The recent controversy over Harvard University’s decision to withdraw an offer of admission to its doctoral program in history from ex-convict Michelle Jones has evoked strong criticism. Should Jones, who served 20 years in prison for the horrific murder of her 4-year-old son, be given a second chance? Arriving in the midst of much public discussion on the criminalization of blackness and mass incarceration, Jones’s rejection by Harvard has taken on a significance far beyond the particulars of her case.
Part of the controversy at the heart of Jones’s case is about our culture’s differing notions of crime and punishment: While progressives in the United States have tended to prefer reformative justice, conservatives have tended to resort to retributive justice. The difference is as old as the Bible, the “eye for an eye” dispensation of the Old Testament vs. “let him without sin cast the first stone” of the New. In Jones’s case, conservatives seem to be of the mindset that she should be penalized endlessly for a murder committed after a childhood of abuse and neglect that she then inflicted on her own son. Writing on Hot Air, John Sexton, for instance, claims that she showed “no remorse” for her crime, and argues that Harvard was therefore right to refuse her admission.
The question is not whether one should excuse or even explain Jones’s actions, which by all accounts is inexcusable. It’s rather whether forgiveness and redemption is possible: As Harvard Professor Elizabeth Kai Hinton eloquently put it, “How much do we really believe in the possibility of human redemption?” Due to America’s history of racial exclusion and exploitation, the answer appears to be: not very much, especially when it comes to one of white America’s ultimate boogeymen – the monstrous black mother.
The American tendency to view blackness itself as a criminal quality developed under the legal regimen of slavery that defined all slave runaways as fugitives from justice. In the North, free blacks also often found themselves ensnared by the criminal justice system for petty crimes. As the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison quipped in an observation that resonates even today, all Northern institutions, including educational ones, had shut their doors to African Americans “except our prison houses.”
The political economy of slavery was kept afloat by a buoyant domestic slave trade in human beings before the Civil War, which tore apart black families, separating children from parents, husbands from wives and siblings from one another. One in four black families in the older slave states was broken apart, and abolitionists seized on this inhumanity to further indict slavery. The pro-slavery response was that African Americans were in fact negligent, abusive and unfeeling parents who did not grieve for their children as much as their white counterparts: Thus was the image of the unfeeling monstrous black mother born. Black women were often portrayed as the opposite of white women, who according to Victorian gender conventions were naturally saintly, domestic, ideal wives and mothers. African American women, often victims of sexual and physical abuse, were portrayed as lascivious, sinful and indolent wives and mothers.
The famous case of the runaway slave Margaret Garner, who decapitated her 2-year-old daughter rather than see her returned to slavery, breathed life into this image. Garner had most likely been abused by her master and had tried to escape slavery with her husband, his parents and their four children. In January 1856, the group crossed the frozen Ohio river from Kentucky and found shelter with relatives, a free black family. The Garners’ relatives alerted abolitionist Levi Coffin, “president of the Underground Railroad,” of their presence to sketch out next moves. Coffin advised them to leave immediately — but before they could make their escape, federal marshals and their enslavers from Kentucky apprehended them. Margaret killed her daughter with a carving knife and was attempting to kill her other children before she was restrained. At her trial, she calmly reiterated her determination to kill all her children rather than have them grow up in slavery.
For abolitionists, Garner’s actions, though extreme, made sense. Garner’s antislavery lawyer, John Joliffe, indicted the laws of slavery that “had driven a frantic mother to murder her own child, rather than see it carried back to the seething Hell of American Slavery.” The abolitionist feminist Lucy Stone argued that Garner had a “right to deliver herself” and her children from slavery. Garner’s story inspired the black female abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper to write her most famous poem, “The Slave Mother,” and served as an inspiration for Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
In contemporaneous pro-slavery tellings, however, Garner was an unfeeling monster. In his 1856 book “Abolitionism Unveiled,” the pro-slavery writer Henry Field James argued that the “blood of infants” stained not Garner’s enslavers’ but abolitionist hands as they had “tempted” her to escape.
Jones’s crime was unquestionably an awful one, and she is no Margaret Garner: Garner’s actions were arguably defensible; Jones’s are not. She does, however, share with Garner the fate of presumed and permanent evil accorded to black mothers.
The stereotype of the monstrous black mother reappeared with a vengeance in the 1980s, when poor African American women were portrayed as drug addicted “welfare queens,” and laws to prevent them from having children were seriously debated. Indeed, back in 1996, during the debate over welfare reform, the New Republic ran its infamous cover featuring a black mother absently smoking a cigarette while feeding a bottle to her baby. The magazine’s editors urged then-President Bill Clinton to “sign the welfare bill now,” ostensibly to stop fueling the lazy, neglectful behavior depicted in the cover photo. Even today, Google’s search bar auto-populates negative suggestions about black mothers, but no such terms for white or Asian mothers. Yet as recent articles in the New Republic and the Nation make clear, the real scourge faced by black children are poverty and inadequate health care rather than delinquent mothers.
Nonetheless, our fear, mistrust and hostility toward black mothers lingers, and we remain prepared to believe the worst about them, including that they cannot change, that they are inherently bad. Whether people are capable of being forgiven and redeemed has much to do with whether we believe their acts correlate with who they truly are. And in America, we have long believed that, deep down inside, black mothers are truly monstrous, brutal and without feeling. Jones’s case gives us an opportunity to reexamine these deeply held racist beliefs. For too many black women, unlike Jones, who was courted by some of the top universities in the country, redemption can neither be earned nor given.