Navigating Motherly Instincts Through “The Fierce Urgency of Now”

Last year, my then-six year old picked the book Schomburg, by Carole Boston Weatherford, for his bedtime story, and we snuggled in to learn about the incredible story of Afro-Latino historian and book collector Arturo Schomburg. In the fifth grade, Schomburg was told that Africa’s sons and daughters had no history and no achievements, but as a child, he knew better than that. Thus began a lifelong quest to learn about Africana by searching for little-known histories found in rare bookstores.

Schomburg immigrated to the US in 1891 and became an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, most notably for collecting books about the great achievements to society made by Afro-Latin Americans and African Americans, which eventually became what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

As my son and I paged through some of the important figures featured in his library, he got a spark of understanding: “Mom! This is Black Lives Matter!” He burst with this knowledge, but I wanted to understand what exactly he was thinking.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “How do you know this book is about Black Lives Matter?”

His answer floored me. I was expecting him to say something about learning about it at school, or hearing his dad and me talk about racial justice, or perhaps say something about Martin Luther King, Jr. Instead, he said, “I know because of the marches.”

It should not have surprised me to hear this. After all, experiential education offers a profoundly in-depth pathway to learning, as preached by my own husband who teaches in the environmental education field, and my son had been to two important Black Lives Matter events in our town in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder.

I suppose what was most startling to me was not that my white child, at age six, could now trace a throughline between Harriet Tubman, Arturo Schomburg, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Black Lives Matter, but rather than the spark of this connection was in large part because of my motherly instinct that told me to take this kid with me to just about every march and protest I could between 2017 and 2020, and that it had actually produced an effect of learning about both the past and the present. This, despite the words of naysayers who told me that protests were dangerous, a waste of time, or who made sure to trumpet that their work was far more important than showing up at a protest. This, despite the white whale sized white silence of so many of my white peers.

I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. My motherly instinct knew, in January 2017, that while I was ready to protest Trump’s inauguration at the Women’s March on January 21, I had just days before prioritized my own comfort on MLK Day, and it was time to right that wrong. There was guilt, shame, disgust, and also a vow to do things differently. My instinct told me that if I, a white woman, wanted to change the world, then I needed to start weaving my child, still fairly fresh and new to the world, into the long tradition of social justice organizing and return to the movements that had shaped me as a young person.

In troubled days like we’ve had, my intuition told me that while others were silent or absent, putting our white bodies in the public sphere was exactly the right action to teach a lesson on what solidarity looks like, and to help instill in his young mind an image of participatory democracy.

I didn’t yet know how far we would fall in the Trump years, but I felt Dr. King’s words rattling in my body, calling me to the fierce urgency of now, calling me to greater action, and I knew I wanted my kid to grow up not just with book learning about racial justice, but also with actions of solidarity, whether acting alone, with our church, my union, or with other community groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), not as a finishline, but as a baseline.

That my kid made the connection to Black Lives Matter on his own gave me a sense of relief, not of work that is done, because this is work that is lifelong — and to be clear, this work is not a burden, but rather work we get to do. But the relief came as a recognition that because I had honored my own motherly instincts, I am better able to pass on my values so that my white child can know deep down in his bones the power of presence, the power of our bodies congregating in the street and showing up for our Black and Brown brothers and sisters in the name of justice.

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