Presidential Powers and Captive Maternals: Sally, Michelle, and Deborah

Published in the APA Blog

by Joy James May 6, 2020 

I smile rarely, but I am surviving.Deborah Danner

Introducing the Captive Maternal

Captive Maternals are self-identified female, male, trans or ungendered persons feminized and socialized into caretaking within the legacy of racism and US democracy. Captive maternals are designated for consumption in the tradition of chattel slavery; they stabilize with their labor the very social and state structures which prey upon them. “The Womb of Western Theory: Trauma, Time Theft, and the Captive Maternal” references “Womb Theory” that influenced the evolution of US democracy and the mutation of enslavement. The offspring of said Womb Theory includes “whiteness as property” as described by Cheryl Harris; and the “the delectable negro” dissected by Vincent Woodard.

The captive maternal labors to nurture the “private realm” of family and community that seek shelter from social and state aggression and stabilize the “public realm” of policing, presidential powers and policies that prey upon said family and community. An anti-black (inter)national Womb steals or appropriates the generative powers of captive maternals in order to stabilize the state and social order. Their desperate needs to stabilize black families and communities lead to “pragmatic” negotiations of labor and loyalty that lead to conformity to prevailing norms: capitalism; two-party electoral system; subservience to hegemony and dominant racial/gender/sexual/ideological elites.

“Founding fathers” and US presidents codified slavery along with presidential powers to produce a republic that preyed upon black families and communities. Today, white nationalists, patriarchs, uber-capitalists continue the legacy of defining presidential powers as the overseers of captive maternals. Within a conundrum, the exploited preserve the structures that exploit them by disciplining their children, students, and teachers to accept that the Western Womb is indispensable for gradual freedoms. The executive branch issues the promissory notes.

The intended offspring of a union between US democracy and white supremacy was a servile captive maternal. The unintended offspring was a Black Matrix that could produce a rebel. From an environment of trauma, a matrix can evolve, one conducive to rebellion within the predatory Western Womb. Resistance against accumulations through the destruction of human “capital” that denies the humanity of the captive is unpredictable but inevitable. The Western Womb houses a matrix with the potential to produce a breech baby that looks like: maroon colonies, slave rebellions, anti-lynching crusades, prison protests, and strikes. Political expressions of desires and frustrations culled from trauma can lead to refusals of captive maternal care. Yet, strikes and rebellions are rare. Most often, captive maternals replay the sequence of To Kill a Mockingbird in which a captive maternal Calpurnia—the black housekeeper is named after the devoted wife of Caesar, a presidential dictator—raises and civilizes future hegemons, Jem and Scott, for an Atticus Finch. Miss Calpurnia could tend her own home and kin, training them to organize in a civil rights movement. Unless there is rupture, her identity and value remain forged in service that reproduces the norm. Obedience does not ensure survival— the loss to the families of a “Tom Robinson” is routine in a Western Womb where captive maternals risk monetary penalties and are marked as a moral offenders.

Captive maternals who refuse to be “heroic” on the “frontlines” of a pandemic where they die disproportionately due to substandard medical care, lack of PPE, and routine disposability of the poor, working class, and imprisoned are not surprised that prisoners in NY make hand sanitizer demanded by “their” Governor who refuses them bail reform, soap, and social distancing while touting and selling the product, “New York State Clean,” that captive maternals produce. Their president does even less for the captive maternals he openly despises.

Still, victimization marks but does not define captive maternals. Productivity inevitably turns to protest. The impediment to freedom is law and presidential powers that dance in constant betrayals of an ideal. In the evolution of US democracy, the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery legalized it to prisons, promoting torture and voter disenfranchisement; the 14th amendment that promised civil rights to emancipated blacks garnered personhood for corporations largely owned by wealthy whites; the voting rights act was decimated by gerrymandering and voter suppression with little attention to voter protection given by Republican or Democratic presidents. Under these conditions of disenfranchisement, presidential powers have grown beyond the reach of a mass citizenry. Presidential powers, both symbolic and constitutional, address, ignore, or exacerbate violent policing and imprisonment in the spatial dislocation of the black, poor, queered, and medically-fragile. Executives control the police and prisons that shape the democratic womb to usurp and repurpose the generative powers of captive maternals. Constitutional norms historically offered few protections to captive maternals. White supremacist terrorism, police killings, prison violence, state executions, and rape, coupled with restrictions on abortion, reflect how the civil rights movements which were an expression of escape from the predatory politics of the US state have been consumed by the Western Womb’s mutated offspring.

Miss Hemings, FLOTUS Obama, Ms. Danner

Captive maternals discussed here are presumed cisgendered black women: Sally Hemings, Michelle Obama, and Deborah Danner. They lived in different times and locations under the authority respectively of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama, and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. These figures were free to “love” or loathe their respective POTUSes. Yet, none survived captivity by rupturing a womb of decorum and belonging; none lived in freedom; one died violently when she attempted rupture. Despite their different statuses, all three were captive maternals. Each was a byproduct of enslavement; each was marked by the transpositions of slavery in a historical spiral. Whatever their rank and status, they carried disposability and slavery in their lineage. Consider the possibility that New York City’s 2018 $2 million settlement, in restitution for the NYPD taking of the life of Deborah Danner in 2016, can be considered the contemporary auction price for police homicide.

Variations of Deborah Danner’s above quote about battling schizophrenia might have been uttered by Sally Hemings or Michelle Obama, women of African descent who, as captive maternals, serve as historical markers for democracy and US Presidents. When (un)gendered, feminized caretakers of historically enslaved and disenfranchised black communities become captive to a predatory democracy, democracy redirects the generative powers of oppressed caretakers away from rebellion and into stabilizing the reproduction of societies steeped in theft, trauma, violence, and consumption. American democracy is a continued rebirth of a lineage of captivity. These three black women illustrate the reproduction of policing by tacit or explicit permission from white/black President(s) of the United States (POTUS).

Sally Hemings

In the 18th century Sally Hemings became Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved concubine through his marriage to her half-sister, Martha. In the 21st century, Michelle Obama made history as the original official African American First Lady of the United States (FLOTUS) through her marriage to Barack Obama. After eight years serving as the first black president of an imperial nation, POTUS 44 passed his presidential mantle on to 45: Donald Trump, the 2lst century’s first POTUS to openly channel white nationalism and violent policing and militarism.

The functions of the captive maternal, codified in the American colonies since 1619, range beyond forced ministrations to white propertied males who held blacks and pregnant teens captive. Coercion and consumption did not disappear as democracy evolved to permit black power in struggle or in simulacra captured in celebrations of a Princeton and Harvard grad who metamorphizes the captive maternal’s transformation from an anti-racist “angry black woman” into a charismatic, glamorous FLOTUS, mothering a colorblind nation into civility and stability for (white) elites.

First Lady Michelle Obama

Enslaved two hundred years ago, Hemings wears her hard-earned honorific title “FLOTUS” as a crown of thorns. How she rebelled as a captive maternal has no written record. Two centuries from now we might have little knowledge of how Michelle Obama revolted against anti-black police and prison violence in a private diary. Hemings’s niece, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter, Martha, burned all papers about her mother’s half-sister. Danner, whom we are least likely to remember, functions as an anti-FLOTUS; she leaves a clear record and blood trail of rebellion. Deborah Danner had a prescient theory about her fate. Years of exhausting negotiations around family support or abandonment, social workers, prescription drugs, poverty, New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), and the feared NYPD filled her days. Unlike FLOTUSes Heming and Obama, Deborah Danner’s mental illness, blackness, and impoverished despair are stripped of romanticism and belonging. She reflects the microcosm and prism for violent policing ineffectually mourned by 44 and championed by 45.

Deborah Danner

The contrasting captive maternals and POTUSes oddly work to stabilize the memory of democracy’s ability to progress while emphasizing its indifference to captive maternal lives. Hemings augments Thomas’s electoral college gains via the 3/5th clause as her/their progeny garnered votes for Jefferson to enable him to defeat John Adams in 1800 and become POTUS 3. Michelle Obama cheers multicultural liberalism to validate Barack’s opposition to street insurrections and rebellions against police violence and poverty. Danner’s neuro-atypical, self-defensive “aggression” becomes her death sentence as Donald’s homicidal boast that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue with impunity promotes his path to the White House as an “unconventional” candidate.

On October 18, 2016, an isolated elderly black woman who had not taken her medication stood in her Bronx NYCHA bedroom; in her bathrobe, she clutched a baseball bat to ward off a white officer too impatient to wait for mental health mediators as police protocol required. Sgt. Hugh Barry’s gun shot into Deborah Danner’s chest would be officially declared as justifiable in a trial that acquitted him of murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide.

The year before Danner’s police execution, Freddie Gray, who suffered from neurological disorders linked to childhood lead paint poisoning in subsidized housing, became a victim of police homicide on April 19, 2015. The twenty-five year old’s severed spine and coma while in police custody, allegedly from a shackled “rough ride” in the back of a police van, led to Baltimore rebellions. In a national address, 44 castigated protestors as “thugs”; he later retracted the pejorative and lamenting the absence of adequate support for poor families (captive maternal functions) and claiming an inability as POTUS to “federalize” or control predatory policing. Gray’s death sparked the burning of city real estate while Danner’s death symbolized spatial dislocation distanced from the streets and most political memories of lynching to embody the black, impoverished, feminized sufferer whose only mother is herself. Danner’s devastating demise at the hands of police is met with a more muted response given that most recognizable vulnerability is framed by masculinized black youths; who also shoulder captive maternal vulnerabilities and functions.

A tragic representation of violent policing mourned by 44 and championed by 45, Danner remains the anti-FLOTUS, the disposable black woman that even other blacks would avoid. Lacking a personal attachment to a powerful man, her combative stance against violent policing registered less as political disaffection and more as mental illness to the public. Without youth and personal beauty, masculinity or family/kin actively preserving the memory of her murder (e.g., “Mothers of the Movement” surrogacy for 2016 presidential candidate Hilary Clinton), lacking even a rebellion for a gravestone, Danner in death does not easily survive in political memory. Her political anonymity as a fighter not just a victim, connects plantation, university, and public housing. She shares the common invisibility of captive maternals in sites where presidential power and governmental policy regulate a democracy that animates the: slave, prisoner, “welfare queen,” “super-predator,” father who won’t pull up his pants or pick up his kids, immigrants from “sh*thole” countries plundered by the west for their natural resources. Captive Maternals endure what presidents and executives permit: police torture and terror; Cointelpro; climate devastation and environmental racism; failing schools; children caged at borders and held captive in foster care, criminalization of the differently-abled. On the continuum of disposability, and potential rebellion, all CMs are related—all are tethered by law to a POTUS.

Greta Thunberg describes Aspergers as the “superpower” of her cadre of climate warriors. Captive maternals perhaps will find that trauma is their superpower with which they can build capacity to tilt predation and presidential powers. The trauma that captive maternals need to transfigure always takes place on a president’s watch: Botham Jean eating ice cream while watching television in his apartment; Atatiana Jefferson babysitting with a late night breeze drifting through an open door. The collateral damage inflicted by state violence encompasses elders, parents and infants.

We will wait to see how Captive Maternals as cadre theorists in resistance might rupture a continuum, reject the false promises of legal “protections” that enshrine laws to undo civil rights, feminism, human rights and climate protections. Perhaps those who breach the legacies of Sally Hemings, Michelle Obama, and Deborah Danner, might find their way out and leave a trail to follow.

Joy James

Joy James is the Ebenezer Fitch Professor of the Humanities at Williams College. She teaches courses in political theory, feminist theory and critical race theory.She is the author of Seeking the ‘Beloved Community,” and editor of The New Abolitionists, Imprisoned Intellectuals, and the Angela Y. Davis Reader. In her forthcoming book, FULCRUM: The Captive Maternal Leverages Democracy, James expands her study of images and practices of black community captive caretakers (discussed in her essay “The Womb of Western Theory“).