Author Desiree Cooper looks into activism and womenhood
In May, we honor the mothers in our lives and shower them with gratitude, flowers and cards. I’m all for a Hallmark moment, but frankly, I can’t think of a worse way to celebrate a holiday that began as a global fight for peace.
More than a century ago, the lives of two American women intersected to begin what we now call Mother’s Day. One was Ann Reeves Jarvis. Born in 1832, Jarvis was a West Virginian self-taught nurse who couldn’t bear seeing Appalachian babies dying from the poor sanitary conditions in coal-mining communities. She created “Mothers’ Day Work Clubs” to improve the health of the mountain women and children. But when she saw casualties mounting during the Civil War (more men were dying from disease than battle injuries), she converted clubs into nursing squads, determined to save them-Confederate and Union.
Julia Ward Howe was born into privilege in 1819, the daughter of a wealthy New York banker. She grew up to become an abolitionist and poet who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the song that became the anthem for the Union cause. Howe firmly believed in the Civil War as a moral cause. But when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, she’d had enough of violence. She started rallying women for a national Mother’s Day for Peace.
In separate efforts, a nurse and a poet entreated women-especially mothers-to stand against war and violence at least one day a year. It would be decades before their calls for peace on behalf of mothers and children became a holiday. By the time President Woodrow Wilson officially designated Mother’s Day in 1914, it was a long way from its original vision.
But in the decades since, many women have taken up the gauntlet. Most recently, I think of the young, queer, Black women who started the Black Lives Matter movement (none of whom are mothers-but neither was Anna Jarvis, Ann’s daughter who took up the cause after her mother died). Before them, here in Detroit, there was Clementine Barfield, who started Save Our Sons and Daughters (SOSAD) after an unthinkable day in 1986 when an argument at school left her 15-year-old son critically wounded and her 16-year-old son dead. In that era, Detroit was riddled with interpersonal violence. When the terror hit home, Barfield broke her silence.
“My son’s life was of value and I wanted to validate his worth,” says Barfield, whose organization helped many communities nationwide deal with grief, learn peaceful dispute resolution, fight for handgun restrictions and form support groups for survivors. “But it was never just about my son. All of those children had a right to live.”
Like the Mother’s Day founders before her, Barfield fought for peace-a fight that nearly consumed her. Recently, I found her in Nashville where she’s been living for the past decade, working for the Red Cross and writing her memoirs. I asked her what she thought when she read about the women behind Black Lives Matter and relived the grief of Black mothers who continue to lose children to violence.
“I strongly support Black Lives Matter,” she says. “The spark is not dead. This is the 30th year since my son was killed-he would be 46 this year. If we are ever going to stop the violence, it will be women who will do it. We are the nurturers. We have to be bold enough to stand for what we know is right, no matter how tired we are.”
Barfield, like women before her and since, echoes that holy measure of Mother’s Day. It has nothing to do with a sentiment on a card. It has to do with activism-waging peace in a violent world. As Julia Ward Howe said nearly 150 years ago: “Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent the waste of that human life which they alone bear and know the cost?”
DESIREE COOPER IS AUTHOR OF KNOW THE MOTHER, A COLLECTION OF FLASH FICTION.