On Mother’s Day, I was 22 weeks pregnant with my first child. I had recently begun to feel my son moving inside me — a son for whom I already felt immense love. It should have been a day of celebration for me. But Mother’s Day is also when the nation first learned about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased by two white men and shot in the street. I could not stop thinking about his mother’s pain.
From 2013 through 2019, about 2,000 Black people were killed by police, according to the researchers who maintain the Mapping Police Violence database — a number that doesn’t even include those like Arbery who died at the hands of vigilantes. I imagined what Mother’s Day must be like for all their mothers.
As a Black woman, I often wonder when my unborn son will be old enough to be seen as a threat rather than as a child. Tamir Rice was only 12 years old when he was shot by police within seconds of their arrival at the playground where Rice was playing with a toy gun. The video of police shooting Tamir, then tackling his screaming sister to the ground before she could hold her dying brother, was one of the most soul-wrenching things I had ever seen. The police made no attempt to revive little Tamir because in their eyes, his life did not matter. Black lives have never mattered in this country.
When my husband and I decided to have a child, we did not make the decision lightly. In addition to our fear of raising a Black child in a society full of racial injustice, we also weighed the risk to my health, and my life. We live in a country where Black women on average are three to four times more likely than white women to die in childbirth because of individual and systemic racism (racial bias in medical treatment of Black patients; hypertension and other indicators of stress related to racial discrimination; redlining and other discriminatory practices restricting where Black women can live, work, shop for groceries, etc.) I spent the beginning of my pregnancy interviewing OB-GYNs to see if they took seriously the disparities that Black women face and had protocols for mitigating them. I wanted to know if they saw my life as having as much value as their white patients’ lives.
Then COVID-19 arrived, bringing a whole new set of worries. Throughout March, I endured sleepless nights as panic attacks suffocated any hope of rest or relaxation. But as the general COVID-inspired fears slowly began to retreat, they were replaced by the much more visceral distress that lies at the intersection of COVID and white supremacy. It was becoming more and more clear that Black communities would bear the brunt of and suffer most from COVID’s rampage. What would that mean for me, as a Black pregnant woman?
However, the fear I feel for myself pales in comparison to the fear I have for my child. The public execution of George Floyd, the unfathomable and preventable killing of Breonna Taylor, and the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery have reminded me that my biggest job as a mother will be protecting my son from a world that would rather he not exist.
How will I console him the first time he is called the n-word? I was eight the first time it happened to me and remember it as if it were yesterday. That little white boy who cursed me hated me so much but had no idea why. It was just something he had been taught.
At what age should I warn my baby about dealing with the police and explain everything he must do to ensure his safety? I was 15 when I witnessed my first boyfriend kowtow to a racist cop in such a heartbreaking way just so he could survive the encounter. How do I prepare my child for the reality that the people who are supposed to protect him can also pose the most danger?
But first, I need to make sure that he makes it into this world. On nights I manage to sleep, I am up by 5 a.m., jolted awake by incessant thoughts of Black death in a country that refuses to enact meaningful change. How do I shield my unborn child from this negative energy, energy I fear he feels within me as he enjoys sanctuary in my womb for only a few more months?
Heartache should be added to the list of comorbidities that make us more susceptible to death. When one of our children dies, we all grieve and wonder whose child will be next. Such is the nature of Black motherhood. My anxieties around navigating COVID while pregnant are immense, but anti-Black racism will always be the most dangerous pandemic.
Meditation and therapy have somewhat helped assuage my anxieties about Black motherhood, but I wonder if they are enough. I just keep reminding myself that 400 years of brutal and calculated assault have not brought on Black people’s extinction. Ours is not just a story of pain. It is one of survival. I will do my best to bring my son into a world where he not only survives, but also feels loved, cherished, and supported in all the ways he deserves. That is my vow to him as a Black mother.
Maya Angela Smith is an associate professor in the Department of French and Italian Studies at the University of Washington and the author of “Senegal Abroad.”