Kara Walker. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. 1994. Paper, Overall 13 x 50' (396.2 x 1524 cm). Gift of The Speyer Family Foundation in honor of Marie-Josée Kravis. © 2020 Kara Walker

I first encountered writer and professor K. Melchor Hall’s work last year at Black Portraiture[s], a conference organized by photographer Deborah Willis. Appearing on a panel titled “On Black Death,” Melchor Hall read a personal essay, punctuated by excerpts from Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman, about radicality of Black motherhood in the face of ancestral trauma and her experience with her daughter and the foster care system.

I find myself returning to her words frequently as I encounter pervasive images of grieving Black mothers like Tamika Palmer, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Samaria Rice, and so many other Black women, from Breonna Taylor on the cover of Vanity Fair to protestors standing together in the face of injustice. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, the virality of an image has not led to justice or a renewed commitment to protecting Black life. Melchor Hall chose two works from MoMA’s collection— Hank Willis Thomas’s Kama Mama, Kama Binti (Like Mother, Like Daughter), and Kara Walker’s Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b’tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart—as the inspiration for this poem about the harsh realities Black mothers must teach their children in a nation that values their images more than their lives.

—Hanna Girma, Content Producer, Creative Team

Framing Reproductive (In)Justice: A Picture Perfect Gruesome Negress Hurt-story

Your government captors promised you
A new and perfect mother, to model yourself after
But your dreams have been deferred, touched up and framed
It’s been five years, and you are ready to explode
What you got in place of your picture perfect mother was me
Black and unfamiliar
Same skin, but different food, different clothes, different art
Same skin, but different language, different religion, different customs
When you look at me, you can see that I am not your mother
When you look at me, you can see that I am your mother
Look at me. I am your mother!

Loretta Ross says reproductive justice isn’t just the right to have or not to have a child
It’s the right to raise a child in a safe environment
Your mother didn’t have (reproductive) justice
No Negress in this country ever did
Because you/we/she are/is not safe, they took you from her
Because you/we/she are/is not safe, I lost you to them
They mark you as unsafe, so they can continue to hold you
Which they pretend is for your own good, which is for their own profits
The more unsafe you are
The more of their drugs they can test on you, the more money they pay themselves for keeping you
Your safety is not profitable and your freedom is not tenable
It is easy to get lost in this picture, perfectly framed, yet missing the essentials
It is difficult to get lost, searching for your safety
Sometimes mothers have to miss(place) daughters
As we pray that our daughters find freedom, in flight

Toni Morrison wrote to us about this kind of freedom, about our Beloveds
Told us about Sethe, and the daughter she had to let loose, and lose
The daughter who was lost, but never Gone
I planned your departure as freedom runs are planned, carefully, attending to nature’s cycles
On a New Moon, I told them that I would no longer be your mother
Forcing them to work to find you your happy ending
The kind they promised you, the kind you find in romance novels
Where lovers kiss under a full moon, by the waterside, where the heroine is swept off her feet
Now that we are free, of each other, and forever bound
I must tell you, what I did not say in front of them
For fear that they would think, I was like you, unsafe, in need of restraint
Even if somebody puts a pretty frame around them
Or puts them in decorated boxes
Our lives are not neat
So when someone hands you a framed picture
You must remember that there is more to the story
They call it cropping, we call it amputation
But if you look to the edges of the frame, you will know that something is missing

Hank Willis Thomas. Kama Mama, Kama Binti (Like Mother, Like Daughter), 1971. 2008

Hank Willis Thomas. Kama Mama, Kama Binti (Like Mother, Like Daughter), 1971. 2008

Last time we spoke, you said that you were learning the water cycle
Study nature closely
They will teach you that what goes up into the sky, returns through the rivers
Sometimes it’s the other way around
And what gets dragged through the water, ends up in the heavens
They will skip many lessons, about trees, and strange fruit
About oceans, and dangerous crossings
About the light of full moons, and the darkness of new ones
You must study nature’s cycles, to learn more than they teach
And once you begin to truly understand nature’s cycles
Maybe you will understand, that I had to lose you
And that you were not the first child I’ve had to lose
That I had to give you a chance of freedom, of flight, because I know what awaits you here
Your captors are (mostly) friendly, which they call kind
In order to balance
That they are also (mostly) racist, which they call law-abiding and well-disciplined

Several months ago, the white woman, who calls herself your teacher
Made you promise “to spread kindness and not contribute to racism and predjudice”
You might decide to teach her to spell what she cannot write and will not right
She made you write “three things you can do this week to add kindness to the world”
As if your kindness can undo their violence
They feign surprise at these 2020 racial uprisings, but your elders remember similar uprisings
Tear gas has replaced water hoses, tasers have replaced billy clubs
An unnatural cycle is repeating
What you must remember, Beloved, is that for us
This violence is always intimate
We feel it tingling between our legs, as our lovers disclose their rape fantasies
Remember when you told me and grandma that you wanted to be a stripper
And asked if strippers get raped
I heard your surprise, and a tinge of disappointment
When I said, anybody can be raped
Job doesn’t matter, outfit doesn’t matter
What matters (unfortunately), is intimacy
We will know our rapists, we will recognize them, even though we will not recognize them

I know that you are struggling with tingling feelings
In a place where your affections are rejected
Where you are kept from boys, and punished for kissing girls
It is a peculiar logic, that intends to punish, the queer Black female body
You must remember, that their romanticized rape stories
Leave much out of the frame, amputating our bodies
Follow the moon cycle, my Beloved
And when you can
Escape, on the night of a new moon
Escape, however you can
Even if you have to fly, just go
Follow the wind, ride on the wings, of those who went before you

You might feel lost
They might report that you have Gone
But I am always with you
Look for me
Look at me! I am your mother.
And we will be free

Kara Walker. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. 1994

Kara Walker. Gone: An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred b'tween the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart. 1994

K. Melchor Quick Hall is the author of Naming a Transnational Black Feminist Framework: Writing in Darkness, and host of the companion online series of conversations with Black feminist artists and activists. She is a faculty member in the Human and Organizational Development programs in Fielding Graduate University's School of Leadership Studies. Hall is also a Resident Scholar (2020–23) at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center, a Visiting Scholar (2020–21) at York University's Centre for Feminist Research, and an instructor with Boston University's Prison Education Program. Beyond the academy, she is a member of the Soul Fire Farm Speakers Collective, which speaks out against racism and injustice in the food system, and the Northeast Farmers of Color network, which is fighting for land-based justice and redistribution for Black and Indigenous communities. She also leads a Black women's writing workshop and a reparations workshop for US-based, white inheritors of wealth at Pendle Hill Quaker Retreat Center.