Black Mothers and the Lingering Wounds of Racial Violence

Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton and father Tracy Martin at the Million Hoodies Union Square protest in New York, March 2012 (David Shankbone/ Flickr)

The resulting grief and trauma that follows Black mothers whose children are victims of terrorizing acts of racial violence persist far beyond a moment, a photo, a video, or a scene. The impact of racial violence also permeates the lives of these mothers long after public interest dwindles. Properly accounting for the unbearable violence requires that we move away from the moment, toward the operative and compounding terrains that the terror inflicts on the psyches and lives of the surviving families of the victims.

In her memoir, Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered by white supremacists in Money, Mississippi, likened this experience to a sledgehammer—one that “kept slamming into [her] each time [she] would see that image of [her] son, and [she] would see that image forever.” The invisible pain she “endured living in a world” where killers had methodically “mutilated [her] baby” extended far beyond a moment trapped in time. Consistent with this, attention to these enduring wounds requires that we expand the confines of the temporal frame to include the aftermath of the “moment” in order to thoroughly account for the long-term casualties. Reckoning with the aftershocks allows for the recognition of the full force of the violence and terror enacted against the victim. Author Rob Nixon refers to this multi-layered and intangible enduring moment of injury as slow violence—“violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.”

With regards to this temporal dispersion of slow violence, Till-Mobley recalls she and members of her family were “left damaged by that nightmare.” The “unseen or imperceptible” ramification of this violence “just sits there on top of everything else you ever feel or next to everything else or between it all, elbowing everything aside when you least expect to have to face it.” For her, “it was like a perpetual nightmare” that “played back forever.” In Brothers and Keepers, novelist John Edgar Wideman references his mother’s definition of unbearable to encapsulate an enduring moment such as this. To her, unbearable describes

sometime you can’t escape. . . a burden you wake up to every morning and carry till you’re too exhausted. . . Unbearable doesn’t mean a weight that gets things over with, that crushes you once and for all, but a burden that exerts relentless pressure. . . A burden touching, flawing everything. Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne, but what must be endured forever.

Valerie Bell (mother of Sean Bell) describes this unbearable slow violence as painfully “salted and deeply rooted. . . wounds of sorrow. . . [that] time has not pardoned.” Sybrina Fulton (mother of Trayvon Martin) likens her loss to an “inconceivable tragedy” and an “indescribable pain.” Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, characterizes the impact of her son’s murder as a deep ache that is “engraved permanently in [her] heart”—a never-ending nightmare you don’t wake up from. 

In her memoir, Carr recalls that it was following a meeting with Sybrina, Lezley McSpadden (mother of Michael Brown), and other mothers who were “members of an unfortunate club” that she witnessed the extent of these lingering wounds. She wrote,

“I had been telling myself that things were going to get better and time would help to ease the pain; the horrible images would gradually fade into some area of my brain where it wasn’t the only thing I could think about. Then, after meeting the other women, I realized that was just wishful thinking. It was obvious that this was my future. I would always have this pain to deal with, just like these strong women were doing. It would never get easier.”

These mothers live with this trauma and pain for years to come. However, universalizing the experiences, grief, and suffering of Black mothers who are victims of racial violence is inadequate and can also be dangerous as the experiences of these mothers vary and are complex. Consequently, accounting for the wide-reaching effect of racial violence requires we pivot our attention to the intricacies of these mothers’ experiences and their voices. This attentive act also allows us to better recover the full personhood of the victims by moving us beyond abstract theories and descriptive-analytical frameworks constructed solely through the gaze of distant witnesses. The layered aftereffects of the racial violence they endure require that we also rethink the enduring moment of injury through their lens and the sites of rupture in their lives—as well as recognizing the limitations of these endeavors. In Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime that Changed America”, Till-Mobley shares that, even though she invited the public to witness her nightmare through the viewing of her son’s open-casket funeral that was broadcasted worldwide, it was a feeling that people didn’t seem to understand.  Till-Mobley stated, 

“The English language is so rich with contributions from so many other languages around the world, yet it was inadequate for us when we needed it the most. We just did not have the vocabulary to describe the horror we saw or the dread we felt in seeing it. Emmett’s murderers had devised a form of brutality that not only was beyond measure, it was beyond words.”

While we may never understand what these mothers feel or have all the answers, it is necessary to make an intentional effort to include their voices and desires. Isolating and trapping the horrific death of their child to the gaze and voices of distant witnesses can reduce the unbearable weight to an abstract and distant reality. For Samaria Rice, the fruition of these desires encompasses the ability to maintain “her authority over both her own voice and her son’s legacy.” McSpadden echoed these sentiments in her memoir as well. She reminds us all that though we “might know something, some snippet, some half a moment in time . . . an eighteen-second video doesn’t tell anything about eighteen years,” and ultimately, the public doesn’t know her son Michael Brown or what his life meant.  A unifying sentiment, articulated in Carr’s memoir and amongst these mothers, is that the authority to tell their own stories allows them to accord their children the respect they warrant as “people with hopes and dreams just like anyone else . . . [who] deserved to be remembered for more than just their violent ending.” 

The pain of loss and morbid long-term effect of anti-Black violence that Black women who mother Black children are subjected to is unique. A proper account of this “monstrous” ruptureto borrow Till-Mobley’s wordsand the resulting slow violence allows us to better account for the extent of their loss while also helping recover the full personhood of their children—beyond a moment

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Gloria Ashaolu

Gloria Ashaolu is a doctoral student in the Department of History at Michigan State University. In spring 2020, she graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. from the Department of History, a B.A. from the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies, and a minor certificate in Education. Her fields of interest include Black women’s history, Black intellectual history, the Black historical enterprise, and the history of Black education. Her research examines the contributions of Black female teachers in the Early Black History Movement.

Comments on “Black Mothers and the Lingering Wounds of Racial Violence

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    Powerful… painful… reality.
    Thank you, Ms. Ashaolu, for your important work, your exquisite writing and for your commitment to the documentation of truth, albeit excruciatingly brutal.

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    I very much appreciate this piece, Prof. Ashalou. Particularly it’s attention to voyeurism and thr dangerous of generalizations. Additionally, the writing captures an ethic of care and critical attunement that I likewise appreciate. I look forward to learning from you as I read more of your work.

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