By C.K. LeDaniel
I am the 56-year-old White mom of a Black boy. I can claim many other identities, as can my son, but bear with me for a moment. This is the identity that situates me, in a particular way, in an elementary school in Queens, New York, in the 1960s. That was back when Brown versus the Board of Education was being enforced, and it resulted in Black children being bused into my White neighborhood school. Once disembarked from their buses, however, the Black children were strictly separated from the White children into different classrooms by what was obviously arbitrary tracking. We were also separated at midday, when the Black children were sent to the basement cafeteria for hot lunch and the White children ate their bagged lunches brought from home in the auditorium. This internal, racial segregation was carried out even as we fulfilled the classroom assignment of making posters in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death: lots and lots of childishly drawn, differently hued handshakes with block lettering that read, “I HAVE A DREAM…” One day, some friends and I got the idea that we would ‘integrate’ by asking our unwitting parents to request hot lunch for us. We all sat together in the cafeteria -- integrated -- for a single lunch period before the administration caught on and prohibited the White children from ever purchasing hot lunch again. Children are finely attuned to injustice and hypocrisy; my friends and I were indignant, but also, we were defeated. As a psychotherapist now, I have to speculate that this may be one of the seminal stories of my interracial marriage years later. Just don’t ever try to tell an 8-year old girl she can’t do something unless you really want her to do it.
I am sharing this story here now because, in 2017, integration is still a controversial, or at minimum, an ever-evolving concept in social justice movements. We see this clearly in recent criticisms of ‘White Feminism’ and ‘Pride and Privilege’ and in discussions of ‘Intersectionality,’ the term coined by civil rights advocate Kimberle Williams Crenshaw. In Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow (our first MOBB United Book Club pick), she tells us that historically, alliances between Blacks and Whites have been experienced as so deeply threatening to the ruling class, that White Supremacy, Jim Crow, and Mass Incarceration have been in great degree responses designed to drive wedges into these alliances. While Alexander insists that racial alliances are essential to the success of efforts to eradicate not only the new Jim Crow but any next Jim Crow, she actually goes much further. She takes a cue from the latter work of MLK, insisting that traditional civil rights organizations must move on from the temptation of seeking only top-down judicial and legislative wins, wins that pave avenues of success for Black exceptionalism within existing economic structures. Alexander says that such organizations must also mobilize grass roots movements that include “all of us or none,” underscoring the necessity of embracing the many intersections of race and class, and yes, caste. She says, in fact, with no holds barred, that social justice advocates must “adapt or die.”
Founded a year ago in what I will call the summer of our sadness, as we reeled and grieved in the wake of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, MOBB United’s rapid-fire growth took its founder, Depelsha McGruder, by surprise. She established a Facebook group to which she modestly invited 30 friends, seeking solace and solidarity. It exploded in days to 30,000, expanding exponentially to the almost 200,000 and growing that it is today. But like all ‘spontaneous’ movements, historical forces had set the stage for its creation, and I would suggest that its increasing emergence as a formidable force for change is in part due to its embodiment of much of Alexander’s projected formula for a successful social justice organization.
MOBB United does, in fact, combine top-down and bottom-up activism. There is an ongoing flow and exchange between the two that continues to shape our identity. I was one of those early members possessed by the site and its voluminous postings, and I was a witness to the crystallization of leadership around Depelsha, which developed from the drive of volunteers, previously unknown to each other, raising their virtual hands in virtual space. I watched as committees and subcommittees sprang from posts that identified needs. And while the big picture thinkers, the laypeople and professionals of all stripes, emerged to harness the energy and hone the message of this massive group, that energy remains its high-spirited, grassroots backbone.
As Facebook group members across the globe, we are there for each other’s trials and triumphs, for emotional and practical support, and we are there for each other’s sons in concrete ways. Moms send their well wishes and prayers to sons who are ill, as well as their condolences to moms in mourning. Moms can reach out to the Health and Wellness Committee and the Sub-committee for Moms of Sons with Special Needs. The MOBB United Connections program connects MOBB sons to families in other states when they have traveled to attend college. MOBB United Outreach has connected personally with and provided support to the families of those who have been victimized by law enforcement. While the Policy Committee researches and sets policy initiatives, inviting suggestions and volunteers, the Call Center rallies the membership to action on those initiatives that have been established. As a group, we have lobbied and advocated for raising the age of criminal responsibility and for bail and prison reform. We also have made calls to police chiefs, prosecutors, mayors, and community boards, urging action against incidents of police brutality. By the way, it’s pretty gratifying when the person on the other end of the line says, “MOBB United? Oh, we’ve gotten a lot of calls from your group.”
In addition to this maintenance of a top-down and bottom-up approach, we also have empowered ourselves by embracing the intersectional identities of the moms of Black boys and of those Black boys themselves. MOBB United could have identified itself as a group for Black moms of Black boys, and it would have been above reproach for doing so. It also could have narrowed itself by highlighting any number of adjectives before the words moms or Black boys, explicitly or implicitly, but it chose not to do so. The only narrowing is in the name itself; there are no other modifiers.
On its Facebook homepage, MOBB United defines itself as “an inclusive and safe space [for] all moms, regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, gender origination, marital status or anything else.” I love that “anything else"! But while we are always bound together as moms – or primary caretakers – of Black boys and men, we go further and welcome all by extending membership to anyone committed to our cause with MOBB United for Social Change and Mobbunited.org. In this way, we cross those critical lines of class and race and further intersect them with a multiplicity of other identities.
Finally, while recognizing the importance of changing negative perceptions of Black boys and men, something Alexander also notes as crucial to change, we claim as our own as well those who are caught up in the snare of mass incarceration. Yes, we post with pride beautiful pictures of our sons’ successes. Moms proclaim the achievements of their scholars and artists, their soldiers and world travelers, their businessmen, scientists, doctors, lawyers and engineers. We like an endless picture parade of our tuxedoed young men in their prom photos, and of graduates in caps and gowns from pre-k to post grad. We share portraits of our sons as loving and caring family men, fathers, brothers, and uncles. But we are not focused exclusively on success. We recognize the particular vulnerability of our sons to the school-to-prison pipeline, and we do not eschew those who are caught up in it. We recognize the unique concerns of our sons on the spectrum or those with mental illness vis a vis law enforcement. Also, we reach out to moms of incarcerated sons and to those sons themselves. It has been one of my greatest pleasures to write and send books to some of those young men along with hundreds of other moms and then to get feedback via posts that their sons are moved and gratified by the overwhelming support of strangers. This is truly an all of us or none of us community.
As Alexander outlines her vision and posits her challenge to social justice groups, one can discern some cynicism in her words, a hint of hopelessness that movements ever will truly embrace the disenfranchised, or all of our intersectional identities, or the necessity of lawsuits and legislation along with grassroots advocacy. Surely the dismantling of economic structures and the sacrifice of what she calls the racial bribes that divide us and hold us back are ambitious and perhaps not within our scope as yet, but we have already begun by including all of us and all of our sons. And just don’t ever try to tell the mom of a Black boy she can’t do something unless you really want her to do it.