This story was originally published on May 8, 2017.
Mother’s Day is coming up, and 2.7 million American children have parents who are in prison. That’s one in every 28 children and, specifically, one in 15 Black children. And this only accounts for mothers of minors; it doesn’t even get into the number of Black people in jail who play mothering roles in their communities and who are right now mothering each other inside cells.
Black mamas are sitting in prison awaiting trial for being too free. For bringing Black children into a world that fears and punishes them. For writing bad checks to feed their kids. For defending themselves in a world that assaults them daily. For protecting their family members. For crimes they haven’t even been tried for—with bails set too high for their families to pay—forced to wait while the court system pressures them to take guilty pleas for crimes they didn’t commit so they can go home on probation.
What time is it? It’s time to get them out.
Once upon a time, in 1925, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues,” was arrested for being too Black, too free, too blatantly woman loving, too loud in the night, too autonomously herself. We are talking about a woman who owned her own custom-built railroad car, which she used to travel through a country that hated the thought of her in order to get to the people who needed her sound. The woman who wrote “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she dared respectability politics to test her and celebrated the ways she transcended gender and loved who she pleased.
Ma Rainey was called “Ma” for many reasons, but in the life of younger blues singer Bessie Smith, she took on a mothering role, a mentoring role, a healing role. Smith first came under Ma Rainey’s blues tutelage when she was only 14 years old, and it was Ma Rainey who taught her how to hide her money, protect herself, and love herself and those around her beyond the limits of dominant culture. So when the time came—after police raided a party Ma Rainey was hosting and arrested her for “indecency” in 1925—Smith bailed Ma Rainey out of jail that same early morning.
Once upon a time, in 1977, Assata Shakur was sentenced to life in prison for daring not to die when police gunned her down on a New Jersey highway in 1973, and for being too Black, too free, too bold, too clear and articulate in her revolutionary insight, too beautiful, too brave, too audacious in her love for Black people. We are talking about a woman who conceived a daughter with a revolutionary comrade in a courthouse in between trial appearances while under the most intense watch the state could provide. Talk about creating love in a hopeless place.
That daughter, Kakuya, refused to accept her mother’s imprisonment and the separation it would cause. At the age of three, enraged, she even refused to call Shakur “mama” unless Shakur did everything she could to get out of prison. So she did. Shakur called on the Black Liberation Army and allies from radical white organizations to coordinate the most well-known successful break out of a U.S. political prisoner. And when the time came, her community answered. In fact, revolutionaries such as holistic healer Mutulu Shakur and the late poet Marilyn Buck are serving and served life sentences related to this action.
As Assata explains in a 1988 interview with Cheryll Greene in Essence magazine (her first interview after her escape), it was her daughter’s ultimatum that motivated her to call on the coalition that risked everything to help free her. Kakuya knew at the age of three what many of us are still learning about prisons and incarceration: Our freedom, the freedom of our futures, and the freedom of our species requires the freedom of our mothers. In a webinar inspired by Assata and Kakuya that I led a few months ago, we discussed how that’s sometimes a freedom beyond even what our mamas can imagine.
Once upon a time, in 1947, a Georgia sharecropper named Rosa Lee Ingram and her two teenage sons were locked up for believing their bodies and the land on which they farmed were worth defending. After a white neighbor sexually and physically attacked her and her children, Ingram and her 16- and 18-year-old sons were charged with murder for defending themselves and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a one-day trial.
On Mother’s Day 1949, members of the Civil Rights Congress’ National Committee to Free the Ingram Family—led by Mary Church Terrell and international Black feminist left organization Sojourners for Truth and Justice—organized an international protest, flooding the White House with revolutionary Mother’s Day cards and contacting every single member state of the United Nations to demand Ingram’s release and defend her right to protect herself and her children from rape. Through more than a decade of organizing, they were able to get her sentence changed from the death penalty to life in prison, and then to ultimately argue her full release.
Later, in 1974, Black feminists would rally around a similar case, that of Joan Little, who was sentenced to the death penalty for killing a prison guard twice her size as he attempted to rape her. Because of intersectional organizing and awareness raising by Black feminists, Little would become the first woman to be acquitted for using deadly force while defending herself from sexual assault.
Black Lives Matter chapters and Southerners on New Ground (a regional multiracial, working-class abolitionist organization) are organizing the National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day Action, which you can support financially by donating. This bailout is a part of a national abolitionist effort to end money bail, which disproportionately keeps poor people who have not been convicted of crimes in jail. To help raise funds for the cause, folks in my community will be partying in honor of Ma Rainey, gathering allies like Assata Shakur did, singing our hearts out, and celebrating Mother’s Day like we mean it.
In “A HerStory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” Alicia Garza responds to “all lives matter” apologists by stating, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.” With that she is echoing (without directly citing) an earlier, more nuanced 1977 intersectional declaration by the Black lesbian socialist feminist Combahee River Collective: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Colloquially, anyone with any sense says, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”
To build on the logic of the Combahee River Collective, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the tradition of freeing ourselves by freeing the Black mamas who risk everything, I say:
“If Mama’s free. Everybody’s free.”
Free Black Mamas.