Sunday, May 10 is Mother’s Day in the United States.
For weeks, florists, chain restaurants, and greeting card purveyors have been inviting us to celebrate the occasion by buying things to honor our biological, adopted, in-law, “spiritual,” or any other people we call mothers. Those who profit financially from Mother’s Day remind us to celebrate maternity and femininity — often depicted as a nurturing and caring white mother who put her life on hold to raise her babies — but day after day, I watch many mothers grieve the loss of their children to the strangleholds and bullets of police officers, and I keep coming around to the question: Which mothers count on Mother’s Day?
The origins of Mother’s Day start with 19th-century abolitionism and feminism, with white abolitionist Julia Ward Howe calling for a “Mother’s Peace Day” in the 1870s. In the first decade of the 20th century, Anna Jarvis, another white feminist, pursued a nationally recognized “Mother’s Day” to honor the sacrifices mothers made for their children — and to counter the number of holidays that lauded men’s achievements. Howe’s and Jarvis’ efforts did not go unnoticed: In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson officially designated the second Sunday in May “Mother’s Day.”
A century later, and against the backdrop of both a reproductive justice movement and a Black Lives Matter movement led predominantly by women of color — not to mention the echoes of white doctors’ forced sterilization of Black and Puerto Rican women — Mother’s Day takes on a different significance. I believe that, in addition to offering a way to reflect on the efforts of the mothers all around us, the holiday should also serve as an invitation to all, especially white antiracist allies and advocates, to bear witness to the women of color whose children have been killed at the hands of police brutality.
No federal databases compile comprehensive police use of force or arrest-related deaths and police department data is often incomplete, but it is well established that Black women and men, girls and boys, are disproportionate victims of police brutality. According to Operation Ghetto Storm, a 2013 report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, 313 Black people were killed by police, security guards, and vigilantes in 2012 alone. Mapping Police Violence, a web-based project that began in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson last July, tracked at least 304 Black people who were killed by police in 2014. And 2015 is showing no abatement of police brutality. According to the independent online database Killed by the Police, which tracks "corporate news reports of people killed by nonmilitary law enforcement officers," as of May 5th, more than 400 people have died at the hands of police officers.
Every single one of the hundreds of victims mentioned above had a mother. Take Dorothy Elliott, whose son Archie was killed by police officers in Prince George County 21 years ago. At a December 2014 rally of mothers in Washington, DC whose unarmed sons were killed by police, Elliott was unsparing in communicating the grief she deals with on a daily basis. “The pain is still there,” she told those assembled. It’s even worse when you think there was no justice.” Take Lesley McSpadden. After hearing in November 2014 that her son’s killer, officer Darren Wilson, had been cleared of all charges in the murder of her son Michael Brown, McSpadden explained that the lack of justice felt like another act of violence against her family. "…it was just like, like I had been shot,” she told the press. “Like you shoot me now — just no respect, no sympathy, nothing…This could be anybody's child." Cassandra Johnson, the mother of 37-year-old Cleveland, OH resident Tanisha Anderson, killed while in police custody in November of 2014, was blunt in her assessment of the situation after she received word that the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Anderson’s death a homicide. "That means you [the Cleveland Division of Police] killed her,” she stated at a press conference in January 2015. “That's what that means. As I said before, now I'm mad…There is a river running in me."
This never-ending and unimaginable pain endured by these women and hundreds more, like Samira Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice — shot and killed by police while playing in his Cleveland neighborhood last November — is incomprehensible to me, a white woman who chose not to have children. But it is not beyond comprehension to understand that the mothers of the many Black children who have been killed by police officers, on or off duty, are often lost in the joy and celebration of Mother’s Day. (As Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, put it in an open letter published in Time last August, “Our children are our future so whenever any of our children – black, white, brown, yellow, or red – are taken from us unnecessarily, it causes a never-ending pain that is unlike anything I could have imagined experiencing.”) Their grief is magnified not only by the loss of their children but also by the injustice of a legal system that, far more often than not, lets their children’s killers go free.
As we approach Mother’s Day, we should remember these women, and take into account that,in many ways, Black women’s motherhood has been challenged and threatened, and their maternity denied for centuries. Some may not consider them to be “mothers” any longer or think about them on Mother’s Day, but many of them, including 50 mothers who have lost kids to police brutality, will be marching in Washington DC on May 10 as part of the Million Mom March. I urge all of us to honor and uplift these mothers who deserve justice — in the courts of law, yes, but also through the privileging of ALL mothers’ right to parent that only a reproductive justice framework — a belief in the right to terminate pregnancies, the right space pregnancies through use of birth control, and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments — can bring.
Black lives matter.
Black women matter.
Black mothers matter.
Stephanie Gilmore is an award-winning educator, writer, editor, and activist. She holds a Ph.D. in comparative women's history from The Ohio State University. She is currently the editor-in-chief for Oral History Review and a member of the editorial collective for the academic journal Feminist Studies.