As with many things, the concept of motherhood does not always translate neatly or equally cross-culturally. While it is not unusual for a society to have defined gender roles and to encounter expectations based on them, women of marginalized groups tend to face harsher criticism of their lifestyles for not meeting the concept of womanhood or motherhood that is associated with the “ideal”. Naturally, this would lead to feelings of inadequacy and questions of being good or good enough. Bahamian master artist Maxwell Taylor delves into this subject matter in much of his work, but his black and white woodcut print on paper entitled “Ain’t I A Good Mother?” (2003) is one that addresses Black motherhood specifically.
Taylor’s striking piece depicts a Black mother with her young child clinging to her waist. She clutches the child with a protective hand, with the other at her chest. Her head is held high as she strives to move them both forward. In the background is a small, shotgun-style wooden house — a dwelling style of African origins, popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries among working class people. During the 20th century, the shotgun-style home grew to become symbolic of poverty as dwellings transitioned to more commodious homes and concrete structures.
Surrounding the subjects of the image are rough linear etchings that appear to highlight the woman and child and make the environment feel chaotic. Taylor’s image is a dramatic portrayal of poverty, family and struggle. The drama of the work evokes emotion and reflection on past and present hardships faced by the Black family and the Black woman in particular, all deeply rooted in history. That history consists of centuries of trying to build family, and nurture and protect children in an environment that is often unreceptive and hostile.
Maxwell Taylor has lived in the United States for more than 20 years and was inspired by African American history and culture, and the experience of women in particular, to create “Ain’t I A Good Mother?” He commented that, “The drama to me consists of the slave trade, and especially in the Underground Railroad… In cutting the wood or drawing the ﬁgures I can even think of myself sometimes being a part of them, being in there, struggling and running myself.” Though inspired by African American culture, many similarities can be drawn to Afro-Bahamian culture and the wider Afro-Caribbean experience of slavery, its effects and women existing as a subordinate subclass to a dominant ruling class in a patriarchal system.
The portrayed drama for the Black mother in Taylor’s image originates from the intersection of race, class and gender oppression characteristic of slavery. This intersectionality has historically and fundamentally caused the Black woman’s poverty and the stigmatization of Black motherhood. In her study of Black feminist thought, American sociologist Patricia Hill Collins cites the exploitation of the Black woman’s labour for the building of capitalist society, longstanding disenfranchisement from political process and the justice system and controlling images originating from slavery as fostering the Black woman’s struggle.
These factors combined are seen to have economically, politically and socially oppressed women and contributed to the seeming impossibility of the good Black mother. While women of other heritages have been valued for their ability to produce and nurture children for the wellbeing of society, the Black woman has been subject to negative stereotypes associated with reproduction and mothering. Racist and sexist ideologies by a hegemonic white ruling class assumed and attached qualities to Black woman to justify their oppression, birthing images of Black women as mammies, jezebels and breeder women of slavery, to today’s Aunt Jemimas (a contemporary and commercialized mammy caricature), prostitutes and welfare mothers.
Until the growth of Black feminism in the 1970s, Black women were uncritically being blamed for the deterioration of the African American family structure as if they were solely responsible for high divorce rates, matriarchal homes and out-of-wedlock births. The label of bad mothers resulted from accusations of raising deviant children by failure to discipline, emasculating their sons by being overly dominant in the household and defeminizing their daughters by training them to be tough. In reality, the Black mother lived her life in sacrifice for the protection of her children, seeking to prepare them to survive in a world where they were not welcome to thrive. The Black feminism movement brought to light how difficult it is to be a good Black mother in a place that directly opposes her existence.
Despite the passage of time, much progress is left to be made in valuing Black motherhood. As seen many times over in the United States, Black women are fighting for their lives and the lives of their sons and daughters to be seen as equal to their white counterparts, from birth through adolescence and into adulthood. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, Black women are dying in childbirth or shortly thereafter from birth related complications at a rate nearly four times greater than that of white women and nearly three times greater than women of other heritages. The infant mortality rate is also highest for Black babies than babies of any other heritage. Inequality in reproductive care and justice is the ground on which the Black woman must steady her feet and begin her journey into motherhood. It is also the point at which she begins the fight to protect her child from and within systems seeking to render them both irrelevant.
Early African American women’s rights activist and abolitionist Maria Stewart (1803-1879), acutely aware of the plight of the Black mother in trying to ensure the survival, moral and intellectual development of her child, preached, “O, ye mothers, what a responsibility rests on you! You have souls committed to your charge… It is you that must create in the minds of your little girls and boys a thirst for knowledge, the love of virtue, the abhorrence of vice, and the cultivation of a pure heart… Do not say you cannot make anything of your children; but say, with the help and assistance of God, we will try.”
Maxwell Taylor’s “Ain’t I A Good Mother” is a visual reminder of the past and present experience of motherhood, Black motherhood in particular. While there are elements evidencing poverty and struggle, the visual at the same time spurs the viewer to appreciate the sacrifices of all mothers in nurturing and supporting their children, in many cases without the support of others. It reminds the viewer of the protective arm of a mother, quick to cover her child from harm and comfort her child in difficulty. Though a society may lead a mother to question her goodness, the child that she protects and cares for does not.
In the eyes of a grateful child, she is a good mother. “Ain’t I A Good Mother” is held in the National Collection and is currently on view as part of the gallery’s permanent exhibition “Hard Mouth: From the Tongue of the Ocean” on view through the beginning of June 2019.