Son: My friends and I were stopped for going 61 mph in a 55 mph zone, frisked and had our car searched. We thought the police were going after the car of white boys in front of us going at least 70, but they stopped us instead.
Mother: It’s not the first time.
Intergenerational dialogues are key to Alice Walker’s womanist definition. This definition includes a dialogue between a mother and a daughter in which the daughter announces that she is going to Canada and taking others with her. The mother replies that she would not be the first one to make such a journey. During this Women’s History Month, I as a womanist am reminded of the dialogues that haven take place between black women and their children. These inter-generational dialogues have been fundamental to helping black children to “survive and be whole” in a world that looks down on their blackness and attempts to limit their ambitions.
To be a womanist is to continue our mother’s legacy of life-saving and life-enhancing dialogues with our children. For, whether they are the children in our homes, in our communities, in churches, or in our villages—they are our children. We are their mothers/other mothers. Womanists are mothers/othermothers of daughters and sons.
I am not only an othermother to various male children, but I am also the mother of a son. And so it is that during this woman’s history month it is the dialogues between mothers and sons that are of particular concern to me. I wonder what we as womanists are to say to our sons during a period in history when black male bodies are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white male bodies, and are four times more likely to experience the use of force during police encounters than non-black bodies. I wonder what kind of dialogue we must have with our sons in this age where a Prison Industrial Complex relies on black males bodies for its capital. I wonder what we are to hand down to our sons in this historical space when one in three of them can expect to be imprisoned in their lifetime. This is an age where about 12% of black male bodies between the ages of 20 and 30 are incarcerated. This is an age where the racial disparities in the criminal-justice system have led to 13% of black male bodies being disenfranchised. This is an age that has seen more black male bodies involved in the criminal justice than were enslaved in 1850. If it was the sexualized/eroticized black male body (as well as female body) that helped to justify and sustain the slavocracy, it is the criminalized black male body that justifies and sustains 21st century racism. What kind of dialogues are we to have with our sons in this our time? What must we as womanist mothers/othermothers tell them about being black and male?
Yes, we must tell our sons that their male body does not grant them dominating power or unjust privilege over other bodies, female or male. Yes, we must tell our sons that their masculinity is not defined by how tough, independent or unfeeling they are. Yes, we must tell our sons that patriarchal/hetero-normative constructions of “manhood” are lethal for their very souls and for our world. Yes, we must tell our sons that to be a man is to love their bodies and others’ bodies generously. Yes, we must tell our sons that to be a male is to be sensuous with whomever they choose, males or females, who also choose them. Yes, we must tell our sons the kind of truths that will make them the kinds of human beings that, as Audre Lorde said, “our daughters—born and unborn—will be pleased to live among” (Sister Outsider). And yes, we must also tell our sons the harsh realities of what it means to a black male body in a land that views them as a dangerous, threatening problem. And so we must tell our sons the stories of Emmitt Till, Rodney King, James Byrd, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo and Trayvon Martin, even as we tell them the stories of W.E.B. Dubois, Medgar Evers, James Baldwin, Thurgood Marshall, Bayard Rustin, Malcolm X, and of Barack Obama. And so what kind of dialogues are we to have with our sons in this our time?
During a speech delivered on February 27, 1833 at the African Masonic Hall in Boston, black female activist and othermother Maria Stewart said this, “History informs us that we sprung from one of the most learned nations of the whole earth, from the seat, if not the parent of science; yes, poor, despised Africa was once the resort of sages and legislators of other nations, was esteemed the school for learning, and the most illustrious men in Greece flocked thither for instruction.” On another occasion she told her audience that though “Many think, because your skins are tinged with a sable hue, that you are an inferior race of beings . . . God does not consider you as such.” Rather, God “hath formed and fashioned you in [God’s] own glorious image, and hath bestowed upon you reason and strong powers of intellect.” Maria Stewart clearly understood that if an oppressed people are going to withstand the assaults against their life and well-being then they must be equipped with the knowledge of their rich heritage and sacred humanity. And so it is that we as womanist must carry forth the message of Maria Stewart in our dialogues with our children. We must tell our sons as well as our daughters of their proud history and let them know that they are sacred creations if we are going to steel them against the industrial complexes that attempt to imperil and imprison their very bodies.
Audre Lorde said, “I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine. I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own black self” (Sister Outsider). For me, and all womanists, such a task begins with the kind of womanist dialogue that allows our male and female children “to love and resist at the same time” (Sister Outsider). And so what kind of dialogues must we as womanist have with our children? We must have the dialogues that our mothers/othermothers had with us. We must have honest, hard, and healing dialogues so that are children might live and be whole.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.