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. ☀︎