February 2021

Anna Malaika Tubbs

The women who raised America’s civil rights icons
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The Three Mothers maps how misogynoir shaped the lives of three young civil rights activists long before they raised sons who would become leaders in the movement.
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For Anna Malaika Tubbs, finding the inspiration to write her first book was a numbers game. After watching Hidden Figures, the 2016 biographical drama about Black women who worked as mathematicians at NASA during the space race, Tubbs left the movie theater feeling both enraged and inspired. “I wanted to do something where I helped this issue of uncovering more ‘hidden figures,’ ” she says from her home in Stockton, California. She wanted to write about women who “were there right in front of us that we just weren’t paying more attention to, or who were intentionally being kept from us.”

With a background in sociology and gender studies, Tubbs was well positioned for the task. But she also knew that, in order to entice readers, she would need more than her sharp research skills; she would need a hook. So she turned to Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X, three of the most brilliant leaders of the 20th century. Then she looked at their mothers: Alberta King, Berdis Baldwin and Louise Little, respectively. 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Three Mothers.

When Tubbs learned that these women had been born roughly six years apart (though some accounts of their birth years vary) and that their sons were born within five years of one another, she knew she had uncovered an important connective thread. She followed it, and the result is The Three Mothers, a book that maps how misogynoir (the unique intersection of racism and misogyny experienced by Black women) shaped the lives of three young civil rights activists long before they raised sons who would become leaders in the movement. The Three Mothers discusses Louise’s work with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Alberta’s family history of faith-based activism and Berdis’ early years as a poet and spoken-word artist. As such, the book is part biography, part history and part running social commentary on the events of the past century. People might pick it up because they are interested in these iconic men, but what they will discover is an extensive and rewarding history of 20th-­century Black women.

Tubbs intentionally wrote The Three Mothers in language that is counterintuitive to her academic training. After countless days in special collections archives, poring over newspaper clippings, letters and interviews, Tubbs wanted to create something accessible to those outside the ivory tower, where emerging scholars are often encouraged to make their work “as elitist and complicated and boring as possible,” as she puts it. Because the activism of King, Baldwin, Malcolm X and their mothers was intended to benefit all people, Tubbs considered it unreasonable to write a text that was accessible to only a few. “I’m just not willing to play that part,” she says. 

In fact, The Three Mothers is the first step down what Tubbs calls the “public intellectual path” she has always wanted to take, sharing knowledge with people both within and outside the academy. With its conversational style and anecdotal imaginings of moments for which firsthand information is scarce, The Three Mothers tells a captivating story of women traumatized by the nation they and their sons would ultimately help transform.

In addition to shedding light on the lives of Alberta, Berdis and Louise, Tubbs also illuminates Black motherhood in general. Tubbs, who became a mother herself while writing the book, intimately understands what an undervalued vocation motherhood can be. Tubbs is the partner of Stockton’s first Black mayor, Michael Tubbs, and people often congratulate her high-­profile husband on the birth of “his” son while saying little to acknowledge the roles that she or her mother-in-law have played in the mayor’s personal and political success. Tubbs suspects this is because many people still assume that Black motherhood is neither an intellectually rigorous nor actively anti-racist endeavor, but she hopes her book can change that. “Black motherhood is about creation, liberation and thinking about the possibilities of the world that we can be a part of,” she says. “So many times our kids are painted as not human, and of course we see them as the most incredible humans in the world. Therefore, we have to change the world to see it the way we do.”

"Black women hold the truth and the key to the future."

This is illustrated time and time again in The Three Mothers as Tubbs explores how each woman worked to make her son see himself differently from the world’s harsh perceptions. For instance, Louise would reteach school lessons to Malcolm and his siblings to incorporate multiple languages and Afro-diasporic history. When a frightened young King and his father were harassed by white store clerks and policemen, Alberta would comfort her son but remind him that his father’s refusal to be treated like a second-class citizen was the right thing to do. And when a young Baldwin and his siblings were terrorized by his stepfather, Berdis stepped in, continually reminding her son that family solidarity and the fair treatment of others were important in spite of the abuse. In each of the book’s eight sections, Tubbs makes clear that, without these mothers’ instruction, none of the men born to them could have been the leaders they ultimately became.

Though Tubbs is both excited and anxious about this spring—she will defend her doctoral dissertation and launch her debut book within weeks of each other—she feels that now is the perfect time for her work to enter the world, and she has high hopes for The Three Mothers. “I want it to be that declaration that Black women hold the truth and the key to the future. People are quite open to that idea, maybe for the first time,” she says, citing the recent inauguration of the first Black woman U.S. vice president as proof that the conversation is ripe for change. 

There’s no doubt that The Three Mothers will be at the forefront of that changing conversation about Black womanhood, perhaps leaving readers as inspired and determined as Tubbs was when she walked out of the movie theater nearly five years ago.


Author photo credit, Anna Maliaka Tubbs

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The Three Mothers

The Three Mothers

By Anna Malaika Tubbs
ISBN 9781250756121

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