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Black Motherhood Otherwise: A Mother's Day Reading List from Rofhiwa

I hope this reading list is useful to you. I hope it draws you to consider Black motherhood otherwise.

By Naledi Yaziyo

Mother's Day is upon us. I thought that I should put this together for you to mark the day, yes, but also to invite you to think with me about Black motherhood.

My own experience of being mothered is complicated. My late grandmother is my first love. I can say without a doubt that nobody has ever loved me as she did. My mother and I have a relationship that is prickly and fraught in ways that are reminiscent of how Black daughters everywhere speak of being loved by young mothers. Ours is a love forged in a world that cannot hold the energy of both our youths.

And so I count myself among those who have had to learn to mother themselves. I have had to learn to allow strangers to mother me at times when I have been unable to mother myself. Black women have mothered me in many ways, sometimes accompanied by betrayal and I have had to sit with the heartbreak and consider how I might love my own children in the future. How would I ensure that my love would not betray them? And of course, there is the weight that I must hold when I consider what it means to be a Black queer woman mothering. Where could I safely mother my future children when so much of the Black world is not safe for mothers who are queer?

I hope this reading list is useful to you. I hope it draws you to consider Black motherhood otherwise. 

1. The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude, Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses, & Babe: A Memoir - Alice Walker


The Chicken Chronicles evolved from Alice Walker's blog in which she details her life raising chickens. She is in turns enthralled by their beauty and fascinated by the busy rhythm of their existence. When she is away from home and thinking of her special "girls," she pens a letter so tender it might make your heart hurt:

"Dear girls," she begins, "Mommy is missing you, even while she is having a wonderful adventure..."

 2. Mother to Mother - Sindiwe Magona

"My son killed your daughter. People look at me as though I did it. The generous ones as though I made him do it."

So begins's Sindiwe Magona's Mother to Mother in which Magona imagines the letter a South African mother may have written to the American mother her son had killed. Written in the most intimate form the book enables this one mother to open about the world in which she has raised her son - under the brutal, white supremacist system of Apartheid.

The letter is addressed to the mother of Amy Biehl, a Stanford University student who was killed in South Africa in 1993, the casualty of the violence that preceded South Africa's first democratic election. The events surrounding Biehl's murder are real; a white American student on a volunteer trip abroad is caught up in the violence of a society in transition. How were these young men to distinguish her as 'a good white' in the middle of a simmering race war? The letter is not an apology but a candid account of the society that bred the violence and the limited power of a mother's love in the face of deep structural violence. 

3. Zami - A New Spelling of My Name - Audre Lorde

A full and imposing portrait of Audre Lorde's mother, Linda, is one reason to read Lorde's biomythography. Her mother, the woman Lorde names as the conduit for her lifelong love affair with the written word. Lorde's mother was never a writer but she "had a special secret relationship with words." Observing her mother; industrious, assertive and intransigent, is how Lorde first learns that a woman can be other - other than delicate. That she could do things other than "waiting at home with milk and home-baked cookies and a frilly apron."

In adulthood, Lorde defines her own maternal style - erotic motherhood, conceived against the tradition of Black motherhood as servile and persistent. Here, Lorde conjures motherhood in other registers, creative, vulnerable, sensual and always reflexive. A lesbian mother raising a Black boy, Lorde offers us language with which to speak about Black maternal love, that does not begin with maternal obligation.

4. Heavy: An American Memoir - Kiese Laymon 

How do we know our mothers? How do we make sense of their actions as we get older and get to know them and the world a little better? Keise Laymon's relationship with his mother is as heartbreaking as it is tender. Hers is a fulsome and exacting love - the way one must love a child when they are loving in a dangerous world. Because to raise a Black boy in the US is to know intimately the precariousness of life. There is also the matter of her own life that must be lived. Alice Walker said this of Laymon's mother in her review of the book:

"And what of his mother? Caught between the needs of creativity, love, mothering, pushing the race forward and surviving in a land where not one of us was safe and her desperation, fear of falling backward, dread that her only son might become another Emett Till." 

5.  Mother Tongues - Tsitsi Jaji

"Our lingering embrace," the poem that opens Jaji's third collection is a celebration of new motherhood. By the end of it, we meet Jaji's first fruit, "Our living monument, this only child." A child born between lovers who have learned "a common tongue" fortified by complete trust and abandon. Jaji offers a poem for her mother "who has done all things well" and a poem for her grandmother who has long left this earthly realm but of whom glimpses can be seen sometimes in the gait of Jaji's cat. 

"Oh spirit of my grandmother, friend of my younger self, come to me in each body you have chosen."

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