The Pitfalls of Being the Best Black Surrogate a White Woman Could Hope For

by Janine Jones  (11/2/2016)


Anita Allen has argued that a black surrogate mother might be the best kind of surrogate mother a white woman could buy.[1] Anna Johnson, a black, gestational mother, filed a suit against a white couple, Mark and Crispina Calvert, on August 13, 1990, when she was seven and a half months pregnant. Orange County Superior Court Judge Richard N. Parslow presided over the case. Johnson lost. As Allen cogently argued, predictably so: “The race issue, Anna Johnson’s race… made Judge Parslow’s ultimate decision predictable. Throughout history, Black women and mulatto women have been hired or enslaved to play a number of important de facto “mothering” roles in American families.”[2] Allen continues:  “The Johnson case highlights a troubling truth underlying the rhetoric that contemporary surrogacy is slavery. Affluent white women’s infertility, sterility, preferences and power threaten to turn poor Black women, already understood to be a servant class, into a “surrogate class.””[3]

This electoral presidential cycle features a white, male candidate, Donald Trump, who boasts about groping pussy, and a white, female candidate, Hillary Clinton, who supported a president who never had sexual relations with that woman[4]—he never inhaled the marijuana he smoked either (and never spent 41 years in prison for possessing it, while his policies would mean that a black person might)—and who has been accused of sexual assault by various women. At this moment when the US system is putting on full display its racial-sexual-gender politics—arguably the bedrock on which the US founded its unjust polity—we might ask whether it should be any surprise that a black woman, Michelle Obama, a first amongst all FLOTUS, would be cast in the role of Hillary Clinton’s best surrogate, as it has been claimed that she is.[5] A bit ironic, perhaps. Surprising, no.

White women birthed this nation of free white men. Black women—thought to be inherently (not merely culturally, as some would now claim) immoral—birthed the free labor that created a great part of this nation’s wealth, in the broadest sense of the term. As Allen observed, black women were cast in the role of surrogate mothers to white mothers—in fact, to the white family as a whole. Black women played this role throughout slavery and well after emancipation. Let’s hear more of this black woman-as-surrogate-for-white-America story through the words of a black, southern nurse. Let’s lively up this dead zone of black surrogate FLOTUS exceptionalism.[6]


I am a negro woman, and I was born and reared in the South…. To begin with, then, I should say that more than two-thirds of the negroes of the town where I live are menial servants of one kind or another, and besides that more than two-thirds of the negro women here, whether married or single, are compelled to work for a living–as nurses, cooks, washerwomen, chambermaids, seamstresses, hucksters, janitresses, and the like. I will say, also, that the condition of this vast host of poor colored people is just as bad as, if not worse than, it was during the days of slavery. Tho [sic] today we are enjoying a nominal freedom, we are literally slaves. And, not to generalize, I will give you a sketch of the work I have to do–and I’m only one of many.

I frequently work from fourteen to sixteen hours a day. I am compelled to by my contract, which is oral only, to sleep in the house. I am allowed to go home to my own children, the oldest of whom is a girl of 18 years, only once in two weeks, every other Sunday afternoon–even then I’m not permitted to stay all night. I not only have to nurse a little white child, now eleven months old, but I have to act as playmate, or “handy-andy,” not to say governess, to three other children in the house, the oldest of whom is only nine years of age. I wash and dress the baby two or three times each day; I give it its meals, mainly from a bottle; I have to put it to bed each night; and, in addition, I have to get up and attend to its every call between midnight and morning. If the baby falls to sleep during the day, as it has been trained to do every day about eleven o’clock, I am not permitted to rest. It’s “Mammy, do this,” or “Mammy, do that,” or “Mammy, do the other,” from my mistress, all the time. So it is not strange to see “Mammy” watering the lawn with the garden hose, sweeping the sidewalk, mopping the porch and halls, mopping the porch and halls, helping the cook, or darning stockings. Not only so, but I have to put the other three children to bed each night as well as the baby, and I have to wash them and dress them each morning. I don’t know what it is to go to church; I don’t know what it is to go to a lecture or entertainment of anything of the kind; I live a treadmill life; and I see my own children only when they happen to see me on the streets when I am out with the children, or when my children come to the “yard” to see me, which isn’t often, because my white folks don’t like to see their servants’ children hanging around their premises. You might as well say that I’m on duty all the time–from sunrise to sunrise, every day in the week. I am the slave, body and soul, of this family. And what do I get for this work–this lifetime bondage? The pitiful sum of ten dollars a month! And what am I expected to do with these ten dollars? With this money I’m expected to pay my house rent, which is four dollars per month, for a little house of two rooms, just big enough to turn around in; and I’m expected, also, to feed and clothe myself and three children. For two years my oldest child, it is true, has helped a little toward our support by taking in a little washing at home. She does the washing and ironing of two white families, with a total of five persons; one of these families pays her $1.00 per week, and the other 75 cents per week, and my daughter has to furnish her own soap and starch and wood. For six months my youngest child, a girl about thirteen years old, has been nursing, and she receives $1.50 per week but has no night work…

Of course, nothing is being done to increase our wages, and the way things are going at the present it would seem that nothing could be done to cause an increase of wages. We have no labor unions or organizations of any kind that could demand for us a uniform scale of wages for cooks, washerwomen, nurses, and the like; and, for another thing, if some negroes did here and there refuse to work for seven and eight and ten dollars a month, there would be hundreds of other negroes right on the spot ready to take their places and do the same work, or more, for the low wages that had been refused. So that, the truth is, we have to work for little or nothing, or become vagrants! And that, of course, in this State would mean that we would be arrested, tried, and dispatched to the “State Farm,” where we would surely have to work for nothing or be beaten with many stripes![7]

Reading the southern nurse’s particular story, and generalizing appropriately, it shouldn’t be surprising that Michelle Obama is Hillary Clinton’s surrogate, ironic though it may be, because her black femaleness calls her morality into question. (It was implicitly called into question when her daughters sported mini-dresses at a state function: dare we say, they got it from their mamma).[8] But I think we (at the very least, black women), should be concerned that M. Obama could be H. Clinton’s very best surrogate.  For what are the implications of her being so?

Anna Johnson didn’t predictably lose her case against the Calverts merely because she was playing the kind of role that black women have historically played for white families. She predictably lost—which makes her and any black woman the best kind of surrogate—because there was no way the judge was going to give her any rights, parental or other, over a white child, or with respect to a white family. Johnson was a sure bet.

Allen concluded:

According to my analysis, few Black surrogates who desire to keep their gestational children could easily decide to do so. Surrogacy laws, even surrogacy laws that equally favor genetic and gestational surrogates over genetic parents, offer Black gestational surrogates little protection. As an ironic consequence, Black gestators could be the safest surrogate mothers for white women who want white children. In light of these inequities, the Johnson case may force the conclusion on behalf of Black women that a per se ban on commercial surrogacy is the safest-the wisest-course.[9]

We might try to contemplate what Michelle Obama stands to lose in being Hillary Clinton’s best surrogate. The possibilities at this point might be situated only at the edge of our imaginations. While trying to uncover actualized possibilities in a space where, momentarily, they cannot speak audibly, considering the following might assist us: (1) M. Obama, wife of the Commander and Chief of the United States, does not state—to my knowledge—that she was shaken to her core when Trump attacked the mother of Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan, Ghazala Khan, for the way Khan appeared at a ceremony decorating her dead son: “…she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably—maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say…”[10] (2) Michelle Obama was “shaken to her core” over the Trump sex-boast video.[11] (3) Arguably, Trump’s boast is about white women, in general. It seemed to be about white women, in particular—potential mothers of the nation. Arguably, this is why so many citizens were shaken to their cores. (4) H. Clinton is unable to state her moral indignation at Trump’s sexual predatory behavior, because she would then be tasked with explaining how her lofty principles allowed her to support the behavior of her husband (at the expense of potential mothers of the nation) with respect to his sexual indiscretions, and alleged sexual assaults. In other words, with respect to this matter, in the context, Clinton’s words would be rendered infertile, sterile. Yet, Clinton does have a preference—to win. No doubt she wields power.  However, (5) Clinton is now, to her chagrin, publicly entangled with Anthony Wiener, whose obsession with his wiener, and sexting, has brought his spotlight into her limelight, right in view of the finish line.

Finally, (6) Wiener was sexting an underage girl—not yet sweet sixteen, but only 15—the age of Michelle Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha. Dare the first lady speak her outrage now, when the core should have shaken away the apple surrounding it? Does M. Obama have the right to speak her outrage at Wiener, an apple tree that grew in the Clinton orchard?

Mark Calvert stated the following, when explaining his and Crispina’s decision to engage a surrogate mother: “we really wanted a child that had her innocence, her sweetness, her demeanor.”[12] The couple also stated that they would rather see their daughter in a foster home than share custody with their hand-picked, black gestator, Anna Johnson.[13]

I wonder:  Does M. Obama have the parental privilege to speak her outrage with her own black daughter in mind, whose possible sexual assault at the hands of a sexting predator might be—given that she is a black girl—amongst the least of this country’s concerns?


About the author: Janine Jones is an Associate Professor at UNCG, who works in the area of Philosophy of Race and Gender. She can be contacted at [email protected].

[Cover image: “First lady Michelle Obama is greeted by supporters after speaking at a campaign rally in support of Hillary Clinton on Thursday in Phoenix, Arizona. | AP Photo” via Politico]


[1] (accessed 10/30/2016).

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Monica Lewinsky

[5] See

[6] See Joy James’ “Dead Zone” (, accessed October 20, 2016).

[7] accessed 10/30/2016.


[9]Allen, see above.

[10] (accessed 10/30/2016).

[11] (accessed 10/30/2016).

[12] (accessed 10/30/2016)

[13] Allen, see above.

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