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Black motherhood shapes leadership in unique ways

Black mothers face distinct challenges that can lead to a commitment to caring for a broad community

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Oct. 27, 2020. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, it’s worth noting the challenges that motherhood brings. Many mothers are struggling to make parenting decisions amid changing coronavirus protocols, such as assessing travel risks after a Florida federal judge struck down the mask mandate for planes and other transportation. In the United States, many mothers are fearful of the continued threat to reproductive rights for themselves and their children, given the recently leaked draft of a Supreme Court opinion on abortion.

But Black mothers, in particular, have always wrestled with difficult life choices and circumstances.

In our forthcoming book chapter in the second volume of “Distinct Identities,” Natasha McNeely and I find that Black women leaders are candid about how “Black mothering” is a unique experience, born out of their care and concern for Black children — and that it influences other decisions as well. This facet of their governing style is often unnoticed.

Black mothering as distinct

In the United States, Black parental concerns and approaches to raising a family differ from those for other racial and ethnic groups. Black mothers navigate terrains of bias that threaten their livelihoods and undermine their parenting approaches and plans. For example, they must reckon with raising a child who will need to navigate discrimination in school, law enforcement and other facets of their lives. As sociologist Dawn Marie Dow claims in “Mothering While Black,” these concerns even include the invisible labor of finding a neighborhood with supportive networks that are racially inclusive.

Black mothers face myriad challenges, including disproportionate levels of Black maternal mortality and complications in childbirth. They have been historically demonized as pathological, including being criticized for failing to create nuclear or traditional families for their children.

Furthermore, the myth that single Black mothers abuse social services led to federal policies that drastically constricted welfare and the social safety net, as political scientist Ange-Marie Hancock documented in “The Politics of Disgust. During the 1980s and 1990s, Black women were accused of producing a generation of crack babies. Any discussion of Black motherhood must reckon with crisis and Black death, as Black feminist theorist Jennifer Nash writes in “Birthing Black Mothers.

But in addition, Black mothering can forge a powerful political identity that bolsters the ability to steer the nation.

In studying the rhetorical strategies deployed by Black female mayors on the campaign trail, I find that Black mothers turn their lived experiences into political priorities as they serve in elected office. In 2022, Black female mayors lead seven of the nation’s 100 most-populous cities. Of those seven, six are mothers. So how do Black mothers govern?

Black mothering and the era of Black Lives Matter

On Oct. 16, 2017, Keisha Lance Bottoms took the stage with runoff candidate Mary Norwood at WABE’s Atlanta mayoral debate. When asked about racial profiling in Atlanta, Norwood responded by proposing and discussing the popular strategy of community policing. Bottoms instead noted that she is a mother of four African American children, three of whom are boys, saying, “This is a conversation I have, especially with my 15-year-old, very frequently: the life and death situation of racial profiling.”

The 2020 racial reckoning after George Floyd’s murder reignited conversations about state-sanctioned violence against Black adults and children. Mothers whose children had been murdered took their grief and formed the group Mothers of the Movement, which has been politically involved both nationally and locally. Similar movements have taken shape locally with the Sisterhood in Chicago; Mothers in Charge in Philadelphia; and A Mothers Cry in Indianapolis.

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother and founding member of Mothers of the Movement, said on her Instagram that after her son was killed, she was not interested in being his voice — but quickly realized she had no choice. “Now, I’m called to act and called to serve.” Fulton unsuccessfully ran for a seat as Miami-Dade county commissioner in 2020.

After D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) adopted her daughter, she said becoming a mother gave her a new perspective on public policy that informs her administration on schooling, child care and safer neighborhoods.

A similarly unique perspective could be seen in Congress when Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) pleaded to the House Oversight Committee to take seriously Black maternal health. She explained how doctors dismissed complications in her two pregnancies, so she risked losing both children — which is why she’s supporting legislation called the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act, which would collect data and invest in the health of Black birthing people.

Governing as a Black mother and mayor

In May 2020, after Bottoms took office as Atlanta’s mayor, she addressed the city in response to the protests against racial injustice by saying: “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. … And yesterday, when I heard there were rumors about violent protests in Atlanta, I did what a mother would do and I called my son and said, 'Where are you?’ I said, ‘I cannot protect you, and Black boys shouldn’t be out today.’ ” Advising protesters to “go home,” she added, “So you’re not going to out-concern me and out-care about where we are in America. I wear this each and every day.” In doing so, she leveraged her lived experience as a mother of Black sons in her relationship with the city she governed.

Like Bottoms, many Black mothers invest in the fundamental commitment to a “we,” as writer Dani McClain argues. This allegiance to community and safety is a valuable attribute for a city official, since conditions guaranteeing the safety of Black children can also support the safety of all children.

Black motherhood as a mobilizing agent

At every level of office, Black mothers are invoking their personal experiences of anti-Black violence to craft policies and legislation that advocates for the lives of birthing Black people, addresses police violence and racial profiling, and fights against the disparate treatment of Black and Brown children in schools.

Andrene Z. Wright (@_thaWRIGHTway) is a PhD candidate in political science at Northwestern University, specializing in political behavior and urban politics at the intersection of race, gender and class.

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