Grown don't mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown? What's that suppose to mean? In my heart it don't mean a thing. From Beloved, by Toni Morrison, published 1987
Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved is based on an historical event from 1856 when an enslaved African woman decided to commit infanticide rather than allow her children to live as enslaved people. Little more than 152 years ago, on January 27th 1856, Margaret Garner and her husband, enslaved Africans, both in their early 20s thought they had a chance of escaping their enslavers. Their hopes were dashed the very next day as the place where they had sought refuge was surrounded by their enslavers. Archibald K. Gaines and Thomas Marshall had pursued the couple from Kentucky and arriving in Cincinnati had obtained a warrant from federal Commissioner John Pendery and with the assistance of federal marshals were determined to recapture the Garners. Margaret Garner decided that she preferred that her children die rather than live the life she had lived as an enslaved African. She killed her baby girl first, since she knew from lived experience, the extra brutality of sexual exploitation that enslaved women experienced because of their gender. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 nullified the fact that Ohio was a free state. A trial followed the capture of the Garners and on 26 February 1856 a judge ruled in favour of the enslavers. The Garners were returned to slavery in Kentucky. During the trial, evidence was presented that Archibald K. Gaines was the father of Margaret Garner’s children. She had been the victim of rape resulting in four pregnancies. Margaret had also been physically abused by Gaines’ wife when the appearance of the children proved that he was the father. Newspaper reports of the trial described the children as "mulatto," "bright mulatto," and "almost white." The abuse that Garner suffered from her enslaver and his wife was not an aberration. White men who held Africans in captivity as slaves were physically and sexually violent. White women, whose husbands, sons, brothers, uncles, fathers, grandfathers and other male relatives were raping enslaved African women, blamed the women and were physically violent to the enslaved women. The white women also physically abused the children who resulted from these rapes, since their presence was a constant reminder that even though they thought of the women as less than human, their male relatives thought differently on some level. Enslaved African women tried to protect their children from abuse by various means, sometimes resorting to fleeing with their children. The presence of these children, the result of the rape of enslaved women so enraged white women that they frequently demanded that their men folk sell the children while they were still very young. While it may be difficult to understand someone selling their children, there is the recent scandal of the man who imprisoned his own child for 24 years, sexually abused and impregnated her, forcing her to give birth six times with no medical assistance. Imagine the scope for abuse when people with the same mindset had the power of life or death over the lives of enslaved Africans.
Even when their children were sold away from them, the enslaved women made almost superhuman efforts to remain in contact with their children. Frederick Douglass in his autobiography “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” wrote of the effort his mother made to spend a meager few minutes with him. “She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day's work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary--a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master. I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.” Douglass, who managed to escape enslavement and became one of the most notable abolitionists, lost his mother when he was about seven years old.
There are countless documented instances of African women fighting to protect not only their biological children but entire communities. Nana Yaa Asantewa, Queen Mother of Ejisu led her people into battle against the British in 1900 after the British kidnapped the Asantehene (King) Prempeh 1and then added insult to injury by demanding the sacred Golden Stool of the Ashanti. In this now famous speech, Nana Yaa Asantewa is credited with rallying the Ashanti nation to charge into battle with the British, in the last war led by a woman. “Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were in the brave days of, the days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to chief of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.” The Ashanti-British war popularly known as the Yaa Asantewaa War began in March 1900 and lasted until December 1901.
On Mothers Day as we celebrate and honour our mothers and mother figures remember the many African mothers who have put their lives at risk to fight, struggle and advocate for the community. Carrie Best, the women of Buxton (Guyana), Viola Desmond, Sherona Hall, Fannie Lou Hamer, Queen Nzingha, Nanny of the Maroons and Rosa Parks are some of the women who have cleared a path for us. The famous and not so famous, those who have transitioned to be with the ancestors; they all deserve to be acknowledged and remembered because their examples should be emulated to move us forward. We resisted enslavement and colonization, we continue to resist, white supremacy, racism and sexism. We survived because we crossed over on the backs of those women who went before us, all of them mothers to their communities. Happy Mothers Day!
Written in May 2008