Editor’s note: This essay is part of our two-week blog series, featuring eight autoethnographies from students at Brooklyn College. Read the introduction to the series here, written by Professors Jeanne Theoharis, Joseph Entin, and Dominick Braswell. Follow this link to read all the essays in the series.
“No one knows what is next. You are a mother, you must be strong.”- My mother, Nereida Serrano- Gonzalez
On March 13th, 2020 I wanted to be filled with unshakable strength, the strength my mother raised me with. On that day I could not find the fire or the fearlessness I associated with her. The day my college classes were officially and indefinitely canceled due to the approaching COVID-19 fears and very real cases, I picked up my child from the on-campus daycare and was faced with a threat against our collective safety and the familiar structure we had set up to keep sane. I was filled with questions I couldn’t answer: How would I juggle online classes with a curious and still nursing toddler? How could I continue the research that I had dedicated sleepless nights and a growing amount of passion to? How much would our lives change? Despite the fears that eventually materialized into obstacles, we continued. As Black mothers do, I continued.
I live in Brownsville with my son Salem, his father, and our fat cat. When the pandemic kicked into full gear and ravaged New York, the idea of home became intertwined with fear and restriction. The way we organized time and physical space dictated our very tight schedule could no longer apply in our incredibly small apartment and four very big personalities. At first we threw ourselves into projects to not lose ourselves to anxiety as the cases in the city continued to skyrocket and makeshift morgues were built outside of hospitals.
I continued to work as a community outreach at my much-loved job, all of my classes were online and I was juggling a then thirteen-month-old who had just discovered just how fast he could run. I didn’t have enough time. I had decided to cut my son off from nursing cold turkey to catch any spare time I could.
It was when a toddler beat me in a battle of wills that I finally allowed the lockdowns to be a site of resistance. Reclaiming time. Time I had not had before with my son while I was off finishing my degree and working on a career in research. It began to be a powerful way to understand and cope with my family’s indefinite change.
Breastfeeding particularly became a form of resistance. Taking time to nourish my child from my body became a way I opposed a system that continues to scrutinize Black mothers for their “failure” to breastfeed, an act enslaved mothers were prohibited from doing in order to nourish their master’s child.
Even while I was pregnant, I purposefully and consciously fed my child through my own diet. I avoided what Dani McClain calls “processed, poisoned and packaged.” This itself is revolutionary and has become a form of radical mothering, as well as reclamation of diet that has largely been denied to us and our children through food desserts, food insecurity and inaccessibility.
A great deal of my day was dedicated to preparing, and cooking meals with my own two hands that were not only appealing to a toddler, but were actually benefiting him. These meals soon became a gesture of love and resistance. I began to share them with loved ones. We created an unspoken system of passing around resources such as E.B.T and cash for ingredients I would use to cook for friends that would safely join us for meals, meeting financial and food insecurities that hit close to home.
Other community places of refuge that met hunger proved to be matrilineal in nature. I began volunteering and helping the volunteers meet the priority of the garden’s coordinator, which was to feed the elderly and the immuno-compromised. While pruning and harvesting, the coordinator, Ms. Graves, a mother herself, would tell us all folktales the way my mother told me when I was a child and hand us herbs that would support our respiratory systems. I believe in order to understand ourselves as mothers, particularly as Black mothers, we must begin by “decoloniz[ing] our relationship to the earth and other living beings,” as Cynthia Dewi Oka says. This includes understanding where the food we serve our children comes from and continuing sustainable practices that might help to ensure their futures. The community garden became a place where resistance came from communal labor. It became a place where I found intangible sustenance, while harvesting food that filled the homes of the vulnerable and my own home.
As powerful as Black motherhood can be, it can also serve as detrimental to these identities. Jasmaine Brathwaite, first generation Bajan scholar and Godmother to my son, spoke to me about this tender duality. “I think it’s interesting that you find your experience as a Black mother as healing to yourself, when I am still healing from my own trauma with my Black mother.”
Women have the capability of becoming vessels of oppression towards their own children, embodying the patriarchy as well as white supremacist ideology. When Jasmaine discusses her childhood experiences, I am reminded of my own traumatic experiences with my mother. I am convinced my mother, a fair skinned Puerto Rican woman who adopted me as an infant, did not understand how to raise her daughter in a Black-affirming way. My mother did her best, raising seven children, six of whom were adopted, and loved us as her own.
She raised me to be strong, value education and to be a fierce mother. While I was young, I didn’t understand physical abuse as discipline, nor did it make me want to reform those behaviors. My only understanding of a Black mother figure close to me was my paternal grandmother down south who would use the bible as a way to justify a beatin’ in the name of the name of the lord and respectability.
Jas and I shared these battle stories, tales of belts and flat hands that were ready to introduce a Black girl to the control or even abuse she would become familiar with sooner or later in a world that requires her to defend her humanity as someone that is both Black and a woman.
I learned the true meaning of patience once isolated in a one bedroom apartment with my rambunctious son, who almost immediately after learning how to walk discovered he could climb each surface in our home and those he couldn’t climb he could use the very tips of his toes to snag whatever he could find. Even so, I made the decision not to discipline my child through violence putting an end to my own cycle of intergenerational trauma and trauma bonding, my attempt at transgressing against a framework of childhood created by an oppressive dominant ideology that Black children must be presentable or beat into submission, that Black children must live in fear, that Black children are not children at all – and should not receive the benefit of a mistake.
Throughout the diaspora Black mothers, grandmothers and our “other mothers” are the backbone of our communities, ultimately becoming radical protestors against the conditions which their children are the innocent victims of. In the words of Dani McClain, “Imagine what we could do if we actually were on fertile soil and not in a desert.” In order to cope with the system of slavery and our modern capitalist system, Black women have turned to a communal solution that rejects the neglect of our children economic systems of white supremacy requires. Our children are often left in the care of others or we ourselves are taken under the wing of other Black aunties, grandmamas, and mothers who guide and nurture us. There were times and there will be times that I will be bouncing a crying child on my hip, delivering an academic presentation, while stirring dinner. Jasmaine and Mia Walker were women who would walk into my home, take my child from my hip and finish dinner. Salem’s Godmothers truly mother Salem and are willing to put in labor and care for a son that they love but did not birth. This is revolutionary itself. Passed down as a survival mechanism, it becomes a dynamic form of kinship that provides children with guidance and love.
Motherhood through COVID-19 as a Black woman revealed a duality of softness and strength to an extent I did not know I was capable of, but now know is in my blood. It’s ancestral- this determination, this fierce resistance. Throughout our experiences together, my son and I have laughed and broke bread at tables filled with love – despite a pandemic amplifying the sometimes harsh reality of our identities- we loved and we continued joyously. It’s this Black, resilient joy that we experience- despite suffering, that we raise our children to know that is radical.