By Sandra Varner | OBSERVER Correspondant
We can never repay the debt owed our mothers. The true measure of their impact is most often realized in hindsight — moms deserve our highest form of appreciation and gratitude for who we’ve become.
She provides evidence of this in THE THREE MOTHERS (ISBN: 978-1-250-75612-, Flatiron Books), by author and academician, Anna Malaika Tubbs. Tubbs takes us on an extraordinary exploration of three matriarchs: Alberta King (Mother of Martin Luther King Jr), Louise Little (mother of Malcolm X), and Berdis Baldwin (mother of James Baldwin). While they and all of their sons no longer live among us, their life lessons live on.
Tubbs, a student of life and learning, earned an undergraduate degree in Anthropology at Stanford University; an MA in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies at Cambridge University and will soon add a PhD in Sociology from Cambridge.
The life partner of Michael Tubbs, former Stockton mayor and current economic advisor to Governor Gavin Newsom, Tubbs, a mother herself who’s expecting, beckons us to this critically acclaimed reflection of three iconic women whose parental and personal sacrifices gave way to historical giants.“Keeping Black people from advancing by restricting their ability to become educated has long been a strategy of oppression,” she writes in THE THREE MOTHERS. She freely discussed her life journey.
Q: What is your earliest memory of self-awareness and self worth?
A: I would say my parents were always very big on speaking to us about our identity and allowing us to ask questions about anything. They allowed us to be very curious and open about what we were seeing and how we were experiencing the world. I was always encouraged to be myself and to explore the changes of that identity.
I lived in Dubai when I was two to six years old. I experienced a culture where it was so rich with history, tradition, and very unique traditions around the separation between men and women. I very much appreciated the fact that there were women’s clubs and men’s clubs and girls could be with other girls but also wondered why there was this divide and separation.
Q: Did your study of womanism and views on life start to crystallize from your experiences in Dubai?
A: Absolutely. I can now see the dots connecting so much more than I could have during and while I was experiencing it. The fact that I grew up in so many different places continued to influence how I saw myself in the world; how I saw my own identity and the things that I wanted for myself and the ways in which I could use those experiences to speak with other people to bring more people together and further advocate for why it’s so important to see things for yourself, firsthand.
My journey is the result of living and growing up in Dubai, Estonia, Mexico, Sweden and Azerbaijan, along with having two parents who encouraged me to question everything, ask as many questions as you want, and really find yourself in these experiences, even to the extent that they took us to many different places to practice religion. They wanted us to make decisions for ourselves from a very young age. All of us are continually evolving, but those early experiences definitely made me the person who is very confident and happy to talk to anybody and find ways to communicate with as many people as possible.
Q: How did you get to experience so much of the world?
A: My parents are lawyers. My mom grew up in the Walla Walla, Washington area. My dad was born in Ghana; he left Ghana when he was very young as a political refugee, went to Sweden and became a citizen there. They actually met in Sweden and decided they wanted to have a family, travel the world, and show us things from their perspective as well as from a global perspective. They took temporary positions, teaching abroad, wherever they could find a job teaching law. We would live somewhere maybe two years, maybe three years, four years at the most before moving on to their next position.
Q: THE THREE MOTHERS explores each subject’s aspirations and motivations, the inherent attributes that inform their existential impact as daughters, as mothers, as members of the movement; their pursuits for dignity, for commerce, for acceptance of and by Black people. Was it always these three mothers that you chose to profile in the book?
A: My relationship with these mothers, in that sense, has been relatively short. I didn’t know much about them when I started my PhD. I didn’t have them in my proposal. When I was applying for my PhD program, I was generally interested in telling black women’s stories that had been forgotten. And there were so many stories that we could have chosen. Many (Black women’s) contributions are erased, not paid attention to, not given the credit they deserve; but I was very inspired by Margo Lee Shetterly’s HIDDEN FIGURES. I knew I wanted to be somebody who also found “hidden figures” and gave them the spotlight they deserved. When I started the PhD, I began to think of all the different layers of erasures I could address in one project. Thoughts about the many different parts of this horrible problem of erasing stories that still persists —not giving somebody the recognition they deserve.
Assessing how many of those things could I challenge in one project? So I thought about the civil rights movement. I thought about this moment in history we’re in now, crucial to our understanding of the world that we cite over and over again, that we so often speak from the perspective of our male leaders. And we don’t really say much about others who were involved — it’s very male centered perspective. I knew I was going to do something around re-examining the civil rights movement. I also thought about roles in our society that are overlooked and not celebrated in the way I believe they should be. Going back to my mother and something she always said to us everywhere that we lived, “Pay attention to how women are doing in each of these communities. That’s how you’ll know ‘how’ the community is doing.”
She would always say, “The better the women and specifically mothers are doing, the more they’re supported, the more protections and resources they have, the better overall that this country and society will do.” I’ve always carried that in the back of my mind and thought it would be a very interesting perspective to pursue. And I wondered had anybody done this kind of project before — mothers of civil rights heroes. There was obviously all this talk happening around the mothers of the movement —mothers whose children had been murdered at the hands of police violence, for the most part. And I thought, okay, I want to think about black mothers in a way where it’s not only focused on their grief, not only focused on when we see them once they’ve lost their child, but also thinking about the ways in which they brought life into the world.
How they found joy and were thriving despite all of the attacks against them. And my thoughts continued; I was reminded of the iconic historical personalities that everybody reveres and celebrates. The luminaries we love that come up constantly in conversation. I fixed my thinking on the women who reared these luminaries. The selection process was really a journey, step-by-step, narrowing down the many options in which I could find “hidden figures.” Alberta (King), Louise (Little), and Berdis (Baldwin) found me in a lot of ways. I found them by narrowing down the choices and being intentional about what I was trying to accomplish in terms of challenging erasure of these important stories.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Sandra Varner is an Oakland-based writer. She be reached a Varnerpr@sbcglobal.net.