Mar 29 2014

“I Love Being A Mommy!!!” On Shanesha Taylor & Black Motherhood in the Age of Mass Incarceration

Every day in this country some women are coerced or forced by circumstances into doing things they don’t want to do. For many women, it is the only static condition of their ever changing lives: to regularly feel required to make hard choices among, at times, very poor options.” – Beth Richie, Compelled to Crime (1996).

You people are Ridiculous for supporting this woman!! What she did was almost kill her two babies!! How many other times has she done this. Ot is not okay to leave ur kids in a car regardless even in winter in Arizona. I can tell from ur post EXACTLY what kind of mothers u are…” – Tamara Carlstrom, Commenter on this blog (2014).

By now, you’ve likely seen the ubiquitous mug shot photo. Shanesha Taylor with tears streaming down her face and a look of fear & devastation in her eyes. This photograph introduced me to Shanesha’s case and galvanized me into action on Tuesday. I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. I know that I am not alone. Friends have expressed their feelings using similar words. One friend, however, confessed that she felt ‘uneasy’ when she saw the photo. As we talked, she admitted that she was ’embarrassed’ and she wondered if it was exploitative for a stranger’s mug shot, in particular a black woman’s, to be plastered on various media platforms across the country and maybe the world. After all, there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere.

After the initial wave of sympathy that I felt for Shanesha, I got angry. A homeless mother was so desperate that she left her young children in a car while interviewing for a job. She was then arrested and incarcerated. How could jail be the solution for what was obviously (to my mind) a consequence of poverty and a lack of resources? Of course, I worried about the children’s safety but most of the time removing a child’s primary caregiver doesn’t improve their future outcomes. So I wanted to know more and to find a way to support Shanesha and her children.

I took to social media to find people local to the Scottsdale area who might be able to help her. I reached out to the young woman, Amanda Bishop, who had established an online fundraiser to benefit Shanesha and her family. I was interested in verifying the authenticity of the effort so that I could help to boost it. When I first started sharing the link to the fundraiser, people had contributed $2,200. Since that time, the case has garnered much more attention. The last time I checked, nearly $39,000 had been donated to help cover Shanesha’s bail, legal fees, and perhaps other expenses. Eventually, through Twitter, I connected with two people (one of whom lives in Arizona) who helped me gather more information about Shanesha. I heard from a member of her family a couple of days ago who provided a short update and thanked everyone for their outpouring of concern for Shanesha and her children. He was truly overwhelmed by the support. It was unexpected…

I mentioned earlier that there is ‘no country’ for black women anywhere. I have written about this in many different ways over the past few years. Because most black women expect to be maligned and demonized when we are not being erased, I immediately understood my friend’s trepidation. What would the mass media and all of us do to a homeless black mother who seemingly ‘neglected’ her children? What pernicious tropes would circulate within the public sphere and be internalized like lashes from a whip by all of us as black women? Because rest assured that only delusional black women maintain that we are seen as individuals rather than as members of a morally suspect and undesirable group in the U.S. We’ve always been treated as less than human.

Throughout history and still today, we exist as caricatures in the minds of too many. The popular representations of black women are reflected and shaped by our ideas about race, gender, sexuality, class, and more. We exist in the culture as hypersexual, unfeminine, angry, potentially criminal, depraved things. We are preternaturally ‘strong’ and feel no pain so the image of a black woman in tears in public must be jarring indeed. Society is generally inoculated against black women’s tears. We have been excluded from ideologies of domesticity and our families are pathologized. And for some of us, when these reductive lies about who we are seem to be reflected back to us (maybe through a mug shot photo), we become embarrassed and ashamed. Then we hate ourselves for it.

The bigotry against black women and our stigmatization have material consequences. They leave us poorer than everyone else, more likely to be suspended from school, more likely to be criminalized, more likely to be targets of violence, and more likely to die from preventable diseases. These are realities that many of us contend with daily. And so we recognize Shanesha. Some of us embrace her. Others look to distance ourselves. There are thousands of other responses in between.

I’ve been curious about who Shanesha is behind the haunting tear-streaked face and those despairing eyes. My curiosity is born out of a desire to move from sympathy to empathy. Over the past few days, I’ve been operating outside of myself and maybe even on autopilot. I am an organizer so I organize. I try to move past my emotions to do the work that’s needed. Sometimes in order to be effective, I’ve found it necessary to repress feelings. It’s a blessing and a curse.

Then last night, I found it. I came across Shanesha’s Facebook page. Of course, she would have one. I hadn’t thought to look for it before. I found myself smiling as I scrolled down her page. Then I saw it, a status update from last year:

I Love Being A Mommy!!!

And the tears came… and they wouldn’t stop. Empathy.

While I had imagined Shanesha sitting in her jail cell missing her children like crazy before, it now feels more real to me. I have seen photographs that appear to be of her children. They are sitting in the middle of presents with a Christmas tree in the background. They are smiling. It appears that she also has an older school-aged daughter. How confused and scared must her children be? Where’s mommy? they must be asking. Every single hour of every single day that she remains locked in a cage away from them is an indictment of all of us. It is simply cruel.

Shanesha’s Facebook page is peppered with various quotes that she’s posted: “A mother’s treasure is her daughter,” “I may not be perfect but when I look at my children I know that I got something in my life perfectly right,” and more. These quotes belie the vitriol of women like Tamara who post judgmental and mean-spirited comments on blogs purportedly because of the deep love that they have for children. Our oft-stated ‘love’ of children in this country extends to incarcerating some as young as 9 years old and taking food out of others’ mouths by cutting SNAP. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Yet and still we must reserve some compassion for Tamara. After all, haven’t we all had a moment of niggling doubt about Shanesha’s fitness as a mother if we are to be perfectly honest? And this is because we are socialized and conditioned to understand motherhood in particular ways. We know who the ‘bad mother’ is and in this country, she’s usually poor and always black. It’s a small miracle that so many of us have been able to overcome our socialization to express our compassion for both Shanesha and for her children. I think that there’s something else at work too: it’s our innate knowledge that acute desperation makes the previously unimaginable plausible & perhaps even possible.

I look forward to Shanesha’s release from jail and her reunification with her children. I’ve been told that she is expected to be released on Monday and that her family has already posted bail. I look forward to replacing the mug shot photo that surely doesn’t capture who Shanesha is with a new one; maybe one like this…

Shanesha Taylor

Shanesha Taylor

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