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Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at home in Montgomery, Ala., 1956. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Black History Month

A history of three mothers who raised Black leaders and two debut novels lead the conversation on racism / BY Nathalie Atkinson / February 26th, 2021

The transformative power of stories can combat the forces of historical amnesia and call readers to action. This season, and especially during Black History Month, three remarkable new titles lead the conversation.

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1The Three MothersBy Anne Malaika Tubbs

Anna Malaika Tubbs, doctoral candidate in sociology and a Gates Cambridge scholar (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), brings her fieldwork and research on the diversity of Black motherhood to bear in The Three Mothers (Feb. 2). “While their sons have been credited with the success of Black resistance, the progression of Black thought and the survival of the Black community, the three mothers who birthed and reared them have been erased,” she explains in the foreword of the group biography. “This book fights that erasure.” Their names are Alberta King, Berdis Baldwin and Louise Little, and they are the mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and
Malcolm X respectively.

The famous offspring are figures often discussed together, so Malaika Tubbs similarly entwines the formidable trio’s biographies (for example, upbringings in Georgia, Maryland and Grenada) and disparate experiences to show how their faith, creativity and intellect shaped their sons’ views and actions. And seeing the United States evolve throughout their lives – which span a century – enriches our understanding of generations of Black resistance, not only during the civil rights movement but the Depression, the Great Migration from the south to the north and the Harlem Renaissance. The book’s epigraph sets the tone by quoting Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat’s short story “Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” about the Dominican Republic’s massacre of Haitian immigrants. “Our mothers were the embers and we were the sparks. Our mothers were the flames and we were the blaze” is followed by George Floyd’s last words during his fatal arrest in Minneapolis in May: “Mama, I love you.” A welcome coda brings the discussion back to recent events, including #BlackLivesMatter, to underline how urgently history illuminates the present.

2How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her HouseBy Cherie Jones

3Gutter ChildBy Jael Richardson

The eerie familiarity of Gutter Child is unsettling. Though its determined young heroine’s attempt to escape the horrors of an oppressive regime may bring to mind Cora from Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jael Richardson’s Gutter Child (Jan. 26) is more reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale – not in its totalitarian particulars but insofar as author Margaret Atwood has reminded us that every element of her dystopian novel has a true historical precedent.

Although it’s set in an imaginary apartheid country, Richardson – a culture journalist and the founder and artistic director of Brampton,
Ont.’s Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) – has plumbed and remixed elements of Black and Indigenous history (like Jim Crow laws in the U.S. and the Sixties Scoop in Canada) to create a nation ruled by settlers originally from an unknown Mainland.  As colonizing forces in search of natural resources, the Mainlanders vanquish the indigenous Sossi, rename them the Gutter people and issue an automatic financial debt they must work off. The Gutter people stand apart due to their darker skin colour and are branded, treated as subhuman and toil endlessly in an economic system designed to destroy them. It’s distressing enough to come with a trigger warning: “This book is a work of fiction that explores a perilous world rooted in injustice,” the author writes at the start, urging readers to pause and rest “as required” to process the story. It’s a gripping tale of rebellion and perseverance, but it’s also about the psychological wounds of existing in a world where you are not wanted.


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