📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?

Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.

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. 

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.

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?

Black educators can and must tap into the potency of Revolutionary Love to navigate the tumultuous waters.

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.

Previous essay:

Love and War: Dialectics and the Stages of the Captive Maternal

Part II of The Captive Maternal Roundtable, a forum on Joy James' new book, 'In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, 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.

Read next:

Reflections on Reproductive Justice and the Captive Maternal

Part IV of The Captive Maternal Roundtable, a forum on Joy James' new book, 'In Pursuit of Revolutionary Love: Precarity, Power, Communities.'

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."

Scalawag is a Bookshop affiliate and receives a small commission for purchases made through the links above.

More in blackness:

Who said we all survived?

How survivorship language eclipses victims' pain—and our responsibility.

Assigning "more digestible" language to those who have experienced gender violence is dehumanizing—not empowering. It ignores the fact that under the existing conditions, harm for Black folks and gender-oppressed people is inescapable and recurrent.

Altars for the alter-life

Destiny Hemphill's latest poetry collection, 'motherworld: a devotional for the alter-life' opens portals that transcend capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, and antiblackness.

With Destiny as a guide, we are invited on a walk around the block, into other worlds—the alter-life. More than a collection of poems, 'motherworld' tunes songs of the South, lit up with magnolias, dandelions, rivers, and "testaments/of the cosmic."

How to Build the End of the World

In defense of the Chaotic Protester.

In the Black Radical Tradition, chaos and experimentation are required to challenge the state and build a reality worth defending. In the Cop City movement and beyond, Chaotic Protesters create meaningful resistance by disrupting the state's order.

'Please Keep Playing.' An open letter to my son, Remix

An Atlanta mother contends with the limitations of safety and Cop City's false promises of protection in a letter to her two-year-old son.

"With all the generational paranoia of a Black mother raising her Black son in a militarized police state," one mom's plea for Black playing, collective problem-solving, and joy as the keys to her child's future safety and liberation.

Anna Almore

Anna Almore is a Ph.D. candidate in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Since 2008, she has worked in schools from NYC, to the Texas-Mexico borderlands, to the Lakota reservations in South Dakota. She is currently working on her dissertation titled “Care in Containment: The geography of Black and Indigenous relationship within the captivity of school.”