WHAT MOURNING MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME ABOUT THE BLACK WOMAN’S ROLE IN MOVEMENT BUILDING

My mother passed in May of 2017, just a few days shy of Mother’s day and after only her 52nd birthday. I was shocked at the time but not surprised. For the past 15 or so years, she had been unwell with what I began to learn was depression. Much of my childhood was spent either watching her waste away at home while never leaving the house or wondering when she was coming back from the hospital on account of another mental health episode.

She spent months in and out of the hospital since I was in the 5th grade until the end of middle school due to her mental illness—the exact diagnoses I would never learn but through eavesdropping had the sense it was a mix of schizophrenia and depression. She often stayed at Woodhull Hospital, which is the same place we lost Erica Garner.

When she passed it wasn’t so much that now, in the wake of her death, I was left with the reality that my mother would not be there for me later in life. That fact was something that I understood since childhood. But the “why” was always a question for me. How does one go from raising 5 children and studying to be an accountant, to then flirting with the prospect of being committed to a mental facility for the rest of her life?

Later that May, I took my second trip to Lagos, Nigeria (the first being during my infancy) before she was buried. In true immigrant parent fashion, she had spoken very little of the life she had left behind, and it was on this trip that I learned information about her that surprised me. Had I not learned about how she ended up in the U.S. I never would have realized how much of who I am today is a byproduct of who she was before. Growing up, I think I shied away from identifying with her—a deeply pious wife and rigorous mother. Instead, I thought about the qualities I got from my father, whose side hustles seem to have had their own side hustles.

What I learned was that at 19, she told her family she was moving to the U.S. and left that very same day—returning only barely during the 30 plus years she spent in the U.S.. Here she would join Deeper Life Bible Church, a Pentecostal church founded in Lagos, Nigeria in 1973, which has since grown to over 65,000 members in the United States and in branches on nearly every continent.

It’s the church I grew up in. This meant for many years my life consisted of Sunday church service, then Sunday evening house fellowship, then Wednesday night Bible study, and then Friday evening prayer services. If it was the last weekend of the month, I was generally at a weekend long retreat. I joke with myself now that all that church back then fully prepared me for my current life of an organizer with meeting after meeting. Deeper Life Bible Church is an institution that has always found pride in their ministry as being one that followed the bible word for word. Which I would later reflect on and realize essentially meant they were fundamentalists.

Her story is pretty much how I moved out as well—down to the age, but minus the distance. Instead, I moved from Coney Island, Brooklyn to Bushwick, Brooklyn in the midst of its rapid gentrification in 2010. It might as well have been another country.

I left my home and with it the religion I was steeped in. What my mother and I shared is that we had both decided to leave for something better at the opposition of our families. We were both committed to spaces that—while often dogmatic—offered a space to live out our ideals. For her it was the word of God, but for me it’s been the idea of collective liberation.

In working towards the “greater good” in both the church and the movement, there is always the inherent trap of being a Black woman who gives her all to a space that could never (or flat out refuses) to pour back into us with the same zeal. I found this first in the church and have definitely found this again in the movement spaces I’ve navigated.

As a student in college I got involved in activism. First as a student organizer locally on the campus of Brooklyn College where we advocated for free tuition, help with the other costs associated with education, and even built the first student run coffee cooperative at the City University of New York. Then came legislative internships, the statewide student power building, the Occupy movement, and a host of meetings, coalitions, movement drama, organizational breakdowns and political differences I would experience in the years since.

It was while doing this work that I witnessed patterns that unfortunately were too familiar to me. Just like the church, in these movement spaces Black women exhibited the same levels of exhaustion as they worked tirelessly, only to receive a lack of real support, while being expected to hold so much strength. Social justice work has often been lead by people who were religious, which makes a lot of sense. Both the church and liberatory organizing requires faith. Unfortunately, for both, this is the very thing that often gets used to exploit the labor disproportionately of marginalized women.

It was at her wake—amidst the accolades of how much she was there for everyone, how much she helped build the church in New York City (which grew from only one branch in Grand Concourse in the Bronx to branches in each borough), how much of a good christian she was—did another sister in the church also praise her for what she perceived as her “submissiveness” and refusal to argue with her husband.

It was in that moment that I recalled childhood memories of the times she came back to church after her hospitalization, and at one point openly wept, and I watched as no one ever made an effort to comfort her. I also remembered the marriage she was celebrated for. The arguments where she did speak up, and the repercussions she faced because of it.

At the funeral, she was celebrated, like many black women are, for what she could endure. This was a lesson I didn’t realize I had been learning and relearning from my own participation in organizing and social movements. I would find myself as an organizer struggling to maintain my role in organizations that would only later show their complete inability and indifference to creating a sustainable space for me in it. I was being considered as a maternal figure when I was really just a tired organizer.

Losing Erica Garner at the end of 2017 reminded me of this. She perpetually sacrificed as the movement failed to support her. All to then watch the same people who would consider her too loud and too radical to openly support, eulogize her and praise her for the burden she held without them.

So many in these spaces and in society at large truly function under the assumption that this is a Black woman’s role in life—organizing diligently and ceaselessly for others.  That our struggle and sacrifice and exhaustion validates their existence in the movement. It’s almost as if it’s not a real social movement if a Black woman is not almost killing herself to do this work.

While I have left organized religion, I’m not advocating that everyone do the same in regards to organizing for liberation. A lot of the work I must now allow myself to take on is learning to value my time and my labor, understanding the inherently exploitative nature of the systems we create while trying to free ourselves, and developing better discernment. In our movements, it’s common practice to want to pat someone on the back for doing something you think you couldn’t do. When in reality, often times Black women are referred to as strong simply because we decided to do what we knew you were too lazy to do yourself.

I feel like a member of the chorus screaming into a void. This critique has been said before and will, unfortunately, be said again. With each heart attack, suicide, breakdown comes the internalized societal pathology that taking care of oneself as a Black woman is somehow selfish. When in fact, when we are doing well, and when we are allotted a space to thrive, it is to the benefit of everyone. And even if it weren’t—we still deserve that space. And I wish more of us (like my mother) would’ve been able to learn that sooner.