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Author discusses Black motherhood in lecture series

| Monday, November 15, 2021

The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights hosted Dr. Anna Malaika Tubbs, who spoke on her recent book “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation,” for its online lecture series “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” on Friday.

The series is designed to be “a sophisticated entry point for students, faculty, and staff ready to embrace anti-racism.” 

Dory Mitros Durham, associate director of the Klau Center and leader of the Racial Justice Initiative at the Keough School of Global Affairs, moderated the discussion with Tubbs.

Tubbs holds a master’s in multidisciplinary gender studies and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Cambridge in addition to a bachelor’s in medical anthropology from Stanford University.

“The Three Mothers” focuses on Alberta Williams King, Louise Little and Berdis Jones, the mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin, respectively. In her book, Tubbs writes about how the mothers’ work as activists mattered individually as well as how they contributed to the formation of their influential sons. 

When asked why she felt compelled to write “The Three Mothers,” Tubbs argued that the history of Black mothers was and is a key indicator for the Black community as a whole.

“You simply cannot deny the dehumanization that Black people have faced in the United States when you look at the history of Black motherhood here.”

She argued that Black mothers are the only ones who have been legally told that they “were not birthing humans but instead birthing commodities.”

Tubbs begins her book with a quote from George Floyd calling out for his mother before he died to demonstrate the importance of the stories of Alberta, Louise and Berdis.

“You can carry George Floyd’s powerful story and powerful life through this book and think about why he’s calling for his mother even though she passed away before he did,” Tubbs said. “He’s calling for the person who would protect him, who stood against that dehumanization, who would remind him of his humanity, of his right to breathe and his right to live.”

After deciding to write about the “women before the men,” as she deems these influential mothers, Tubbs ran into several obstacles in her research. Before her book, “there was nothing” about Alberta, Louise and Berdis, Tubbs said. 

Tubbs argued that this lack of information on the mothers is a “strategy of oppression.” If key civil rights movement leaders are separated from the people and activists that came before them, then they are also separated from the civil rights movements that follow.

“If you say everything rests on this one person, if that one person is taken away, the hope is that that whole movement will be taken away,” Tubbs said. 

In contrast, if we remember how Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin are “connected to people, to families … then you feel like there’s this momentum that can’t ever actually be broken.”

Though the sons of Alberta, Berdis, and Louise were paramount to the civil rights movement, Tubbs emphasized that their stories were “actually very tragic.” All three mothers lost one or more sons before they died.

“These are stories of pain,” Tubbs said. “We’re not gonna celebrate the exception of the success and fame of their sons over the pain and the loss that these families experienced.”

Instead of simply applauding the strength of these Black mothers, Tubbs suggested that we “transition that admiration into action” and focus on “how we then support Black mothers.”

For Tubbs personally, Alberta, Berdis and Louise have shaped how she plans to mother her own two children. After their model, Tubbs first emphasized making children aware of racist realities in American history, at school and at home. However, it is also important to “not be limited” by that history. One of the most important strategies that Tubbs took from the three mothers was prioritizing “finding love and finding joy and finding hope” with her children to fight against racism.

“There are lessons that we still have yet to learn from Alberta, Berdis and Louise’s lives,” Tubbs said. “They offer a path forward for our nation.”

Anyone interested in attending future “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” lectures or watching past speakers can visit the Klau Center’s website.

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