Black Motherhood and the Limits of Empathy

Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955 in Chicago (AP Photo/Chicago Sun-Times)

Although it has been months since the controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket,” which depicted Emmett Till’s mutilated face after his gruesome murder in 1955 by two white men, the discomfort the painting evoked still lingers. I was confused by the piece and was puzzled by Schutz’s justification that she engaged with the “image through empathy with Till’s mother.” According to Schutz, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother.”

As a historian of Black motherhood, my first response was indeed, Schutz does not know what it means to be Black in America. And even though she knows what it is like to be a mother, she does not know what it is like to be a Black mother. I recounted scholarly debates about motherhood as an institution that has many tenets that are universalizable and universalized, and more specifically, the ways in which “some of the private pains” women experience as mothers are shared regardless of race, color, class, age, culture, time, etc. From concerns and grief felt over an ill child or a child’s death, to cultural and social forces that dictate appropriate ways mothers should respond to what happens to their children, mothers have certain broad experiences and mandates in common. Black and white mothers lose their children but the circumstances of Black children’s death are not the same and neither are the expectations on what maternal grief should look like.

My concern extended to how Schutz’s empathy overshadowed Black mothers’ fear, sorrow, and grief and the singularly horrific circumstances under which Black children are killed. It felt dangerous to limit our responses to the suffering of others based on our own “lived experiences.” While hunger is familiar to everyone, Primo Levi, recalling his experiences of the Holocaust, for example, cautions, the hunger experienced in Auschwitz is incomparable to “the hunger of someone who has skipped a meal.” By responding to the experiences of others by likening them to our own, we limit our understanding of the world and perceptions of others. We must therefore go against our nature, against our natural inclination toward empathy based on what we would do if this were to happen to us. Moving beyond empathizing with Till’s mother based on our own maternity is unnatural. However, this is what history as a discipline requires of us. Historical thinking, Professor Sam Wineburg reminds us, is an unnatural act, and it requires us to “go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life” to understand the world of others on their own terms.

Dana Schutz, Open Casket (2016). Oil on canvas. Collection of the artist; courtesy Petzel, New York.

As a historian reacting to Open Casket, I pondered at Schutz’s choice to replicate the image of Till lying in the coffin. Why did she opt against the photograph of Mamie Till-Mobley agonizing over her son’s coffin? Schutz justifies Open Casket as being spurred by maternal kinship with Till-Mobley. Yet the grieving mother over her disfigured son would align more closely with capturing maternal grief. By choosing to paint Emmet Till, Till stood in as substitute for Schutz’s imagined child and in the process also accomplishes “erasure by substitution.” By depicting Till as a dead child that stirs all mothers to empathy, Open Casket alters the peculiarities of the torture and murder of Emmett Till. It sidesteps the question of what maternal love and maternal grief mean under different circumstances.

The invisibility of Till-Mobley in the painting further erases the impact of Till’s slaying on Black motherhood. Is it the murdered child that Schutz empathizes with, or the grieving mother? In Open Casket, Black death becomes spectacle and the horror of Till’s death confront the viewer, obscuring Black maternal mourning and maternal grief. The alternative of painting the image of Emmet Till’s mangled face side-by-side with a grieving Mamie Till-Mobley leaning over her son’s coffin in agony would force the viewer to confront both the dead son and grieving mother if not redirect viewing mothers’ full attention to Till-Mobley’s grief.

Historical inquiry begins with the familiar but mature historical thinking takes us to the unfamiliar. For Schutz what was familiar was the grief mothers likely feel when they lose their children, leaving Black maternal grief as unchartered territory. Open Casket confirms Schutz’s empathetic grief as a mother, but what new understandings do we gain about maternal grief when viewed through the racially violent losses of Black mothers, like Mamie Till-Mobley? Can “the lynching of a black child [stand in] as an expression of universal grief?

For some scholars, the image of Mamie Till-Mobley standing over her son’s coffin was more iconic than the image of Till’s battered face because it was the first of its kind to capture publicly Black grieving mothers.  The image of a grief stricken Till-Mobley ruptured the illegibility of Black maternal grief in the historical record and popular culture. White supremacy exercised its violence not just in terms of physical brutality like murdering Black children, but also in insidious ways like denying emotional ties between Black mothers and their children. Legal principles that underwrote slavery like partus sequitur ventrem – offspring follows belly –enabled slaveholders to disrupt and break apart Black families. The unthinking and continuous removal of children from their parents’ care that limit parent-child emotional bonds denied trauma that forceful and violent separation could elicit. Popular culture stereotypes of Black women as always in a state of anger, aggrieved by one thing or another, Sapphire, further nullifies the legitimacy of Black women’s emotional expressions.

The historical narrative has also been silent on Black maternal grief. Historians exploring Black motherhood during enslavement overwhelming focus on the heroism of enslaved women whose “unbending defiance” confronts the power their enslavers exerted over them. Adopting various strategies to control their fertility and to protect their children, enslaved mothers were ferocious and resilient in their resistance. But the strong Black mother easily slides into the other side of the Sapphire coin.  In their unyielding resilience, there is no room for sorrow or grief, or the experience of loss. In addition to looking to the past for sheroes to confirm the strength of the enslaved, the constitution of slavery archives in service of white supremacy also erases the inner lives of Black women.  “To exceed…the constitutive limits of the archives” scholars have invented new methodologies, which in some cases simply, yet profoundly involved asking unanswerable questions to give “name to the nameless so  it can be a thought.”

Schutz and other creators of historical fiction will rightly rebut that they are not historians and thus there should be no reasonable expectation to adhere to historical methodology. Yet it is precisely because artists are not historians that more is expected. Understanding the power of artists Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Laureate insists that artists can “rememory” or create memory where there is none or where history “disremembers.” Rememory through art, Morrison insists is vital to “recovering the history of the oppressed”  who could not record their stories.  “Most American history was erasure, forgetting Europe, because this was the new country, the frontier. It was trying to forge an identity that was race-neutral.”

The experiences of motherhood as racially neutral undertones Open Casket. Yet as Beloved, Morrison’s novel inspired by the enslaved woman named Margaret Garner who chose to kill herself and her children rather than endure slavery, reveals, the horrors of Black enslavement gave very different meanings to maternal love. Beloved’s protagonist Sethe, the fictionalized Garner, confronted audiences with not just a mother’s unthinking decision to kill her child as an expression of love, but also the haunting grief in the aftermath of the killing.  Diverging from the archives, which muted, erased, and dissolved Garner, Morrison “would invent [Sethe’s] thoughts” and offered a broken and conflicted woman inhabiting the historically resilient heroine – Garner. Unlike Garner who was merely a starting point for Morrison, in Open Casket, Schutz, stuck too narrowly to the script.

What new insights does Open Casket force audiences to confront, that history, in its rigidity, fail to capture and that one’s narcissism in seeing the world through their own images fail to grasp?

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Sasha Turner

Sasha Turner is Associate Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @drsashaturner.

Comments on “Black Motherhood and the Limits of Empathy

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    It feels as though becoming a black mother in America is to join a thundering historical chorus that embodies the potential and actual loss of children to the brutality of slavery, to the barbarity of inflicted injury or death by lynching, to deprivation by unlawful incarceration, and to despondency from the deprivation of opportunity and theft of future actualization of potential by discrimination in the ongoing violence that is the prolonged American holocaust aimed at black persons by white supremacists.

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      Thanks Jennifer, your comment captures the totality of the Black Mother’s experience in the USA

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        Thank you for reading and being part of the dialogue!

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      Indeed, Jennifer. It is a long and painful history of black mothers and families losing their children to brute violence. You said it well, its a prolonged American holocaust! Thank you for reading and for your comments.

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    After reading both the critique of the painting and Ms. Ghent-Fuller’s reply, I was reminded of what I was told by one of my music mentors years ago. You cannot play what you can’t hear. So I submit that Ms. Schultz’ omission of Emmitt Till’s mother from her work could be because she couldn’t hear the wail and moan of a mother who’s lost her child to hate with no possibility of justice. The blood curdling screams of the mothers devastated by a hate filled mutilation of their loving child was a tone she could not hear.

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      Thank you for the analogy. Tone-deafness is a helpful way to think about the perils of universalizing experiences, as if race does not matter.

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