Black boys are being targeted, and those are ours … those are ours … those are ours.
I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if it was gazing into the eyes of that sweet-faced boy whose picture kept visiting my television screen and believing that the world must also feel his tenderness and feeling the need to defend this child—even posthumously. I don’t know if it was the clearly false sense of self and delusional state of the one who would steal Trayvon’s life. I don’t know if it was the hope that all of our protests—for Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Margaret Mitchell, Devin Brown, in Sanford, Oakland, New York, Los Angeles and so many other cities—would mean something, would have an impact. I don’t know if it was the faith that somehow our prayers as Black women would move the jury. We waited, daring to hope for justice, but the verdict came not as a slow, healing breath but as yet another punch to the stomach. Well into the night on July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin—the teenager that he stalked, harassed and shot dead in his gated community in Sanford, Florida.
For decades and generations our community has been abused, brutalized and murdered by a policing system that sees us as subhuman. Black people arrived to the Americas as chattel—the property of White landowners who built their fortunes on stolen Indigenous land and stolen African labor. But we never submitted to our oppression and dehumanization. We rebelled. The infamous words of Harriet Tubman to “be free or die” challenged every fiber of our being. We resisted by maintaining Indigenous cultures—most apparently in places like the Sea Islands—by taking our own freedom as runaways, by launching insurrections, and by positioning ourselves as what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “race rebels,” or perpetual resisters.
To be clear, the enslavement of Africans in America was not simply about labor exploitation. Chattel slavery actually transformed people into property by law and practice, but not simply as “human proprietary objects.” Rather, what distinguishes American slavery is what Orlando Patterson terms the “social death” of the enslaved. No feature was more illustrative of this phenomenon than natal alienation, the denial of blood and kinship ties that create ancestral linkages and familial bonds to descending generations. This meant that mothers had no legal claims to their children, which permitted the severing of families at the will of slaveholders. As Angela Davis noted, the nineteenth-century “idealization of motherhood” did not extend to slaves: “In the eyes of slaveholders, slave women were not mothers at all, they were simply instruments guaranteeing the growth of the slave labor force. They were ‘breeders’—animals, whose monetary value could be precisely calculated in terms of their ability to multiply their numbers.”
The narrative of Black women as breeders did not end in 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, or in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The construction of Black women with children as something less than mothers is still deeply entrenched in the larger social order. Most clearly outlined in Ange-Marie Hancock’s seminal work, The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen, the relegation of Black women to dehumanized breeder status is embedded in the “welfare queen” moniker assigned to those whose primary traits are assumed to be “hyperfertility and laziness.” I would argue that such identities are not only imposed on Black women who receive welfare benefits but are extended to Black mothers as a whole.
Black women have not submitted to these imposed identities, although we are burdened with the oppressive policies and treatment that come along with them. Somehow, despite the constant assault on our identities as mothers, the constant reiteration of our dehumanized status, the brutality of state systems meant to disrupt our families and criminalize our very existence—despite all of that, we stand as people, as mothers, and as defenders of our children. And even more, our identities as such extend beyond biological boundaries, embracing the African practice of collective mothering, or what Patricia Hill Collins calls “other-mothering.”
It was this realization that hit me the hardest, I think: the depth of the problems we face as Black mothers of Black children. When Zimmerman shot Trayvon, and the policing system and the court condoned his killing, it was not simply the most egregious of assaults on Trayvon and the Martin family, but an assault on our collective son. While the personal pain and anguish felt by those who knew and loved Trayvon is more than I can begin to fathom, what Michael Dawson calls “linked fate” binds us all together as African people who share in suffering. We still live in a state that denies the humanity of Black children, of Black mothers, and of Black people. We still live under a system that sees us as socially dead, dehumanized beings with no rights—even to our own children.