Happy Mother’s Day: A Tribute to Black Moms Who Use Education as Their North Star

Whenever you see a low-income, single Black mother, I challenge you not to judge. I challenge you to see greatness in her and her children. I challenge you to see my mother and me. My mother was born in rural Mississippi in 1942 and attended a crowded, segregated, one-room schoolhouse until she was 9. Her parents—who were themselves children of sharecroppers in the post-slavery Reconstruction Period—saved their nickels and dimes until they could pack up their modest farmhouse and flee the Jim Crow South once and for all. Tired of the “White Only” signs, they sought a city where their Blackness would not offend; where access to wealth…a quality education for their seven children…their self-dignity was allowed. They made a pit stop in South Bend, Indiana, to visit family, who convinced them to stay a just little while longer. As it turned out, my mother and grandparents never made it to their intended promised land: Gary, Indiana. I’m in my early 40s now, but my mother has just started opening up to me about her early life in the segregated South and her adolescent years in the integrated but cooly racist North. For example, I just learned about the time her family braved rodents and the cold, living in the salvageable section of a burned-out house in South Bend because they couldn’t afford rent anywhere else. She also just told me about her first integrated school experience. The teachers assigned seats: my mom and other Black children in the back of the classroom and the White children in the front. “Why didn’t you ever tell me these things before?” I asked. “I was just glad to finally get into a good school,” she said, explaining that conditions improved over time. Welcome to the wall. My mom has locked these painful memories in a vault of regret, much like a war veteran prefers to mark battlefield tragedies through long, silent, tear-blurred stares into the distance. Every Black mother I know is somewhere on the spectrum of survival and healing. But this Mother’s Day, my mom has cause for celebration. All eight of her biological children are alive and well, as are her three adopted sons, 27 grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. She can also boast that the daughter, who her late ex-husband named after the famous blue-eyed, blonde-haired bombshell, now writes a popular education blog that is used as curriculum material at ed schools around the country—including Harvard University’s doctoral program in educational leadership! Coupled with faith in God and love for family, education has broken the curse of generational poverty in my life—and it can do the same for other underprivileged students, as well. African-American mothers today are likely to share my family’s history in the states: slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow South, civil rights liberation, and for those who migrated North, fighting poverty and systemic oppression there. Through it all, education has been our North Star. And while teachers cannot ensure that their students will have a loving home life or a deep connection to faith, we can do three vital things:
  1. We can strive to provide a high-quality educational experience to knock a debilitating blow to poverty.
  2. We can acknowledge and understand that the vast majority of the deficits Black students have are a result of social engineering (go back two paragraphs). Likewise, these perverse systems can be undone with collective effort.
  3. We can resolve that dwelling on students’ deficits only serve to exacerbate them. However, when teachers commit to leading with student assets they tend to produce positive self-fulfilling prophecies of student success.
My beloved mother, Erma Anderson, is now 74 years old. Yes, she fed us using food stamps for a time. But there’s nothing more valuable than the memories of her singing hymns in church with me on her lap. Sure, we stood in line for charity Christmas gifts. But priceless are the memories of family reunion picnics where the uncles barbequed all day and let the aunties rest, and the kid cousins won $5 and $10 prizes in the dance contest. As Nikki Giovanni implores White readers to understand, “Black love is Black wealth.” So the next time you’re tempted to shake your head at a young, low-income Black single mother—don’t. If you ask nicely, she may be willing to tell you her story. Or just tell her about me and my mother, and how proud I’ve always been of my mom. Or better yet, imagine her little ones all grown up, prosperous, pursuing a doctorate degree at Harvard University—reading my blogs for homework.
Marilyn Rhames
Marilyn Anderson Rhames is an educator, writer, thought leader and social entrepreneur. She is founder and CEO of Teachers Who Pray, a faith-based nonprofit that has more than 100 chapters nationwide. She is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Master Teacher: 12 Spiritual Lessons That Can Transform Schools and Revolutionize Public Education.” ...

Join the Movement