“He is not hers, for cruel hands

May rudely tear apart

The only wreath of household love

That binds her breaking heart.”

-Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, “The Slave Mother"

Magic, Mirth, and Mortality: Musings on Black Motherhood is an exhibition inspired by the lived experiences of writer, curator, community builder, wife, and mother Shawana Brooks which celebrates the resilience of Black mothers through the lens of visual and literary art, and historical and archival objects.

Local stories of Black St. Augustinian women are woven with Brooks’ writing, statistics on the effects of medical racism, and vibrant artwork by Cheryl McCain, Marsha Hatcher, and Tatiana Kitchen. The exhibition illuminates how institutional racism, harmful stereotypes, and the looming threat of police brutality and other forms of racial-based violence have pervaded the way Black women receive treatment during pregnancies, and have impacted Black health, especially concerning mortality rates of infants and their mothers.

The material in both the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center and the St. Augustine Historical Society reflects the unique experiences of Black motherhood from St. Augustine’s founding to our contemporary moment in St. Johns County. The St. Augustine Historical Society’s exhibition highlights the experiences of enslaved Black mothers while the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center centers the stories of Black mothers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Using their archival collections, each venue historically contextualizes some of the contemporary inequities Black women experience.

Perhaps there is no greater joy for a woman than the birth of her own child. It is a day of marvel and gladness, even in the midst of physical pain. It is a day of spiritual awakening that leaves her in awe at the magnitude of life. But for too many of Florida’s enslaved mothers, this was a day of despair, for the thought of bringing an innocent life into her world of suffering and sorrow brought only heartbreak. There will be times of joy and laughter because she will try to make that child know happiness whenever and wherever possible. If she can accomplish that, then that will be the true miracle of this child’s birth.

And she believes in miracles.

In these stories we find women who loved their children as only a mother can. They will have endeavored to find any opportunity, no matter how brief, to bring a smile – even laughter – into the lives of their children. It’s what mothers do! These mothers, however, would more often spend endless hours, days, even years in constant fear of what suffering the next sunrise might bring. Some loved their children enough to sacrifice their own lives for them. Some committed serious crimes, including murder, to protect them. One that we know of loved her children so much that she took their young lives from them, rather than allow them to endure their enslavement one day longer. To read their stories is to better understand the tragedy of chattel slavery, and the strength these women found within themselves to do that which must be done.

The strength to do whatever must be done.

This exhibition was originally curated by Hope McMath at Yellow House, Jacksonville, Florida in March 2020. We are grateful for the opportunity to share this work with the St. Augustine community.

“Magic, Mirth, and Mortality: Musings on Black Motherhood” is supported in part from grants from The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida and the St. Johns Cultural Council.

Funding for this program was partially provided through a grant from Florida Humanities with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of Florida Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Old Town Trolley has generously provided transportation for the opening night events.

More St. Augustine Black History Resources

St. Augustine Historical Society Research Library African American Resources

Yellow House Virtual Exhibit