One of the most striking speeches at the Democratic National Convention was delivered by a group called the “Mothers of the Movement,” some of the mothers of black Americans killed at the hands of law enforcement, official or otherwise. They spoke powerfully about the tragedy they lived through, watching their children lowered into a grave well before their time. They spoke of the promise Hillary Clinton represents, an advocate for black lives who will “protect our children,” and urged voters to support “the one mother who can ensure [their] movement will succeed.”
What happens when, due to circumstances wholly outside your control, you inadvertently become one of the most powerful tools for political leverage in the country? What do you do when your grief is broadcast on an international scale, when you aren’t given a chance to mourn in private because the source of that private mourning is the catalyst for a national movement? Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, said something to this effect in her speech for the Mothers: “I am an unwilling participant in this movement. I would not have signed up for this. None of us would have.”
In this time of political upheaval, when national movements clash over the pernicious presence of police brutality and the value of black lives in the eyes of the law, it is important to remember that many of the figureheads behind the push for justice are, first and foremost, people. The pain of losing somebody in your family, especially a child, is immense. Having to take that pain and immediately expound it, relive it, use it as an oratory tool —that takes a nearly inhuman amount of strength. To have the clarity of mind and willpower to convert the death of your child into fuel for a national movement towards justice is incredible, and I applaud these women for stepping forward so publicly so many times.
However, I feel a little uncomfortable seeing them and their children turned into two-dimensional beings, converted from flesh-and-blood humans into emblems. These are people who should be important for so many reasons —their resolve, their rhetoric, their empathy —but we know them almost exclusively as “the mothers.” We —as a culture, as activists, as consumers —have reduced these women from their full selves down to their relationships with black folk killed by law enforcement.
This isn’t to say such reduction isn’t unprecedented, or even such a bad thing. When they’re in the public spotlight, people tend to be remembered by what they’re fighting for as opposed to who they are. Anita Sarkeesian is known almost exclusively for her role in the Gamergate fiasco two years ago; Ahmed Mohamed is known almost exclusively for a science project his school mistakenly thought to be a bomb. When we essentialize people — even if it’s for something that they could not control, like harassment at the hands of a misogynist mob of gamers or racial and religious profiling — we make their story easier to tell, more effective in mobilization of activists.
In simplifying these mothers to no more than that — mothers of dead black boys and girls — we must remember that they are people, too, and that they are grieving, too. What these women are fighting for is just — the safety of their children, and the safety of black folk nationwide — but they are not solely defined by their struggle. I don’t believe that publicly tying their mourning to a support of Hillary Clinton necessarily cheapens that sadness, but it would be wise to remember that these women, however strong they have been in public, lead private lives as well, are the mothers of these children in private as well. We must continue fighting for justice as a nation,but we must also allow space for those affected by injustice to grieve.
Will Rivitz is a computer science major from Brookline, Mass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.