Last weekend, I popped, locked, and dropped it on top of a table in a tight black bodysuit. I had only known the people I was dancing with – mostly queer folks of color – for less than two days. But we mirrored each other’s moves like longtime friends. I found immense freedom in a dance circle made of mostly strangers, and I loved it.
Those few hours of joy are hard to come by when you’re a black mother of two in rural America. It’s even harder to experience when you’re a journalist who specializes in black women’s reproductive issues. The insurmountable number of disparities, not to mention the infamous maternal mortality crisis, are great for job security – but it’s devastating for my peace of mind.
I have spent most of my life doing damage control. I aspire to live in a way where I can know the risk factors without internalizing them. No matter how hard I try, the data about the trauma black women experience while seeking reproductive care hurts me. It took six weeks of physical therapy for me to realize that the majority of my chronic body pain is a consequence of anticipating how racism will manifest in my life each day.
My daily experience paired with cycling tales of black death and trauma is overwhelming. There doesn’t seem to be any place where black people, especially black mothers, can go to celebrate life. When I couldn’t find the place of refuge, I aimed to dance the pain away. That night of dancing was the last example of the commitment I’m making to #FreeBlackMotherhood. The movement encourages black mothers to rid their lives of stereotypes and be their full selves.I hope all black mothers will join me in this challenge.
For most of my life, I’ve been in a constant state of discomfort. I discovered racial consciousness at a young age. What most folks described as “having an old soul” and being “wise for one’s age” was the result of me maturing faster due to trauma. Seeing the world play out as a powerless child left me in a near-constant state of terror. My childhood was filled with headaches and nervous stomachs. The older I got, the clearer it became that standing up in what Melissa Harris-Perry described as the “Crooked Room” wouldn’t be easy.
According to Harris-Perry, the Crooked Room is a way of describing the difficulties Black women’s face while trying to develop a sense of self in a world where stereotypes- namely the Jezebel, Sapphire, and Mammy- derail authentic expression and presentation.
The struggle to stand was never harder than when I became a mother. My story is eerily similar to countless black women. I was vibrant and educated, wanting to expect the best from the healthcare system only to be severely disappointed. Prenatal care and delivery changed me. Initially, I was an occasionally-timid, self-confident young woman who happened to be black. I believed the medical system was there to improve my well-being and extend the number of years I have on this earth. I also falsely believed that money, marriage, and education could transform me into someone the world respects.
When I was one month postpartum with my first child, I didn’t recognize myself. After it took three medical professionals to get diagnosed with retained placenta it became clear that no one cared about my pain. I’d seen that the world saw me as only a black woman, and would treat me with the same amount of racism, bias, and forced silence that my ancestors had seen.
From the birth of my first child to the birth of my second child, I experienced two rounds of retained placenta. Throughout that journey, I was tired. I was tired of reading about all of the factors in front of me, exhausted with the way my muscles tensed up at the mention of reproductive care, and frustrated with the way trying to make sense of all of this left me with so little to give my family. Finally, I asked myself: what was the point of living if every moment was spent stressing over how to save my children from a society that has already decided they are doomed? That’s when I started walking (shout out to GirlTrek, a fitness movement for Black women that uses walking to make subtle, long-term health changes). I threw on my workout pants that made my butt look good, got some wireless headphones, and told my husband to watch the kids. I was determined to fill the gaps in my memory – details that had been stolen from me by lifelong anxiety and depression – with joy. I quickly found that two miles of walking per day could help me escape my inner thoughts and the headlines that were stressing me out.
I eventually realized I needed to create my own version of black motherhood if I was going to survive the years ahead. I knew I had to experience the world around me without caring how anyone else felt about it. To me, freedom means being unafraid to wear my blackness loudly and proudly. It means wearing T-shirts that center around the black experience, utilizing my voice, and using dance moves that feature a little more hip and booty than others would prefer. It requires shedding “acceptable” depictions of black motherhood and feeling free to identify with celebrities like Lizzo, Janelle Monee and other “weird” black women.
#FreeBlackMotherhood means acknowledging that I don’t have to choose an identity that fits within the Sapphire, Jezebel, and Mammy stereotypes – I can be dynamic and reject all three. Since I came to this realization, I’ve been much happier. I co-facilitated a two-day training on reproductive justice with a room of beautiful black and queer people. We went out and we danced on the floor with rainbows and color, making it clear that we don’t care if white people weren’t accustomed to our joy.
I’ve committed to using fitness as a gateway to self care. I’m also embracing natural hairstyles like plaits, braids, and bantu knots, even though the rest of the world may not see it as “professional.” Also, I’m learning to refuse opportunities that take from me while giving nothing back. I want to see #FreeBlackMotherhood trend on social media.
Since arriving on U.S. shores, black mothers have been sacrificing joy to save their families. We’re the glue that holds our community together, but we’re regularly overlooked and under supported. We’ve been beaten to death with the stigma the world has imposed on black motherhood. We know the world uses any excuse – relationship status, income, and insurance – to invalidate us. I want us to spend more time dancing, singing, and celebrating. Life is hard, but the best form of resistance is joy. In order to cultivate freedom for black mothers, I need our community and the world to show up for us the way we’ve shown up for them. Love us, nurture us, and support us.
Whether the world realizes it or not, the power of black women is the world’s best kept secret. If we get the chance to be free, we can liberate the world.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist whose work can be read in The Washington Post, InStyle, The Guardian, and other places. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.