The Grim Resilience Of The Black Mothers Of Murdered Children

Some have become activists as a result of their child's deaths.

Time Magazine’s cover this week is a strikingly vivid illustration of the acute pain of this moment in time, and the distressingly similar moments that predate this one. The cover, by American painter Titus Kaphar, displays a Black woman holding the shape of an absent child. He actually cut the canvas to achieve the effect.

“I paint a Black mother… / eyes closed, / furrowed brow, / holding the contour of her loss,” Kaphar wrote in a poem accompanying the cover.

“In her expression, I see the black mothers who are unseen, and rendered helpless in this fury against their babies.”

The painting is a reference to George Floyd, a Black man who called out for his mother before he died, pinned under the knee of a white police officer.

Surrounding the painting, in the cover’s red border, are the names of 35 Black people killed under unjust circumstances, many of them at the hands of police officers: Michael Brown, Darrius Stewart, Natasha McKenna.

George Floyd’s mother Larcenia Floyd died in 2018. But many living Black mothers whose children have been killed have spoken publicly about their grief.

“You could never get over losing a child, no matter how you lose a child,” Constance Malcolm told The Guardian last summer. Her son Ramarley Graham was 18 when he was killed by a police officer in their New York City home in 2012. Cops had followed him in off the street, and the officer who shot him said he did it because they thought Ramarley was armed. He was not.

Malcolm’s son Chinnor Campbell, Ramarley’s half-brother, witnessed the shooting. He was six years old.

“Every time you turn on the news there’s another Black boy being killed,” Malcolm said. “That brings back the memory that you try to suppress. That’s what makes me angry, sometimes.”

Samaria Rice wears a button with her son Tamir's photograph.
Samaria Rice wears a button with her son Tamir's photograph.

Since her son Tamir was killed, Samaria Rice has been working hard to connect with and educate Black children. Tamir was 12 when he was shot by a white police officer in park in Cleveland. His “crime” was playing with a toy gun that the officer reportedly thought was real.

The officer was fired, but for reasons unrelated to Tamir’s death. The city’s department deemed the shooting “reasonable and within guidelines.”

“America told me a lie, a big white lie, and I won’t be telling no child a lie,” Samaria Rice told Essence last spring. “I was forced to wake up when my son was murdered.”

A protester in New York holds up a sign bearing Tamir Rice's name at a protest on May 29, 2020, following George Floyd's death.
A protester in New York holds up a sign bearing Tamir Rice's name at a protest on May 29, 2020, following George Floyd's death.

She’s dedicated her time to setting up the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center, which will offer artistic, cultural, and civic programs for Black youth in Cleveland. She’s also worked with the American Civil Liberties Union to put together a safety handbook to help Black youth safely interact with the police.

In another essay for Essence, addressed to Tamir on what would have been his 17th birthday, she touched on how she wishes she didn’t have to devote herself so entirely to these causes — she would rather simply be a mother to her son.

“My own consciousness has grown since you were stolen so brutally from me,” she wrote. “No mother, no father, no sister or brother should ever go through what we went through—and are still going through.”

“Every time you turn on the news there’s another Black boy being killed... That brings back the memory that you try to suppress.”

- Constance Malcolm, mother of Ramarley Graham

Samaria Rice has spoken about how she’s befriended other mothers in similar situations, bonding over the specific but distressingly common trauma of grieving a Black child whose death is a direct result of racial injustice. She told Essence she’s close with Eric Garner’s mother Gwen Carr, Sandra Bland’s mother Geneva Reed-Veal, and Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton. Fulton, too, became an activist after her son’s death, and announced last year she would run for local office.

Breonna Taylor’s mother has also spoken about what it’s like to be part of the unenviable circle of mothers of murdered Black children. Breonna, who worked as an EMT, was 26 when she was killed by the police in March. As part of a narcotics investigation, they came into her apartment in Louisville and shot her at last eight times while she was sleeping. Police later said they had the wrong address.

The officers who killed her have been placed on leave, but not fired. No charges have been laid in her death.

“It’s a smack in the face, actually, to know that these officers are still being paid to do a job that they failed at,” her mother Tamika Palmer told the Washington Post.

Protesters demonstrate against racism in Los Angeles on Sunday. One protester is holding a sign "Justice for Breonna."
Protesters demonstrate against racism in Los Angeles on Sunday. One protester is holding a sign "Justice for Breonna."

Taylor would have turned 27 on Friday. Palmer said she’s grateful for the attention being paid to her daughter’s unjust death, but that her birthday still felt long and overwhelming.

“I’m glad we’re here, and for everybody thinking of her,” Palmer said. “But it would be a better day if she was here.”

The grim realities Black mothers are forced to face are on a lot of people’s minds, as protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality continue across Canada and the U.S. A powerful photo from a D.C. protest shows a pregnant woman, holding a poignant sign.

“We are NOT carrying for nine months, then struggling during labor for nine hours, just for you to kneel on their neck for nine minutes!” Her sign reads, followed by “Black lives matter.”

Also on HuffPost: