Surprisingly, the relationship between motherhood and debt remains undertheorized. When it is considered, it is framed through a racially biased prism made familiar by books such as Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood.
In the late 19th century the shift from an agrarian, subsistence-based economy to an industrial one shifted work from the home site to the factory and public sphere. The home evolved from a workplace into a place of leisure, consumption, and an emotional haven, essentially putting women out of work. Women became “domestic angels” or were faced with a double burden if they held factory jobs. For all women the responsibility of being the moral and emotional center of the family held firm.
But what does this master narrative forget? What has become a truism for Northern women’s economic history (and the roots of feminism) is not a false story but a partial one that serves to mask the racial realities of this and subsequent periods in the U.S. The early industrial period, as Patricia Hill Collins and Dorothy Roberts have expertly argued, was one during which black women continued to be sexually vilified and cruelly eroticized, essentially criminalizing black motherhood—and leaving her far from the idealized angel of the house.
Professor Baldwin's talk examines the regional and racial biases implicit in the narrative of the price of motherhood. Through a variety of cultural texts including Sula, Heavy, Precious, and The Help, and the TV shows Black-Ish, Scandal, and Empire, she traces contemporary under-theorization of motherhood and debt through the performance of the black mother. De-emphasizing the stereotypes of “jezebel,” “mammy” and “welfare queen,” she uses the example of the antebellum Southern household to ask how the racial stratification of motherhood continues to cut across contemporary performances of indebted black subjecthood. These cultural articulations (and others) expose the contradictory ways black motherhood and debt transform our sense of personhood and social belonging. How can the voices of black mothers be heard within the cacophony of our current moment in which an energized privileged-class feminism dovetails with the neoliberal announcement that there is no better time to be a woman and a mother? How can we square the imperatives of a Lean In zeitgeist with the realities of Killing the Black Body?