"The Mothers," a debut novel by 26-year-old Brit Bennett, is no different.
"The Mothers" introduces
us to Nadia Turner, a 17-year-old who is trying to come to terms with her
mother's suicide and her own abortion. For Turner, there's no greater struggle
than growing up in a world she feels displaced from. We watch as she claws to
find home in a community that has exiled her.
An unlikely friendship blossoms between Nadia and "good church girl" Aubrey Evans. They meet at the Upper Room, the church that Aubrey attends and Nadia is working at for the summer. Nadia has earned the ire of the Upper Room's mothers because she aborted the baby she conceived with the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard. However, the congregation's mothers cherish Aubrey.
The novel deals with these young Black women navigating their friendship and their relationships with Sheppard as they come of age. But there's too much more at stake here to simply label "The Mothers" as a coming-of-age novel. In such a concentrated space, Bennett challenges a momentous amount: abortion, pain, solace, sexuality, grief, loss, and the role of the church for Black women.
Most importantly, Black motherhood is not portrayed monolithically. Instead, Bennett allows her Black mothers to be human first, going against the trope that Black women are inherently unfit to be mothers.
In popular culture, the stereotype of a "welfare queen" is a Black woman who lives off the largesse of taxpayers. This misconception of the lazy, greedy Black mother has permeated American culture for decades.
In interviews, Bennett has said she wrote "in the direction of her fears" when it came to the termination of Nadia's pregnancy. She also challenged conventional perceptions of Black motherhood.
"I think particularly with Black motherhood, it's pathologized," Bennett told Revelist over Skype.
"There are all these really negative ideas around Black mothers circulating all the time. Whether that's Black girls are getting pregnant too young, Black women have too many abortions, we're 'welfare queens,' Black women don't take care of their kids ... all these narratives have been circulating, which is ironic to me, because throughout history, Black women have always taken care of other people’s children, so the idea that Black women are inherently unfit to be mothers, I think, is crazy. So, I wanted to push back against that narrative, but at the same time, I wanted to show the multi-faceted view about motherhood and all the different ways that women feel about it.”
Bennett began writing "The Mothers" when she was 17 or 18-years-old. She remembers it as a time when she felt unsure about motherhood, a desire that all women are "supposed" to have.
That uncertainty definitely shows up in "The Mothers," where motherhood is portrayed in all its ugly complexity. Both Nadia and Aubrey are motherless; Aubrey's mother abandoned her for a man and Nadia's mother made the choice to end her life. There's also the mothers of the Upper Room, who feel obligated to mother their community (and that comes in many forms, such as intercessory prayer), and a lesbian couple who are surrogate mothers to Nadia and Aubrey.
"Motherhood always interested me as a young woman, because [of] the idea that it’s sort of inevitable for you, in a way," Bennett explained. "There are women in the book that want to be mothers and struggle to be, there are women who take care of children that are not biologically theirs, there are women who do not want to be mothers; who choose not to be."
It is perhaps this spirit of constantly questioning the things around us that allows Bennett to present these thoroughly fleshed out characters. With Nadia, Bennett is clear that she wanted her to have "personal agency over her decision to terminate her pregnancy, because it's something we absolve women from because we see it as 'bad.'"
Toni Morrison influenced Bennett as wrote "The Mothers." Both writers are committed to disrupting the status quo when it comes to Black motherhood.
In Morrison's "Beloved," Sethe kills her child for complex reasons. However, a real sense of maternal urgency and protection is at the root of her decision. There are major differences between killing a child and terminating a pregnancy, but it's radical to see Black women being offered agency around their reproductive rights. In a similar way, Cora, the slave protagonist is Colson Whitehead's "The Underground Railroad," refused to be sterilized, an autonomous act considered dangerous at the time.
The idea that Black women should not have control over their own bodies still permeates today, so Nadia's decision to have an abortion can be seen as both a benign act of motherhood and the exercising of her reproductive rights. Bennett gives her the autonomy to save herself from a life that she does not want — a choice that her own mother wasn't allowed to make.
Choosing to be a Black mother can be an act of resistance against racism and sexism. But choosing to reject motherhood as a Black woman goes against the weight of history. Blackness and motherhood are complicated in "The Mothers," and Bennett is not afraid to make us uncomfortable by showing how motherhood can simultaneously save and drown you.
It will be interesting to see where Bennett goes next. But what is clear is that like Morrison, Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alice Walker, she offers us what we have always deserved, a portrait of Black women who eventually find their way home to themselves.