Dear President Trump,
Remember how the other day I told you that Nichole Phillips’s next project is a book on black motherhood and mourning? Probably not. Ok, definitely not. I’m certain you don’t track what I tell you at all, which, if you were another sort of president I would think is fine because if you were another sort of president you’d have far more important things to do than pay attention to some random woman’s daily letters to you. However, you are not that sort of president, so really, you and I would be doing the world quite a favor if I sent you letters every day (which I do) and you read them every day (which you don’t), if for no other reason than it would take up some of your time so you couldn’t do shitty things for a few minutes.
Alright, enough of that.
Moving on, the reason I’m bringing up Phillips again is that the Poem-of-the-Day by Georgia Douglas Johnson (published in 1922) searingly conveys a black woman’s anguish at the thought of bringing a child into the world. The poem is in the public domain and I just sent it to Dr. Phillips in an email in case she’s not seen it (though I’m guessing she has). Here is the text of the poem:
Don’t knock at my door, little child,
I cannot let you in,
You know not what a world this is
Of cruelty and sin.
Wait in the still eternity
Until I come to you,
The world is cruel, cruel, child,
I cannot let you in!
Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still, my precious child,
I must not give you birth!
To try to get a glimpse into the context in which Johnson wrote the poem, I just Googled “what was Georgia like for blacks in the 1920’s?” (she was born in Atlanta) because although I know Jim Crow was in full force across the South then, there were specific regional things happening as well. The first thing that came up was an overview on the History Channel website recounting the expulsion of all 1,098 of the African American people from Forsyth County in 1912 after a white woman was raped and murdered. One man was lynched in the town square in front of thousands of people, and two teenage boys were lynched elsewhere in the county. All of the remaining African American peoples’ property and belongings were seized and they had to flee with nothing or face lynch mobs.
Forsyth County is just South of Atlanta where Johnson lived off and on as a child and young adult (she moved with her husband to Washington D.C. in 1910) so she was almost certainly familiar with where these lynchings and that particular mass expulsion happened. There were no doubt thousands of other horrific situations that were in her face day in and day out reminding her, never letting her forget, that she was unsafe, all those she loved were unsafe, and any child she might bring into the world would be unsafe from the monster (white) men (and women). Although she did have two sons, likely before she wrote the poem, it’s no wonder she conjured a black woman telling her prospective child she would come to them, ostensibly when the world was no longer cruel and they could be safe.
Unfortunately, I don’t think Johnson’s Black Woman would be ready to have children yet.
May all children be safe and welcome in this world.
May those of us who’ve been oblivious to the racialized horrific parts of our collective history be willing to learn of them.
May we be willing to consider their impact on the health and well-being of African American mothers and everyone they love.
May we strive for a real peace that holds all children tenderly.