Anna Malaika Tubbs is looking to right a wrong. Her new book, “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation,” does precisely what its title promises and explores the lives of the three mothers of prominent civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Malcom X. These women, Alberta Williams King, (Emma) Berdis Jones and Louise Little respectively, were largely ignored by history, shrouded in the shadows of their sons’ accomplishments, a slight “The Three Mothers” hopes to correct. Often, if the women are mentioned alongside other leaders during the civil rights era, it is in the context of their lives as mothers and wives — not as autonomous women who have their own, more private purposes in life.
Though it is clear through the words of their children that all of these women had a profound impact on their families, history often neglects to consider the events and people that shaped the three. After all, King, Baldwin and X all had to receive their determination and tenacity from somewhere. In school, we learn about the circumstances that started the civil rights movement, and we might do a deep dive into the lives of the leaders, but in all the history I have been taught the mothers never got more than a passing mention.
Author Tubbs is aware of history’s deliberate ignorance of Black women and is sick of it. The book opens in 2019, with her serendipitously realizing that she is pregnant shortly after attending the Frederick Douglass 200 Awards Gala with her husband. Pregnancy test in hand, the worries and fears of discrimination and brutality in an unjust world plagued the author, where story after story of Black pain has been told repeatedly. While on maternal leave, the author pursued her fieldwork, and in her journey to “honor Black motherhood as a whole,” Tubbs was able to find comfort in the lives of three strong Black mothers.
“The Three Mothers” is divided into eight parts, not including the introduction and conclusion. Each part takes us on a chronological journey of the lives of the women, starting not only with their own parents but also the location and the land on which they were born. This in-depth look into the backgrounds of the women makes the women real. They are not simply names on a page, but people who lived their own lives and had their own thoughts and ideas.
My favorite part about the book was the exploration of the intersectionality between the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements. White suffragettes dehumanized Black men as a tool of persuasion and abandoned Black suffragettes, an act that was cruel in its duplicity and deliberateness. The intersectionality of feminism and Black rights cannot be ignored. However, despite often leading the fight for change, Black women were always betrayed: by the white women who took their offered hands to pull them up only to climb over their shoulders, by the white men who hypersexualized them, by the Black men who ignored their pains and the society that blamed them for all of it.
Another point explored was the generational overlap between the veterans of the world wars, victims of and witnesses to the horrors of the KKK, the great migrators, participants and patrons of the Harlem Renaissance and more. The presence of Black trauma that spanned decades (centuries really) in Black families culminated into the breaking point that was the civil rights movement. I use the word “was” reluctantly because, as Tubbs shows through George Floyd’s dying words in the introduction, the fight was never won and has never ended; rather, it has turned into a modern problem, with medieval origins.
While Tubbs did a fantastic job of relating stories about Black history, there were moments where the author seemed to present her opinion as a fact. Frequently, Tubbs speculated on the emotions, feelings and standings on various aspects of the lives of the women using phrases like “as I am sure” or “it is fair to say.” Phrases such as these preceded descriptions that I would immediately discard as an opinion because they were formed based on speculation.
Even more, there is a discussion about domestic violence and mental illness that, though the author claims to not defend domestic abuse, is gently pardoned and in a way romanticized. For example, Tubbs writes that Jones’ strength came partly from tolerating her husband’s “odd ways.”
The conclusion was bittersweet. Of course, we know how it must end, with the three mothers surviving their children. Still, the tales of strength and resilience throughout the book make it so that to pity these women would be to insult them. This story does not end in tragedy but in a show of determination and faith that must be admired. We begin and end with the author reflecting on the injustices faced by Black women, mothers, and their children, like the murders of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner by those who claimed to be perpetrators of justice. Black cis and trans women are, to this day, still disproportionally affected by high incarceration domestic violence and murder rates.
Tubbs acknowledges the statistics and struggles that Black women and mothers face, and she ends “The Three Mothers” with a specific call to action for us: Black women and mothers are more than the little that history chooses to give us, so we must be everything for ourselves that the world refuses to be.
“The Three Mothers” does more than present a history that has been buried and forgotten. Rather, it strives to give life to and assign a personality to the three women behind the most prominent civil rights leaders. “The Three Mothers” explores the Black woman herself and calls on her to stand strong and tall with the knowledge of the Black mothers who walked before them.
Osasere Ewansiha is a writer in the greater Houston area who specializes in media reviews. Find more of her work
on either https://SpillTheTale.com or https://OsasereE.com
Read more of the Nov. 10-16, 2021 issue.