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Fruits of Momma’s Labor: A Qualitative Analysis of Motherwork in Los Angeles


The term Black mother is haunted by a history of racialized colonialism, in which enslaved women were denied maternal privileges, having their children ripped from their arms and stripped from their protection. The afterlife of slavery and the cultural myths of pathological Black families created in its wake have deliberately portrayed Black women as domineering matriarchs and excessively procreating welfare mothers (Collins 2000). Blaming Black mothers and attributing the problems of the Black community to deviant parenting diverts attention away from the racist institutions and practices at the heart of racial capitalism. It allows those in power to evade their responsibility to redress pervasive discrimination in employment, education, housing, and health care.

Theories on mothering tend to lack intersectional frameworks and analysis which perpetuates white hegemonic ideals based on the normative heteropatriarchal nuclear family unit (Chodorow 1989; Hays 1996). They tend to embrace a universal model for conceptualizing motherhood that generalizes from the experiences of white, middle class families and assumes a sharp dichotomy between public and private spheres (Chodorow 1978). These family ideals remain entangled with longstanding historical notions of true womanhood that vilify mothers that do not conform to nuclear familial roles. Ignoring structural conditions, some research even blames Black mothers for the patterns of single women-headed households in urban Black families. Despite their incessant battles with institutional injustices, Black women’s profound determination to uphold their roles as mothers has proved invaluable to the survival of Black families. While intersectional theories grounded in Black feminism have contested pathological imaginaries of Black women (hooks 1981; Crenshaw 1991; Omolade 1994; Collins 2000), and empirical work on Black families has reframed and contextualized Black motherhood (Joseph and Lewis 1981; Moore 2011; Barnes 2015), there still remains a need for research that provides a space for dialogue between emerging sociohistorical concepts and the people whose lives they implicate.

This study focuses on the ways Black mothers perform motherwork, mainly through navigating their children’s engagements with educational institutions in Los Angeles. I deploy the term motherwork which was conceived by Patricia Hill Collins to discuss the ways Black mothers have historically navigated the challenges of parenting in a racist and sexist society. In an attempt to create a dialectical space for Black feminist frameworks and Black women’s experiences, I utilize in-depth, semi-structured interviews as a way of acknowledging participants as agents of knowledge production.

I identify and analyze three distinct performances of motherwork: transformative, adaptive, and integrative. My participants convey how their enactment of motherwork includes serving as both educators and advocates for their children. Essentially, they conceptualize motherwork as an educational tool that reaches far beyond the boundaries of a classroom.

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