Lifting as We Climb: A Look into the History of Black Feminist Caregiving

I grew up with play aunties and cousins, who were not related to me by blood, but we cared for one another deeply. My aunts, still to this day would drive to me in a heartbeat if I needed something, as my own mother would. This understanding of caregiving is one of the foundations of Black feminist thought; Black women’s caregiving is grounded in deep love of community.  This made me consider a few questions: What historical context is important to remember when considering Black women’s caregiving? Who is responsible for providing care to Black women? And why is it important, especially during Women’s History Month that we ask these questions?

Through enslavement and its permanent effects on Black familial life, Black women had their rights to stable family structures stripped from them. The separation of Black families through the system of enslavement, and the carceral system that developed after emancipation, made Black women particularly devoted to family and motherhood. Angela Davis writes in Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves that during enslavement, domestic labor by Black women was the only labor enslaved communities directly benefited from; therefore it was extremely meaningful and, in some sense, empowering. The act of caring for one’s home, whether it belonged to them or not, whether it was permanent or not, was one way that Black women were able to help their communities survive the brutality of enslavement.

We saw the legacy of Black feminist activism continue during the protests across the nation last summer following the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Black women were on the frontlines, bandaging their comrades and being brutalized by police. A Black woman even suffered a miscarriage at the hands of police brutality while fighting for the freedom of Black people. This begs the question yet again, who is responsible for the care of Black women? At this moment, Black women make up only 7% of the overall work force, but 19% of child care workers, and that isn’t including undocumented and unrecognized labor of care Black women do daily. The way many Black women selflessly dedicate themselves to the protection of others is truly remarkable. Black feminist traditions of community care or “Lifting as We Climb” as the National Association for Colored Women’s Clubs asserts as their motto, is something we can all learn from. However, it is important that in recognizing this history, we also recognize the role of caregiver we assign to Black women in our lives, and the ways that we value and support Black care providers.

One way we can impact change that leads to tangible outcomes for Black caregivers is having real conversations about what caregiving means. The umbrella term of caregiving includes early educators, family, friends, and neighbors—who may not be paid for their labor but do it out of love of community—child care providers—both for profit and those operated by nonprofit agencies—legal guardians, and many other people who provide forms of care. To support individuals who do this care work, many of whom are Black, we need public investment that recognizes and honors the work Black child care providers and other caregivers provide to their communities.

Child care is a vital part of our infrastructure; knowing that children are being taken care of in safe, reliable, and accessible ways is fundamental to the way our society functions. It is especially important during Women’s History Month to center Black women, the people who, for centuries have been placed in the margins of society, yet simultaneously serve as the backbone of this nation. It’s time to invest in caregivers, just as caregivers so selflessly invest in us.