Op-Ed: In Honor of Black Mothers – Democratic Socialists of America

by R.L. Stephens

Marquita Stephens is my mother.

Ms. Marquita, as my childhood friends would call her, is an indomitable spirit, irrepressible in battle, so relentless that we used to call her the “junkyard dog.”

People think I get my conviction from my father—a preacher—but it’s really my mother that taught me strength, that showed me how to be fearless in my belief. Throughout my childhood my mother recited three maxims above all others: Take the Lord with you. Be the owner of the work. Learn everything you can from the white man, and then beat him over the head with it.

Ms. Marquita is Black, and proud of it. If Jeff Sessions were to meet her, she’d be at the top of the F.B.I.’s absurd “Black identity extremist” list. She is an O.G. of the Black mamas club.

Check her stats.

I spent most of my childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, but I was actually born in Kansas. I was born in Kansas because my mother refused to birth her children in Missouri, a slave state. So she travelled out of her way and into Kansas for my birth so that I would be, as she described it, “born into freedom.”

There are two things not a person alive can keep my mother away from: Black church and Black movies.

If there’s a Black movie out, she’s seeing it. She saw “Black Panther” five times in theater, and her record is the six times she saw “Think Like A Man.” Though, not even my mother’s commitment to Black folk in film was strong enough to continue to endure Tyler Perry products. As a pastor’s wife, she used her position to advance a vision of the Gospel based in gender egalitarianism with an emphasis on events and programs promoting the worth and prominence of Black women. She provided enrichment opportunities for Black children.

Where I’m from, motherhood is not defined by biology but rather by one’s commitment to community. Ms. Marquita wasn’t just my mama, she was there for all kinds of Black kids. My mother comes from a long line of Black women who supported community; her mother, Hazel, used to buy government cheese from neighborhood mothers on welfare so that these mothers could have cash and purchase what they needed. For the politically inclined like Ms. Marquita, Black motherhood birthed resistance.

My mother completely dedicated herself to the betterment of Black communities, and spent much of her career leading a Black adoption agency. The agency was among the best at successfully placing Black children with families, but my mother was troubled by the disparity in home removal rates impacting Black children.

She wanted to find ways to prevent the state from removing Black kids from homes and into the custody of child protection services. My mother founded the initiative “Community Caring for its Children,” which taught legal rights to Black folk in order to prevent the state from taking Black children. This brought her agency into direct conflict with the government, which had an interest in allowing the disproportionate removal of Black children for a number of reasons, most of which had to do with fees and funding being paid per child.

The removal and exploitation of Black children has a long and dark history stretching back to enslavement. A year ago when I wrote The Birthmark of Damnation, I used Black motherhood as the central axis anchoring the narrative of Black resistance.

Ella TownsendFannie Lou Hamer’s motherwas a sharecropper, and she carried a pistol with her in the fields, determined to protect herself and the surrounding children. One day, a white man on horseback rode into the fields. He had come to abduct a young Black girl. Ella, carrying her pistol in a lunch pail, intervened. “You don’t have no Black children and you’re not going to beat no Black children,” she told the intruder. “If you step down off that horse, I’ll go to Hell and back with you before Hell can scorch a feather.”

In Ella Townsend, I saw my mother. Ella didn’t just look after her own children, she was committed to all the children and the community as a whole. She was indomitable and irrepressible. She was the junkyard dog, but with a pistol.

As my mom sees it, Black motherhood is a battlefield. It’s not difficult to see the life and death stakes, even today. The New York Times ran a story in the spring featuring alarming data regarding the mortality rates of Black mothers in the United States:

"Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, fifteen years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel."

Last December, Erica Garner, a political leader known for activism against police racism, joined the troubling number of Black women who die within a year of giving birth. Tim Faust, one of DSA’s leading advocates of health justice, said of Garner’s death, “It is cold and bitter irony that a Black woman who spent her life studying Black maternal mortality as a result of structural racism in healthcare, independent of economic condition, died from complications of childbirth.”

Socialism must rise to this crisis, and it will. Socialism is for Black mothers.

This Mother’s Day week, I want to take a moment to honor Ms. Marquita and all the other Black mothersbiological, adoptive, and play mamaswho fight for community and for a more just world.

And since my mom is definitely reading this: Hey mom, join DSA please.

R.L. Stephens is the Editor-In-Chief of DSA Weekly and a member of the DSA National Political Committee.