Skip to main content

As the crowd around me roared, 'no justice, no peace, no racist police', I watched my son as he engaged in social protest. He is an absolutely beautiful young man, tall with broad shoulders and a smile that melts my heart. I am his mother and I love him dearly. My palms sweat and my face was tense as I watched. I wondered if my son was at the line of civil disobedience or had he already crossed it. I know he has the right to protest what he sees as injustice. In fact, for twenty years I have taught, in both my professorial and private role as mother, that it is our duty to do what we can to create a just society.

Black Family Matters

Black Family Matters: Resistance and Mothering in the Face of Racism—Angela James

Black Family Matters

Mamie Till

I have been steadfast in my assertion that to ignore injustice is to further inflict it, that to be complacent is to be complicit, that we inherit, along with life’s pleasures, the obligation to insure justice for all. However, I am this boy’s mother…he is NOT a boy, but a young man. I am afraid for my beautiful son, my man-child. I am acutely aware that Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland have mothers that thought them beautiful and whom now, mourn them. My pride in my 17-year-old son is mixed with fear.

In 1955, a fourteen-year-old boy was brutally murdered in Mississippi. Emmett Till, like many young African American boys today, lived with his mother in a single-parent household. Mamie Till, anguished at the loss of her only child, nevertheless decided upon an open casket to make sure the world knew what happened to her son. African Americans across the country were outraged, in part because of the tireless advocacy of Mamie Till. Many scholars, myself included, believe the choice to make public and lay bare the horrors of the murder and the later acquittal of the men responsible for it, was pivotal in launching the beginning of The Civil Rights Movement.

In April 27th 2015, in a video of rioting in Baltimore broadcast on the news and shared widely on social media, a woman can be seen slapping and yelling at her son. According to witnesses, her son had been a part of a crowd of youth that had exploded in angry response to a gruesome tragedy involving the death of a young black man named Freddie Gray. Many proclaimed this unnamed woman, “Mom of the Year” for acting to quell his unruly behavior. Media stories and interviews with ‘Baltimore mom’ generally deemed her actions as necessary to keep the city, and to keep her son, safe.

My response, the actions of Mamie Till, and the woman in the video represent the weight of black motherhood. In Baltimore approximately 62% of black families with children live in households with an unmarried mother. Many of those mothers are raising those children with little economic resources, and in very difficult circumstances.

It is worth remembering that the actions of Mamie Till, an unmarried mother, did not immediately get accolades from outside of the Black community, but nevertheless ushered in a new era in race relations. Then, as now, women like Baltimore mom, Mamie Till, and myself, are portrayed as emblematic of “THE REAL” problem besetting black communities. Like Mamie Till, I am divorced from my son’s father. Although the fact that his father and I continue to co-parent our children despite the change in our marital status, and that I am a professor with an advanced degree, we are part of the statistics that would be described by “The Moynihan Report” as being at the center of “a tangle of pathology.”

Black Family Matters

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of "The Moynihan Report"

The Moynihan report, written 50 years ago to buttress Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty,’ is among the most famous pieces of social scientific analysis created to date. In my twenty years of research of African American families, I have yet to see policy or research on black family that fails to reference that report.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

However, the Moynihan report has a complex legacy. While it cogently assessed the connection between the constraining impacts of discrimination on the intimate relationships options available to men and women, it also imposed a biased and limiting meaning on data regarding marriage fragility among African Americans. Both the Moynihan Report and popular opinion generally place single-black motherhood at the top of the list of self-inflicted harms, often right beside discussions of “black-on-black crime” and the need for education.

In the Moynihan Report the causal lever was explicated, Black women’s strength was thought to emasculate the men in the community resulting in criminality and a host of other pathologies among them. Most often in public discourse today the harms of black, single-mother families are presumed, but are left unarticulated.

The importance of the Moynihan Report is hard to overstate. It was absolutely pivotal in setting the stage for the range of contemporary social policy responses that have ‘attacked’ the problem of single motherhood by punishing single mothers. Public policy in the last 50 years has moved away from attacking the problem of poverty and towards simply attacking the poor as if they are the problem.

Post-Civil Rights Movement changes in welfare policy, along with “War on Drugs,” are key components in the emergence of what law professor and author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.” In Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Los Angeles, as well as in urban Black communities everywhere the impact of the ‘New Jim Crow’ has been deeply felt. The high numbers of community residents incarcerated in prisons all over the country, and therefore, absent from families and communities, has been devastating to community well being. I am not sure what neighborhood the mother and son in the video were from, but her response certainly seemed emblematic of the toxic circumstances brought on by the criminalization of entire communities.

Public policy in the last 50 years has moved away from attacking the problem of poverty and towards simply attacking the poor as if they are the problem.

In 2015, as was the case in 1965 and 1955 before that, single motherhood continues to be associated with poverty and inequality, as well as with cultural arguments about the problems observed in urban black communities. Simply put, race continues to influence how most people in society think about the links between marriage, childbearing, and the host of structural problems confronting African American communities.

Oddly, even as increasingly many people have begun to interrogate the collateral costs of the ‘War on Drugs,’ and American families have become far more diverse, interrogations of the logic of ‘family dysfunction’ as the cause of black people’s major problem continues to be few and far between.

Even President Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, and himself a product of a single mother, began several initiatives promoting “responsible fatherhood” as a primary strategy for building “strong communities.”

The story of the Baltimore mom has quickly faded from the limelight and according to recent news accounts, she has not been able to capitalize from her actions to ‘protect her son.’ I am certain the lack of a movie deal stems from the fact that Baltimore mom embodies the contradictory narratives regarding black families, and therefore exposes their illogic. Although the act of beating her rioting teenaged son, as he stood enraged at the injustice of another mother’s son’s tragic death, initially resulted in her being proclaimed virtual ‘mother of the year,’ the image was too complex for it to sustain much interest. After all, it is difficult to simultaneously put forth claims of the ‘emasculating impact’ of strong Black mothers on their sons AND to demand for mothers to do just that.

Americans of every race continue to decry the “deterioration” of urban black communities as being directly linked to family behavior, and lament the tragic impact of the loss of ‘traditional family values,’ however, it is important for those who value social justice to recall that it was the activism of an unmarried mother who refused to allow the pathology of racism to go unnoticed helped to spark the Civil Rights Movement.

As I stood and watched my son as he impolitely asserted that ‘Black Lives Matter’ in an uncivil protest for HUMAN rights that night, I saw myself joining with my son and countless other mothers, fathers, stepfathers, siblings, cousins and play-cousins, to stand together and demand meaningful political response to halt injustice and police abuses.

I stood watching with fear, but also pride in my son’s unapologetic personhood. I later sent a text to my ex-husband to assure him of our child’s safety because black families, whatever their configuration, really matter.

angela james

Angela James