Anna Malaika Tubbs, THE THREE MOTHERS

Anna Malaika Tubbs, THE THREE MOTHERS

Zibby Owens: Welcome, Anna. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Anna Malaika Tubbs: Thank you for having me. It’s really an honor.

Zibby: It’s an honor to talk to you. You’re such a genius. This book was amazing. Your book is called The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. Can you please tell listeners what this is about? Even though this cover is amazing and the title is amazing, I still think it’s about far more than just those women. This is essentially — you know what? I’ll let you do it.

Anna: No, you were doing great. I was like, keep going. It’s about the mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin were their names. It’s also about what they symbolize in terms of black American womanhood throughout an entire century of American history and what they lived to witness, but also what they lived to inspire through not only raising their children, but also through their teachings outside of their families and their communities and in the many ways that they still inspire us today even though so many people don’t know their names. It’s all about telling their story, taking them from the margins, putting them in the center away from the shadows into the spotlight like they deserved to be all along.

Zibby: That’s amazing. You also go back and give us so much rich history of so many places, people, generations. Some of the things, even from something like Deal Island and how that started or the immigration from one country to another, you painted such a picture of history in general. When I was reading it, I was thinking, this is like the textbook — that sounds negative because textbooks are terrible. Now I feel bad. If you’re a textbook writer, I don’t mean your book is terrible. How about this? This should be required —

Anna: — They’re not usually as readable. It’s a little harder to get through them.

Zibby: Yes. Required reading on the history of black America in general, especially from the lens of women. Still, you have so much information in here. Yet you wove it together in a narrative form to make it highly digestible. I thought that was awesome.

Anna: Thank you. That was a big goal of mine. It was an important one. I wanted it to be a text that people could refer to in terms of learning about American history through this perspective of three black mothers and how that changes the way we view events like the Great Depression, thinking about the Great Migration and actually getting to know participants in it, all of these things that we think about, both of the world wars. There’s so many different things that they lived to see, multiple different presidents and the way their policies affected them differently in each of the three cases because of their own access to resources and education. I think it allows you to better understand history. I appreciate you taking note of that.

Zibby: It’s great. People are always like, we should rewrite history. You did it. There you go.

Anna: Thank you.

Zibby: I like how you threw yourself in the mix. Another way that you made this book so relatable, literally starting by talking about whether or not you’re getting your period. I’m like, oh, okay, wait a minute, this book is not what I thought it was going to be. She’s open. The author is open and talking to me like a friend. Now she’s going to tell me a story and teach me. It’s like when a great teacher stands up. Of course, that’s probably what you’re doing. You’re getting your PhD and everything, right? Are you trying to be a professor? What’s the goal there?

Anna: It’s so interesting when you said that comment about textbooks earlier because I agree in many ways that they can be a little boring, is the only thing. I definitely respect them for what they are. They’re such important tools for all of my academic colleagues who do want to be professors right away.

Zibby: Yes. I’m sorry.

Anna: No, but for me, I’m actually not. I’m much more interested in public intellectual work. That’s why I wanted to produce a book that was very readable, very accessible while also being a tool that could be used for education, but just in a way that’s more fun and that you can connect with. It feels personal. I believe that black feminist theory, gender theory, critical race theory all were meant to help us better understand our world and to survive our world and change it. It wasn’t meant to be exclusive or kept within the academy. I am grateful for my time in the academy. I am definitely a nerd. I love my degrees. I loved doing all the research to earn them, but it isn’t where I necessarily want to stay for now. I’m much more interested in talking to general audiences about what they think and contributing to current conversations because so much is happening so quickly. Sometimes when you’re an academic and you’re only talking to other academics, you feel like you’re kind of missing out because it takes years to develop certain articles and get them published. Then it’s only other academics who are reading them. That’s just not currently what I’m interested in doing. Maybe down the line I would become a professor. I love just talking to everybody about what they think. That’s what I’m most excited about with the book, seeing what all these different people get from it and what they gain from it.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, you’re going to have the most amazing conversations. There’s so much in here. I was hoping I could just read this one point that I particularly loved. It’s all the way at the end. I’m sorry. It’s part of Our Lives Will Not Be Erased. You said, “I cannot fully express just how much hurt and frustration the erasure and misrecognition of women and mothers, especially black women and mothers, causes me. In my own life, I’ve experienced others demeaning me and questioning my abilities simply because I am a black woman. How many times have men threatened my sense of safety, hollering at me from their cars? How many times have I heard I was only given an opportunity because of the color of my skin? How many times has another person’s looks or comments tried to make me question my worth? I cannot say. There have been too many.” I’m reading one more paragraph. I can’t stop. Sorry. “I also cannot tell you how many times people have been surprised by my intellect and my successes because they assume I am dumb and that my biggest accomplishment was marrying my husband. My own work has often been hidden behind his, not for lack of his appreciation, but because we still live in a world where women of color are not fully seen.” Then you say, “Now that I’m a mother, this erasure takes place on new levels. I have stood at events right next to my husband while he was congratulated on the birth of his son.” Then you keep going on and on from there. Wow, that’s super powerful stuff right there. That’s amazing.

Anna: Thank you. I think so many women relate to it and can feel — I would love to hear your own experiences of that as well. So often, we’re taken for granted, especially moms. It’s this weird balance of everyone expecting us to do everything and get everything done. If we don’t, then we’re blamed for it, but we’re never thanked for being the ones who are running the operation in so many different ways. Of course, that’s different in different families. In general, women are underappreciated. We see this in the way that we’re treated and lack of safety and general toxic masculinity. I think part of it was adding my own personal experience to that so that people understand why this book mattered so much to me, but also to be someone who’s saying, I see you. I see all of us who are going through this. I hope that this book can be a part of changing that.

Zibby: Even your dedication, I started getting the chills. Wait, hold on, I have to read this too. Then I’ll stop reading.

Anna: No, I love it. This is so fun.

Zibby: You said, “This is for all the mamas. You deserve respect, dignity, and recognition. I honor you. I celebrate you. I see you.” I don’t know if you were talking to me, but I took it.

Anna: Yes, please do.

Zibby: I know this is geared — well, it’s not geared towards black mothers, but it’s mostly about getting the facts out into the world so that they are seen in a way that they have not been in the past.

Anna: It truly is for all the mamas, though. I actually define motherhood even more broadly than biological motherhood. Patricia Hill Collins calls mother work the kind of work we do that’s caring for others, the way we’re bringing others up. Teachers are doing mother work, doctors, nurses, so many of our essential workers. It is definitely a celebration specifically of motherhood, very specifically of black motherhood, but also for all of those that are doing work on behalf of many and who feel unappreciated, feel unseen. It’s our time. We need people to give us the appreciation that we deserve. There is nothing that they’re going to lose by giving credit where it’s due.

Zibby: Ooh, maybe there’s some tie-in here with my podcast. It’s our time. I love how you say that because that’s also what I try to say about listening to this podcast. I don’t mean just moms. There are caretakers in so many ways, shape, and form. Not that you even have to be a caretaker, but mom itself, the word, is so limiting, whereas it’s such a broad spectrum of people caring for others these days. Content is for whoever wants to ingest it. I believe it’ll find the right home.

Anna: I’m excited about that part of the conversation too, just thinking of the different ways and the different mothers. This is especially common in black communities, communities of color, the mothers that you have even outside of your own moms because of this it takes a village to raise a child mentality and practice and tradition that is so beautiful and wonderful. It’s very western to do this as an individual journey that everything falls on the one person and that they shouldn’t ask for help or they shouldn’t admit when something is hard for them. Even when we’re having conversations about postpartum depression, so much of that can be avoided or helped and supported if we have more people around that central figure, but also if we just see her. In so many cases, it’s going to be a woman who is not seen, who is not given the supports and resources that she needs. We can really change that and make it easier. It’s better for our kids and better for society. I’m all about the more you support women, the better society and communities do. I also hope that it contributes to that as well. I have a lot of goals for the book. We’ll see how many I accomplish.

Zibby: You should. I believe it will accomplish a lot. Let’s talk about these three mothers in particular. You probably know more about these women than anyone, as you spell out so clearly. Even things like the date that they were born is two different dates for certain of the women for their birthdate and just so much conflicting research because they weren’t even deemed worthy of recording in a way. You went and must have torn apart every library and every website looking for everything you uncovered. First, I want to know about your research and how you did that. I really want to know — maybe, let’s talk about this first, if you don’t mind. These three women who went through so much and overcame so much, it’s unbelievable, yet they produced these leaders. Is there anything as a main takeaway for other mothers if you want to raise a leader and someone who can speak their mind and effect change in society? Is there anything you feel like they did that we can all do?

Anna: Wow. There is so much that I could say to answer that question because, of course, the book is filled with those lessons on how did they do it day to day with all of the challenges that they were facing? I like to celebrate their differences even more than what they had in common because of this notion that we try to categorize black women as if we’re all the same. A big part of the book is celebrating how different all three of the mother’s approaches were to accomplishing something that in the end, we have these three incredible men despite the many differences in their backgrounds. One thing I think that they all had in common was this combination between both vulnerability and bravery and the way they saw themselves and what they were going to teach their children about themselves and how that allowed their kids to understand humanity better. To break that down a little bit, so often, moms feel that we have to put on this brave face all the time. We can’t let our kids see us cry. We can’t let them see that we’re struggling to do something because we feel like we have to be those superhero moms.

In all three of these cases, they were willing to say, hey, this is difficult for me. Alberta King was constantly worried about Martin Luther King, Jr. going out into the world. That was very real for her. That was her son still. No matter what she wanted him to accomplish, no matter how she had faith in what God’s plan was for him, she worried about her baby. We see it with Berdis Baldwin when she loses her own father. She cries in front of her son. She is able to show some of the things that are difficult for her. Louise Little, again, filled with examples of her showing that things could sometimes be very scary. What do you do in those moments where you have sadness, where you have some fear, where you have some worry? You continue to push forward. You ask for help from others. You form communities around you. They all were examples of that balance, vulnerability and strength and being this whole human being that I think allowed all three men to have a really deep understanding. One of the reasons they were all three incredible orators and organizers was they had an understanding of humanity that others did not. I think a big part of that was that their moms were very willing to be honest with them about their own human condition.

Zibby: Okay, I can do that.

Anna: It’s hard, though. It really is. My son’s still really young, so I’m not sure he’s going to remember all of my own emotions and my journey of being his mother. I think that honesty is crucial, especially with sons. When they see women in their full humanity in true light, it can make them better human beings.

Zibby: That’s great. Nothing like getting some parenting advice here in the midst of —

Anna: — I want all your parenting advice.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. If your kid has a rash, I will know what it is. I have four kids. I feel like I need to set up shop, a little corner in my pediatrician’s office and just be like, why don’t you just come through the triage center here? I will let you know what’s going on. Then you can leave.

Anna: That is hilarious. That would be actually really effective for hospitals. Just have some moms sitting there ready to talk to new moms.

Zibby: Right? Maybe I should do that. I actually am on the board of something called the Parenting Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center. It’s a lot of parent education and all that. I’ve never thought about just plopping myself down one day and being like, all right, listen. Let me tell you how it is.

Anna: He’s fine. They’re fine. I love that.

Zibby: They’re fine. My biggest parenting lesson that I feel like I probably say too much is that you don’t have as much influence as you think you have. I think that my kids, each one is born the way that they are. They’re all so different. Their genes may be the same, generally, but they’re completely different people. I just am here to watch them. With my first kids, I was on top of them. What are you doing? What are you doing? How can I make you better? At this point, I’m just like, look at this. My son’s redesigning his room. How about that?

Anna: The creativity, how wonderful. To that point, with these three moms, they had several other kids. We so often only talk about their famous kids, but that’s another really cool way to see even how they approached their different kids and their personalities and what they wanted to do with their lives. I think we can gain a little bit from those lessons as well.

Zibby: There was this show that I used to watch. It was only on for one or two seasons. Then it was canceled. Now I’m going to forget the name again. Something like Bob &… It was about when JFK and his brother Bobby were boys. It was trying to show, what did you see in them when they were boys? It was a lot about their mom and how she was raising them. You should try to dig it up.

Anna: I love that. That feels like it’s up my alley.

Zibby: It was so good. Oh, it’s called Jack & Bobby. I feel like the only person who watched it. I think maybe I was pregnant. There was some reason I was home watching a lot of TV. It’s sort of the same theme. What was it in their childhood? That’s not exactly what you were doing, but it’s always so interesting to look back and see, could this have been the influence? What about this? How did she handle that? Or is it in spite of your parents that you end up becoming a leader?

Anna: That’s definitely the case sometimes, for sure.

Zibby: Go back to how you dug up all this information and wrote this book. Your son must be one and half or something at this point?

Anna: Now he’s fifteen months.

Zibby: Pretty close.

Anna: Full-on toddler mode. He’s just running around and talking and has some declarative statements. We have no idea what he’s saying, but he’s really emphatic. It’s a really cute stage.

Zibby: How did you do this whole book at the same time? You must have done a lot of it before. Tell me about that.

Anna: I started the research before we were expecting my son. Started with my PhD program. Definitely, the journey of becoming a mother while moving through the different stages and then having my son while I was editing the book gave me this very rich, deep, personal connection to the three women that I’m really grateful for because motherhood can be an incredibly scary journey as much as it is really exciting. Especially for black women in the United States, seeing what they were able to push through, but also the way they were able to transform their communities to better meet their needs brought me incredible inspiration. In terms of the nitty-gritty of actually finding all of this information around their lives, it was really hard. I say in the book that it was finding a needle in a haystack. Even if you just take one paragraph, you’d have to break it down into almost each sentence that I had to find a different fact in order to complete that one paragraph because information about them was so scattered. Then there were conflicting documents on what one person said versus another scholar versus all of these things. That’s what adds to the complexity of their humanity. It’s definitely a challenge that I appreciated.

What frustrated me most was how little there was out there because there’s so much more about their lives. I hope maybe the families will be more willing to speak about them now. One of the problems — maybe it’s not a problem, but it’s a challenge. They wanted to protect their moms. These are three families who had been through so much scrutiny, so much inquisition from different sources, whether that was scholars or journalists, etc. I definitely felt their need to keep this person who was so important in their life guarded from that kind of scrutiny. I am excited, though, now that they’re able to see what the product was and what I wanted to do all along that they feel proud of it and they’re happy with what I was able to do. Hopefully, that will allow us to hear even more stories about these three women. So much of it was going through all of the men’s works first, then anything that people had written about the men. There is so much. It’s incredible. Every single year, there’s a new book about one of these men, which I find incredibly brave by these writers because what else is there to say? I don’t know how brave they are to go in and say, I have a whole new thing about these three men that we’ve already learned so much about. There’s nothing wrong with that. I just hope we can have multiple books about the moms as well and taking them, like I said earlier, from the margins and bring them to the center. If there was just a small mention, I would take that.

I had to really go away from my computer. I had poster boards all over my walls with these really huge timelines. I was filling them in with Post-it Notes. Then I could see where I had really big gaps which actually tended to be towards the beginning of the women’s lives before they were married, before a man made their life worth recording, really. Unfortunately, that’s kind of how it appeared and what it symbolized when I had this huge gap between maybe they were born this year, but we know for sure they married their husband that year. This is when they had their famous sons. Going back and filling that in with historical context and going really on a deep dive into Grenada’s history and Deal Island’s history and Atlanta’s history, that’s how I just filled it all out and took little parts where other people had said — Maya Angelou had described Berdis Baldwin, so finding her name in one of Maya Angelou’s speeches and learning that she was really short and that Maya Angelou had to bend to half her height to kiss her on the forehead. That was how it all came together. Then I called different historians around the country. I was also able to work with some researchers at different sites who helped me find birth certificates and marriage certificates and doctor’s notes, even, from some scholars who studied the men and had archives that no one had asked to see before about the moms. They just shared those with me. It was an incredible journey, really difficult, but also a really beautiful one at the same time.

Zibby: Wow, and a fabulous final product. I feel like, and maybe this is already in the works, but shouldn’t this be a three-part series on HBO or something like that?

Anna: I would love that. I really would. There’s definitely some interest in it. I do have a film and TV agent, so we will see how that goes. The way I picture it is Netflix limited series, maybe two episodes for each mom, and just getting to better understand, again, what we were saying at the beginning, the context of US history. That’s the thing that really connects them because all three of these moms never met each other. Their sons would meet each other eventually, which I think is really a beautiful part of the book as well. To see how something might happen nationally and then you get the scene through that mother’s life I think would be really beautiful. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: Okay, fine, it won’t be three parts. I’ve now expanded my order to perhaps a six, seven, or eight-part miniseries.

Anna: Even a musical. I think a musical would be beautiful.

Zibby: Musical?

Anna: Yes, like a Hamilton but where the characters are actually people of color. That would be cool.

Zibby: I miss the theater so much these days.

Anna: Me too.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I didn’t think I would miss it so much.

Anna: Then you can’t go. You’re like, I want to go so badly.

Zibby: Right? Anyway, wow, that would be really interesting too. So much you could do. I feel like I want to pause life right here for a minute, fast-forward twenty years, and see what you’re doing. I feel like you’re going to do really amazing things in the world for so many reasons. I’m just really excited to watch how you end up harnessing your intellect and hard work and perspective and empathy, all of it combined to effect change.

Anna: That means the world to me, Zibby. I really appreciate that. Hopefully, we’ll have more conversations. Twenty years from now, I’ll have another .

Zibby: When you are whatever you want to be, whether you’re the president or whatever — do you have giant aspirations, or not really?

Anna: It’s so crazy because in many ways, I’m living the dream that I’ve had for so long. I wanted to write books and travel and speak about them. The travel aspect is definitely being hindered by COVID right now, but that’s okay. I’m getting to travel from my living room, which is a lot of fun. I really did just want to produce my writing. I do fiction and nonfiction. My next one is going to be a novel that I’m finishing up and hopefully will be able to pitch this year. Just talking to people about it and getting everybody excited about things that can be complicated and theory that people feel maybe is overwhelming and that pushes them out of the conversation but that actually brings them into a welcoming environment where we can sit and talk about things that are affecting us as a nation. We’ll see. Maybe that turns into a TV show at some point. I don’t know. I’m excited to see. It’s fun. Hopefully, maybe having some more kids. I think that’s a huge part of my journey as well. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m really enjoying the moment. This is where I’ve wanted to be for a long time. I cannot believe the book is now out.

Zibby: So exciting. Enjoy it. I didn’t mean to not give this moment its due. I was just curious.

Anna: No, I appreciate that. I’m excited too to see what happens. What about you? Where do you want to be?

Zibby: I just want to keep doing more of what I’m doing. I want to just expand all the things I’m starting. I don’t know. I just want to see where it all goes.

Anna: It’s such a good position to be in where you’re like, I love this. Let’s just do more of this on bigger levels, bigger scales.

Zibby: If I could just replicate myself, that would be good. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Anna: Wow, yeah. For me, I always talk about the fact that it was not an easy journey, necessarily. I am young, but I also applied to PhD programs four times. Didn’t really find where I wanted to be. Didn’t get into all the programs I wanted to get into. It was really sad. Every time I got these rejection letters, I was like, but everyone told me that I had done what I needed to do to make it to the next step. I’ve done all the work. Then it just was perfect where I ended up and being at Cambridge and having the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and being able to compete my PhD within three years. I had become really obsessed with doing an American PhD program that was going to take me seven years and when I wasn’t getting into those programs, felt really dejected and felt like maybe I was not understanding what I was supposed to be doing with my life. Then now fast-forward to finally getting into a perfect program and having my book out. You just have to really push forward past those rejection letters. There’s going to be so many of them. Even if you want to not necessarily — self-publishing is a different route. If you want to work with an agent and you want to get a book deal, some agents aren’t going to work with you. They’re not even going to reply to your query letter.

You’ll find the ones who believe in you. Then from there, the ball just keeps rolling. It’s probably very cliché. I think everybody says this. It’s so much easier said when you’ve accomplished the thing than when you’re in the middle of the struggle. Definitely, from somebody who received a lot of rejection letters and who, at times, felt like maybe I wasn’t doing what I really in my heart felt I was supposed to be doing, just to keep pushing, but also being understanding with yourself. Then with the novel that I’m hoping to pitch this year, I’ve been writing it for four years. It’s a long, long process. I remember other writers telling me that at the beginning. I didn’t really believe them. I was like, sure, you maybe had to wait that long, but I’m going to have this book out so much sooner. I’m on my sixth round of edits. It’s getting closer and closer each time, but it is a journey. Just stick with it if you really love it. It’s definitely worth it once you’re able to show the world your work.

Zibby: Perfect. Great. Anna, thank you so much. Thanks for the coming on the show. Thanks for your amazing book and all of what you have to teach in so many different ways.

Anna: Thank you so much, Zibby. I really appreciate the time.

Zibby: Take care.

Anna: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Anna Malaika Tubbs, THE THREE MOTHERS