Womanhood and Parenting in the Black Lives Matter Movement: A Web-Exclusive Interview with Erika Totten

Photo by Rick Reinhard

Erika Totten is a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement in the greater Washington, D.C. Metro area, and an activist for the black liberation movement at large. She stresses the importance of self-care for activists and radical healing for black people through emotional emancipation circles. In a recent interview with Sojourners (June 2015), Erika painted a picture of what liberation could and should look like, challenging churches “to listen and stand up.” Below, read Erika’s web-exclusive answers to questions on parenting and womanhood within the movement.

How has your womanhood helped or hindered you as a leader in this movement?

I don’t think it’s hindered me. There are certain spaces where my voice isn’t valued. But an elder named Dorie Ladner, one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, affirmed what I was saying and believing. She said, “If they don’t offer you a seat at the table, kick the damn legs from underneath the table.”

If no one is giving me the space, I take it.

As a woman, I speak up passionately. And I believe that passion comes from the fact that we are the givers of life. So if black people are being killed, we birthed that person. If you are threatening the lives of our children, black women will stand up. I’m a mother and a former teacher, so these are my kids.

However, there are certain things I have to deal with as a woman that men don’t—misogyny, sexism, and objectification. I had to deal with sexual harassment in Birmingham and decided to write about it. As a survivor of sexual abuse, when I experienced that, I knew what it was. And because of the healing work I had to do to heal from what I experienced in my childhood, I said to myself, “I’m not carrying anybody else’s shit, and I’m saying your name.”

I hold men accountable. If we hold systems accountable, we have to hold those within the movement accountable, too.

What is it like raising children within the movement?

My son is six and my daughter is four. My daughter comes to a lot of the events I go to. She’s very aware of what’s going on, which kind of shocked me. I heard my son and daughter talking when I was driving. My son said, “If you take something, the police take you away.” So I asked my daughter Marlie, “What do you know about the police?” And she said, “The police kill people. All the time.”

I hadn’t had any conversations with them about [police brutality]. But that’s what she had picked up on from being in the spaces I’m in. And she’s 4.

So that’s one of the things I’m becoming more conscious of. I never want to shelter them. But growing socially conscious children starts before high school. There are ways you can have this conversation with children so they can understand what’s going on, whether it’s writing letters to Michael Brown’s mom or something else. As much as I’m educating people outside, am I doing the same for my family?

This can be a struggle when you’re a wife and a mother doing this work. That’s why self-care is so important.

What do you say to your children when you hear them make comments like that?

I still don’t really know what to say. It’s easier to have these conversations with people you’re working with and older kids. It’s a reality that hasn’t set in for me yet, [but] as black people in this country we can’t afford not to talk about this.

Emotional emancipation helps us figure out how to have these conversations with our children without having their spirits crushed. How can we help them process this in a way that doesn’t leave them so scared?

Follow Erika on Twitter @2LiveUnchained.

Jenna Barnett is an Editorial Assistant for Sojourners. Follow her on Twitter @jennacbarnett.

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