Ending Black Mothers’ Cycles of Grief

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Illustration for article titled Ending Black Mothers’ Cycles of Grief
Photo: David Prado Perucha (Shutterstock)

I want Mother’s Day to mean that Black mothers can have joy without the ever-present fear of violence and harm.

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In April, as we marked Black Maternal Health Week, I wondered how we will tend to the emotional and mental well-being of Black mothers who cycle in and out of grief and loss. I thought about how we must also prioritize the health and dignity of Black mothers who mourn alongside their children when their innocence is washed away by waves of unrelenting anti-Black racism.

A week later, I watched a clip of Ma’Khia Bryant’s mother as she stoically told the world who her daughter was in the aftermath of Ma’Khia’s murder at the hands of Columbus, OH police. I thought about the grief she was holding and how it might grow with each day that passed without her baby in the world. I thought of all the Black mothers who grieve for their murdered children but are never given permission to do so openly, to show anger, and to be vulnerable enough to name the fear and worry that sits heavy on their hearts.

To be clear, when I say Black mothers, I include those like myself who stand as a safety net and guiding post on the periphery of raising Black children, even though I am not a biological mother. I include trans and gender-expansive parents working to create a world free from the harm that stunts the potential and joy that all of our children should be entitled to. In Black communities, mothers are a village of caregivers who nurture and love on Black children.

Racial health disparities and implicit bias in medicine mean that Black mothers are 3 times more likely to die because of pregnancy-related causes than white mothers. But how do we measure the type of slow dying that happens to Black mothers while they are still alive? The slow death that happens when our children are senselessly murdered and when their character is distorted by a white supremacist narrative that refuses to take accountability and is all too adept at blaming us for our own murders? What name do we give the intergenerational grief that we pass down, instead of the physical and emotional safety Black mothers crave for our children?

At Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), an organization I founded in 2001 to challenge gender-based violence and its impact on girls of color and gender-expansive youth in New York City, I’ve had the privilege of being in community with many young people. These young people, many of whom are Black, have led us to become the kind of organization that will shut down our office for collective grief as we did the Friday after Ma’Khia Bryant was killed.

Black women and girls experience the highest rates of homicide and gender-based violence of any group of people along with inordinate rates of police violence. Our young people have taught us that the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, Breonna Taylor, Pamela Turner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones and countless other Black women and girls at the hands of police as well as interpersonal violence cannot only be a rallying call. They have instilled in us the value of making room for the grief we hold in our bodies as Black people so we can access and draw from our wholeness when we advocate for better outcomes for Black mothers, girls and gender-expansive youth.

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Just the same, Black mothers and the village of caregivers to Black children who feel weighed down by the anticipation of losing a child—to death, incarceration, poor health, or violence—deserve better.

Last month, the Biden-Harris administration shared a proclamation that going forward April 11-17 will be Black maternal health week. The administration’s announcement came with a list of actions to strengthen health equity and address racial disparities in maternal health.

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We support the work of grassroots activists that led to the Black maternal health proclamation as well as legislation including the Momnibus Act that will address the maternal health crisis. And we need more. We require more comprehensive investments so that Black children will thrive and live long and full lives and in turn mothers of Black children will not have to deal with lifelong grief. We demand practice, policy and cultural shifts that will demonstrate that our country loves and respects Black children and families, and uphold our right to Black dignity and life.

We need a culture shift so Black girls like 17-year-old Mikayla Miller, who in April 2021 was hanged by community youth for being Black and queer, get a chance to contribute to the culture by living their full lives rather than becoming another example of why Black mothers seek justice. Recognizing that the voices of Black girls and gender expansive youth have long been unheard and are critical to us creating culture and policy shifts, we created a National Agenda for Black Girls. In deep partnership with young people we are advocating for the passage of a Black Girls Bill of Rights that will ensure Black girls and gender expansive youth have the resources, support and care they need to not only survive but thrive.

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Only when policymakers mobilize resources that demonstrate a sustained, lifelong commitment to our young people, including Black girls and gender expansive youth who often are forgotten, will they make good on proclamations for Black maternal health.

This Mother’s Day, my hope is for all of us to work towards a future where maternal health for Black mothers will also mean an end to a generational cycle of grief that starts well before our children are even born. It’s time for us to imagine and create a future where we invest in the health and well-being of Black mothers and children.

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Joanne N. Smith is a first-generation, queer, Haitian woman and New York native. She’s a co-founder of Black Girl Freedom Fund and the founder of Girls for Gender Equity, where she works to advance racial and gender equity and justice for generations yet to be born. Joanne resides in Brooklyn, NY.

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