We look to our mothers to save us from injustice and distress | Opinion
BY JANE CAPUTI, Special Contributor, Heretical Thought author of Call Your “Mutha'”: A Deliberately Dirty-Minded Manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene
In times of greatest extremity, people cry out for their mothers. George Floyd, while being tortured and then killed by a white policeman, called out “Mama.” Hearing this, many instantly wept in recognition, as this calling to the mother touched on the universal experience of infant helplessness, need for care and the hope for succor and intervention.
In her remarkable poem “Weather,” Claudia Rankine notes that the ongoing uprisings responding to systemic racism, police brutality and a gamut of related injustices are a continuing continuation of that crying out to a mother. This call is for the restoration of values of community, reciprocity, sharing, equity, caring, fairness, nourishment, love and continuance, which are very different from those of a father-first or patriarchal culture.
Patriarchal values include authority, dominance, punishment and violent enforcement. These manifest broadly in the national symbolic father figure, Donald Trump. The 45th president stands his ground as a proudly unmasked proponent of white and male supremacy. His followers cheer the rule of someone with “balls” — tough, straight, manly and white, evincing a will to hurt, and with a sure sense of his own impunity. Trump famously bragged that if he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, he would get away with it. I doubt he was thinking of that “someone” as being anyone like himself or his family.
The same patriarchal values are manifestly operative in the death of George Floyd. The white policeman killed Floyd in full view of others. He must have known that a young woman was recording him. Nonetheless, he probably expected impunity as his birthright and because he was an official enforcer of the hierarchy.
By contrasting mother-associated values to those of the patriarchal father, I am not setting up a binary opposition. Nor am I asserting that all mothers evince these qualities and values. Rather, I am describing a realizable ideal whereby the mother is not only a birth giver, but someone of any sex and gender who takes it as their calling to love, teach, help, lead, feed, console, protect, guide, decide and create family and community. This understanding of mothers and mothering power is common to human heritage and evident in many cultures, including Pueblo Native peoples and Black and Latinx trans and queer communities.
Mothers and their children are specifically endangered in the system that long has disregarded Black lives. A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted a disastrous effect of pollution and climate change on Black mothers and babies. Environmental racism enforces a reality where Black people live disproportionately in air-polluted areas. That, coupled with higher temperatures, puts pregnant women at risk of delivering premature, underweight or stillborn babies. Environmental injustices are the responsibility of the mostly white father figures who control world finance, corporations and militaries. Too often, it is just business as usual to exploit and poison peoples’ air, water, land, labor and natural resources. This, just as surely as a knee to the neck, chokes out life.
The assault against mothers extends outward to the planet, whose ancient and still telling name is Mother Earth. The conjoined philosophical, spiritual and practical meanings of that appellation is that all of us (human and non-human) issue from a common source, are connected, mutually interdependent and essentially equal — worthy of love, respect, care, safety and living in conditions that allow flourishing. This is the same message of all social justice movements.
The crisis of injustice — including racial, environmental, and sex- and gender-based — is all at once personal, community and planetary. As the righteous global uprisings demanding an end to systemic racism make clear, the time is now for a collective call to the mother. Mama. Call her. Act in her name.
Jane Caputi is the author of Call Your “Mutha’”: A Deliberately Dirty-Minded Manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene, published by Oxford University Press, 2020 in the Heretical Thought series, edited by Ruth O’Brien