Editor's note: This segment was rebroadcast on Jan. 17, 2021. Find that audio here.
The new book "The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation” reframes historical moments around some of the most iconic civil rights leaders.
For instance, author Anna Malaika Tubbs describes an excited Alberta King traveling to Norway to see her son Martin Luther King Jr. accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Or the time James Baldwin's mother, Berdis Baldwin, helped him work through one of the characters of his now well-known play, "Blues for Mister Charlie."
In the book, Tubbs makes the case that knowing these stories helps us better understand the United States.
Reading books about these famous men led Tubbs to realize that their mothers’ lives weren’t well documented before marriage and motherhood. Then, she spent time exploring the historical context in which these women lived.
“Each of these moments would influence them differently, based off their own access to resources, their own education levels, Jim Crow laws, two World Wars, the Cold War,” she says. “I wanted us to explore Black history and American history through the eyes of Black women, Black girls, Black mothers.”
Louise Little, Malcolm X's mother, was born in Grenada and met his father in Canada. The couple traveled the country teaching Marcus Garvey’s doctrine of Black independence. But after Malcolm X's father was killed, Little was deemed unfit to care for her children and sent to a mental institution for 25 years.
An outspoken, radical activist even before she met her husband, Little faced constant racist attacks, Tubbs says. When her husband died, she wanted to stay involved in the civil rights movement and provide for her children, but she didn’t receive his life insurance money. Little also felt judgment from welfare workers for receiving government assistance.
One white male doctor who contributed to Little’s institutionalization called her “maladjusted, '' judged her for birthing her eighth child and said she was “imagining being discriminated against,” Tubbs says.
“The craziness of saying about a Black woman from a white man that she's imagining being discriminated against,” she says. “But this is enough to put her away for 25 years of her life because her family members were all her children, so they were too young to be able to advocate for her.”
James Baldwin was close with his mother, Berdis Baldwin. During the writer’s childhood, one educator at his school commented that he got his beautiful use of language from his mother.
Tubbs’ telling of Berdis Baldwin’s story provides a fuller picture of the world that James Baldwin shared with readers through his writing. Tubbs hopes her book gives readers a more complete appreciation of these men.
All three men credited their success to their moms, she says. One example of this is that when James Baldwin died, he asked to reserve the gravesite next to his for his mother.
“She has eight other children, but when he dies, he knows that people are going to want to come and see his grave and they're going to know that his mother is interconnected with him — that they are inextricable from each other's lives,” Tubbs says. “He was well aware of it. And it's just time that the rest of the world is too.”
The book gives readers glimpses of the three men through a mother's eyes, like when Martin Luther King Jr. begged his mom to allow him to go to school when he wasn't old enough yet. Alberta King believed in her son and agreed to let him go to school early until a teacher noticed his age and sent him home, Tubbs says.
Malcolm X loved growing peas as a child, laying on the ground and dreaming of his future as he looked up at the sky, she says. Followers of Garvey believed in self-sufficiency, so his parents taught their son how to hunt and plant food.
James Baldwin helped his mother care for his siblings and deeply resented his abusive stepfather. To help his mother get through the abuse, James Baldwin considered himself her “right-hand man” and stuck by her side, Tubbs says.
Alberta King was a preacher’s daughter raised in Atlanta. She wanted to become a teacher, but laws prevented married women from teaching.
In 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about the role of Black mothers in America, including his own, with radio reporter Eleanor Fischer: “It seems to me that the only thing that the mother can do, the Negro mother, is to try from the beginning to instill in the child the sense of somebodyness. This was what my mother tried to do, she made it very clear that in spite of these conditions, you are as good as anybody else and you must not feel that you are not.”
Martin Luther King Jr. described what seems like the full-time job of a Black mother. But the minister also consulted with his mother on just about everything throughout his life.
One of the most horrific parts of Alberta King’s story is that she feared her son would be killed — and he didn’t try to protect her from that possibility. In the book, Tubbs writes about his conversation with his mother about death.
"After dinner at the King household one night, as they sat on their patio and watched the sunset, Martin turned toward Alberta and said, ‘Mother, there are some things I want you to know.’ He continued, ‘There's a chance, mother, that someone is going to try to kill me and it could happen without any warning at all. But I don't want you to worry over any of this,’ ” Tubbs writes. “He came closer to her side, ‘I have to go on with my work no matter what happens now because my involvement is too complete to stop.’ ”
All three of these mothers outlived their sons. The book starts with this known tragedy, and then Tubbs paints a portrait of the mothers’ humanity as their lives develop to make readers feel their pain and “cry in ways that we might not have in just hearing of the history,” she says.
As a new mother herself, Tubbs says she needed to distance herself from the chapters about the sons’ deaths. She also felt inspired by the mothers’ perseverance despite knowing how this country would view their children’s efforts to transform systems.
Tubbs calls for policies that reduce loss in Black communities. The U.S. needs to reckon with the country’s roots in enslavement and treating Black people as property, she says.
To move forward, Americans need to confront the dehumanization of Black people and how it plays a role in systemic issues such as mass incarceration and the Black mental health crisis, she says.
“I see it as something that we need to stop looking at as some kind of inevitable lot for Black women to carry, as if we're supernatural and can stand more pain than other people,” she says. “I want this book to be about changing that circumstance.”
Book Excerpt: 'The Three Mothers'
By Anna Malaika Tubbs
Writing about Black motherhood while becoming one gave me a much deeper perspective than I had before. As my own life and body transformed, it became even more important to me to tell Alberta’s, Berdis’s, and Louise’s stories before they became mothers. Their lives did not begin with motherhood; on the contrary, long before their sons were even thoughts in their minds, each woman had her own passions, dreams, and identity. Each woman was already living an incredible life that her children would one day follow. Their identities as young Black girls in Georgia, Grenada, and Maryland influenced the ways in which they would approach motherhood. Their exposure to racist and sexist violence from the moment they were born would inform the lessons they taught their children. Their intellect and creativity led to fostering such qualities in their homes. The relationships they witnessed in their parents and grandparents would inspire their own approaches to marriage and child-rearing. Highlighting their roles as mothers does not erase their identities as independent women. Instead, these identities informed their ability to raise independent children who would go on to inspire the world for years to come.
These women’s lives create a rich portrait of the nuances of Black motherhood. Yes, all three were mothers of sons who became internationally known, and their stories share many similarities, but by no means can their identities be reduced into one. Each woman carried different values, faiths, talents, and traumas. I hope their rich differences will open our eyes to the many influences and manifestations of Black motherhood in the United States and beyond.
The narratives of these three women have fueled and empowered me, but this work has been extremely difficult at times. Black motherhood in the United States is inextricable from a history of violence against Black people. American gynecology was built by torturing Black women and experimenting on their bodies to test procedures. J. Marion Sims, known as the father of American gynecology, developed his techniques by slicing open the vaginal tissues of enslaved women as they were held down by force. He refused to provide them with anesthesia. François Marie Prevost, who is credited with introducing C-sections in the United States, perfected his procedure by cutting into the abdomens of laboring women who were slaves. These women were treated like animals and their pain was ignored.
There is a paradoxical relationship between the dehumanization we Black women and our children face and our ability to resist it. Beyond the normal worries all mothers encounter as they progress through pregnancy and get closer to their labors, we Black mothers are aware that we are risking our lives. Black women in the United States are more likely to die while pregnant and while giving birth than other mothers. Beyond the normal fear that all mothers feel when the gut-wrenching thought of losing their child creeps its way into their minds, we Black mothers experience a heightened level of worry. We are aware of how differently our children are seen and treated in society, and our fears are confirmed by articles and news stories reporting the violence that Black children experience constantly, whether at parties, in school, or at their local parks. This fear continues as our children become adults who are in danger even as they sleep in their beds, sit in their own apartments, when they call for help, or when they go on a run.
Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were well aware of the dangers they and their children would be met with as Black people in the United States, and they all strove to equip their children not only to face the world but to change it. With the knowledge that they themselves were seen as “less than” and their children would be, too, the three mothers collected tools to thrive with the hopes of teaching their children how to do the same. They found ways to give life and to humanize themselves, their children, and, in turn, our entire community. As history tells us, all of their sons did indeed make a difference in this world, but they did so at a cost. In all three cases, the mothers’ worst fears became reality: each woman was alive to bury her son. It is an absolute injustice that far too many Black mothers today can say the same thing.
In the face of such tragedy, each mother persisted in her journey to leave this world a better place than when she entered it. Yet their lives continued largely to be ignored. When Malcolm X was assassinated, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed shortly after, and even when James Baldwin died from stomach cancer years later, their works were rightly celebrated, but virtually no one stopped to wonder about the grief their mothers were facing. Even more painful to me is the fact that their fathers were mentioned, while their mothers were largely erased.
I chose to focus on mothers of sons. Black men were certainly not the only leaders of the civil rights movement; mothers of revolutionary daughters have also been forgotten. I simply chose three figures who are often put in conversation together and who demonstrate the distressingly strong erasure of identity in the mother/son relationship. Coincidentally, I gave birth to a boy, my incredible little boy, and I have already faced others’ attempts to erase my influence on his identity. Phrases like “He’s strong, just like his father!” or “He’s already following in his dad’s footsteps” when he reaches a milestone cause more harm than people think. By choosing three mothers of sons, I do not want to erase daughters or other children. I am instead making the point that no matter our gender, everything starts with our birthing parent.
In telling the stories of these three mothers, I hope to join others who have responded to Brave’s call for “Black women to carry out autonomously defined investigations of self in a society which through racial, sexual, and class oppression systematically denies our existence. . . .” It is crucial to understand the layers of oppression Black women face, while remembering that solely studying oppression keeps us from honoring “the ways in which we have created and maintained our own intellectual traditions as Black women.” I pay close attention to this balance and bear witness to the many challenges Berdis, Alberta, and Louise faced while acknowledging their ability to survive, thrive, and build in spite of them.
Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were all born within six years of each other, and their famous sons were all born within five years of each other, which presents beautiful intersections in their lives. Because they were all born around the same time and gave birth to their famous sons around the same time, and two of them passed away around the same time, I reflect on Black womanhood in the early 1900s, Black motherhood in the 1920s, and their influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The first of the three mothers was born in the late 1890s, and the last of the three passed in the late 1990s. Their lives give us three incredible perspectives on an entire century of American history. By seeing the United States develop through the lives of Berdis, Alberta, and Louise, you will be left with a richer understanding of each world war, the Great Depression, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, race riots, police brutality, welfare debates, the effects of policies proposed by each president they lived to witness, and much more.
But their stories go beyond a new understanding of American history, especially the civil rights movement of the 1960s. An ode to these three women is an ode to Black womanhood—perhaps Black women of today will also be able to find themselves in the life stories of Berdis, Alberta, and/or Louise, as I have.
Excerpted from "The Three Mothers." Copyright © 2021 by Anna Malaika Tubbs. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
This segment aired on February 8, 2021.