What does it mean to be a mother? What does it mean to mother? What does it mean when we talking about mothering as a verb, and not just in its noun form?
Mai’a Williams, Alexis Pauline Gumbs and China Martens, have co-edited an anthology, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, asking these very questions.
Revolutionary Mothering explores what does it mean to mother, especially what does mothering mean to those of us who mother on the margins, mothers of color, poor mothers, immigrant mothers, queer mothers, teenage mothers, single mothers. Those of us who do not fit into the mainstream, ideal, white, heterosexual, middle-class idea of what it means to mother.
It asks what does it mean to mother when mothering is not simply taking care of one’s children, but it also means building community and ensuring survival for the future generation. A future generation that will hopefully continue the community’s resistance against the destructive powers-that-be. Whether those powers be corporate, state, colonial, patriarchal, racist, homophobic, etc.
What does it mean to be a mother of color in a society that tells us that ‘welfare mothers’ are ruining the economy; ‘immigrant mothers’ are destroying the nation; queer mothers are tearing apart the definition of ‘family’; and single mothers can only raise violent predators?
Inspired by the texts and activism of radical women of color feminists from the 1970s and 80s, Revolutionary Mothering posits that mothers are not the cause of these social ills, but that mothering is the solution to many of the global and local destruction that is occurring at this moment. Mothering, the act of radical care-taking and supporting life, is fundamental to community building and key to creating community resilience, that supporting radical mothering work is supporting the creation of not only healthy and vibrant children, but revolutionary communities of love.
In this video, the editors and a couple of the contributors come together on the Laura Flanders show to talk about revolution and mothering, love and hope, community and liberation.
More Radical Reads: Navigating Mother’s Day When You Don’t Have a Mother
Are you looking for ways to practice radical self-love, so that you can better support your children and/or your community? Check out our webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love to aid you on your journey to radical self-acceptance and compassion.
(Feature Image: Black and white photograph of a person with long dark hair, carrying a child wearing an oversized baseball cap. Source: Johnny Silvercloud)
Alexis: The potential for the word mother comes after the m. It is the space that other takes up in our mouths when we say it. We are something else. We know it from how fearfully institutions wield social norms and try to shut us down. We know it from how we are transforming the planet with our every messy step toward making life possible. Mamas who unlearn domination by refusing to dominate their children. Extended family and friends. Community care givers. Radical child care collectives. All of us breaking cycles of abuse by deciding what we want to replicate from the past and what we urgently need to transform. We are m othering, mothering ourselves.
Laura Flanders: That was Alexis Pauline Gumbs. This week a special mother’s day edition of the Laura Flanders show and Alexis is our guest host, taking us on a journey to explore revolutionary mothering. She is a self-described queer black trouble maker and black love evangelist. So who better than Alexis Pauline Gumbs, she is the author of spill fugitive scenes coming later this year from Duke University Press.
Alexis: Hi, I’m Alexis Pauline Gumbs, guest host this week on the Laura Flanders Show, where we will be discussing Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. A new book I edited with China Martens and Mai’a Williams. I’ll be speaking to the editors as well as the contributors, Cynthia Dewi Oka and Victoria Law.
Cynthia: when 3 feet of sunshine missing two front teeth
asked me why do we need revolution
all i had was a grenade in my mouth.
i held him for a while and watched him draw
clouds and trees and ladybugs and a house
filled with everybody he loves
when was the last time we put to image
what we thought the world should be
when did it become enough to know
how to promptly explode
i said to him he was much better equipped
to figure out the revolution than his mama
that if i don’t he’s got to disarm this bomb
and throw it out the window
cause the revolution is not about self-defense
it’s about self-creation, it’s about seeing farther
than the walls directly in front of us
and my six-year-old has got a head start.
I wrote haikus drawing from the words that these brilliant revolutionary mothers used in pieces they wrote in the book as one way of introducing them … of course you should google all of them … to get the full genius but this is just a way to bring us in.
For Mai’a: Not cute or tidy. Glimpses of revolution. Every single day.
For China: Tall and graceful tree. Sacred nature of writing. Leaving quilted words.
For Cynthia: This self-creation. Reclaim our generations. Encumbrance throws down.
And for Vicky: We all are welcome. Enough passion for again. The world is transformed.
So those are 17 syllables from each of these writers and the anthology Revolutionary Mothering. Obviously you want to read all of the syllables because they’re amazing, and as we bring this Revolutionary Mothering genius in, I just wanted to ask each of you to invoke somebody whose not here in the studio with us but who, to you, represents revolutionary mothering. If you want to shout out their name, and maybe how they taught you what revolutionary mothering might be. Why don’t we start with you Cynthia?
Okay so the first thing that I wanted to ask is if you could each evoke somebody you want to shout out right now who is not here with us in the studio, but who represents revolutionary mothering to you. If you could say their name and what they have taught you about what revolutionary mothering is, that would be great. Let’s start with you Cynthia.
I am going to shout out Joy Harjo. She is a Native American poet and artist and storyteller and musician. I think the best thing she has taught me about revolutionary mothering is the bridging work that she’s willing to do cross-culturally for us … Many many social barriers. I feel like she has crossed oceans in the ways that she’s been willing to allow me to reach her and for her to reach me. So Joy Harjo.
I was actually sort of weighing this for a second. But I think Assata Shakur and I think because of the level of sacrifice that she gave. It is one thing to mother a child and one thing to mother a revolution and to make the level of sacrifice that you cannot even be with your child for a good part of their lives
My grandmother, Elsie [inaudible 00:08:33] because she was so fierce and she was my first babysitter
I think for me it’s a woman who has some [inaudible 00:10:08], a woman named Carmen Rubio who is a Lower-East Side housing activist, squatter, tenant’s right organizer … And when my daughter was first born, kind of took us both under her wing and showed us what revolutionary mothering could be from someone who made a deliberate choice to never have her own children, but was involved in my daughter’s life, was involved in the life of so many children in her building, in her neighborhood … It started a community garden specifically for children … And this idea that mothering isn’t just biological, but that it could be part of the community.
Y’all are so brilliant. I love that we have people who have helped mother literary movements, you have mother political movements who have mothered us and who have mothered along side of us … I think that that’s really beautiful. And one of the things I know that one of our intention was explicitly with this book is to make some of those actions that … They may be in the home, they may be in movements that information about them is suppressed [inaudible 00:11:09], they may be in writing letters to other authors, mentoring other authors, and they may be in the archive … Joy Harjo is someone you see writing letters of encouragement to other woman writers of color over and over again. And that’s a form of mothering, but only those writers see it and then the nosy people go in the archive for that stuff.
Another story … one of the things we wanted to make visible with the book is … Well what would the impact on the world be if the implications of those actions that are often known about only by the few people, even though it saves those people’s lives … What if those were known on a larger scale. And what would we say witnessing those actions from the inside of those actions on a greater scale. So the next question I wanted to as you all is if you knew everyone in the world was going to be impacted by something you know is true about revolutionary mothering, what would you want them to know. And don’t worry, you can tell them again. But if you knew that everybody was listening … Let’s imagine that they are. What would you say that they should know about the fate of the planet, on the scale of our species, about the implications of revolutionary mothering.
I think I would say that … And I think that I’ve said it before, I think it’s tattooed to me the amount of times I’ve said it … Is that we are not the ones destroying the Earth. I think that to me is … I think that there’s a lot of… I mean you can talk about the 1980s with Ronald Reagan, you can talk about the welfare mothers, immigrant mothers, you can talk about how poor mothers are always the ones who are castigated, and there children of course because all they can do is give birth to quote on quote “more problems” that they are also blamed for. Everything from the economic crisis to the environmental degradation … I always want to be like we are not the ones who are destroying this Earth.
You know the 2008 Wall Street crash did not happen because of mothers. We are not the one’s who have been pumping poisons into the Earth for the last 150 years. Especially, we are the ones standing on the front lines, we are the ones who are the most impacted by these horrible decisions, we are the ones who are actually at the first place for having to deal with it. You know these are the reasons that black women have an infant and maternal mortality rate that’s somewhere between 2 to 4 times higher than other people in the country. We are not the ones who are destroying the Earth, we are the ones who one, are the most impacted and we are two, the ones who are creating the systems and communities and the ecologies that are actually going to save this Earth if anything is going to.
So if I can say that, if I can just get that into everybody else’s head to trust mothers and to trust us build communities and stop blaming us and punishing us and taking away resources from us to be able to do really basic life-giving work. I think that would be excellent.
Yes it would. Awesome. Other folks, what would you say?
What would you say, Vicky?
I would agree with China that it’s not revolutionary mothering. It’s not biological so we need to recognize it. It happens all over. It’s crucial. It’s doable. You don’t have to say, “Well, I’m not a mother” or “I’m not a parent” or “I don’t have children.” It’s something that anyone can do and it’s this revolutionary act of being in community and being a part of a community. It’s not an isolated nuclear family instance that some people supposedly choose to be a part of and some people choose not to be.
Yeah. What would you add, Cynthia?
Kind of building off of everyone, I think there is no movement without mothering. I think that it’s really, really important for organizers, for thinkers, for scholars, for cultural workers struggling for change in this country, in the world, to really recognize that we need the buy-in and we need the centrality of people who are caregivers and it’s not an option, actually, because you cannot sustain your movement without that practice, without that expertise, and without people training other folks inside of the movement to become proficient at mothering. To be able to do that with each other and to kind of … It really is the practice of continuing. Transformation doesn’t happen … It doesn’t happen like that. Like we wish. But it doesn’t. This reiterative way. It happens in kind of the mundane repetitions. It actually doesn’t happen in the giant eruptions.
Those giant eruptions can signal that there are major issues at stake, major rifts at stake, but how we actually pivot from that is in daily practice and that is nowhere better embedded and better established than in mothering practice. I feel like it is imperative for movements to really take that seriously. You won’t exist without mothers.
Absolutely. Those people who are going to make t-shirts to fundraise for the revolutionary mothering tour, we are not the ones destroying the planet, we are everywhere, we are everyone, there’s no movement without mothers. Those are all great t-shirt ideas. I’m just letting whoever is watching know that.
The last question I was going to ask actually draws on what you were saying, Cynthia, about those intimate mundane moments where this revolutionary work is always happening. I just wanted to ask if y’all would be generous enough to share something that you’ve learned in the intimate space of mothering your children. Something that your child has taught you recently that is transforming the way that you think now. Could we start with you, Vicky?
My daughter is now 15. What I’ve learned over and over and over is that even though she’s a teenager, which means she’s developing her own personality and she is her own person, every thing that we’ve done together has been like … Has built a foundation. Like, for the things she believes, the way that she acts, the way that she reacts to injustice, and it may not necessarily always be what I would do, in my very correct, political way, but I can see the ways in which she has taken in those values and how she acts upon them.
Cynthia, what’s something that you’ve learned recently?
Something I’ve learned recently from my son who is … He’s turning 13 this year. I’m very proud of him. He wants to be a musician. Very recently he successfully crowd-funded nearly $1500 in order to purchase a mellophone, which is, essentially, a French horn for marching band, because we couldn’t afford it. What I learned from him, watching him in the past few years is … I think in particular mothers have been so deeply conditioned to not want things, right? To feel like when we want things it’s wrong or it’s indulgent. I learned from him that we should want things, that we should follow our passion, that we should involve other people in the pursuit of that passion and that we should take pride in the things that we are passionate about. That seems so simple but it was a very difficult lesson to learn.
I was a young mom. I had my son when I was 17. The messaging that I heard from all around me, I had to hide my pregnancy the whole time I was pregnant, was be ashamed of who you are. Be ashamed of … I still have questions and worries about showing up at public events for my son because it’s … You’re always like, “Really? He’s your son?” I don’t know. “How old were you when you had him?” That’s always the first question that happens. After you answer that question all of the judgments that come after, right?
I think he has been so open and brave about who he is and I’m taking notes. I’m taking notes on being strategic and naming the things that you want because that’s something I’ve seen from him that at every stage of his life he’ll be like, “These are my goals now. These are my goals now. This is the person I want to be.” He’s always identified that. It took me a long time to answer the question, what do I want?<
Right. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Beautiful.
I think … I mean, I already said you all are brilliant but you can never say it too many times. I think that there are going to be a lot of people watching this who are getting affirmation from what you’ve shared already. Certainly, from what you’ve shared in the book about their revolutionary mothering work and whether that work is showing up, or those revolutionary mothering actions are showing up in organizations or in their families or really with their work to re-mother themselves and to think about how that could operate revolutionary. I think a lot of people are going to identify with some of the things that you’ve shared. I wanted to ask you to speak …
We are still speaking to each other but if you could offer a one-sentence affirmation for somebody who might be watching this who might want affirmation to take them through, something they could put on their mirror, and see themselves through that affirmation as opposed to through the different judgments that we talked about, through the oppressive narratives that we talked about earlier. Something to displace that. What would you say to that? To one person. One person who is wanting to sustain their revolutionary mothering work.
that you are perfect. That’s the ultimate mothering, the ultimate look of love,
Yeah. Yeah. Beautiful. Thank you for that. What would you say, Cynthia?
I would say when you think you are empty, you are not.
Yes. What about you, Mai’a? What would you say as an affirmation?
I think I already said it. I think I said I would get it tattoed which is we are just not the ones destroying the Earth.
What about you, Vicky? What would you say as an affirmation?
What you’re doing, no matter how small it seems, is actually really important.
Thank you all so much for your generosity, for your brilliance, for transforming every positive and negative experience that you’ve had into wisdom that is shareable in the form of this moment, this show, but also in the form of the book and if folks want to find out more about Revolutionary Mothering you can go to This Bridge Called My Baby dot wordpress dot com. See where we’re going to be on our national tour and find out more about the book itself. You can also see more at Laura Flanders dot com.
For Ebony Wilkerson
a black mother who drove herself
and her children into the Atlantic Ocean
saying she was taking them all to a better place.
how can I protect them
says the pregnant mother
three children behind her
brown as ever
right handed lever
we will be okay
as long as we’re together
she drives out of town
and then drives to her sister
to dodge all the demons
that twist her and twist her
the people could fly
not in a Honda Odyssey
but she had to try
and as soon as the rubber
sank into the surf
all the ghosts grabbed the wheels
and the sea floor scattered
the large and smaller bones
of all those other mothers
who didn’t swim
and their kin
is the walk on water gene
repressed by the stresses
of modern minivan life
a passed on secret
activated by a serums
in the heat of the blood
of abused wives
and what is the crazy part
to believe the weight of metal and plastic can float
to remember what it feels like
to be shackled in a boat
or to think there is a better place
some way to get back
when we’re lost
mom is crazy
they tell the police
she’s trying to kill us
have you ever felt that?
the most scared I’ve ever been in my life
is in the back seat
of an SUV driven by my mother in rage
I have known
she could kill us all
with the same thick wild determination
she used to get us here
all this huge car metal
and no way to escape
the hurricane cycles of abuse
the repeated betrayals
single mother broke breadcrumbs
breed real demons
that are not us
and they don’t stop screaming
it’s just that most days
something else is louder
call it love
have you ever seen a woman drive
like capitalism is chasing her
off the edge of herself
kids in the back
purse in the front seat
and I am a pretty strong swimmer
i was in a car
when i first heard your name
nowhere near the beach
and i had to pull over
how many women have wanted to take their jewelry off
dive back in
take their children with them
to where everything
is eventually warm enough
to save us
if you listen
the ocean has to say
how can you stand it
how can you stay
wet dark places
that held us
when we were ready
gut brave enough
to breathe a different way
Ebony you almost made it
but your body brought you back
and the tourists saved the children
and now you are just as black
and wearing orange
in gray rooms where they test your pee
for the alcohol level of cough medicine
is someone sending you books
by Toni Morrison
by Kate Chopin
Ebony you are not the only woman
crazy enough to remember
that some days we just cannot
we cannot live here
we cannot give our babies
to this world that eats our bones
like centuries of salt
and I am sending love
to the South Carolina centuries
that protected the part of you
that hears the ocean
and believes there has to be a better place
even if neither of us can see it
from here right now
and to your babies
they will one day
understand Host: Thank you all so much for your generosity, for your brilliance, for transforming every positive and negative experience that you’ve had into wisdom that is shareable in the form of this moment, this show, but also in the form of the book and if folks want to find out more about Revolutionary Mothering you can go to This Bridge Called My Baby dot wordpress dot com. See where we’re going to be on our national tour and find out more about the book itself. You can also see more at Laura Flanders dot com.