Setting Black Mothers Free

As a teenager, I went to youth Bible study on Wednesdays, choir rehearsal on Fridays, and volunteered with the Children’s Ministry on Saturdays. My week, and my network of friends, revolved around social activities in church. We traveled from place to place because safe and loving adults cared to drive us from place to place. I think of people like my dad, Ms. Sonya, Ms. Burwell, Ms. Dixon, Mr. Sidney, and many others. 

My mother is one such safe and loving adult. 

After choir rehearsal, we’d pack into the car and blast Destiny’s Child and Alicia Keys. From Bed Stuy, to Crown Heights, to Canarsie, to Flatbush, the car was full of dramatic, cackling, singing Black teens. We called the car the “mom-mobile.” One time, I asked my mom why she runs the mom-mobile. She said, “I would want someone to do this for you.” That ethic has stuck with me. The load need not rest solely on one person’s shoulders.

With that spirit, we have a chance to reflect on opportunities we have to “do this” for someone. Mother’s Day can invite a host of feelings, ranging from great excitement, to apathy, to profound grief. All feelings around this weekend are valid. 

For as many ways as there are to feel about Mother’s Day, there are many ways to respond. Sometimes that means taking our mother (or someone who is like a mother to us) to dinner. Or maybe it means visiting a friend. Sometimes it means giving ourselves space to cry. Sometimes it looks like taking your niece to the nail salon.  

This year, Mother’s Day looked like setting Black Mothers free.

I spoke with Samantha Master, who has been helping to support actionable liberation efforts for Black people. I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline and saw her call to bail out Black mothers in the DMV area. This local action was part of a national initiative to crowdfund the bail fees for Black Mamas in time for Mother’s Day.

The average bail in the DMV area was about 300 dollars. That’s about the price of “a good bundle,” Samantha said. The money separating our people from freedom was both so small and so cost-prohibitive.

Once caught up in the cycle of fines, unlivable wages, inconsistent transportation to work and school, poor healthcare, and unaffordable housing, $300 becomes the world. Freeing Black Mothers, and not just in the figurative sense, is one way to perforate the evil that continues to hold our folks in bondage.

We can bring freedom together.

Samantha reflected on the absurdity of the predatory caging of Black Mamas and its consequences:

Let’s connect two of the biggest stories in my own community. The missing D.C. Black girls and this. You cannot disconnect the two. Take moms away from communities and you also take away guardianship, protection, support. Who is looking for these kids? You literally destabilize this community, and that’s what prisons are meant to do.

Of course, this initiative to bail out Black Mamas does not at all imagine that Black motherhood is a monolithic event, or even that all black mothers are “June Cleavers,” as Samantha shared. Rather, this effort to free Black Mothers was a way of recognizing that “these mothers have their own humanity. Trans mamas, caregivers, and so many regular shmegular degular Black women serve as mothers in our community. We have to affirm the worth and dignity of our folks.”  

Or, in the words of the Combahee River Collective, this initiative is careful to reject  “pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” 

To support the recognition of these Black Mamas’ humanity, Samantha asked friends to help build gift bags and write letters to Black mamas soon to be released through the Bailout. This is a way of recognizing the humanity of those in our community who have been ignored, pushed away, and locked in cages where no living being should be. 

Such an activity draws from the community-minded work that many Black women have always engaged in. 

Mary McLeod Bethune started what we now know as Bethune-Cookman University with $1.50 and cooperation from the community. The Club from Nowhere supported the practical needs of the Montgomery bus boycott by selling baked goods in beauty salons. And now Mary Hooks, JeNaé Taylor, Samantha Master and a nationwide community of friends dream a world free of the predatory bail system.  

In my own tradition I am moved by stories of people, particularly women, who pool resources for the sake of a fuller community. Luke paints a picture of Jesus who travels from town to town bringing good news and healing people with “the twelve.” This passage also quickly mentions women like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna who “provided for them out of their resources.”

The text does not say exactly in what ways these women are providing, but I imagine these women are providing emotional care, engaging (and maybe critiquing) the day’s messages, tending to sore feet, and making meals. And I imagine these women might likely believe that bailing out Black Mamas is indeed the right thing to do. I believe that these women would be putting together gift bags and writing love notes. Those quickly-mentioned women, and our Mamas today, deserve to live in a world that supports full flourishing.

What happens when we return Black communities to wholeness? What opportunities do we have for stronger, more complete, communities? Another way is possible, and #BailOutBlackMamas is evidence. The Season of Bailing out Black Mamas is upon us. Let us free those who have been chained. 

As my own mother would say, “I would want someone to do this for you.” 

For more information check out nomoremoneybail.org. Also, read Mariame Kaba’s article with Mary Hooks, co-director of Southerners On New Ground.

Photo by TG Nichols provided by Southerners On New Ground

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