Lucy Burns had a one-room schoolhouse in Raymond, Mississippi, where she was the head teacher, principal, janitor, cook, and bus driver. As Lucy's great, great, great-granddaughter, Black education has always felt like my inheritance—a weighty, heavy legacy to hold. After being introduced to the figure of the Captive Maternal, this inheritance takes on new meaning.
Lucy's school was unquestionably a site of affirmation and cultural sustenance, but it was also a school: a disciplinary formation that "schools" children into antiblack capitalist conformity. Ultimately, the predicament of the Black educator navigating the disciplining structures of school is the predicament of what Joy James would call the Captive Maternal—those Black persons socialized into caretaking within and in response to the legacy of racism and US democracy.
Since 2006, I have stood alongside hundreds of Black education caretakers, celebrating many classroom victories with beloved students. I have also found myself on both ends of the same stark scenario: cradled in the arms of a red-eyed teacher, wiping tired eyes in stairwells across the country, hungering for or offering comfort and validation in response to structural violence, student devastation, and institutional neglect. Those moments of connection and recognition are essential to sustain the work.
The Captive Maternal's commitment to the people informs their radically creative survival strategies within hostile systems. For James, the purpose of the Captive Maternal (to love, revolutionarily) is shaped by the unique landscape of domination in which they work: it is the inherent violence of this space that shapes the Captive Maternals' responses to it. Unfortunately, by marshaling the worldmaking resources required to survive the toxicity of the system, the Captive Maternal in turn fortify the system in which they must work, as opposed to dismantling it.
Black women educators continue to step into this tradition of caretaking despite its inevitable failure and collusion with the state. Risking amputation during enslavement, surviving material deprivation during Jim Crow, persisting through workplace micro- and macroaggressions, supporting student "achievement" on (racist) standardized assessments—Black educators' commitment to learning despite palpable harm is profound. Caretaking is a labor of love continually co-opted by power toward its aims. The Captive Maternal is motivated by Revolutionary Love to improve the conditions of those they love. The Captive Maternal sacrifices and creatively reallocates resources so that their loved ones have greater access to material, psychosocial, and even spiritual resources.
Care work toward radical aims needs continual interrogation and reinvention to avoid appropriation. Once the caretaker recognizes the limitations of care work toward revolutionary aims, the caretaker embraces bolder forms of action like protest, marronage, and revolution. James' work specifically turns our attention to Captive Maternals in the prison system—like George Jackson, Assata Shakur, and the leaders of the Attica Prison Rebellion. Even though organizing for more resources or better conditions often led to severe punishment or more material deprivation, the Captive Maternal subsumes this risk as a necessary concession toward liberation. The relentless "two steps back, one step forward" shuffle is a choreography that entraps the Captive Maternal in their pursuit of justice, but James (2019), with wonder and admiration, asks: "Do you see the beauty of that? It's an impossible task, but it's completely worthy of you."
Black educators do impossible tasks daily. At a moment when the crisis of Black teacher retention is at an all-time high, we need not only care workers who understand this impossibility, but also new conceptions of love and care—as well as supports to help educators navigate the suffocating tensions. We, Black educators, are Captive Maternals, and James' formulation offers transparency and uncensored truth about the negotiations required to pursue that which is loving within hostile institutions. Black educators may find relief in describing our work as care work instead of teaching, given the overwhelming research that not only connects Black educator motivation with community change, but also the interminable violence that Black educators and students experience due to schooling. In other words, Black educators may find comfort in the unfiltered description of violence that the Captive Maternal framework offers, as well as its unabashed commitment to love—specifically, a Revolutionary Love. This violence includes but is not limited to the policing of our hair, egregious displays of school cop harassment, antiblack curriculum, and administrative intimidation.
Presently, the insistence of educational discourse on the possibility of school reform forces Black women educators into a state of gaslighting: they must constantly reframe and re-see the horrors that occur as a result of American schooling as something that pedagogical strategies, redesigned curriculums, or new technologies can fix. On the other hand, the Captive Maternal, an inherently abolitionist figure, refuses to diminish the severity of white supremacist violence, retaliation, and punishment. Instead, the Captive Maternal acknowledges the profound precarity of the system and, at the same time, embraces the required courage to act.
By starting from the truth of the violence (versus the possibility of reform), caretakers can shift their energy away from trying to locate hope in interventions they know will fail, and instead imagine new acts of caretaking (James says protest, marronage, revolution) that actually meet the material needs of students and families they love. In other words, Black women caretakers in education (aka Captive Maternals) find hope in themselves and their students, locating genius and innovation in their embodied experiences of learning and joy—not in schooling.
What would it mean for Black educators to acknowledge—instead of cover—the presence of violence in schools? What would it mean for Black educator training and ongoing support to start from this place of inevitable institutional neglect and harm? Furthermore, what would it mean for Revolutionary Love to animate Black educators' pursuit of joy rather than of assimilation guised as Black excellence, or capitalism guised as Black wealth?
Care work, the materialization of love, continues to entrap Black educators in the state's project of schooling-as-colonial-indoctrination, so where can we turn to find alternative conceptualizations of love that evade state collusion? I turn again to my grandmothers who made tiny decisions daily that broke the scripts. Cuddling and hugging kindergartners when it was forbidden, wearing pants before it was acceptable, departing from the curriculum, hiding their pregnancies, making home visits to teach reading in the comfort of a child's living room, and sneaking food kits into backpacks on the weekends. My grandmothers were disciplined for these actions, yet continued to make them knowing the impact.
Another education example comes from Damien Sojoyner, who witnesses the thoughtfulness and bravery of young Black men who weigh the odds of a diploma and their immediate material needs, choosing to disengage from the education system as a critical act of agency, self-love, familial caretaking, and futurity. As fugitive and abolitionist pedagogy grows in popularity in educational studies and social justice circles, we must be vigilant about the ways love is used to justify caretaking that instantiates the state. What departures from schooling scripts do we learn from? What refusals and fights do we need to replicate, exponentially?
As more and more states wage open war against truth, history, and life (support trans kids at all costs), Black educators can and must tap into the potency of Revolutionary Love to navigate the tumultuous waters. Here's to caretaking in schools that nurtures Revolutionary Love in ourselves and our communities.
From Caretaker to Rebel, a radical analysis of the role of love as a tool of political will—or a mechanism of capital—in transforming the slave into a guerrilla fighter against white supremacy.
In response to maternal death, Black women are positioned as heroes saving other women from crisis. In the war on abortion "rights," the state uses their labor, bodies, and caretaking, sustaining the hospital as "another plantation site."
More in blackness:
The changing seasons are an apt metaphor to talk about the shedding, withering, and falling away that accompanies the most painful parts of grief. Nnenna Freelon takes us on a walk through the woods to contemplate autumn and the possibility of renewal.
A wife for nearly 40 years, Nnenna Freelon now wonders what to make of the term widow when she still feels the significance of her marriage well after her husband's death in Black Widow, the final installment in the season of Great Grief, Wailing Women.
Hair holds our history, personality, identity—and our grief. In episode 3 of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon visits her mother's beauty salon, where generations of Black women have gathered to discuss their hair—the grief over it, and the grief under it.
The weather bears witness: On calamity, rebirth, and Blackness in the face of climate crisis and the chaos of the natural world. "Perhaps in every wind roaring, in every storm raging, our ancestors are not only watching over us, but watching out for us."