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The Story of Black Motherhood and How It Shaped America

A new book makes a multi-generational examination of the origin stories of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin to understand how they were shaped and by whom – their mothers.

A mother and daughter walk hand in hand.jpg
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays - using the player below or on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsStitcher or Audible.



Last Friday, federal government employees had the day off to commemorate Juneteenth, a new federal holiday formally created the day before – some 156 years after it was first celebrated by newly emancipated Black people in Galveston, Tex. Millions of White Americans became aware of Juneteenth for the first time last year only after the racial-justice protests that followed the death of George Floyd.

Like Juneteenth, the story of which went largely untold for over a century, stories of Black motherhood have also gone untold. A new book about the mothers of the Civil Rights Movement or, more properly, the mothers of the principal players of the movement, begins to redress that historic error.

Meet Alberta, Louis and Berdis
Those players - Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin - didn’t arrive in the world destined to lead. Each was birthed by a mother whose story, until recently, had been lost to history. As part of her Ph.D. research at Cambridge University, Anna Malaika Tubbs excavated the lives of these extraordinary women – Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin – who, in raising and nourishing and shaping their sons, pushed them to greatness. Tubbs’s account, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation is a fascinating and nuanced celebration not only of these women and their contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, but to the Black mothers throughout American history who resiliently pushed back against abhorrent efforts at dehumanization that went so far as to legally declare their children as someone else’s property. Governing Editor-At-Large Clay Jenkinson recently spoke with Tubbs about her work.

Author Anna Malaika Tubbs.jpg
Anna Malaika Tubbs, Ph.D. candidate at Cambridge University and author of The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation
Anna Malaika Tubbs is an author, advocate, and scholar. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge. Anna holds a Masters in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies, also from Cambridge, and a Bachelors in Medical Anthropology from Stanford University.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The (M)others in the Room

Governing: In The Three Mothers, you quote Christine King Farris, who says of her brother, "I have to chuckle as I realize there are people who actually believe MLK just appeared . . . fully formed." As your book makes clear, these men were not born ready to change the world.

Anna Malaika Tubbs: Every year we celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday, yet few people stop to wonder who else was in the room when he was born. Why don’t we know the woman who birthed him? It's important to appreciate the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and generations past. My book is about celebrating the mothers who held and nourished these children, who took from their own talents and their own passions to help their children become changemakers in the world.

There are multiple reasons that I focus on Black motherhood. When I talk about dehumanization, current activists might insist that people aren't really treated as if they're less than human. But the reality is, yes, this is exactly how Black people have been treated. You see it very clearly in Black motherhood. Historically, we're the only group legally deemed as givers of property through our children, not as givers of life. It was written in law that our children were property for somebody else. That’s a unique relationship to motherhood.

Believing in Something Bigger (and Better)

One piece of the book speaks to why Black women have pushed so much forward in this nation. It’s because we've had to believe in something beyond what was readily available to us. We were always aware of our dignity, always aware of our worth, always aware of those things for our children and our community. We couldn't just accept what we were being told. So we push the country forward until they see things the way we do. It’s a political moment when you become a Black mother. There is something very politicizing about not only fighting for your own life, but for a life you hold dearer than your own.

Governing: An African American mother must be fraught with worry that her child won’t be able to get through life without fundamental destruction.

Anna Malaika Tubbs: This starts before life outside of the womb begins. This fear of losing our children starts immediately, which I think is a universal experience for most mothers. You've never loved something so much, and you're therefore that much more afraid of losing it. There are attacks that are so clear and so tangible against Black bodies that it becomes so much more realistic for Black parents. But I didn't want to focus solely on the fear and grief. I didn’t want to just highlight Black mothers who’d lost their child. I wanted to have a balance, to speak about our joy, about thriving, about being seen as the human beings that we are. Melissa Harris-Perry says that as Black women, we're more than conquered victims. Unfortunately, when people cast us that way, they aren't intervening and helping. There's no sense of a need for protection or resources. It's almost an accepted, inevitable burden that Black women are going to carry. And it's simply not true. That takes away from our humanity. So it's an important balance, describing the loss and the real dangers that Black women, Black children, and Black people are facing, while also acknowledging that we fought against those dangers. We don't let them control us. We have no other option but to keep fighting to change policies and to move things forward.

The Civil Rights Movement Still Pushes Forward
George Floyd mural
Photo from George Floyd Square, an area in Minneapolis that has been designated as both a memorial to George Floyd, who died a year ago today. The Floyd family and activists have used the space to bring attention to police violence against people of color, particularly African Americans.

flickr/ Cocoabiscuit
Governing: We're recording this interview during the Derek Chavin trial for the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. It's 2021 and we're still talking about things that any one of us would’ve thought would’ve been settled 50 or 70 years ago.

Anna Malaika Tubbs: That's part of the problem, that people are still surprised that this is happening. One of the problems with the US is that we don't want to confront things head-on. Every country is different, but I often use the example of the education that German students receive around the holocaust, that it was not okay, that we will not repeat this. If you talk to adults today who were educated as children in Germany, that's their mindset. In the US there's always someone who tries to sensor what actually happened. How do we expect people to learn from our past if we're not being told the truth? Another goal with the book was to say that these are real moments, real atrocities. We should know about them. If we don't know how gruesome and terrible they were, then we're not going to understand the remnants that remain. The United States is a very young country. Many don't understand that. And I'm not talking about first nation people. I'm speaking about the foundation of this democracy. When I go to Cambridge and see Founded in 1209, it feels weird. As an American you're like, how is that possible? You realize the United States is really like a teenage country. Our history is recent history. If we can't acknowledge the atrocities of recent history and how they’re connected to what's going on right now, we're not going to move forward.

The Transformation of the Black Community in America

Governing: Across our history, we keep coming to these moments and then slipping under them, getting through without resolving anything. Do you think that the George Floyd murder and its aftermath are going to be bigger than that?

Anna Malaika Tubbs: It's hard to say. If we study American history, we know this moment might not make any difference in the sense of laws and policies changing to prevent it happening again in the future. But when we consider the change that Black communities have made, it has always been transformational. Each time we've lost someone, we've continued to push for change, no matter what the decision was at the end of the trial of these murderers. We continue to keep their names alive. It's the same way we feel with Breonna Taylor, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown. Anyone who understands the humanity of the situation feels that those cases should have ended differently. So we can't rely on the trial to make the difference. But George Floyd's life did matter to us. We'll continue to push, with yet another name that we're fighting for. Hopefully, our push will work to make sure the system doesn't operate in the way that it's trying to. It's this notion that we won't be defeated, even if justice isn't served. Justice should be served in the moment, but again, there have been so many times where it wasn’t. We don't rely on the system of the United States because it has constantly told us that it sees us as less than human.

Nothing as Personal or Profound as Your Mom

Governing: How did you choose this trio of Louise, Berdis, and Alberta?

Anna Malaika Tubbs: I knew I wanted to talk about the erasure of Black women. Then I looked for a moment in history that remains crucial to us. Everyone references the Civil Rights Movement. We come back to it all the time, though it’s often spoken about from a male perspective, as if males were the only leaders. Finally, I considered roles in our society that are often overlooked and underappreciated. Mainly because of my own mom’s work, motherhood came to mind. My parents taught at different universities abroad, and my mom always advocated for women and children's rights. She always said to pay attention to how women and specifically mothers are doing in communities, because the better they were doing, the better that community will do. So I've always been aware of this very feminist notion that if give your support to women, much more will happen.

When you think Civil Rights Movement mothers, MLK and Malcolm X naturally come up. But I knew I needed a third because I didn't want it to seem like I was speaking about this juxtaposition as if they were two opposites, which they were not. I'd recently watched I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary based on James Baldwin's work. He talks about Malcolm and Martin and Medgar Evers. I looked into Berdis and quickly realized she was crucial in James’s life. I knew that I could talk about this beautiful relationship between a mother and her queer son. It worked perfectly. All three mothers were born within six years of each other, and their famous sons were born within five years of each other. That allowed me to speak about Black girlhood in the early 1900s and Black motherhood in the 1920s. They naturally came together.


The official trailer for I Am Not Your Negro, the 2016 James Baldwin documentary in which he tells the story of race in modern America.


Forming Offspring, Reforming a Nation

Governing: Baldwin's mother Berdis was a writer, and he became a writer. Malcolm X's mother Louise was a Garveyite, a Black Nationalist, the Nation of Islam. After reading your book, it becomes impossible to think of Malcolm X's life without thinking about his mother.

Anna Malaika Tubbs: Exactly. That makes their erasure seem much more intentional. Sometimes we might think erasure happens as a mistake, but when it comes to the Black women in these stories, it's intentional. It was intentional that we were not aware that Black women were behind the calculations for the space launch. That didn’t fit our opinion of who the heroes were, so we' just left it out. There was a direct connection with this book where I had to wonder how we ever thought we knew these men without clearly knowing the thread that was running through them from their moms.

Governing: What's in it for us to erase? Why wouldn't we want to know about these women?

Anna Malaika Tubbs: Racism has never benefited even racists. There's research about how much money we've lost as a country because of racism, how much more could have happened if more of our community had been educated and given the privilege of education. It's not a logical thing. But when forced to think in terms of that mindset, what would happen if we centered Black women's stories? If Black mothers mattered so much to a child's life, then we’d have to think about the system of support that should be in place.

I can expand this more universally to motherhood in general. We don't value motherhood in the United States. We don't really value parenthood. We don't mandate parental leave, leaving it up to employers to decide. Mothers are going back to work within days of giving birth to their children. We often paint things that are feminine as weak. The caretakers. We see it with essential workers who were not well protected during the pandemic. If we start to see the strength of the feminine qualities of caretaking, educating, nourishing, community-oriented organizing, it will become a completely different country. But those who currently hold the power feel they might lose something in the process.

Governing: How much can you tell to white people in this culture without straying too far beyond their comfort zone?

Anna Malaika Tubbs: It’s important to me that my book feels accessible. Having moved so many times in my life, and having a white mom and an African dad, one of my career goals is to bring people together in conversation. There's something we can gain from not only recognizing but celebrating difference, being able to admit that, yeah, this country and indeed this world have not been the same for everybody. Sometimes it may feel uncomfortable, but you're going to find that if you give it a chance, you'll find a moment where you say it’s okay to admit you don't know what it's like to walk in the shoes of a Black woman. Let yourself learn from that. When you understand the human being story, rather than data and a tagline, then you feel that, okay, maybe this is something I would be willing to support.

The World is (Still) Not the Same for Everybody

Governing: After doing all this hard work, how will you raise your son differently because of your encounter with these three women?

Anna Malaika Tubbs: That's a beautiful question. It’s important to me that my children know me and know my story and know that my role as their mother matters. And that they give me that respect and that credit not only for me to feel seen and celebrated, but because it allows them to have a better understanding of the human condition generally. Things don't just magically happen. The house isn't magically clean, and food doesn't magically appear on the table. Men and women can carry burdens together and run households together.

How do you teach another generation transformational ways of seeing the world? On one hand, it's going to be a personal. I want them to know me. I'll be vulnerable and honest with my children. It's the thing that Alberta, Berdis, and Louise did, making their children aware of what was happening in terms of racial violence. But they were also very clear in making sure their children knew that they would not be limited by that, that instead they were going to help push this country forward. There has to be a balance between saying you're going to be a part of this change and saying that you're not alone in this. It's this legacy of people from years ago. It's continuing, and we're fighting together. You're a part of the fight, but it's not all on you. And there are also going to be moments where we just get to be happy and find joy and be a family.

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.

Clay’s next book, The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota, is available through AmazonBarnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.
Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at cjenkinson@governing.com or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
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