“Carrying” has many connotations. It was not until we began the research that led to this book that we grasped the significance of the idea that everyone in the world has been carried by a woman. This universal experience is fundamental to human communities--a joy and a necessity so seemingly natural as to require no comment. The swollen belly is both a signal of the extension of community to yet another individual, and evidence that someone is growing in there, deserving of nurturance, protection, and a future.
Yet Black women have a much more complicated relationship to “carrying” than everyone else. With the beginning of the African Slave Trade, the experience of carrying a baby and then giving birth was transformed from a natural and joyous occasion to one fraught with hope and agony. In 1844, Frederick Douglass described the treatment of his grandmother as the origin of his contempt for slaveholders: “She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny.” (Douglass, 1962)
In the mid-20th century, Zora Neal Hurston invoked “carrying” in a different way. The grandmother of the protagonist in Their Eyes Were Watching God explained to her granddaughter that “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!” (Hurston, 1969; 1937). The idea of Black women being forced to carry a burden not of their own choosing resonates today and lends an elegiac quality even to Mother’s Day.
The mother of Sandra Bland, the Black woman whose alleged suicide in her jail cell after being arrested for a bogus traffic stop in 2015, said flatly that “when the cameras and lights are gone, our babies are dead.” Who knows how many Black mothers link the celebration of Mother’s Day with memorials to their lost children?
Despite what many expect, Black women have managed to live lives without being stalked by tragedy, resentment, or remorse. In fact, what brought “They Carried Us” to life were the many ways that Black women of Philadelphia “carried on.” Laboring under the burdens of race, class, and gender, and across centuries, Black women have founded educational institutions and community health campaigns; created artistic masterpieces; shepherded generations of youth to adulthood; performed in arenas with athletic prowess and grace, and supported or led determined protest. Along the way, they managed to convince thousands, maybe millions, that how they are seen by others is not nearly as important as how they see themselves.
Black women have confronted the world in the blues tradition: looking to push beyond their circumstances, determined to create a world where they and their communities could flourish. Until now, the cumulative weight of their accomplishments has been largely unrecognized in the place they know as home.
We know they carried us for centuries. Now it's time for us to carry them.