For the first eight years of my life, I was raised by a single Black mother who somehow managed to work, attend college classes, and care for me without breaking a sweat. I didn’t grow up with my father. I didn’t know his name, the sound of his voice, or the scent of his aftershave. But as a child, I didn’t know that I had a reason to be bothered. My South Side Chicago neighborhood was full of kids whose mothers, grandmothers, and aunties watched over them and loved on them hard enough for fathers who weren’t always around. Single moms were the norm, and mine was extra special. She covered me in a cloak of loving extended family and friends so that even when she was at work or taking a night class, I felt safe and supported. Those black women taught me how to sew on a button, how to sit without slouching, and how to make a macaroni and cheese that will make you wish you weren’t vegan. They raised me, and I am a better person because of it.
We can look to slavery to see the beginning of a gradual separation of the Black family. Slave owners didn’t consider their slaves’ marriages legally binding or recognized by the church, which meant slaves were often sold with no consideration for the partners and children they left behind. Husbands and wives could be torn apart without warning, and many were never reunited. This separation weakened the family bond and forced Black mothers, in many cases, to become the foundation that supported their families.
Since that time, social and institutional forces have continued to play a role in keeping Black families apart, leaving Black women to pick up the slack. And they have always answered the call. They hold their families together and do more with less. They juggle work that contributes to the family’s wealth with caring for children and other household responsibilities, while deep-rooted gender and race-based income disparities make it even more challenging for households led by Black women to stay afloat. According to the Center for American Progress, Black mothers are by far the most likely to be the primary source of economic support for their families. They are more than twice as likely as white mothers to be their family’s breadwinner and over 50 percent more likely than Hispanic mothers. Those figures are even more disheartening when you consider that Black women’s median annual income was just 63.9 percent of white men’s in 2019, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.
But the Black woman’s strength is what allows her to raise healthy, happy children in spite of the challenges. Strong Black mothers raise children who feel loved and supported. They hold their babies tightly and protect them in a world that is not always ready to embrace them. And they mold them into adults who are more than ready to share what they learned with the next generation. I’ve carried the lessons I learned from Black women through to adulthood. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself repeating one of the nuggets of wisdom they shared with me to my own children. And even if they do roll their eyes when I tell them to put lotion on their elbows or remind them to place the fork on the left side of their place setting, I know that they’ll be saying the exact same things to their children one day.