire to control us, our labor, our power, and our capacity for possibility.

And yet.

And yet, I know a Black mother who laughs.

I know a generation of Black mothers who end their evenings sitting at kitchen tables, with a slipper dangling over a crossed leg and silk robes cinched casually at the waist, filling the space between us with the warmth of their laughter.

I know a generation of Black mothers whose chuckle rolls across their chest like the low, reassuring rumble of a washing machine, the kind of women who shape silence into a steady hum. I know women who crinkle, not crack, at the corners of their eyes and the edges of their cheeks, just enough that any fatigue that had settled there starts to fade as they rear their head back and howl.

I know women who are our best thing.

My own grandmother was one of 23. Her mother, my great-grandmother, birthed 23 children. It is a simple fact that could be read as the forced destiny of any woman whose reproductive choices are not her own. Yet it could also be read as the indefatigable effort of one Black woman to re-create the world in her own image, 23 times over. The likely truth of the former distracts from the extraordinary probability of the latter—at its best, Black motherhood may be an attempt at world-building.

This, in fact, may be its most defining feature.

The ability to craft worlds is usually attributed to those who own some means of production. These worlds—worlds that originate through ownership—pivot on an axis of things: trinkets and bobbles, hierarchies and belief systems. Whatever can be fabricated and possessed. But the lifetimes of those particular worlds are also limited by the natural expiration of material goods. Even the hierarchies and belief systems created there will eventually perish with the arc of time. And when it all turns to rubble—as it is fated to do, because of the destructiveness inherent to this kind of building—these world builders often discard their creations in search of more, and better, things to own.

But there is another way to summon orbs.

When the gravitational pull is in the tilt of a chin or the sway of a stride, worlds emerge that are not governed by the half-life of objects or bound to the inevitable obsolescence of ownership. These worlds—worlds that Black mothers give life to—turn toward the makers, not the making. They are less about what we produce or possess in the pursuit of other, better generations, and more about what we are and are capable of becoming—and thus allowing others to become. These realms endure because we do.

In our worlds, love is so tangible it hangs in the air like a thick fog, softening the sharpness that might otherwise stick, were it not for the plumes of tenderness lightly touching everything and everyone around it. It is the kind of love that sits one woman at the worn-in spot on the sofa and the other just at her feet, each unwinding her individual tensions while one parts, then scratches, and then oils the other’s scalp. There is a specificity to it. It is the type of love that is spoken through prayer and said just as often in the collective devotion of a church as it is in the silent exchange that takes place between one Black woman and her God. There is a fullness to it, one that even empty bellies can feel. In the worlds that Black mothers set in motion, love reverberates even in the phonics required to speak our children’s names. And so visitors comport their mouth and attitude to call our boys “Sir” and our girls “Queen,” because Black mothers deemed that their inheritance.

I know these worlds. I have lived in these worlds. And they are imaginative, expansive places. Like the space where a person can be a woman without hair, breasts, or a uterus and a woman can be a mother without ever having bodies pass through her insides. Those potential spaces have been carved out by the Black mothers who have known the violence of misogyny, the weathering of racism, and the wilting of disease.

And yet, they’ve roared anyway.

They’ve bared scalps and scars and wounds only they can know—and developed a way to be. They’ve safeguarded other people’s descendants, provided refuge to other people’s kin, and welcomed other people’s families at their own family’s table—and offered a way for others to be. They’ve lived the lives that usher Black women, from every age, into the generations of ancestors whose best, most important parts are incapable of theft because they can birth kinship and newness from nothing and nowhere.

The best of Black motherhood entails the capacity to conjure new possibilities—not as products that emanate from our bodies, but as a function of simply being in our bodies. Being is a contested state for any individual whose personhood is challenged, denied, or relegated to a margin. So when Black women dare to exist within bodies that fail to adhere to the norms of whiteness and femininity, not disassociated from them, they lay bare the cracks within systems of domination. This demonstrates that domination is never a totality. And once the cracks are uncovered, further cracking becomes possible. Motherhood ripens Black women’s temerity to generate the cracks that allow others to live embodied too.

I know a woman who crawls back into herself when she returns home from work each day. She discards the airy tone in her voice alongside the attire that conceals most of her body. She expands, like the coils in her hair, to take up space. In that space, the one she first offers to herself, she is raising a child who is as quick to giggle as to shout, because in that space, the world is hers.

This is how the transgressive power of Black motherhood hides in plain sight. The worlds we fashion exist inside of bodies and selves that have the ability to find wholeness in the fissures we open in rotting, ruinous spaces. Once embodied, the constraints aiming to break us are revealed to be the product of someone else’s imagination, someone else’s world.

As the Black mothers who have gone before us have taught, there is a liberation waiting for those bold enough to live in a construction of their own design. That liberation is also individual and collective. It is available because Black girls turned Black women turned Black mothers have been brave enough to explore it. And it waits for all those with the courage to follow.

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