The past several years has been rife with racial tension resulting from what some perceive as the unjust killing of several black teenaged males. From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown and beyond, cries for both justice and peace have ascended to heaven and to the high courts of our land. Those who have lamented the most are the black women who birth black boys, the inconsolable women who suffer “Black Mama Trauma.” This reaction of Black mothers evokes the ancient text, “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more (Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:28).” These Hebrew mothers also experienced the lives of their boys being snuffed out because of a miscarriage of justice; albeit at the “legal” order of a pharaoh and a king.
“Black Mama” is an endearing epithet for women in communities of the African Diaspora, who are the parents of black children, whether biological or fictive. They are momma, big momma, auntie, and grand-grand. They are the women who enfold the young in their arms to comfort them when they are heartbroken or physically ill. But, they are also those who scold sternly in the way that Toya Graham did.
The video of Toya Graham, the mother caught on camera scolding her son during the Baltimore riots went viral on the Internet and was shown repeatedly across the network news shows. Here was a traumatized black mama acting out the pain triggered by her fear that her unarmed boy was going to be gunned down by policemen. By almost any metric, what she did wasn’t appropriate. In fact, the state of Maryland launched a child protective services investigation because of her hitting her son repeatedly in the head on national television. Still, social workers know that hers was a visceral response. When she recognized her son headed into the midst of trouble, this black mama had a gut-level intuitive reaction. “If I can just beat some sense into his head,” one can almost hear her say, “I can keep him away from the bullets that seem to only target black men – unarmed black men.”
Social workers know what happens when trauma goes unacknowledged, when the struggle to heal must happen in the context of denial of injury. With regard to walking alongside those on a healing journey, Christian social workers have a “peculiar” calling. Consider the story of Rizpah in the Hebrew sacred text.
In Samuel 21:10, after King David allowed her son’s to be sacrificed as political pawns, Rizpah refused to allow them to be further humiliated in death. The text states she was there for an entire harvest season. She was there by day to ward off the birds and by night to keep away other predators. She could not have done it alone. There had to be others. As social workers, we must be those others supporting and at times relieving black mothers from the fight so that they can take a healing breath. We must help mothers of slain black bodies challenge the social norms and political intrigue that promotes the killings. And if the killings do occur, we must metaphorically stave off the ravens and other scavengers. How do we do that?
We advocate for social justice. We insist that the media not denigrate her son in death; we lobby legislators for passing of just laws and repealing of unjust one. We provide trauma-informed mental healthcare. We ensure that we abide by the second ethical principle identified by the NASW, which is that social workers challenge social injustice (National Association of Social Workers, 2007). It is in both the challenging of social injustice and the application of the social workers’ ethical responsibilities that will lead to the healing of black mama trauma.
Pamela A. Bridgeman, LCSW, www.pamelabridgeman.com; She has been a member of NACSW since 2005. She is currently in private practice in Cartersville, GA is a part-time instructor in the School of Social Work and Human Services at Kennesaw State University..