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A sort of perfection
An interview with writer Jane Lazarre

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MMO: A central subject of your work is being a white mother of Black sons. We seem to be living in a cultural moment when racism, like sexism, has disappeared from the national dialog. But racism is still a pressing issue in the U.S -- and it clearly impacts the lives of mothers and children of color. What do you think is going on? How might a mothers’ movement play a role in encouraging an honest discussion about race in America?

Jane Lazarre: When you ask about racism, its increasing invisibility in public discourse and its impact on mothers, I think not only of mothers of color, for whom, as for any person of color, racism is still pervasive and powerful, but of white mothers, and not only of white mothers like myself, whose children are Black. I think about whiteness as a historical/social/psychological phenomenon. The impact of racism on mothers of color is often discussed and written about eloquently by mothers of color in both fiction and non-fiction - (Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Patricia Williams, others.) But I would like to respond to the question in terms of the impact of racism on white people, including mothers.

For many years, in addition to teaching writing at Eugene Lang College in New York, I taught courses in the African American autobiographical tradition, from the narratives of enslaved Americans to contemporary works by writers such as James Baldwin or Audre Lorde. In Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, a famous narrative by Harriet Jacobs, a woman enslaved in North Carolina in the 1800s describes the particular conditions of mothers during that holocaust that lasted over two hundred years. The problem of whiteness -- what it was, as an idea, an ideology, a system of strict and ruthless privilege -- is inseparable from Jacobs’ experience not only as a slave but as a mother. For more than two centuries, children were sold away from their mothers for the profit of slave holders, while women and girls were forced to produce children through rape. This is our history, a part of the history of American motherhood. What is this whiteness that allowed such atrocities to continue over so extended a period of time? I saw I had to include in my course a curriculum of works, both classic (mostly by Black writers such as Jacobs, Frederick Douglass and others) and contemporary, by both Black and white scholars, that addressed this problem of whiteness. It was difficult and enormously fulfilling to work with young white students who were wrestling with the issue, learning to separate their sense of themselves as individuals from the historical injustice -- Baldwin called it a “lie” -- of whiteness as an institutionalized system of skin color superiority and privilege. As years passed and I grew older, my relationship to my students included certain maternal aspects, and I experienced this effort to help them understand race in America as, in part, a kind of maternal work.

Another story: Recently, when I was giving a talk at a college on this subject, reading from my memoir about being a white mother of Black sons, a white woman introduced herself as a professor who discussed race in all her classes, as she teaches courses in the African novel. Her question involved her son, a student at mid-western university, who had recently been mugged. What should I tell him, she asked, identifying the situation in no more specific way. I asked if she were saying the muggers were Black, and she nodded, yes. I asked if the question could be turned around for a moment. When my son was five, and we were vacationing at a famously liberal beach town, he came home one day and said the little girl down the block had called him a nigger. This was the first of many racist experiences he and his brother would endure from early childhood into adulthood and the present. What should I have told him, I asked, that all white people were bad? She looked surprised -- perhaps she got the point -- but I felt, as many times before, confirmed in my understanding that racism is pervasive and powerful in our country in every institution and in many personal interactions. I agree with you that it is often erased now, either denied outright, or distorted and diluted in wider categories such as “diversity,” “multiculturalism,” “global studies.” These categories are themselves, of course, worthy and important in many ways, but racism against people of African descent has a very specific history in our nation. This history belongs to us all and its continued denial is virulent for all Americans interested in progressive change, including mothers. White mothers and their children who tolerate this denial, or worse, subscribe to overt beliefs regarding the racial superiority of white skin (and this, I know, is common from fifteen years of reading brave and beautiful autobiographical writing by white students) are settling for a half life in many dangerous ways, both political and psychological. Anyone interested in this subject should read James Badlwin’s essay, “A Stranger in the Village,” in the collection Notes of a Native Son, and “Whiteness as Terror in the Black Imagination,” by bell hooks in the wonderful collection Black on White, edited by David R. Roediger.

MMO: You were politically active before becoming a mother, but you write in “The Mother Knot” that you sometimes felt motherhood made you invisible to other feminists. Many mothers today feel the same way. Do you think there’s a way to make contemporary feminism more mother-friendly without undermining the feminist argument?

Jane Lazarre: When I was a young feminist, and a young mother, two life changing situations that in my life coincided, there was a strong and destructive conflict between the two, at least on the level of public discourse. I attended many feminist meetings and conferences, even small consciousness raising groups, in which mothers and the maternal experience were trivialized, placed in contradiction to "women’s liberation," even treated with disdain. On the other hand, mothers, proud of their traditional roles, dismissed feminists as "bra burners" whose fight for equality had nothing to do with them. Since that time, much has been written that exposes this polarization for the false story it is. Works such as Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, studies by feminist psychoanalysts such as Jessica Benjamin, Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich, revisions of literature by and about mothers, historical reinterpretations -- all reveal the important links between motherhood and feminism, often written by passionate feminists who are also passionate mothers. It is infuriating and discouraging at times to read in the popular press and elsewhere that the polarization continues, to hear so many young women use the word feminism as an epithet, assert their belief in gender equality with the caveat, I am not a feminist, but… I can only say it seems to me feminist writers and scholars have a responsibility to analyze and interpret the experiences of motherhood as one crucial path in female identity, as fundamental to some as sexuality, the need for creative work, the importance of financial independence and political power. Many have taken on this responsibility. And it seems to me equally true that women and men who value liberty and equality, including all matters pertaining to gender and sexual identities, sabotage their work and the chance of expanding their own freedom if they do not attend to the feminist analyses now available to us all. This analysis includes not only a critique of conventional femininity as it has been associated with passivity and submission, qualities which are certainly dangerous for mothers, but to masculinity as it has been and continues to be associated with violence and war, which are dangerous to us all.

the power of stories

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