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.
Black mothers know what it is to pour our hopes, dreams, prayers, love and adoration into a life that has come through our very bodies, to summon every lesson handed down by generations of foremothers, to shield him with every knowing and protection, and to be bound to his life as an extension of our own. To have our son’s body stolen from us is a shattering of our Spirit, forming a wound that will never heal. It is that universal mothering that moved us to mourn, to wail from the deepest parts of our Souls. That ancestral cry was the cry of our African mothers, whose children had been stolen by white-faced men who invaded their homelands; it was the weeping of enslaved women who were denied the sacred ties of mother and child as babies were ripped from their breasts and sold away; it was the screams of mamas who were held back and beaten as they attempted to stop lynch mobs from abducting, terrorizing and killing their adolescent sons in the most savage ways; it was the sorrow of mothers left to search for their children’s lifeless bodies in trees and rivers.
Like our foremothers, we recognize that we are in the midst of war. After the court acquitted Zimmerman, there was no time to allow ourselves to be paralyzed by trauma. Through our tears, we straightened our backs and planned our defense.
That night, as I made my way home from weekend errands, I methodically outlined what had to be done: feed my three small children—ages three, six and nine—then bathe them, put them to bed and find someone to sit with them. I arrived home and through the fog of despair I performed these perfunctory motherly duties. Now well beyond evening, I called three other mamas, who joined me at my home. We held each other for a moment, breathing in our shared pain, acknowledging the humanity that the world was trying to deny us. Then we went into defense mode. Into the streets. Into a sea of grieving mamas, a groundswell of rage and pain.
We filled and poured out of Leimert Park—our Congo Square—the cultural and political hub of Black Los Angeles. Plans and directions were whispered and then shouted, rippling through the assembly of people determined to make our despair felt beyond the psychic walls of South Los Angeles. For three days we marched—dodging police in riot gear, armed with batons, Tasers, pepper spray, beanbag guns, standard issue handguns and rifles. We jumped yellow tape, bypassing the lines of police cars parked to barricade us into our hoods. These new-millennium slave-catchers wielded their power most brutally at night. The day brought some cover; the media and non-Black allies offered a semblance of protection. A broader array of demonstrators found the risk minimal enough to be present for daytime marches, and many of us mamas brought our children.
Like our Ancestors freeing themselves from bondage, there was only one direction for us—north. Our people pressed so far north on the second night that they arrived at Hollywood and Highland, the great tourist mecca. There protesters stood audaciously, feet firmly planted on the names of the Hollywood stars whose memorials peppered the sidewalk, and yelled “No justice, no peace” and “Tray-von.” White faces panicked and New-Balanced feet froze mid-stride, unsure of what they were witnessing.
On the third day, we were led to the 10 Freeway. First a few people entered, then in an instant the thousands of Black people who had been marching down Crenshaw Boulevard poured out onto the exit ramp—young folks walking with purpose and excitement, older folks who thought they had won the battles of the Sixties and Seventies only to discover that while “strange fruit” no longer commonly hang from trees, the extrajudicial killing of Black bodies was occurring with the same regularity. The most powerful among us were our young lions, the boys—twelve, fourteen, seventeen years old—with brown faces that glistened in the sun, white t-shirts, jeans that sagged and tapered at the ankle. They had names like Jamal, Michael, even Trayvon, with eyes that squinted like his and an energy dancing between joyful boy and proud warrior.
I paused, clutching the hands of my daughters, holding tightly to the shoulder of my son. He was three years old now, no longer a baby, old enough to breathe this in. Thandiwe, my nine-year-old pulled me—“Let’s go, Mama!” she pleaded. I shook my head, placed her hand on the wall of the overpass, told her to hold on, and retrieved my vibrating phone from my purse. It was a text message that whispered simple instructions: meet at 9 p.m. at St. Elmo Village, a local community art center. It felt like a message from the Underground Railroad, just a few words that pointed the way to freedom. I shared the clandestine plan with the dozen or so “Spirit-children” of mine who were among the thousands who filled the freeway.
Shifting my gaze back down to the dancing eyes of my oldest child, I explained that we were here for Trayvon, to uplift him, to be his hedge of protection, even in death. As we stood for Trayvon, I came to understand that we also stood for my children. As we demanded justice for Trayvon, we knew that it could only be attained through justice for Thandiwe, Amara and Amen, my young ones. Justice for Trayvon would come by making the world safe for other Black children—Black boys who sometimes wear gold teeth and hoodies, Black boys who eat Skittles, watch basketball and love their brothers and fathers. This means transforming the system that seems to enlarge each time a Black body is murdered, as well as awakening our children to their own power. As I locked eyes with my daughter and declared that we were there for Trayvon, I also communicated the sacred bond that she and I shared and that we shared as a people.
But there was something even more immediate: I was to be Thandiwe’s protector, and her siblings’ protector—and that meant, for now, that we would not be entering the freeway. I turned Thandiwe away from the now-barren street. We looked toward the interstate and saw our people—thousands of them—standing in front of cars, calling Trayvon’s name, denying the movement of those who chose to close their eyes to our pain. I lifted my phone and snapped a photo in an attempt to capture the insurrection that was moving through our people, and my Soul filled.
That night we gathered, like our foremothers, like Harriet, inside the wooden, vibrantly painted structure that was the center of St. Elmo Village. I arrived later than 9 p.m.—I had once again to feed, bathe and put children to bed. As I entered the space, I was embraced by my young warriors—I’d adopted them, years and months before, taken them on as my Spirit-children and students. While the existing social structure emphasizes boundaries and individuality, I was raised in the Black mothering tradition, the African practice that positioned us all as family.
A strong-faced woman spoke—with sensuous lips, dimples that sunk deeply into her smooth brown skin, tattooed arms, and a voice raspy, powerful and deep. I’d known Patrisse Cullors loosely for years. The Ancestors had always walked with her—it was a tangible thing. She spoke of liberation and building an ongoing movement, of assigning roles and developing groups: artists, healers, social justice workers. She talked about how we had to sustain this energy and build our power if we were to truly honor Trayvon and get free. Then she led us out of the building into the warmth of the summer night. A million stars were out that night. The sky was especially dark. Dozens of us circled up, held hands and felt the magnetic energy of one another.
I was one of two mamas there. I locked eyes with the other, Shamell, and we each understood that this was for our own children and for all of us. This moment was the moment that we claimed freedom, that the Spirits of our most powerful Ancestors would inhabit us and use us in the unfinished war for our liberation. The wails that we shared on July 13th had been transformed into a roar as we repeated the final chorus of Assata Shakur’s call for resistance:
It is our duty to fight for freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love and protect one another.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
Image credits: Photo of Trayvon Martin protests in LA by Greg Lilly; interior images by LaToya Ruby Frazier, courtesy of the artist and Michel Rein, Paris/Brussels