Love on the Front Lines: Roundtable with Co-Editors of “Revolutionary Mothering”

By Andrea M. Gutierrez

» Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in make/shift (Summer/Fall 2016, no. 19)

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­ing: Love on the Front Lines (PM Press), co-edit­ed by Alex­is Pauline Gumbs, Chi­na Martens, and Mai’a Williams, is an anthol­o­gy that cen­ters and cel­e­brates moth­ers and acts of moth­er­ing in mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties, in par­tic­u­lar rad­i­cal moth­ers of col­or. Prose and poems make up this col­lec­tion, which seeks to be a resource to rad­i­cal mamas who have ever looked and not found for oth­ers like them­selves in par­ent­ing books. Alex­is, Chi­na, and Mai’a gath­ered for a vir­tu­al round­table in April, on Mai’a’s daugh­ter Theresa’s birthday.

Andrea M. Gutier­rez: The work­ing title of this anthol­o­gy was This Bridge Called My Baby, but it’s been released as Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­ing, a title that high­lights moth­er­ing as an action and not just moth­ers as peo­ple or an iden­ti­ty. How did you set­tle on this title?

Alex­is Pauline Gumbs: This Bridge Called My Back: Writ­ings By Rad­i­cal Women of Col­or [coedit­ed by Cher­rie Mor­a­ga and Glo­ria Anzal­d­ua and first pub­lished in 1981] was reis­sued at the same time that Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­ing came out, which is perfect—we felt so con­nect­ed to that book. But because of the sim­i­lar titles and the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we might con­fuse book­sellers and there­fore dis­rupt people’s access to one of my favorite books of all time, we had to gen­er­ate our own title. The ten­ta­tive title did a par­tic­u­lar form of edit­ing work for us, though. The peo­ple who were attract­ed to our call for papers with that title are peo­ple who already had a rela­tion­ship to This Bridge Called My Back, or felt con­nect­ed to that inter­gen­er­a­tional lega­cy of rad­i­cal fem­i­nists of col­or. The title Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­ing does empha­size that moth­ering, but it is also call­ing back to Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­hood, which is the name of a zine that Mai’a has pro­duced for years.

Mai’a Williams: My daugh­ter was born in 2007. While liv­ing in Chi­a­pas lat­er that year, I decid­ed to do a zine called Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­hood, inspired by a work­shop at an INCITE! gath­er­ing. Alex­is and Chi­na had pieces in it. Then we did a group blog for a long time called Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­hood. Lex and I start­ed work­ing togeth­er on this book based on that work in 2009.

Chi­na Martens: That’s how I met Mai’a, through her zine. When we talk about the time­line of this book and our inspi­ra­tion, it just keeps going fur­ther and fur­ther back. I love the fact that this book is built on a lega­cy. For me, a lot of it’s been through zines, which ulti­mate­ly con­nect­ed me to the women of col­or blo­gos­phere. There is some­thing beau­ti­ful about these connections.

APG: I think it con­tin­ues. You were say­ing, Andrea, that Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Moth­er­ing is real­ly about those moth­er­ing acts and moth­er­ing as an action that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly tied down to our lim­its of how we think about gen­der. It’s been real­ly cool to see, now that the book is out, and espe­cial­ly as we approach Mother’s Day, peo­ple keep say­ing, “This is who I got the book for.” “This is who I think of when I read this book.” And I love that, because I didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly think about this before. It does live in this place of action. It makes peo­ple want to take action in their relationships.

AMG: Since 2009, when you first start­ed work on this book, there have been numer­ous very vis­i­ble mur­ders of Black youth by police. Black moth­ers across the U.S. keep los­ing their babies. I’m won­der­ing how these mur­ders and the activism and upris­ings around them inter­twined with or affect­ed your edit­ing process.

APG: Black babies were killed by police in the 1970s at the same time that fem­i­nists of col­or and espe­cial­ly Black fem­i­nists were doing the work of high­light­ing moth­er­ing. Orga­ni­za­tions like Con­gress of Racial Equal­i­ty (CORE) were talk­ing about police bru­tal­i­ty against Black and Lati­no chil­dren as a major orga­niz­ing issue, which was then linked to com­mu­ni­ty con­trol of schools, which was then linked to every oth­er move­ment at that time. So it’s true, this is some­thing that emerged while we were in the process of edit­ing this book, but it’s also been hap­pen­ing. Octavia But­ler says, “There’s noth­ing new under the sun, but there are oth­er suns.” The tech­nol­o­gy of this book is doing that. It’s futur­is­tic, but it’s not because it’s a new con­cept. It’s real­ly old at the same time. In the book we talk about the “best fore­moth­ers for moth­er­ing.” We want to con­nect what they did and what they said to these peo­ple who absolute­ly are man­i­fes­ta­tions of their work, who are doing work in that tra­di­tion and lega­cy, whether they know it or not.

And what is at stake for those peo­ple whose lives are treat­ed as expend­able? Who knows about that more than the peo­ple who are mak­ing life pos­si­ble again and again with­out the sup­port of patri­archy, with­out the sup­port of the state-in fact, in direct antag­o­nism to the state. I think it’s def­i­nite­ly relat­ed, but it’s relat­ed in this kind of way that’s very circular.

MW: The activism that came out of Black Lives Mat­ter and oth­er Black orga­ni­za­tions real­ly start­ed after the book had been final­ized. In some ways, it dates the book. If we had done this book a few years lat­er, it might have been dif­fer­ent. I worked as a jour­nal­ist in 2014 and 2015 and spent a lot of that time cov­er­ing BLM and oth­er Black grass­roots activism. I inter­viewed a lot of mamas, and what they said to me about love, moth­er­ing, activism, com­mu­ni­ty, vio­lence, et cetera, is for the most part not reflect­ed in this book. We don’t real­ly cen­ter those par­tic­u­lar and spe­cif­ic per­spec­tives of younger, liv­ing Black activist moth­ers. And that’s fine. This book does oth­er things. Before I became a moth­er, I was work­ing as an activist, both in the States and abroad, and I was often told by peo­ple who were moth­ers, “That’s some­thing that you do now, but you’re not going to do it once you become a moth­er.” Like there’s an auto­mat­ic break that’s going to hap­pen, and you’re going to enter back into this pri­vate world, a world of domes­tic­i­ty, because it’s too dan­ger­ous for you and your child to be out there on the streets like that. There are a lot of work­ing-class, work­ing-poor, even mid­dle-class Black moth­ers and moth­ers of col­or who are doing very pub­lic, on-the-streets activism. We just did­n’t have a lot of exam­ples of that until about two years ago, at which point you start to see it more and more and more. There are small men­tions of it in the book. We men­tion it in the “Roots and Branch­es” piece; I wrote in a cou­ple of lines acknowl­edg­ing cur­rent Black upris­ings and rebel­lions in the States. Loret­ta Ross men­tions it. But even though there is an empha­sis on activism and moth­er­ing in the book, soci­ety shift­ed while we were work­ing on the book.

APG: I think I read it dif­fer­ent­ly. Arielle Julia Brown has the piece “Love Balm for My Spir­itChild,” which is an excerpt from a per­for­mance prac­tice. It’s specif­i­cal­ly about moth­ers respond­ing to police bru­tal­i­ty and was in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Oscar Grant’s moth­er and grand­moth­er. Not to say our soci­ety is not always shift­ing, but I think the things that we’re talk­ing about are things that may be more vis­i­ble at cer­tain times, but are not actu­al­ly new in the time­line of our book. The recog­ni­tion of the work that moth­ers are doing has been lack­ing, and there has been a break­through on that vis­i­bil­i­ty. But I don’t think that it’s because it was­n’t there, and I don’t think the book ignored that.

CM: I think of being from Bal­ti­more, and of Fred­die Gray. So many young Black men are mur­dered in my city all the time. I remem­ber talk­ing to Mae­gan Ortiz—“La Mami­ta Mala”—at the Allied Media Con­fer­ence about her being an ear­ly mamí blog­ger. Her whole polit­i­cal con­scious­ness came up with moth­ers who had lost their chil­dren to police vio­lence. There’s always police vio­lence and chil­dren being killed. But things have been chang­ing-with a cell phone, you can cap­ture an image, and you can say, look, this real­ly hap­pened. So the audi­ence has got­ten bigger.

AMG: What was the edit­ing process like? There is this very raw feel­ing through­out a lot of the pieces. You can tell peo­ple are try­ing to take care of their kids at the same time that they’re try­ing to write down notes.

APG: It’s so beau­ti­ful that peo­ple wrote and sent things for this. We took it real­ly seri­ous­ly. So many are wait­ing to hear the sto­ries of moth­ers who have been exclud­ed from a priv­i­leged def­i­n­i­tion of moth­er. What would be our con­tri­bu­tion to the huge ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion about what moth­er­ing is? When work­ing with the authors, we oper­a­tional­ized edit­ing as an act of love. I learned this from Jess [Hoff­mann], in terms of her edi­to­r­i­al work with make/shift. In its best sense, edit­ing is a form of labor that is informed by exact­ly how we think about rev­o­lu­tion­ary moth­er­ing. What does it mean to affirm the exis­tence of some­thing, and the pur­pose, and to then be a sup­port in that? It felt like that type of work, which is inti­mate in a par­tic­u­lar way. There was this bal­ance-some of the con­trib­u­tors are peo­ple that we work with, we col­lab­o­rate with, we orga­nize with, we love, we’ve writ­ten with togeth­er. There’s an inti­ma­cy there. But there’s also an inti­ma­cy with peo­ple we did­n’t know per­son­al­ly. It’s inter­est­ing to now be col­lab­o­rat­ing on events around the book, to meet some ofthese peo­ple for the first time. They shared inti­mate parts of who they are, and we lived inside of those. I’ve been changed by each of the pieces. We were the first audi­ence for a lot of these pieces. Before they could trans­form any­one else’s lives, they were trans­form­ing us and the peo­ple who wrote them. The edit­ing process is trans­for­ma­tion­al not only because change hap­pens to what was ini­tial­ly writ­ten, but it also changes us edi­tors, and not just because sev­en years have passed. We’re dif­fer­ent peo­ple because of the types of rev­e­la­tions and risks and brav­ery and vulnerability.

MW: My daugh­ter was three years old in 2011, while the sub­mis­sions were com­ing in. All the pieces that I most grav­i­tat­ed towards spoke to what I was going through at the moment: hav­ing a kid, hav­ing a life, try­ing to write, try­ing to make it all some­how come togeth­er. You’re attempt­ing to do moth­er­ing in an authen­tic way, and you’re attempt­ing to still have a voice out in the world. I think that’s a ten­sion main­tained with­in the book. In the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, with­in neolib­er­al cap­i­tal­ism, moth­er­ing is sup­posed to be a pri­vate act done with­in the nuclear fam­i­ly. There’s this idea that when you have a child, all of a sud­den you are very domes­ti­cat­ed and hid­den off from the world, except for moments when you show off a per­fect pub­lic face. There was an incred­i­ble amount of emo­tion­al vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty as writ­ers opened up that space and showed what it actu­al­ly looks like, and doing so when you’re not white and mid­dle-class and het­ero­sex­u­al, so that your inside looks the way it’s sup­posed to when you show it messy and bro­ken and hard. As an edi­tor, I was always look­ing for that sto­ry that is mul­ti­lay­ered and complex. 

CM: The edit­ing process is intense—the rad­i­cal love, the co-moth­er­ing as three edi­tors, the brave­ness of every­body who con­tributed and sent in some­thing, the brave­ness of every­body who writes and sends it some­where. Some­times the book felt like it could just fly away and nev­er be made. With this book, I was hop­ing to share some of the things that I’ve learned. I’m a very rough writer who’s pub­lished myself. I’m from a zine back­ground of fight­ing for my own space, for my own writ­ing. As you get old­er, and as you achieve any­thing, you try to pass it for­ward to others.

AMG: What was your biggest take­away from this process for your own moth­er­ing acts?

CM: My biggest take­away is the devel­op­ment I need to do of myself in the world. Writ­ing is also a pri­vate act. You can start writ­ing in your diary or your phone or dif­fer­ent places. But there’s so much stuff hap­pen­ing with writ­ing and read­ing in Bal­ti­more, and I want to be more keyed into that. It’s not even about moth­er­ing per se, maybe it’s like nur­tur­ing read­ing and writ­ing in Baltimore.

MW: It’s a cycle. I had the idea, even two years ago, that some­how this cycle of the invis­i­bil­i­ty of the prac­tice and the dai­ly act of moth­er­ing would be bro­ken. It feels like that nev­er actu­al­ly hap­pens. I’m a rel­a­tive­ly strong-willed per­son. If I want some­thing, I’ll nor­mal­ly go and get it. But it’s incred­i­ble how much those cycles and pat­terns per­pet­u­ate them­selves. Even with this book, when I look at it I think, my god, it took us sev­en years to do it. And so much of that work that you do, even with the book itself, is so invis­i­ble. I’m try­ing to find a place to sit with the book, with moth­er­ing. The next project I work on, anoth­er book on repro­duc­tive jus­tice, I think I can come into a bit more wis­dom about what that’s going to look like in the end.

APG: Being on the tour, and shar­ing the book with peo­ple, and real­iz­ing how pro­found­ly I’ve been moth­ered by all the con­trib­u­tors to the book and by y’all as coed­i­tors, and artic­u­lat­ing over and over again what’s at stake for me in this, has put a lot of clar­i­ty around daugh­ter­ing. And I nev­er thought about daugh­ter as a verb, even though I’ve been think­ing about moth­er­ing. What is vision­ary daugh­ter­ing in rela­tion­ship to rev­o­lu­tion­ary moth­er­ing? What does it look like for me as an adult daugh­ter? I’m called to re-vision what daugh­ter­ing means right now, because of the stage that my par­ents and men­tors are in their lives and afterlives.

AMG: There’s a for­ward move­ment in this book. The focus is on moth­er­ing and look­ing for­ward to the future. This seemed very inten­tion­al in the orig­i­nal call for papers.

MW: I want­ed to cre­ate the book that I wish I had when I was first preg­nant. There is a lot of work around daugh­ters talk­ing about their moth­ers. This Bridge Called My Back was main­ly daugh­ters to moth­ers, look­ing upward that way. Most of us have com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ships with our moth­ers. But there isn’t a lot of work, espe­cial­ly by mar­gin­al­ized moth­ers, talk­ing about the actu­al act of moth­er­ing, the act and the prac­tice of day-to-day grit and the feel of being a moth­er. Pick­ing the pieces for the anthol­o­gy was a real­ly expe­ri­en­tial process. I want­ed that feel­ing of being inside of some­one else’s skin, of get­ting a feel of what the tex­ture of being a moth­er feels like, out­side of the ide­al­ized forms, in a way that allowed for moth­ers to be com­pli­cat­ed human beings doing com­pli­cat­ed work.

APG: It’s com­plet­ing a cir­cle. In the book, we say how what we’re call­ing “moth­er” is old. It’s old­er than the cat­e­go­ry “woman.” It’s old­er than any­thing. As long as humans exist there is some form of moth­er­ing, some form of mak­ing life pos­si­ble. At the same time, it’s also more futur­is­tic than any of those cat­e­gories that we have at this moment. That’s part of what’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary about it. So when you talk about for­ward move­ment, it’s that inter­con­nec­tion. That’s what folks did in the ’70s and ’80s, when fem­i­nists of col­or were artic­u­lat­ing who they were-they drew on their moth­ers in a par­tic­u­lar way and thought about what moth­er­ing was, thought about domes­tic space. That artic­u­la­tion is some­thing they can call back on, not just the nar­ra­tives that have been cre­at­ed for and about them as women, in a def­i­n­i­tion of woman that was struc­tured to repro­duce white­ness and patri­archy. It was time for us to com­plete the cir­cle and say, okay, every­body has been mothered.

CM: I love that you saw this motion in the book to go for­ward. We held on so tight­ly to make this book happen—it was this huge act of faith and belief. But we believe in our­selves and each oth­er and the sto­ries and what we think is true. The work here fol­lows a tra­di­tion of wom­en’s let­ters to each oth­er. Peo­ple will find it real­ly val­i­dat­ing and empow­er­ing. That’s the for­ward motion: we’re try­ing to gath­er up all the wis­dom and all the beau­ty in order to evolve. Alex­is always talks about evo­lu­tion. Like, “We’re going to save the plan­et.” But it needs to be a push too. This book is going from the past to the future. It very clear­ly had a mis­sion. ☀︎

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