by Brianna Perry
Mother’s Day, observed every second Sunday in May, is a time to celebrate and honor motherhood and the mothers* in our lives. This also involves an acknowledgement of the different forms of mothering, including the experiences of those who have not given birth to a child. On a surface level, the holiday has often been marked by an exchange of gifts, acts of service, and words of gratitude and love captured in a greeting card. On a more profound level, the holiday is designed to recognize the sacrifices, commitment, and time that those who mother often exemplify. Moreover, Mother’s Day highlights and extols the dynamic and complex role of motherhood and mothering.
Throughout the history of the U.S., motherhood has been considered a core part of a woman’s identity. In fact, up until the 1960s, it was believed that a woman was not “complete” until she experienced the glory of becoming a mother. This societal expectation of reproduction presented a paradox: on one hand, motherhood was praised and honored, and on the other hand, it was deemed to be a woman’s primary goal in life. During the onset of second wave feminism, women began to challenge this notion, as they worked to expand their value and contribution to society in addition to being mothers.
What’s noteworthy and often goes unaddressed is that historically (and presently), motherhood in mainstream society, and the experiences represented above, have been synonymous with White, middle-class women. The experiences of poor and women of color mothers have often been overlooked and erased in the dominant narrative around motherhood. Black mothers, specifically, have had a complicated experience with motherhood and exercising their right to parent. This experience dates back to chattel slavery when enslaved women’s bodies were controlled, and they were not afforded the same praise and honor with motherhood as White women. Instead of being viewed as mothers, they were considered tools to breed as intensively as possible for revenue. Enslaved women worked during their pregnancies and were expected to return to the dehumanizing labor promptly after delivery.
During the 20th century, Black women’s bodies and experiences with motherhood continued to be regulated, as they were subjected to involuntary sterilization because their genes were not deemed desirable for reproduction. This practice affected a significant amount of Black women, such as civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer. In North Carolina, between 1933 and 1970, 7,700 sterilizations had been performed, of which 5,000 were on Black women. This disturbing statistic highlights the fact that even after slavery was abolished, Black women still faced legal barriers (federal funds could be used for involuntary sterilization practices up until 1974) to motherhood and mothering.
Today, legal barriers to motherhood and mothering for Black women persist, and these barriers have manifested in the form of criminalization. Black women represent 30% of all incarcerated women in the U.S. although they represent 13% of the female population; they are four times as likely as their White women counterparts to be jailed. Moreover, nearly 80% of women who are incarcerated are mothers. In addition to the nearly 2 million people who are incarcerated in federal and state prisons, about 646,000 people are held in local jails, and 70% of these people are held pre-trial. These individuals are held in local jails before trial simply because they do not have the money to make bail.
According to the data, a significant amount of the people who are being held in local jails are Black women who mother. Instead of being with their families and mothering them, these women are kept in cages because they do not have the funds to leave. Women, due to structural sexism, earn less than their male counterparts; data show that in relation to Black, White, and Hispanic men and women, Black women have the lowest incomes before incarceration. It can therefore be assumed that Black women will be less likely (in comparison to other groups) to have the money to make bail. This systemic disparity prevents Black women from being able to experience motherhood in ways that have historically been stripped from them. This continued oppression illustrates what reproductive justice activist Loretta J. Ross describes as “motherhood being glorified for some women while others have their motherhood rights contested.”
This year, we have the opportunity to change this narrative. A group of social justice organizations, including Southerners on New Ground, the Brooklyn Community Fund, Color of Change, the Movement 4 Black Lives Policy Table, and the Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter, have developed the “National Mama’s Bail Out Day” to address the impact of the money bail system, especially on Black cis and trans women who mother. This week (right before Mother’s Day), we are using our collective power and energy to bail out as many mothers (of all types) as we can so that their families and communities can honor and celebrate them. This campaign serves as an opportunity for us to examine how the money bail system is classist and works to dismember communities, especially communities of color.
Black mothers have supported, loved, and nurtured groups (including those they have not been members of) for centuries, even in the face of oppression and stigma. Join us this Mother’s Day in taking a stand against the money bail system and supporting Black mothers who have and continue to invest in us.
*I am using the term “mothers” here to refer to those individuals who mother in some capacity (not just those who have given birth). This includes Black trans and non-binary folks.
Briana Perry is a Black feminist born, raised, and currently situated in the South. Her interests include storytelling, reproductive justice, education reform, and healing.