Ahead of her 92U class, Black Mothers and the Civil Rights Movement — and just in time for Mother’s Day — sociologist and author Anna Malaika Tubbs talked to us about the erasure of Black women from the history books, shedding a light on the mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin, and her new book, The Three Mothers.
Your 92U class, Black Mothers and the Civil Rights Movement, draws on the research you did for your debut book, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. What first drew you to the mothers of these three men? How did they come to your attention?
I have always been passionate about correcting the erasure of Black women. When I started my PhD I knew I wanted to bring attention to Black women who had been wrongfully forgotten. We often hear the saying that “behind every great man is a great woman,” a saying that really bothers me, because most likely in such cases that woman is right beside the man if not leading him. So I wanted to think about things differently and introduce the woman before the man. I believe mothers are some of the most underappreciated and unseen people in society and I felt it was time to honor them with the attention and credit they deserve. With all of this in mind, I dove into researching mothers of famous Black men and when I came across Alberta, Berdis, and Louise — stories that were filled with nuance, diversity, as well as similarities and intersections — I just knew I had to dive deeper and share their names with the world. Their lives offer guidance and encouragement for Black women today — they show us different ways to be women, Black women, Black mothers, activists, educators, and much more. They remind us how difficult the world can be while also showing us ways to actively change it.
How are Louise Langdon Little (the mother of Malcolm X), Alberta King (the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr.) and Berdis Baldwin (the mother of James Baldwin) essential to the civil rights movement — not just in the 1960s, but after?
At the center of The Three Mothers is a discussion of the dehumanization of all Black people. Motherhood is about creation, the giving of life, and this role becomes even more powerful in communities that are denied humane treatment on a daily basis. We as a Black community are continuing a long-fought struggle for our humanity, dignity, and worth to be recognized. This book, by focusing on Black motherhood, acknowledges that fight and shows how despite the many ways that our humanity has been denied in our nation, we have continued to find ways to humanize ourselves, give life, and move our country forward. The Three Mothers provides a perspective of a century of U.S. history through the eyes of Black mothers. Alberta King, Berdis Baldwin, and Louise Little were born within six years of each other — the first was born in the late 1890s, and the last of the three to die passed away in the late 1990s. The book is a lesson on the way history has impacted the current fight we find ourselves in from the perspective of identities we do not highlight enough. We have much to learn from the generation before our revered civil rights heroes, we have much to learn from Black women, and we have much to learn from Black mothers.
The Three Mothers goes far beyond telling the story of the relationships between these mothers and their famous sons. You seek to tell the stories of their lives on their own terms – to paint three distinct and full portraits. Why do you think no one has told these stories in such rich depth until now?
This answer will be quick. We have a general issue with not elevating women and mothers in our society. When it comes to books about historical figures, most biographies are written by white men and unfortunately they have often taken control of the narrative. I want to change that. I am determined to challenge the notion that they are our only leaders, that they are always the heroes of our stories, because this simply isn't true.
What do you think participants in Black Mothers and the Civil Rights Movement can expect to draw from your conversation with Dr. Christina Greer, a brilliant scholar in her own right? What do you hope they will take away from the experience?
The Three Mothers is, among other things, a reminder that Black women have always been leaders in movements for social change even when their leadership went unrecognized. Black women have pushed others to see the potential of the world through their eyes; seeing it as a place where they and the people they loved deserved dignity and respect, just like everyone else. In instructing others to join them in making this vision a reality, they have influenced the fabric of the nation in countless ways. Dr. Greer and I highlight this in our work and I hope audience members walk away with a deep appreciation for the role of Black women and Black mothers in our freedom movements, that we stop forgetting these stories and always keep them at the forefront of our dialogue.
The pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on Black families, with women and especially mothers bearing an even more acute burden. How have the events of the last year affected your ideas about this book?
It is yet another reminder of why this kind of work is so crucial, many people still do not fully understand how prevalent racism, sexism, and intersecting forms of oppression continue to plague our country. The pandemic highlighted the issues even further. I urge people to learn more about the histories that have led to where we are today with an honest desire to fix the systems around us so we can break away from these oppressive cycles.
Don’t miss Anna Malaika Tubbs’ 92U class Black Mothers and the Civil Rights Movement tomorrow, Monday, June 10.