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Hoodmommas: Reviving African Traditions of Mothering

Mario’s plastic shotgun is tucked away in a hole in the wall of my basement. Every now and then, when I’m on my way up the stairs from the laundry room, the orange barrel catches my eye and a tiny tinge of guilt pulls at me. But I am strong and shake it off quick with a maternal smile. I naturally know what is good for him. Two summers ago I snatched this dreadful toy from the sidewalk where it lay during a break from Mario’s play. I had chastised him over and over again about the dangers of pointing it at cars and offered him alternatives to his shoot-’em-up and leave-’em-dead games. Of course, he was hardheaded and wouldn’t listen. I confiscated his toy and never told anyone. My mother instinct assures me it was the right thing to do. Funny thing is, I am not his mother. But I am his othermother and take collective responsibility for his upbringing. I have always been curious about this inherent nerve black women possess, this unspoken permission to parent other people’s children. It is a lost art that we must revive for the sake of healing our communities. I grew up in the south among women, blood related and otherwise who all had a say in my daily life. I had several women to answer to. I was raised with many eyes watching me and a gathering of mother spirits who kept me in the fold when my mother was physically or emotionally absent. This practice strengthened the weak spots in my family life and fostered my connection to the larger community. I firmly believe that motherhood was never meant to be a private responsibility. In most African societies, past and present, mothering stretches beyond biology. Black motherhood was once a fluid and ever-accommodating network of shared mothering. Momma was the central warm belly of the village that all would come to for nourishment and comfort. Mother was every woman, and her arms stretched wide enough for everyone, no matter what her circumstances or means. Unfortunately, we have allowed ourselves to be nearly severed from our greatest salvation. It is these creatively extended family relationships of othermothers, godmothers, bloodmothers, aunties, grandmas and sisters that have helped the disenfranchised diaspora endure. Community mothering has kept us together. Yet we are not tending to those cultural roots well enough. My mother says it isn’t like it used to be. Used to be an unfamiliar child would respect her word. Listen to her telling him right from wrong. These days she’s likely to get cussed out. Respect for our elders has diminished greatly among our young sons and daughters. As this aura of community mothering has faded, so has our young people’s connection to the community. The lack of community connection makes it impossible for our young people to respect themselves and the rights of others. The mob beatings and culture of youth violence that plagues Milwaukee’s inner city is a direct result of this disconnection. The socio-economic stressors that have caused women to distance themselves from collective responsibility, the adoption of Eurocentric models of parenting from over 300 years ago and this need, born from fear and desperation, to save ourselves — all have crippled our ability to heal Milwaukee’s ‘hoods as fast as we need to. We have accepted parenting as a private burden and too often leave it up to social service agencies to help us raise our children. Academics black and white alike have studied parenting from myriad angles. Scholars have made unprecedented strides and have debunked many of our old-school rules of parenting. They have the nerve to assert that our ancestors, parents and grandparents raised children on simple adages. I disagree. The respect for native folk wisdom and natural simplicity is what we need more of. The old African proverb is wisdom for a reason. It does take a village to raise a child. We don’t need more jails, social service institutions and graves to hold our sons and daughters. Families have to band together and take our children back from the streets. We must call our mothers in from the fringes of the village and restore our ancient ways of doing this sacred motherwork. We need more healthy, supported and empowered bloodmothers, othermothers, hoodmommas tending to this difficult work of community healing in Milwaukee. And I will never give my neighbor’s son back his plastic shotgun.