One of my favorite novels is Toni Morrison’s Beloved. In it, the protagonist Sethe, commits infanticide to avoid seeing her children kidnapped and forced back into bondage. Prior to this, she makes the choice to runaway while heavily pregnant, having sent her three children on the journey to freedom ahead of her. It is through a combination of her own seemingly Herculean strength, determination, and luck, that she makes it to the free side of the Ohio River, giving birth along the way. It is abundantly clear through her actions that this is a woman who will do anything to see her children afforded the opportunity to thrive. The law eventually catches up with her though, and she is faced with the prospect of seeing her children sent back to the place that brutalized her own mind and body. While still being driven by the same impulse that pushed her to seek out freedom for herself and the children, she finds herself making the most inhumane decision of all, successfully murdering one of her infant daughters before being subdued. In exploring this grim scenario, Morrison asks the question: What does it mean to navigate the complexities of motherhood, when your very personhood is still up for debate?
I am not a mother, but I was recently afforded the opportunity to experience and be a part of the artist Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz’s performance art piece, Pietà, at the National Portrait Gallery. The exhibit was a meditation on the trauma and anxiety of losing a child to gun violence. Accompanied by music, she held each of the volunteers for three minutes and thirty three seconds (symbolic of Jesus’s death at the age of thirty three), the way Mary held Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pietà. The signal to leave the stage (and the comforting arms of Ortiz), was the sound of sirens blaring.
It was powerful and timely to say the least. The issue of police brutality is an on going part of our societal conversation. It is a part of reality that every black and brown person has to wrestle with in someway in this country, even when it comes down to just absorbing the news of each tragedy. Most recently, Jordan Edwards was only 15 on his way home from a party when his life was cut short by police bullets whizzing through a car window. What do you do with that news? What do you do with that grief? In a world that asks is continuously asking you to stand up straight and nurse your fears in private, where do you go to mourn a 15 year old you did not know, but who could have so easily been you or a loved one? On this particular day we gathered at the museum, and left it all on the stage and lap of the one Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz. She held us, and our individual rages, and grief, and terror, and exhaustion.
Occupying this black and female body, I know what it means to fear for my own safety in a world full of forces outside of my control. I am aware that my physical existence makes me a target for perpetual psychological and physical violence. That is just the way this world is set up, and that knowledge is mine to grapple with while I’m here on this earth. There is pain in knowing and owning this aspect of my lived experience, and there is always something for me to mentally unpack as a result. But that is my own pain. Mother’s Day is approaching, and as the Howard Gospel Choir sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”, I thought deeply about motherhood under these conditions. In Ortiz’s transformation into Mary, she also became mother to the entire audience. She created room for the audience to feel our most intense and intimate emotions, while providing protection from the prying eyes of the onlooking world. When my three minutes and thirty three seconds were up, I was frankly surprised to look around and see all of the people still there.
Watching her hold each individual after that, it became more and more clear just how much personal risk is involved in the act of mothering. Her own hurt was the most significant part of the narrative. Watching her grieve with, reset, and then continue to pick up the pieces of each subsequent volunteers broken heart was devastating and moving. I cannot fathom owning my pain and then choosing to take it on the in the form of rearing a child, biological or otherwise. And that seems to be no small part of the job.
In his novel, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nahisi Coates writes, “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.” I left the exhibit with this quote weighing heavily on my mind. What a fearsome and heroic thing it is to take on that responsibility. We walk around everyday knowing our bodies are dangerous places to live, and that your skin is not a safe place to be. In spite of that knowledge, every day there are people making the choice to carry that weight, and multiply it in the form of children. I am in awe of that strength, that determination to seek out in this monumental way, the joy of being alive. And I am reminded of how important it is that we continue to hold each other, when that weight becomes too much to hold on our own.
And to call my Mom.