Why the stories of Black mothers matter

Anna Malaika Tubbs’ first book has already won plaudits. It tells the stories of the mothers of James Baldwin, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

 

Anna Malaika Tubbs has always wanted to speak up for Black women whose lives have been erased from public view and to talk to the general public about gender, race, sociology and anthropology in ways that are accessible.

When she applied to do her PhD at Cambridge University, having been a student activist and having taught black feminist theory to 16- and 17-year-old students of colour at a high school in California for over two years, her goal was to study a subject which would appeal to a larger audience and which would correct the erasure of Black women. That project has now gone on to form the basis of her acclaimed first book, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, published earlier this month.

When Anna Malaika started to do her research she had an inkling that it would be hard work trying to piece together the lives of the three mothers – Louise Little [mother of Malcolm X], Emma Berdis Jones [James Baldwin’s mother] and Alberta King [mother of Martin Luther King]. Information on them was scarce despite the many books on their sons. She did not, however, anticipate quite how difficult it would prove to be. Originally, Anna Malaika had thought to contact the families of the three women and use oral histories to piece her story together. However, she soon realised that this was more complicated than she had thought because the families had received so many inquiries and didn’t initially want to talk to her. So she focused on what she could find in the archives, using the data she could gather to build trust with the families and show them her commitment. She also turned to the internet to track down a relative of James Baldwin’s mother Berdis who had written an article in the Huffington Post. She tweeted him and he replied. Over the course of her research she spoke to him several times and he was able to fill in several gaps in her research.

She is well aware that there are many gaps in the book’s account of the three women’s lives which is a testament to the lack of information available. “The book is a beginning,” says Anna Malaika. “Hopefully we can continue to build on that and women can have more stories written about them. It was not my goal to say this is it. It was my goal to ask why don’t we know more about these women and how much more is missing from our knowledge about Black women’s lives throughout US history. Why don’t we know them at all? They symbolise Black women in the US.”

A dream come true

The book sold 4,000 copies in the first week of publication. It has so far garnered reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post and was selected as a book to watch for 2021 by the Guardian. Anna Malaika says the interest in the book is “a dream come true”. “It shows how many people want to know more about these women and engage with Black women’s lives. It is powerful. I could not be happier with how it is going,” she states.

She adds that, of the sociological studies there are of mothers, most are based on middle class white women’s experiences and are about the private sphere. Black motherhood does not fit this model, she says. Black mothers such as the three she writes about are often revolutionary, teaching their children to transform their situation. “We need to understand their role more,” she says.

While she was doing her PhD, Anna Malaika fell pregnant with her first child. She says the experience of writing about motherhood while herself being pregnant was powerful. However, for her the book is not just about motherhood, but about the women’s lives before they became mothers, the forces and experiences that shaped the mothers they became. “Nowadays we sometimes feel that our identities are being eroded by motherhood and that our own needs are irrelevant. Studying these women made me see motherhood differently. It made me feel influential and strong with an important role to play that I should be proud of. It made the work more personal,” says Anna Malaika. “It is not about raising incredible leaders, but about staying true to yourself, your identity and your passions.”

Different pathways

She says each of the three women have a different story and had to overcome different circumstances. Berdis grew up in revolutionary Grenada, spoke several languages and taught her children to recite the alphabet in French. Alberta grew up in a deeply religious family, watching her parents organise civil rights meetings and standing up against injustice. Louise was a leading activist in the Universal Negro Improvement Association and was one of Marcus Garvey’s closest confidants, writing articles for The Negro World. In the US, the family were pursued by white supremacists due to their activism and their house was burnt down. Her husband is rumoured to have been murdered by the white supremacist group the Black Legion, but the death was officially recorded as a suicide so Louise did not receive any insurance, leaving the family destitute. Her children were later taken into care and Louise was put in an asylum for 25 years.

Anna Malaika was keen to write about the diversity of the experiences of these extraordinary women. Yet they also have many things in common, not least of which is the fact that they all outlived their sons. Anna Malaika felt it was important to centre that loss early on in the book. “It returns the humanity to their lives and to those of their sons. Those sons are historical figures, but their deaths are also an awful personal tragedy. The book tells of their lives as young boys and how hard it was for their mothers. The loss was deep and hurtful. In a way it also rescues a part of their lives that has been erased,” she states.



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