The Dangers of Mothering While Black

Jazmine Headley. Photo: AP

It is impossible to be a black mother in America without being reminded at least a few times per month — if not per week, or per day, or even per hour — that a single interaction with police could result in assault, arrest, long-term separation from your children, or death.

This is because of cases like Jazmine Headley’s. According to ABC 7, last Friday the 23-year-old mother sat on the floor of a Human Resources Administration office in Brooklyn. She’d been waiting for hours to obtain a day-care voucher, Headley’s mother, Jacqueline Jenkins, told ABC, so she could work as a cleaner. Because no chairs were available in the waiting area, she sat on the ground with her 1-year-old son in her lap.

At some point, security guards apparently told Headley to stand. A verbal dispute followed, and someone called the police. A witness recorded what happened next, as four officers struggled to pull Headley’s son from her arms. In the video, Headley repeatedly screams, “They’re hurting my son!” while clutching him. An onlooker repeats, “Look what they’re doing to her!” Additional witnesses are shown recording the disturbing scene. After pulling on the baby with steadily increasing force, the police succeed in separating mother and child. Headley is then arrested and charged, according to the New York Times, with “resisting arrest, acting in a manner injurious to a child, obstructing governmental administration and trespassing.”

I’m accustomed to reading through the fine print in cases like these. A lot of black mothers are. We need to know what, if anything, escalated the police interaction to violence and arrest. We ask ourselves: Will we also have our children ripped from our embrace? Could we also end up in a prison cell, release date unknown? But in the end, fine-tooth-combing the circumstances is futile. It doesn’t really matter who called the police or what the mother said to security or who deemed whom aggressive.

The escalation and the criminalization of black parents begins long before the police are called. It begins with bias. It begins with the perception of black mothers as undeserving of a chair in a social services waiting room or the notion that a black mom is combative if she does not respond favorably to security approaching her because she is sitting on the floor. Sitting on the floor is not a crime. There are, almost always, alternatives to snatching a baby from his mother’s arms during a verbal disagreement.

Bias toward black mothers is cross-racial, as journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones noted on Twitter. “Those pointing out that the workers and police were black,” she writes, “I pose this question: Would black workers have called the police on a white mom for doing this and would black police have handled a white mom this way? Black people are indoctrinated into white supremacy as well.”

Finding a folding chair for mother and child would’ve been the obvious solution. This, of course, would only have occured to someone inclined to show compassion to black mothers. There is nothing we can do to make someone treat us with human dignity when they’ve predetermined we don’t deserve it. When you already know that someone doesn’t find you worthy of a chair — or even of a spot on the floor — you’re acutely aware of how inevitable aggression is. You know that maintaining your composure will not ensure that your opponent will maintain theirs.

I haven’t been inside a social services office since my daughter was a newborn, eight years ago. Unlike Jazmine Headley, I was able to go alone, while my mother kept my daughter at home. I was there to retain our existing Medicare benefits and apply for food assistance, and I was fortunate to encounter only one condescending worker. All too often, people assess public need as a personal failure, something that could be avoided by better decision-making, and too many of those who work in social services also subscribe to this belief. I was fortunate that the worker I encountered was only condescending, not menacing. Women in need live every day in fear of unnecessary menace.

After her arrest, Headley was taken to Rikers, where she remained for days with no bail set. Since then, the charges have been dropped and she has been released. On her first night at home, she briefly addressed reporters. “I’m just so grateful to everyone,” she said. “I’m so happy to be free, and I just need to see my boy.” To foreground gratitude and happiness here was an impressive show of restraint, one she should not have had to exercise. Especially when the repercussions of this incident, for both her and her son, will be ongoing.

Headley spent nearly a week incarcerated as her legal representation, Brooklyn Defender Services, worked hard to ensure her eventual freedom and set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for her son’s child care. It is their efforts and this case’s heightened profile, aided by cell phone video recordings, that have ensured this much progress in Headley’s case. Without the kindness of strangers, she easily could have been facing a longer prison stay.

Without the kind of public intervention and opposition a cell phone video can bring, injustices remain pervasive and unchecked. In her 2017 report about black women and police violence, scholar Michelle S. Jacobs wrote, “State violence against Black women is long-standing, pervasive, persistent, and multilayered, yet few legal actors seem to care about it.” Jacobs goes on to cite the rate of arrest for black women as being 2.8 times that of white women. It used to be even higher — six times higher — in 2000. Even with a marked decline, we’re still at a much higher risk of criminalization.

It’s strange to feel heartened when someone who should never have been arrested is released. Relief and gratitude are emotions we should not have to feel. Rage at the initial injustice and a redoubled resolve to prevent future occurrences of such events should be enough to hold our full attention. But we are expected to celebrate “happy” endings like Headley’s. Every day, black women mother with this reality in mind. We hear about cases like Jazmine Headley’s often enough to feel on edge and on guard near-constantly. And when everyone is still alive when the dust settles, it’s supposed to be enough. It is not enough.

The only thing that mitigates my anger and anxiety is the belief that, at some point, more legal actors will care about the state violence done to black women. At some point, we won’t have to cycle through a gamut of unnatural emotions. We won’t have to consider a new mother exceeding a GoFundMe goal an ideal outcome. Admittedly, it’s difficult to imagine. But the more incidents that begin to be resolved due to public outcry, the more visible the invisible struggle against police violence becomes. Someday, perhaps, it will become safer to be a black mother in public.

Jazmine Headley and the Danger of Mothering While Black