Jennifer C. Nash
Birthing Black Mothers
Duke University Press, 2021
Reviewed by Etyelle Pinheiro de Araujo
More often than not, Black mothers whose sons and daughters fall prey to State-sanctioned violence are viewed by society as custodians of their children’s memory: as emblems of trauma and grief. As they publicly decry racism and violence, these women recast motherhood as an instrument to foreground the appalling conditions under which Black populations go about their lives.
In Birthing Black Mothers, author Jennifer Nash suggests that Black motherhood has been historically associated with deviance, pathology, and poverty. Such is a crisis: one theorized in the introduction as a phenomenon which, extending across history, has directly produced not only the precariousness of Black motherhood but also its present-day visibility, i.e., the contemporary constitution of Black women as “dangerously” visible symbols of tragic heroism in the United States. The latter effect is demonstrated, for instance, by the American Left’s growing engagement with Black mothers in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Or, as Nash puts it, how “the crisis frame has transformed Black mothers into a distinct form of Left political currency during the era of Black Lives Matter (BLM).”
This so-called currency has been evoked by a plethora of public figures, ranging from politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand to prominent voices in Black feminism such as Kimberly Allers and Andrea Freeman. The book begins by scrutinizing this specific portrayal of the Black mother as a figure tethered to ideas of pain and suffering; however, as the chapters unfold, the analysis of such associations gives way to a study of the investments of the American Left in crisis-centered rhetoric, now reinterpreted as a form of political work which can also foster positive visibility. This happens, for example, when Black mothers victimized by State violence are turned into moral authorities by their peers. In short, Nash frames Black maternal politics not only as a form of activism but as part and parcel of the Left’s endeavor to unveil the crisis and respond to the extermination of Black populations. She also views it as a set of survival practices that seek to protect Black motherhood and childhoods.
The book approaches the BLM movement as a fundamental political initiative reclaiming the value of Black lives, but also as an aesthetic project which propagates new Black cultural productions, including novel representations of Black motherhood. The author does, however, sustain that the movement should not revolve exclusively around the figure of the grief-stricken Black mother or, alternatively, around the symbol of a pregnant woman fighting tirelessly against obstetric violence.
The contemporary crisis materializes in a number of different dimensions, impacting the lives of Black women in highly contextualized ways. At times it triggers the emergence of pathological symptoms; at others, it is laid bare by the glaring insufficiency of social support. Within that panorama, Nash understands that there are two major fields—Public Health and Aesthetics—which have been significantly reshaped by the BLM movement. She devotes a large portion of her analysis to each of these.
The first chapter illustrates the crisis by turning to the question of breastfeeding. After showing how Black mothers have historically been treated as non-breastfeeders, Nash zooms in on the efforts of contemporary groups to encourage Black breastfeeding, emphasizing the construction of Black breast milk as “Black Gold,” that is, as a technology instrumental to the preservation of Black life.
The second chapter explores how the crisis gives rise to obstetric violence; in particular, it cites and discusses the rates of Black infant and maternal mortality. Nash debates the medicalization of childbirth and the professionalization of the work of doulas of color, who play a pivotal role in ensuring dignified care and the maintenance of life. The presence of doulas of color “in the room,” she argues, constitutes a form of remedial political work: a way of curtailing the crisis. The chapter is based on the analysis of twenty-three interviews conducted by the author in 2018 with doulas, most of whom identified as women of color who worked in Metropolitan Chicago. While this chapter skillfully sketches the ongoing crisis, the role of the Left vis-à-vis the formation of doulas of color is not specifically addressed.
The second part of the book scrutinizes the aesthetics of Black motherhood. More specifically, Nash discusses the symbolic construction of three black celebrities: Michelle Obama, Serena Williams, and Beyoncé Knowles. Her analysis premised on what she terms “a self-conscious Black maternal aesthetics” examines how the crisis affects the constitution of black mothers’ subjectivities; yet, it also rejects the notion that it is only in relation to the crisis that such identities can be articulated. According to Nash, these celebrities are able to deploy their seemingly apolitical motherhoods as a strategy to rebrand their images. They are allowed to step into the register of the universal, wherein they speak not as Black mothers but simply as mothers. Nash goes on to argue that the existing friendship between these three women points to the emergence of a novel iconography of Black female friendship—an approximation predicated on joy rather than on shared grief, as is the case of the Mothers of the Movement group. While I certainly recognize the need to foreground other types of Black motherhood, the way in which such points are advanced tends to sidestep the larger debate on the contemporary crisis, which had been presented by the author as an overarching analytical nexus.
In the last chapter, Nash revisits an archive of Black maternal memoirs: representations of Black women “mothering while Black.” She debates how the writing of Black maternal life alternatively compounds and challenges the contingent, political, and aesthetic demands of the present-day crisis; she also looks into how literary markets have evolved to represent and commodify Black maternal politics. In her perspective, such memoirs—especially those produced in the context of the BLM movement—capture the feelings of anticipated loss that constitute Black motherhood, thereby catapulting pain, anxiety, and anger towards a mortal world that lies beyond the boundaries of the communal and the domestic. Nash’s view echoes Collins’ contention, advanced in Shifting the Center: Race, Class, and Feminist Theorizing about Motherhood, that “the children of White women enjoy every opportunity and protection, whereas the children of Black women do not know their own fate” (1994).
Birthing Black Mothers is primarily concerned with how Black mothers have become visible amidst and as a result of a long-lasting crisis—a phenomenon which operates in close interaction with the State, the Left, and Black feminism. Beyond merely investigating how Black women have been turned into metaphors of grief and resistance, Nash furthers an entirely different feminist project: one which eschews any symbology that pathologizes Black women or romanticizes their suffering.
In the Coda, Nash considers the global predicaments brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and raises questions on how the pandemic accentuates the already-existing crisis. This is exemplified by her analysis of the murder of George Floyd.
Birthing Black Mothers is a highly relevant and accessible work that will appeal to students interested in various aspects of Black motherhood, as well as to a broader audience outside academia. Jennifer Nash’s depiction of the contemporary crisis enriches ongoing debates around Black motherhood, even if her desire to engage in an in-depth study of the political project of the Left remains somewhat unfulfilled throughout the book.