When it comes to the melanin magic of Black motherhood, I’m not just talking about those with kids — though y’all definitely deserve a standing ovation, and then some. I’m also talking to the movement mothers raising the next generation of activists, the neighborhood candy lady who always had something sweet to say and sweet in her fridge, the Black women you’re not related to but still give off that “big momma” energy as they speak quiet affirmations over you and whisper your name during their prayers.
One person who embodies nearly all of these traits is my own momma, Ottinece Dunigan. My best friends became family in my momma’s house. I could write a novel about all the people she housed and fed in the same home where she is now helping my little sister navigate motherhood with my nephew, Zion. I’ve watched her play the role of nurturer, helper and giver at work, home and church.
Black mothers don’t just raise their own. They raise communities. Which is why they deserve rest, celebration and praise.
Mia Cooley is a New Orleans-born pansexual mom who now raises her 3-year-old daughter, Nova, in Virginia. Already a diva in her own right, Nova has two kid vehicles – a pink car AND a pink jeep. Cooley is also a community builder and parenting coach who runs an Instagram and Facebook group dedicated to increasing the visibility and support system for Black queer families.
While reading about the Black motherhood, I learned that the horror stories of the very valid black maternal mortality rate can often times suck the joy of Black motherhood. So during our Instagram Live where Cooley chatted about why she started her mission and her happiest moments with Nova.
Movements are birthed in the South and Black women are (and have been) creating the tidal waves of change for generations.
During my years of activism reporting, I’ve watched as Black veterans mother newcomers to the organizing game. So I tapped Unique Morgan Dunston, a 24-year-old activist who started the group Reclaiming Our Time last year. She has been challenging the Old South in her small, predominantly white, northeast Alabama town by protesting for the removal of Confederate symbols.
Dunston said two “movement mothers” nurtured her as Reclaiming Our Time zig zagged across the state calling for social justice. Camille Bennett is a 43-year-old veteran activist who has been happily waging war against white supremacy since high school and is mostly known for founding Project Say Something in Florence, Ala. LaTonya Tate has spent the past 20 years fighting for criminal justice reform through her organization Alabama Justice Initiative.
I chatted with all three ladies about how they empowered each other:
So, how did y’all link up at first?
Unique, about Camille: I was inspired by Project Say Something’s resilience, just hearing that they’ve been doing this for several years now and to see how motivated they were to keep going through everything that was going on last summer. Although Florence is way more “purple” than my deeply red Marshall County, (Ala.), it just gave me the hope and resilience I needed to get started.
Unique, about LaTonya: So, the first time I started to get to know LaTonya was when she organized a caravan to the governor’s mansion on August 1 to protest the construction of three new mega-prisons. It was a very loving environment, but at the same time people knew and understood why they were there, and we were there to be heard and to get justice and change for Alabama and for Alabama’s inmates.
What made y’all take Unique in as one of your own?
LaTonya: Just how tenacious she is. She’s listening to people who’ve been out here doing this work and she’s to be molded. She’s somebody that’s going to be remembered in this movement — a name that goes down in history because she really got a big fight on her hands. But I’m optimistic in what she’s doing (and) going to achieve.
How did you feel about them taking you in, Unique?
If I wanted to be a part of this movement, and to be a part of change in Alabama, there was a lot that I needed to learn and a lot that I needed to grow as a black woman. Growing up in Marshall County, I never had a Black educator of any sort. So when I was able to connect the LaTonya and Camille, they really took me in and I was just listening and trying to learn all I could from all of this beautiful wisdom and guidance they so graciously provided anyway.
What are lessons you have learned from each other?
Unique, about LaTonya: The importance of networking in this movement, but also the importance of protecting yourself and your organization. She has taught me that everybody in this movement is not your friend. In doing this work, it can be easy to get a big head and you have to often check your own ego. So, in meeting new people who also do this work, sometimes you run into people that have a big ego, and they don’t check themselves.
Camille, about Unique: I struggle with certain age, demographics—the way they communicate, the way they talk to me, the way they express themselves. A lot of times Unique is kind of like the “Generation Z whisperer.” She’ll break it down for me.
Also, there’s this bravado Unique has that I have too. But the older you get, the more jaded you get or the more experience teaches you, you get tired. So, when I organize with Unique, she has this energy. Everything is still new. She hasn’t had the same bumps and bruises as I have. So she jumps in fearlessly and then it reminds me that I can still, no matter what, do the same thing. I can forget what I think I know and just jump in fearlessly, too.
Unique, about Camille: I just always remember her telling me stories about how when she was 24 and she was not thinking about the things that I do on a daily basis in terms of organizing, connecting and meetings and all this stuff. For me, I can be a little hard on myself and she be like, “Baby girl, take a breath.”
We often talk about Black trauma in activism. What are some of your favorite moments of Black joy for y’all?
LaTonya: The caravan to the governor’s mansion was a moment of Black joy for me. We were determined that we were going to make sure we were heard when it comes to the (Alabama) governor trying to build three new mega prisons. We met people in rural areas not knowing how receptive they would be to us. It brought me joy to know we were able to go into these communities, be authentic, keep it 100 and were able to sway the mindset of people in rural areas to fight for criminal justice reform.
Camille: I spend a lot of time with Black women and children. When I see how contagious the consciousness of Black liberation is through the lens of children, I’m always like, “Oh my gosh!” Like, if I’m at a protest, and the baby shows up with the parents, I’m always done. The babies started chanting, “Take it (the Confederate monument) down! Take it down.” The movement itself is contagious. I’m always going to be over the moon excited when I see those dots connect.
And then I think about a friend of mine who saw Angela Davis, and she said, “If this work doesn’t bring you joy, then you shouldn’t be doing it.” This should not just be about the struggle and the pain. You should actually enjoy this work. And I think about it, like I literally enjoy challenging white people.
Unique: I felt pretty hopeless until I started doing this activism work myself. When I wasn’t doing the work, I said, “It is what it is. This state – this country – is not for me.” Until I realized, if that is my reality, I refuse to do nothing about it. What brings me joy is feeling and experiencing the hope that my community gives me through support, Black leadership, this motherly love I’m so fortunate to have – just the people that surround me and build me up. We check in on each other. We’re asking each other if we’re going to therapy. What can we do to help each other and when’s the last time you took a break?
Love letters to our community mommas
We reached out to our Reckon community to write love letters to their favorite Black Southern community “aunties.” Here are a few of them. If you would like to make your own shout out, you can send me their name, your name, your short love letter and a photo to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To: Mama Sanovia
From: Zsa’ssata, Bomani, Sunshine, Zakeem, & Zionne
Our Dearest Queen Mother,
We are humbled and honored that our lives have both crossed paths, and aligned with a majestical spirit such as yours. You continue to bring genuine peace, love, and balance to every soul and environment that you come into contact with. You are without a doubt, a true ambassador of hope, culture, and the everlasting Divine Feminine. Thank you for sharing your heart and spiritual healing gifts with our Village. May the Ancestors continue to guide your thoughts and steps. Love you Mama…. Ase’!
To: the late Willie T. Hunter AKA “Momma Top”
From: Lo Harris
Dear Momma Top,
When I moved to Bessemer in the early 2000s, you were one of the very first people I met, asserting yourself as the neighborhood’s grandmother. Your home was the epicenter of life on our street and a place where most folks in our community could find common connection.
For a school project, I once asked you what your hobbies were. “Church,” you said plainly. You were definitely a righteous woman, but you were much more than that. You were a small business owner and ran a beauty salon right out of your home! I spent many hours in that salon, watching you work a hot comb, shakily yet precisely, through the heads of many women.
Your second hobby was cooking. It was a well-known fact that if you wanted to eat on Sundays, you went right to the Hunter’s. If you had a sweet tooth, don’t worry because Mama Top was the community pound cake lady too!
I am so happy to have been alive on this earth at the same time as you, Mama Top. Rest in peace Mama Top. You’ve left behind a tremendous legacy and you will be missed.
Keep spreading your Black Joy, mamas! It’s blessing generations.
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Until next time!