Author Q&A: Dani McClain On the Power of Black Mothering

By catherine lizette gonzalez May 10, 2019

In the summer of 2016, as she was researching the huge racial disparities in maternal mortality, author and journalist Dani McClain was in her third trimester of pregnancy with her daughter. For years, she had reported on police violence, reproductive justice and The Movement for Black Lives, but until then, she had not fully taken in the gravity of those news stories. For the first time, she tells Colorlines, she was awash with the fears and anxieties that many Black parents grapple with every day.

In her new book, “We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood,” released in April, McClain sets out to discover what it means to raise her daughter with dignity and joy in a hostile world. What she offers is a handbook for parents filled with her own personal anecdotes as a first-time parent and the stories of Black mothers who are at the forefront of the racial justice movement.

Colorlines talked to McClain about the power of Black mothering, networks of care, love and intimacy—and their importance in our fight for a world free from White supremacist violence.

What does mothering look like in the concept of this book?

I’m indebted to the book “Revolutionary Mothering” and what the co-editors of that book have done and the contributors, the many people who wrote poems and essays for that book, who are very clear that mothering is an action. It’s not necessarily a state of being. You can have someone who is not a biological parent who mothers. That person is doing the caring and nurturing work of raising up a young person. That person is engaged in mothering if they are not a mother. [It] felt important to try to bring that thinking of this idea of mothering as a verb.

Why do you say that Black mothering is an inherently political act?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was working on a story about Black maternal health. It was the summer of 2016 and I had heard the statistic about Black women being three to four times more likely than White women to die of childbirth or pregnancy-related complications. But I hadn’t heard a lot about why this was happening. What I found was that it was this issue of Black women not being listened to by their health care provider, and having symptoms that were too often ignored by people who were suffering from implicit bias and were not able to see Black women as having knowledge and awareness of their own bodies and situations. I was reading all these medical journals and talking to people who had given birth. I started talking to Black birth workers [such as] midwives, doulas and obstetricians. I was doing all this research that talked about implicit bias in healthcare settings, but also the impact of racism and White supremacy on our bodies and why our cortisol levels, or stress hormone levels, are so high. I was learning about the physiological impact of racism. This piece about the politics of Black mothering had to do with learning about maternal health and how our entry into parenthood is shaped by power and race and politics.

That was [also] the summer that Philando Castile was killed by police officers in Minnesota while his partner and his partner’s four-year-old daughter sat just inches away from him. Right around that time, Alton Sterling was killed by police in Baton Rouge. I had been covering these issues about Black liberation organizing and I never really felt personally affected by the information I was taking in. But that summer I was stressed out in a different way, frightened by news events that I hadn’t really experienced before. That was my first lesson in the kind of fear and anxiety that Black parents have to navigate in this country. Parenting in general introduces us to new levels of fear and anxiety because anyone who becomes a parent to a young child or newborn is like, “Oh, here’s this vulnerable being that I’m responsible for.” For those of us in marginalized communities, we understand that our responsibility is that much greater.

How do we keep that fear at bay to raise our children with dignity and joy?

That’s something I’m still trying to learn the answer to. My daughter is just two and a half [years old] so I have a long way to go to try to figure out what that will mean for my family. One of the things that I heard from parents was this real commitment to giving their children a sense of freedom and joy. We might be dealing with our own anxieties and fears, but there was a real commitment from the parents that I talked to, to avoid passing that anxiety onto their children. There are studies that show that Black children are often assumed to be years older than they are. When they are in school environments, for example, or in public spaces, often White adults are not thinking, oh, this is a child. We saw this with Tamir Rice being killed in a Cleveland playground. We saw the same with George Zimmerman, who killed seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin. What I heard from some of these parents is, “The world doesn’t let our children be children. I’m going to let my kid be a kid.”

The other piece that I heard from parents was a real commitment to preparing their children and being honest with them [about] the reality of what it means to be Black in this country. So teaching their children to respectfully speak back in the classroom, how to speak up for themselves, how to support classmates who might be being bullied or mistreated by a teacher or administrator. So there’s this kind of commitment to preparation that I found as well with Black parents not wanting to shelter their children too much and instead making sure that they are being real with their kids about what it means to be Black in this country.

The book is in chronological order and serves as a handbook for parents. You say that you want to imagine a future society with it, what does that future look like for you?

One of the big questions or themes in the book is around finding community that affirms Black children. In my own case, trying to find a community that will support my daughter and myself, and help her feel good about who she is in this world and learn about the world and her power in this world. There is a section in which I’m looking at the coast and these more progressive enclaves to see what would be available to us if we lived in Brooklyn or Oakland. One of the places that I land in the [book] is an exploration of Detroit institutions like Detroit Summer, which was a youth development program, really an intergenerational program, that was created by James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs and other longtime Detroiters who responded to the White flight and de-industrialization of Detroit in the ’80s and ’90s. What I realized is that, while I sometimes had idealized or made assumptions about how idyllic life in these progressive enclaves might be, really the future that I want for myself and my daughter, the present that I want for us, actually, is more akin to the kind of really rich relationships that are grounded in trust, mutual accountability and support that I’ve come to learn about over the years spending time in Detroit.

The future that I would like to see is one in which we recognize and make use of our power to make the institutions that we want for our families. Often we get discouraged from doing this because we think it has to be perfect or that we have to take it to scale. Like, immediately a citywide project or a statewide project. What I’m more curious about is how we build meaningful relationships with people who can help us create even small-scale institutions and organizing projects that help us find meaning and help us feel seen. That’s what I’d like to see more for my family. And I’m curious about places where that’s already happening.

What are some of those small ways that we create a better world?

One of the things that came up for me over and over again as I was talking to birth workers is how much pregnant people benefited from being part of just small circles of support. And I experienced this myself when I was pregnant. My partner at the time and I, we went to this birthing class where we were part of a group of other expecting parents. They would ask all these questions about what the birthing would be like and things you would experience during pregnancy. But as I interviewed other people, particularly Black birth workers, they talked about the importance of cultural congruence and Black pregnant people having access to Black caregivers who would really take the time with them with whom they could feel comfortable to ask questions or to say certain things about their family lives. I’m thinking of these small circles of support for pregnant people. That’s one way that we can show care for one another.

I’m thinking back to Detroit, the Boggs School, which is a public charter school. Julia Putnam is the principal and I interviewed her for the book. She was the first person to sign up for Detroit Summer. Now she’s an educator and a leader of this school that’s rooted in the kind of philosophy of the Boggs and carrying forward many of the values that she was immersed in as a Detroit Summer participant. So here’s a school community that’s introducing restorative justice practices and principles with children [and] figuring out ways to repair harm in ways other than punishment and harsh discipline. Those are just two examples of ways that we can show care for one another in ways that really matter.

How do networks of care subvert White notions of family and mothering?

I’m really pressing back on the use of [the] phrase “single mom” because what I found through my own experiences is that very rarely are we mothering by ourselves. Even if we’re unpartnered, we are mothering in community with other adults who care about our children and are helping us raise our children. When you say “family” it’s assumed that you mean extended family, besides the kind of worship of nuclear family being the real, or idealized version of what it means to be family. I think that’s a very foreign idea to Black folks. I really wanted to push back on this notion that our families are broken somehow because they don’t conform to this standard of the nuclear family all the time.

I also wanted to push back on this idea that having children outside of marriage leads to impoverished families. I think that’s a lie we are told. There’s not enough attention paid to families that are not built around marriage, but are still thriving in very meaningful ways. I read this incredible writing from the ’70s that Angela Davis did around what family looked like within slave communities that shows that we had to come up with creative ways to be family because, for centuries of life under slavery, of course we couldn’t trust that our biological children or our spouse, or the people that we were biologically connected to, that those people could be around us because they could be stolen away from us at any moment or killed indiscriminately. I tried to connect what I see in the contemporary U.S. to scholarship and writing that happened through the years about the history of Black families and how we got to where we are today.

How is family a way of reclaiming love and intimacy in spite of the forces of White supremacy and state-sanctioned violence?

It’s something that Black people have always had to do. If you are living within a country and a society in which there are various forces that are rupturing family bonds, undermining the integrity of your family in some way, then you have to figure out how to have real love and intimacy in spite of these external forces. [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] data shows that, despite media narratives, Black men are actually more likely than men of other races to engage in daily care activities with their children, like giving them a bath or eating a meal with them. I think that’s just proof that these expressions of love and intimacy persist despite stories that tell us that we don’t know how to love one another, and we don’t know how to take care of ourselves and each other. I think that’s really what my book is an effort to do as well. It’s to correct these false assumptions about Black family life.

I also hope that I’ve given Black parents a platform to speak honestly about their experiences. There are stories in the book of people saying, “Yeah, I actually do spank my child,” “Yeah, I actually do raise my voice at my child,” “Given the conditions under which we live, she needs to know how high the stakes are and I need to be in a position to correct her, so she doesn’t get out of line in front of the wrong people.” There are people in the book saying, “You know, I did this with my child and I don’t know in retrospect if that was the right thing for them and I decided to do something different.” The way we repair our relationships and move forward as mothers and children is talking about the ways that we messed up. I think that’s what we need as Black people: the ability to be human, to be flawed, and have intimacy, just like everybody else gets to. One of my hopes for the book is that we get this whole range of stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.