In praise of soul mothers

Thom Blair

As far back as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the lives and works of Black mothers who've lost their man-child in race-hate crimes. Mamie Till-Mobley and Kadiatou Diallo (pictured left) immediately come to mind. What struck me about them was that despite years of trauma, they still exhibited rare passion and social commitment to race equality.

Till-Mobley's lifelong efforts exposed the "lynch justice" that killed Emmett, her 14-year-old son, in the US southland in 1955. She helped script a national television programme, The Murder of Emmett Till, one of the dramatic racially-motivated murders that sparked the civil rights movement of Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks. Unwillingly thrust into prominence by the actions of two bigoted, and acquitted, white men, the quiet, but untiring, Chicago civil service employee brought the criminal side of race prejudice to the American public's conscience.

Kadiatou Diallo, who co-authored My Heart Will Cross This Ocean: My Story, My Son, Amadou (New York, Random House, 2004), recounts the story of the police murder of her Guinean immigrant son. Twenty-three-year-old Amadou Diallo was unarmed when he was gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets by four New York City police officers outside his Bronx, New York apartment house in February 1999.

In the ensuing fire-storm of controversy, Mrs Diallo, with supporter David Dinkins, the former New York mayor at her side, established the Amadou Diallo educational charity. It aimed  "to diminish prejudice and racial conflicts and enhance police-community relations". Moreover, she says, scholarships are awarded to immigrant African students "in memory of my son who came to America to gain a college education". See www.AmadouDiallo.com.

To these star mothers with a mission, Black Britons can add Doreen Lawrence and her book And Still I Rise: Seeking Justice for Stephen (London, Faber and Faber 2006). Through trauma and pain she describes the brutal reality of death on the streets where Stephen, 18, was stabbed to death by five marauding white youths in April 1993.

Mrs Lawrence's loss was tragically not unique  — just one of 24 racially-motivated murders in Britain at the time. Controversy still surrounds many of these killings and the inadequacies of subsequent police operations. But it is the unjustness of the Stephen Lawrence murder case that caught the public eye and the media's attention.

When the investigation of Stephen's killing was botched by the Metropolitan Police, Mrs Lawrence sprang into action. With the killers still at large, she and her husband, Neville, protested against officials who failed to treat Stephen's murder as a racist attack. Outraged at the "institutional racism" uncovered by the government sponsored Sir William Macpherson Inquiry, she issued a searing attack on the authorities for failing to introduce police reforms. Mrs Lawrence's persistent determination was like a rite of passage -- "Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise"  — as the heroine avows in Maya Angelou's poem, Still I Rise, from which her book derives its title.

A reluctant leader, Mrs Lawrence had courage thrust upon her. Like Mrs Till-Mobley and Mrs Diallo, she chose to heal the wounds of race hatred. Her Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust promotes equal opportunity and provides bursaries for aspiring architects  — her son's professional ambition. Convinced of the worth of her endeavours, she says: 'I take comfort from the fact that Stephen's name is synonymous with positive change …and is linked everywhere with improving race relations".

So, why are Soul Mothers so uniquely worthy of our attention? Courageous and conscientious advocacy shaped from tragedy seems to be the essence of these stories. Soul Mothers have spent lifetimes in their mission to turn the horror of love's loss into healing actions. Without doubt, in their modest way, they have impacted on modern history.

It is not easy to evaluate their works, however. Their detractors dismiss them as naïve, self-serving and ill-informed. Race-hate crimes are still all too common. Currently averaging five a year, there have been 68 racist murders since Stephen Lawrence's death, say Institute of Race Relations researchers. Known killers are still on the loose. Even now, Mrs Lawrence is convinced too many people see Black youth in racist terms, marginalising and excluding them. And there is a serious worry that the roots of the problem run deep within society.

But the gains must also be counted. The Soul Mothers have survived death threats and amassed a fair number of distinctions. These quiet voices for justice have highlighted important social themes. Chief among them are a commitment by all citizens to end white-on-Black race-hate murders and tackle the underlying causes.

Are the Soul Mothers' memories of their murdered brown-skinned, curly-haired man-child a motivation to their performance? Undoubtedly. Their charitable works offer a range of services intended to transform and inspire. Count among them the scholarship and community action programmes, TV documentaries, books and articles and key legal decisions targeting institutional racism. These are precisely the tools needed to give strength and hope to Black communities, to encourage tolerance and garner the goodwill of politicians and the wider society.

* For more on Doreen Lawrence's book and campaign for justice, see a downloadable article in "What's New" on Thom Blair's Internet news magazine on changing Black Britain and Afro-Europe http:/www.chronicleworld.org.

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