This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.
Dreams of chocolate babies with big eyes, full lips, and bright smiles flood my consciousness whenever motherhood comes to my mind. I see the promises of ’90s Black sitcoms, of beautiful Black families going through experiences of daily life as a team. But the reality of the present is much more discouraging and sobering.
When the decision to have children occurs in a Black family, thoughts of loss and death at the hands of the state often pervade their reality. For people who are faced with image after image of Black bodies brutalized by those sworn to protect them, it is not simply a question of “Do we want to have children?” It is the realization that these youngins will have to grow up too soon and fear for their lives in a world that is clearly anti-Black.
For me, motherhood is not on the horizon right now.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Tanisha Anderson, Trayvon Martin, Yvette Smith, Tamir Rice, Miriam Carey, Michael Brown, and so many others were killed senselessly and without an admission of guilt or even remorse from the officers involved in their deaths. This is a Black woman’s reality. That coupled with the health dangers that Black women continue to face when they become pregnant—these are my thoughts when I consider the overwhelming decision to become or not become a parent.
Growing up, Black motherhood meant to me ’90s iconic mothers like the original Aunt Viv of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Harriet Winslow of Family Matters, and Jerri Peterson of Parent’ Hood. These ladies were revolutionaries. They served as the role models and guiding lights of their fictional communities and the tell-it-like-it-is mothers who somehow kept it all together. One moment that sticks out in my mind is the gun episode on Family Matters. Harriet Winslow guides her daughter, Laura, so that the young woman is able to make the right decision and not use violence to solve her problems with bullies at school.
These sitcoms showed me positive depictions of united Black families when in my reality there were none. My Jamaican mother took care of her three children on her own and the best way she knew how. She was often stern and no nonsense, but she showed us love without end, even putting her home at risk to save my brother. My father was present, but I never experienced living in a household that operated as a unit like those I saw depicted on television. Eventually both of my parents remarried to other people, and my situation morphed into a blended family.
Given how much has changed in terms of representations of the Black family in the media, what does generation Z and future generations have to look to now?
Everywhere I turn and with every report I read, Black motherhood is depicted as this dangerous and scary experience. In the United States, a country that spends more money on health care than other developed nations, Black mothers are still dying from pregnancy-related conditions three to four times more often than white women.
Researchers and the media say it time and time again that it’s just more taxing to be Black and a mother. Why wouldn’t it be, with all the responsibilities that Black mothers take on—being the storytellers and nurturers of their communities while fighting racism, classism, sexism, and many other -isms—in a country that largely turns a blind eye on them daily?
As Tope Fadiran Charlton has said: “Part of my struggle is to challenge the notion that good motherhood cannot exist in bodies like mine.”
The ability for Black women to delay motherhood, have healthy pregnancies, and parent how they see fit is reproductive justice. Black women coined this term to recognize that women of color are facing some of the most damaging and dangerous attacks on our humanity, but the ability to have children and parent these children in a safe environment is a fundamental human right.
The Black family surviving and thriving challenges the very foundation of this country. Historically, slavery broke up our families, stole our identities, and prevented us from having connections to our African lineage. Black families thriving fulfills the legacy we were always meant to have, showing us that a future where Black women are the experts of our bodies, our experiences, and our communities is possible.
Regardless of the anti-choice propaganda that tells Black women our wombs are a dangerous place, regardless of the danger our offspring will face from a world that’s been taught that they are less than human, and regardless of the systems in place that make it difficult to be a Black woman, the Black family is resilient.
Nevertheless, being born Black is inherently more dangerous than being born white. Growing up, I witnessed the overcriminalization of my brother; the police labeled him a career criminal and a Black thug. I was the target of blatant threats and racism as a young student at a predominantly white university. These experiences showed me that no matter what, our Blackness made us innately less deserving of safety and respect.
In recent years, as I’ve seen Black mothers like mine lose their children to violence, it has become more apparent to me that my children will be criminalized just for their skin color—judged before they are known, and criticized for doing things like laughing, wearing hoodies, loving, and living. The thought of one day having to bury my child is ever-present in my reality.
And yet, Black women birth and raise children every day.
The decision to become a parent or not become a parent is one that many Black women are struggling with daily. And given all of the factors I’ve just described, it’s a decision one shouldn’t take lightly. Parenthood can be a blessing, but it’s definitely not for everyone.