Blog Post

Anna Malaika Tubbs: On Celebrating Black Motherhood, and Creating a Social Justice-Driven Portfolio

Published February 16, 2022 | by Meg Vandervort | 14 mins read
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At Groundswell, we are privileged to talk to a wide range of individuals about philanthropy in all its forms.  That is why we are so grateful to have had the opportunity to speak with New York Times best-selling author of The Three Mothers, Anna Malaika Tubbs. The Three Mothers shines a light on mothers Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin, who raised and shaped Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X., and James Baldwin. The book celebrates their legacy and Black motherhood which has shaped much of American history. Anna believes in supporting philanthropic organizations that recognize the importance of motherhood, particularly for black women in America. 

Thanks for joining us, Anna. It’s an honor to speak with you. You begin your book by outlining your personal tie to three very incredible mothers — Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin — and how their history spans over the past century. That’s incredible. What ultimately led you to exploring these three incredible women in particular?

It was done out of curiosity, and it was a sort of elimination process, in the sense that I knew I wanted to do a project like Hidden Figures, Margot Lee Shetterly’s book. I wanted to be a person who discovered other hidden figures; other black women whose tales we should have known all along but had been lost, erased, or hidden.

I had an amazing mother who was always talking about the significance of celebrating mothers and paying more attention to the crucial role that moms play in our society. 

So I’ve always had this idea in my head that I’m going to do something about black mothers who should have been known.

I wanted to focus on the civil rights movement because it comes up so frequently in our policy debates and other discussions. I whittled it down to these three since they were born within six years of each other, and their famous kids were born within five years of each other. This brought them together over time without reducing their complexity and diversity, while celebrating their differences; each chapter covers ten years of their lives.

What I think is so great about your book is your approach to research, and how you were so honest about what information you could find and what you could not. The absence of history is equally as important. That said, you talk about the erasure of Black Women in history, especially through the eyes of Alberta, Louise, and Berdis. Even through your initial research it was hard to nail down exact details like birthdays, and you say Berdis’s name wasn’t even listed in the US. Census. For those who are unaware, can you outline why this Is so important to explore this history and how it better informs us today?

The research process was really difficult, and I’d like to point out that this was also the subject of my PhD dissertation, so this is completely original research.

I needed to dig for every single detail that I uncovered, and even if I found a small nugget of information, I needed to push further to understand the context behind it. 

Also, I needed to remember that a lot of what I was finding had been filtered via men, typically white men, who recounted these stories quite differently from how I would. 

So it was highly complicated, requiring a variety of procedures such as contacting local historians, searching census data, locating land deed, birth certificates, death certificates, and interviewing family members. 

I’m doing my best to fill in the blanks with information from documents I discover. But it is a reminder to us, first and foremost, of how we value various lives in different ways.

I like to speak about each of our lives as if they are puzzles, and certain puzzles we put together, frame, and hang, either on a mantel or on a wall, to treasure, marvel at, celebrate, and honor. 

Then there are the puzzles that we just leave on the ground; every time we move, we leave some pieces in one house, we may throw them away, or the dog may chew on them; no one is ensuring that we retain this information, notice it, or care about it. So I was there, putting the puzzle pieces together.

What I believe is important is that we do this for more people; each story does matter, especially when we see how black women have contributed everything they could to the progression of this nation.

Unfortunately, we continue to disregard their lives, saying, your history doesn’t matter, your contributions don’t matter. As a result, we’ve arrived at a point where we don’t understand what’s going on in our country. We believe that all of these instances of sexism and racism, the intersectionality of the two, as well as the many other isms with which it intersects, occur at random or independently of one another, rather than as a product of years and years of devaluing lives.

It’s done through systems, regulations, and extremely strategic tactics to eliminate people in order to keep those puzzle parts scattered and concealed. So I simply want more of us to take on that project.  I don’t want this to be the only book about the three of them. I was declaring that they are worthy of study, worthy of celebration, and worthy of being on the cover of a book. Because what they deserve, in my opinion, was to be seen, celebrated, and honored.

Speaking especially of Alberta, Louise, and Berdis’ stories, what surprised you when writing your book, and what was left out of their history?

When I first came up with the idea, I merely wanted to recognize them as individuals with their own interesting lives. I knew they’d be not just intriguing, but also valuable to our society in the ways they were generating life beyond their children through activism and creativity. I wasn’t trying to argue that since Alberta [King] did this, Martin [Luther King] did this—I wasn’t trying to emphasize the sons in that way. But every piece of information madethe relationship and connections so evident, they’re  undeniable.

Even if I didn’t tell you their names and only described the women based on their passions and approach to fighting for freedom, you’d be able to connect them with their sons. Even if you only know a little bit about the sons.Those are the instances where it’s surprising we didn’t already know their names.

Moms affect their children in a variety of ways, and you can’t dispute it in these three cases.

Because you almost had to work at separating them, it made the erasure even more infuriating. You must purposefully leave out the fact that they are linked. During the course of writing this book, I discovered that the sons did give credit to their mothers. So it’s not really their fault; rather, it’s those of us who have researched them and determined that they don’t fit our racist patriarchal view of who matters. Those who have said,  we’ll leave that as a footnote but we’re not going to center it in the way you believe it should be centered in the record.

You talk about how the media played a role in the erasure of these women’s stories, which essentially shaped what the narratives would become. How does this affect those that are intentionally being erased?

This is a fantastic segue for me to speak about my TED talk, because it’s all about storytelling and how we follow the stories that we’re told and how our policy reflects that. In the TED talk, I address the way we talk about moms in the stories we share, not only on an interpersonal level, but in media and in literature. We thank moms for being selfless and putting everyone else’s needs ahead of their own.

Moms themselves then believe they should be individuals who don’t have their own needs and don’t have their own identities.

That can be excruciatingly painful, frustrating, and confusing. It also expands on the stories we’re telling in the media that don’t highlight the contributions of mothers. We as a society believe that mothers are exclusively important in the domestic sphere, or we take those contributions for granted, or employers will try to fire mothers because they believe they are distracted, even though there is no evidence to support this.

Then we see that when it comes to voting for policies that could actually help moms and provide them the support and resources they need for their important job, we can’t get them passed because people don’t seem to believe they’re required. So, if you don’t believe the role is important, or that it is easy, you’re not going to vote for things like parental leave.

We live in a country that does not value motherhood; we do not have affordable childcare, universal preschool, or even universal health care, all of which overlap with the role of motherhood. During the pandemic, we saw many women, particularly moms of color, leave their work because they had no other option. I do believe that a lot of that stems from our cultural understanding of motherhood; if more of us understood the essential nature of the job, stay-at-home moms, for example, what they do for all of us, not just for their children, but for all of us day in and day out, it would be easy for us to say, “Yeah, let’s vote for those things. We need that,” so I want us to see more stories that represent mothers accurately and their role more appropriately.

Out of curiosity, are you aware of any other cultures outside of America that properly values motherhood?

We’ve seen these rankings in terms of maternal health and motherhood happiness in the United States, which is really low when compared to other countries. We have a maternal health problem that is disproportionately affecting black women and women of color, but it also affects all women; women are dying at higher rates in this country. That is something that we should all be very concerned about.

Mothers are reporting higher levels of postpartum depression, they’re burning out, they’re exhausted.

They feel like there’s something wrong with them, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to take care of all of this, and then not be thanked for it. As if it’s okay to be invisible.

Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, for example, have models and policies that we may replicate in the United States. Scandinavia has a more homogeneous culture than the United States; we have a lot more diversity here. However, this does not preclude the adoption of universal parental leave or the distribution of baby boxes in the United States. 

In Sweden, for example, parents receive a package including the fundamental necessities that they will require when raising a child. That is something we could do in the United States. We could create daycare centers in companies so that if parents do return to work outside the home, they may bring their children with them to the same location, which would increase production for the entire company.

There are many bits and pieces and policies from other countries that I believe we can still apply to the United States, despite the fact that our population is considerably more diverse than that of most other countries.

What organizations would you include now in your own giving portfolio for advocacy work, particularly around motherhood?

The first one I think of is Black Mama’s Matter. In the United States, black women, particularly black moms, are still considered as less than human beings. Their effort to build this alliance of people with diverse knowledge, backgrounds, and experiences to address the core causes of black maternal health and the black mother’s experience in the United States is critical.

I wanted to write about black mothers because the dehumanization is evident when you look at the relationship between our country and black mothers in the United States – mothers being refused basic treatment, denied human respect, and being treated with a lack of basic decency.

I also really love the work of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. It’s in San Francisco, and it works with women who have been impacted by various systems, such as incarceration or juvie. All of these other things that have locked our young women of color away and then blamed them for their experiences, rather than the systems that have pushed them to the margins and forgotten about them and tried to ignore them. Through working with the center, they can reclaim their identity and use their voice.

Essie Justice Group is another. It is led by a friend of mine. We see that the cost of having a loved one in prison is quite high, and black women are spending a lot of their money paying into this mass incarceration system in the United States. Instead of addressing the various issues that lead to them being taken away and locked up, we continue to place that burden on the shoulders of black women. So anything that relieves that weight, anything that reminds us that this isn’t just a black woman’s problem to fix, but that it will affect our entire nation is work that I support and a message that I try to elevate.

If we can come together and really focus on the experience of black women, it will be beneficial to us all.

All of those organizations sound incredible. What is your process of finding which organizations to support around a cause?

I like to begin by asking why we want to talk about black women, and by discussing the legislation that has existed from the beginning of slavery and states that black women are the producers of property rather than the producers of life. It is important to understand that  from the start, the idea that a black person’s life begins as property is key to understanding the ills of our nation.

That is what we want to examine, as well as how this concept about the life of a black person has permeated so many different systems. Then we’d want to know who the organizations are that are dealing with those various systems. So whether that’s through tackling mass incarceration – which continues to say that these people are objects and not people, and we can control their lives and their lives matter less than other people’s lives – or through thinking about the American gynecological system, and how it’s based on experimenting on the bodies of enslaved black women.

I’d ask: How is all that still playing out today? Who are the organizations that recognize black women as having been viewed as less than human? What are they doing now to fight for humanity? That’s how I’d organize a portfolio.

For our last question, what advice would you give to someone who wishes to be a true ally, especially after reading your book?

That’s a great question. When the topic of allyship comes up, I remember my mother, a white woman with black children. 

She would approach me and say, “In this world, I have no idea what it’s like to be a black girl or a black woman. And I’m not going to pretend I know; I’m not going to claim to understand your experiences. But what I can say is that I believe you are worthy of the same respect and dignity that everyone else is, and I will walk with you, learn with you, and do my best to make this world a better place for you.” 

I’m paraphrasing; these are not exact words; they are a compilation of lessons learned throughout the last 29 years of my life. But this was her general approach to things, and that’s exactly what we’re looking for in allies.

We’re not expecting somebody to say, “I know what it’s like to be a black woman,” because that’s not the correct thing to say. Don’t say anything like that. It’s fine to recognize that your and mine experiences will differ in this regard. You may say “I feel you are entitled to be regarded as a human being and to have access to the same resources as I do. And I will do my part to help with that. And I will walk beside you and learn alongside you. And it shouldn’t be much more complicated than that as a result of that mindset, there will be sacrifices. And I’m not going to pretend that I understand what it’s like to be you.” I believe it is an accurate summary. And perhaps, more individuals will feel at ease embracing that charge.

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