Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: A reflection on Black womanhood, cultural memory and connection during the reckoning of 2020

In “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Hortense Spillers (re)membered (Dillard 2016, Morrison 1987) the history and making of African-American women and mothers as subjectivities in the United States as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the social, political, and economic workings of slavery in the U.S. Spillers highlighted that the legal and economic structures of white supremacy and patriarchy under slavery denied women of African descent the role of mother when they birthed children, and deprived them of traditional notions of family and lineage that typically accompany it. She argued that this history, or text as she described it, has been distorted to support false narratives about Black womanhood, motherhood, and those roles in the Black family as evidenced by the infamous Moynihan Report that characterized Black women as pathologically “dominant” and “strong” to the point of castrating Black men. The dominant culture, Spillers contended, has made a fatal flaw in projecting matriarchist value to African-American females because they were universally denied the right to lay claim to one’s child and lived in a society in which “motherhood” provided no legal path to cultural inheritance. Therefore, Spillers said that because the African American female falls outside of the traditional symbolics of female gender we have an opportunity to subvert and break free from traditional gender restrictions:

“…it is our task to make a place for this different social subject. In doing so, we are less interested in joining the ranks of gendered femaleness than gaining the insurgent ground as female social subject. Actually claiming the monstrosity (of a female with the potential to “name”), which her culture imposes in blindness, “Sapphire” might rewrite after all a radically different text for a female empowerment.” (Spillers 1987:80)

Reading the (re)membering and retelling of this history as a Black woman is painful still because as Spillers wrote, repetition does not rob these “well-known, oft-told events” of their power or sting. Nor should it, because to forget these horrors and that pain would disconnect us from an understanding of the ways in which that past continues to inform our present lived realities. The larger sting is that the distortions of Black womanhood, Black family and kinship have remained and continue to produce the very kinds of division that white supremacist, capitalistic patriarchy sowed so long ago; African American female flesh is still unprotected much as it was during the time of enslavement. Black women have had to stand face-to-face with this reality recently as we have mourned the murder of 27-year-old Breonna Taylor at the hands of Louisville, Kentucky police officers (who at the time of this post still have not been charged) even as we watch and participate in the rally cry for justice in the brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis po-lice officers. At the same time, Black women are mollywomped by misogynoir with incidents like the attack against Iyanna Dior and sexual assault and murder of 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin Salau. In the midst of collective grief, Black women have to be about the emotional, social, political, economic, and physical labor of ceaselessly bringing attention to these issues in order to have any hope for justice, like the example below calling for #JusticeForBreonnaTaylor.

What is particularly painful about Oluwatoyin’s murder is that while she was fighting for the safety of the Black community, someone from within the “community” violated her safety. On the day she went missing, she took to Twitter to describe her account of being preyed on and attacked by a Black man. To make matters worse, she was vulnerable to attack because she had reportedly been ostracized by her family. Oluwatoyin was Nigerian-American and did not have direct experience with, or direct memory of, the history of enslavement of African people in the U.S. that Spiller discussed; however, her story and life is particularly relevant to the discussion of cultural memory and (re)membering here in a couple of ways. First, Oluwatoyin’s connection with and dedication to fighting on behalf of all Black lives here in the U.S. illustrates the power of rememory (Morrison 1987), the bringing back and dealing with the repressed parts of anti-black trauma, and (re)membering, recalling and (re)visioning the collective “spirit and strength of Blackness” (Dillard 2016:418) that fosters solidarity and fictive kinship with those who share an African heritage despite every attempt to destroy it.

The story of Oluwatoyin’s murder also speaks to the significance of cultural memory and the compensatory measures that Black women in the U.S. have historically taken in order to foster family and community through “certain ethical and sentimental features that tied her and him, across the landscape to others, often sold from hand to hand, of the same and different blood in a common fabric of memory and inspiration” (Spillers 1987:75). Oluwatoyin understood and lived this out as praxis through her fight to protect all Black people regardless of nationality, sexuality, or gender. As Spillers asserted, we typically call this type of connectedness family, kin, community, or support structure, but its existence and purpose are quite different than the ways “family” and lineage have been used by those in power to maintain racial supremacy, or more specifically whiteness and its mores. Spillers called into question the social efficacy of such alternate constructs and formations, and today I wonder the same. It is not that I doubt the social efficacy of Black community and kinship formation; it is the one thing that I know we would not have survived without. It is what we need now more than ever during this time of national reckoning, global pandemic, and physical distancing measures. However, Oluwatoyin’s murder shows the need to (re)member and tighten up our kinship and community ties for safety and survival. Even if she could not count on her blood family, she should have had people she could call upon. She should not have been left alone seeking shelter. As we call for the defunding of police and the tearing down of white supremacy, which surely do not keep us safe, the question remains, what are we building and creating? Who will be included? Who will do the labor? Who will be loved, cared for and protected? Oluwatoyin’s life did not only matter, it was precious and to be treasured. She deserved better. She took the “insurgent ground as a female subject” (Spillers 1987). What ground are we willing to take?

I’m boppin to Noname tryna figure it out…

Dillard, Cynthia B. “Turning the Ships Around: A Case Study of (Re) Membering as Transnational Endarkened Feminist Inquiry and Praxis for Black Teachers.” Educational Studies 52.5 (2016): 406-23. Print.

Morrison, Toni. “Beloved. 1987.” New York: Plume 252 (1988)Print.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 65-81. Print.

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