Why motherhood is different when you're black

Emily Bernard gives the history of black motherhood in North America and explains why "never being able to claim your children" during slavery has continued to impact black mothers.
Emily Bernard

Emily Bernard lives in the predominantly white community of Burlington, Vermont. She's a professor of Critical Race and Ethnic studies at the University of Vermont.

When she's not lecturing, Emily is busy raising her daughters, Isabella and Guilia with her husband John.

Emily describes her family as a "crayola box" of colours and backgrounds. An African-American mother, married to a white husband, raising twins adopted from Ethiopia.

Emily Bernard with her "crayola box" family. Daughters Isabella and Guila, with her husband, John. (Courtesy)

Much of Bernard's work on race relations is informed by her personal experiences raising her daughters, being in an interracial marriage, growing up in the southern United States, and living as a black woman in predominantly white places.

Emily tells Tapestry guest host El Jones that the experience of motherhood is fundamentally different when you're black. In North America, particularly in the United States, these differences stem from slavery.

"African-American women, since the inception of our presence in this country, have never been able to claim our children as our own, and we've had to put the mothering of other children first," Bernard says. "When black women were used as wet nurses and nannies to white children and had to mother their own children in the corners of the day and could not be guaranteed at all that that bond would be honoured. The stories of mothers being sold away from their children -- as a mother now I wonder -- how can the heart ever recover from that?"

Emily Bernard's husband John and their daughter Guilia (Courtesy)

Bernard says she is constantly juggling between teaching her daughters about the vulnerabilities of being black women in America, while at the same time not scaring them.

Emily Bernard's daughters, Isabella and Guilia. The girls were born in Ethiopia, the only African nation to throw off the coloniser, as Emily proudly likes to remind them. (Courtesy)

"I have to watch myself because I come from the generation that was part of the project of desegregating the American South. Everything we did as a family had a name. When we moved into our home it was called 'integration'. When we went to school it was called 'desegregation'. I carry a lot of that history in me, but I have to be careful because my children are living in a different place and a different era and don't carry that history in their bodies."

One of the most important decisions Emily has made when it comes to raising her daughters is not prioritizing black American history. She says because her girls were born in Ethiopia, they have inherited a different history.

Emily Bernard with her daughter Isabella. (Courtesy)

"What we talk about when we talk about African-American history is trauma; but what about joy and pleasure? And that's what I think I find when my daughters and I are looking at photo albums of the queens and kings. You know, Ethiopia was the only African country to throw off the colonizer. I mean they fought back and they won and that's a pretty tremendous thing. So I think for me, it's also a place to go in my mind, to remind myself that, you know, we have big histories as black people all over the country; it's not just located in the history of American slavery and violence."

Click LISTEN to hear more from Emily Bernard about how black motherhood and black female identity are linked to historical injustices.