Undoing the erasure of Black women’s lives

  • February 24, 2021
Undoing the erasure of Black women’s lives

The book is a beginning...It was my goal to ask why don’t we know more about these women and how much more is missing from our knowledge about Black women’s lives throughout US history.

Anna Malaika Tubbs

Anna Malaika Tubbs always wanted to be a public intellectual – to speak up for Black women whose lives have been erased from public view and to talk to the general public about gender, race, sociology and anthropology in ways that are accessible.

Having been a student activist and having taught black feminist theory to 16- and 17-year-old students of colour at a high school in California for over two years before starting her PhD, she says she has never seen herself as a career academic.

When she applied to do her PhD at Cambridge her goal was to study a subject which would appeal to a larger audience and which would correct the erasure of Black women. That project has now gone on to form the basis for her acclaimed first book, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, published earlier this month.

Academic studies

Anna Malaika [2017] wasn’t sure of her PhD subject when she started at the Faculty of Education in 2017. She knew she wanted to focus on the role of Black mothers as educators of their children. She got talking to her supervisor, Dr Arathi Sriprakash, about famous men and their mothers one day and explored the idea of taking it further, focusing on Louise Little, Alberta King and Emma Berdis Jones, the mothers of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and James Baldwin. However, she realised that the idea would not be a good fit for the Faculty of Education which was more focused on the formal education process. Dr Sriprakash encouraged her to explore transferring to the Sociology department and, with the support of her new supervisor Dr Monica Moreno Figueroa and Gates Cambridge, she made the switch. “It made sense because the project was more about society than about formal education,” she says.

When she started to do her research she had an inkling that it would be hard work trying to piece together the lives of the three mothers, given that information on them was scarce despite the many books on their sons. She did not, however, anticipate quite how difficult it would prove to be. Her supervisors encouraged her to keep going when she was not getting anywhere and suggested taking a more creative approach. Originally, Anna Malaika had thought to contact the families of the three women and use oral histories to piece her story together. However, she soon realised that this was more complicated than she had thought because the families had received so many inquiries and didn’t initially want to talk to her.

So she focused on what she could find in the archives, using the data she could gather to build trust with the families and show them her commitment. She also turned to the internet to track down a relative of James Baldwin’s mother Berdis who had written an article in the Huffington Post. She tweeted him and he replied. Over the course of her research she spoke to him several times and he was able to fill in several gaps in her research.

A beginning

Anna Malaika is well aware that there are many gaps in the book’s account of the three women’s lives which is a testament to the lack of information available. “The book is a beginning,” she says. “Hopefully we can continue to build on that and women can have more stories written about them. It was not my goal to say this is it. It was my goal to ask why don’t we know more about these women and how much more is missing from our knowledge about Black women’s lives throughout US history. Why don’t we know them at all? They symbolise Black women in the US.”

The book sold 4,000 copies in the first week of publication. It has so far garnered reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post and was selected as a book to watch for 2021 by The Guardian. Anna Malaika says the interest in the book is “a dream come true”. “It shows how many people want to know more about these women and engage with Black women’s lives. It is powerful. I could not be happier with how it is going,” she states.

She adds that, of the sociological studies there are of women, most are based on middle class white women’s experiences and tend to focus on the private sphere of motherhood and about reproducing patriarchal structures. Black motherhood does not fit this model, she says. Black mothers such as the three she writes about are often revolutionary, teaching their children to transform their situation. “We need to understand their role more,” she says.


While she was doing her PhD, Anna Malaika fell pregnant with her first child. She says the experience of writing about motherhood while herself being pregnant was powerful. However, for her the book is not just about motherhood, but about the women’s lives before they became mothers, the forces and experiences that shaped the mothers they became. “Nowadays we sometimes feel that our identities are being eroded by motherhood and that our own needs are irrelevant. Studying these women made me see motherhood differently. It made me feel influential and strong with an important role to play that I should be proud of. It made the work more personal,” says Anna Malaika. “It is not about raising incredible leaders, but about staying true to yourself, your identity and your passions.”

She says each of the three women have a different story and had to overcome different circumstances. Berdis grew up in revolutionary Grenada, spoke several languages and taught her children to recite the alphabet in French. Alberta grew up in a deeply religious family, watching her parents organise civil rights meetings and standing up against injustice. Louise was a leading activist in the Universal Negro Improvement Association and was one of Marcus Garvey’s closest confidants, writing articles for The Negro World. In the US, the family were pursued by white supremacists due to their activism and their house was burnt down. Her husband is rumoured to have been murdered by the white supremacist group the Black Legion, but the death was officially recorded as a suicide so Louise did not receive any insurance, leaving the family destitute. Her children were later taken into care and Louise was put in an asylum for 25 years.

Anna Malaika was keen to write about the diversity of the experiences of these extraordinary women. Yet they also have many things in common, not least of which is the fact that they all outlived their sons. Anna Malaika felt it was important to centre that loss early on in the book. “It returns the humanity to their lives and to those of their sons. Those sons are historical figures, but their deaths are also an awful personal tragedy. The book tells of their lives as young boys and how hard it was for their mothers. The loss was deep and hurtful. In a way it also rescues a part of their lives that has been erased,” she states.

Future plans

So what is next for Anna Malaika? Before she started the PhD she had been working on a novel on disinformation and domestic violence and on the need for media literacy with her agent. She pitched her PhD project to the agent too and by her second year she had clinched a book deal with Flatiron Books. She has had to keep her thesis, which she defended three days before her book was published, and her book separate.

Anna Malaika, who is about to start maternity leave with her second child, now plans to publish that novel, whose themes are so timely, and is also in discussions about turning her current book into a film or tv series. She says: “I feel I have arrived as a writer and I am excited about the next projects. I have so many different ideas all the time. I’m excited for what comes next.”

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