These Are Our Children!
by Kathy Wright, Executive Director, New Jersey Parents Caucus
“…forsake not the law of thy mother…” for it is on Mother's Day, that women who have entered into the most complex institution that exists in our patriarchal and racist society today, are reminded of our most precious charge in life. It is very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day mothering that mothers must do and forget the beauty and the power that is given to us through the birthing of our children. We must be careful as we entertain the images of the African-American mother that is offered up in present day society, because we as individuals do not conform to many of the assumptions. Whether we are pictured as all-giving and self-sacrificial, playing a major role in moving our culture from slavery to manhood, or selfish and castrating, we as mothers must redefine motherhood within the context of our own culture, our times, our creativity and our community.
I stand with the many other mothers throughout the country who have children that became involved in the juvenile justice system and refuse to leave the system without making an indelible mark concerning its reform. Efforts to make change are happening around the kitchen table, in the church, in the court house and on the stage. These mothers are advocates, who refused to not leave. Those “sturdy black bridges” who we have crossed over, who refuse to sit down, who refuse to be silenced as we hand over our children to the law of this land.
Many African-American mothers do not place their trust in the law. I, like many other mothers, did not trust the school system and certainly did not trust the justice system. History has taught us that – it has revealed inhumane and incomprehensible injustices that our mothers, fathers, families and children have endured.
When my son was arrested, I was blindsided, looking to the left while the enemy was sneaking up on my right, feeling that I was stripped naked in the center of town, vulnerable as the doors of the county detention center closed, separating me and my child and taking away “the best of us” as Toni Morrison says. While I knew that he had committed a crime and should be held accountable, I didn’t trust the “gatekeepers.” I did not agree that this system should be the system to decide his fate and his path of rehabilitation. Our juvenile justice system is not a system whose goal is to rehabilitate children, it is a system of punishment and privilege. It does not provide opportunities for our kids to be kids, to fall and scrape their knees and get back up and fall again with arms outstretched. It is punitive and the judgment is based on our history.
As a mother who refused, I knew that I had to put on the full armor of God and fight to stay involved every step of the process. I knew that I had to inform everyone involved in the system from the judge, to the prosecutor and my son's attorney - anyone who had the power to affect my child’s destiny at all points along the way. I knew that I had to be the one to tell his story because if I had left it up to the system, the teachers, the officers, the courts, and the prosecutors to tell his story, it would not be a story based on truth but based on the information tat was before them. I was afraid of their selection and I was taught early in life to never let anyone tell your story. As mothers we have had to take on that responsibility for our children, because we understand that their “time served” is ours too. When our children are given sentences of incarceration and parole, we serve too, and we continue to serve when they come home carrying the baggage and the scars from what they have endured and suffered through – solitary confinement, physical abuse, rape and sodomy. And as mothers we carry those burdens, but never forget the healing, the rebirth and the renewal. We recognize that we live in a world where people are “judged by the color of their skin and not the content of their mind,” and we should never be caught off-guard.
I came to this work because of my child, but I stayed because of our children. As mothers who come from a culture of communal motherhood, we must stand in the gap for children in our homes and communities as these are our children. We need to speak for those children who are touched by the juvenile justice and mental health system. We need to stand up for those children who are struggling, whether as biological or surrogate mothers, for those who look like us in all their shades. And, we need to speak for those mothers that are mute – for those who cry and feel but can’t find the words because the wounds have not healed. We must be like the threads of a quilt, woven together, supporting each other, with each individual thread having a role and a responsibility in the covering of all our children, while our men and fathers form the edges and the corners, and fight back the tares.