Anna Malaika Tubbs - THE THREE MOTHERS

Anna Malaika Tubbs - THE THREE MOTHERS

Anna and I discuss her new book The Three Mothers, the importance of black women and their stories and contributions, how she chose these three mothers, the direct connection between these women and the work their sons pursued, how we tell history and wh...

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Anna and I discuss her new book The Three Mothers, the importance of black women and their stories and contributions, how she chose these three mothers, the direct connection between these women and the work their sons pursued, how we tell history and who is telling this history, and much more.

Anna’s 2 recommended reads are:

  1. The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart by Alicia Garza
  2. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson

If you enjoy reading nonfiction and want to listen to more podcast episodes like this one, try Ty Seidule, Eric Eyre, or Bridgett Davis.



mothers, book, stories, James Baldwin, people, Alberta King, sons, Louise Little, life, thought, women, black women, mother, read, Bertis Baldwin, black, Malcolm X, importance, absolutely, MLK


Anna Malaika Tubbs, Cindy Burnett


Cindy Burnett 00:06

This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. For more book recommendations, check out my website and follow me on Facebook and Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage and on Twitter at @burn555555. In this episode, I am interviewing Anna Malaika Tubbs. Anna has published articles on issues ranging from mass incarceration to the forced sterilization of black women, as well as the importance of feminism intersectionality and inclusivity. Her work has been featured in the Huffington Post, For Harriet, Darling Magazine and Blavity. Today we are discussing her first book, titled The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. The book came out this week. I hope you enjoy our conversation. Welcome Anna. How are you today?


Anna Malaika Tubbs 01:03

I'm doing really well. Cindy, thank you so much for having me.


Cindy Burnett 01:06

Oh, I'm so excited to have you. And I'm really excited to talk about The Three Mothers. It was such a fascinating read, and I just have so many questions for you about it.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 01:14

I can't wait to talk. I've been looking forward to this.


Cindy Burnett 01:17

Well, why don't we start out with you just telling me a little bit about the book itself, kind of what it's about, and then we can talk about your research after that.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 01:24

Absolutely. So the book is about the mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin. I'm telling their life stories. Their names are Alberta King, Bertis Baldwin and Louise Little. And it's really about what they symbolize in terms of the history of our country. So many people are now realizing the importance of black women and their stories and their contributions to our nation. And this is in addition to that conversation through focusing on three incredible women who, without their stories, we really wouldn't be who we are today as a country.


Cindy Burnett 01:59

You've made that point so well in your book, and it kind of made me ashamed to think that I had never thought about any of their mothers. And so it's a very valid point. I mean, mothers plays such an important role in their children's lives. And that really plays out in your book. So how did you decide on the three of them?


Anna Malaika Tubbs 02:17

Yeah, I mean, it could have been so many different mothers. My thesis at the beginning was, I was going to just tell a story that needed to be told. Kind of another Hidden Figures kind of story where we highlighted somebody who we should be focusing on in history. But of course, with black women's stories, there were a multitude of different places that I could have gone with that. And I decided about these three particular women, because their sons are so often put in conversation, MLK, Jr. and Malcolm X, more so than James Baldwin. But recently, James Baldwin, scholars have started adding him as well as the witness to the work of these two other incredibly famous and incredibly influential men. And I thought how cool it would be to think about the women who came before them, we so often think about or say the woman behind the man, but truly there's always a woman before the man. And I got really excited about that concept. And when I looked into their stories, it was really fascinating to see the intersections that existed, even in terms of the chronology of their lives. All three of the mothers were born within six years of each other. And then they had their famous sons all within five years of each other. And so as soon as I saw these connections, and a way where I could showcase both the similarities and their stories, but also the incredible nuance and diversity of the black womanhood experience, I knew I'd found my topic for my PhD dissertation that would later become this book.


Cindy Burnett 03:39

Oh, I love that idea of James Baldwin as a witness to the other two men's work. And the three men were gonna meet for the first time, I think you mention in your book, and then Malcolm X was assassinated two days prior to the day they were scheduled to meet. Isn't that right?


Anna Malaika Tubbs 03:53

It is shocking that we were gonna have a conversation with these three men, but he was crucial to the movement, both here in our country as well as abroad.


Cindy Burnett 04:02

Yes, and I have read The Fire Next Time. And I read it years and years ago, probably in either late high school or early college, and just thought it was stunning. And reading your book made me think I need to pull it out and read it again.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 04:13

Absolutely. There's so much that Baldwin can continue to contribute to our conversations today. And when you start to learn about his mother, and the way in which she encouraged him to write and he directly inherits his writing skills from her, the story becomes that much more exciting.


Cindy Burnett 04:30

And that's really the case with all three of them. When you're looking at MLK's background and what he inherited from his mother and his father, but really his mother and then same with Malcolm X. I mean, the houses they grew up in, the role models they had, they really took a lot of that with them to what they ended up doing in their lives.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 04:48

Absolutely. And it's not even a stretch. I think I could have made the argument for any mother with any story, her influence on her child's life. So many people will say that is our first influence in life, and I I believe that to be fully true. But in these three cases, it's even beyond what each of us could say our mothers influenced us in. It was such a direct connection between their careers, between how they thought about the world, even thinking about the resources that they had access to. Without their mothers, it would have been a completely different story in all three of these cases. And there's so many examples that I fill that book with that just make it really obvious.


Cindy Burnett 05:29

I think that's exactly right. And you made those connections very clearly. And so as I was reading, I thought, Oh, my gosh, I just hadn't thought about it. And it was just truly fascinating that they did take so much from their mothers.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 05:40

Thank you. Thank you.


Cindy Burnett 05:42

Well, from reading the book, I know about some of your research, but I would love to hear more about it.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 05:46

Yeah, the process was definitely long and complicated. And there were things that I did not expect in terms of challenges. Because I've done this kind of research before, this was obviously my first time getting my PhD, but I did my honors thesis in undergrad and did my thesis for my master's. And so I was sort of, you know, I think naively thought that there was going to be easier access to these stories. I really thought I was going to be able to interview a lot more of the living family members, and anyone who was still alive, who knew the three women. But what I ran into, unfortunately, was the fact that the families of these three women have been over time really injured by researchers, scholars, writers because of this need that many of us have to always expose something new about the three men. And I quickly realized that there was not going to be immediate trust, especially about someone who they love so deeply, and who in many ways they had protected from this kind of attention. So part of the erasure of the women's stories was maybe not intentional, but was maybe appreciated in a way that they were sort of protected and not put under this same kind of, I guess, this intense spotlight that at times can be scrutinizing, and in many ways dehumanizing. So over time, I eventually did build up that trust with some of the family members and was able to hear their personal accounts. But a lot more of the research really rested in data that already existed, whether I could find that in archives or letters or with scholars who had different archives on the sons and reading the sons' books and books written about the sons and really taking the women, the mothers out of the margins, and putting them directly in the center. So I had to get really creative and just try a lot of different ways to put this story together. And then on top of it, another issue that arose was the fact that different records conflicted with each other. One family member might say one thing, a scholar said another thing, the famous son wrote something that said a different thing about the mother. And I really had to contend with how we tell history and who's telling history and how that changes the way we're able to decide what is or is not true, and what is and what's not fact. But that really adds to the complexity and the humanity of who these women were and are still in terms of their presence in our lives. And it allowed me to think about them in a much more complex way.


Cindy Burnett 08:19

Well, and at least one of them, I think it was maybe Louise Little, her birth year was disputed, right? Like one place she was like 1894 and other was 1897. I may not have everything right. But I just remember you talked about that people aren't even exactly sure what year she was born.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 08:33

Yeah. And I mean, same with actually with Bertis Baldwin. The family says she was born in 1903. And then there I have a record of her mother passing away in 1902. Her death certificate says 1902. That's something that I am highlighting in the book, that it's pretty recent history. It's not like it was a very, very, very long time ago, it shouldn't be that difficult to locate when they were born. But yes, in both Louise Little's case, and Bertis Baldwin, I don't know exactly what their birth year was.


Cindy Burnett 09:04

And that is sort of hard to fathom, because like you said, it wasn't that long ago. And that raises another question. I'm gonna jump ahead a little bit and then we can come back, but I just love your cover. I'm a very big cover person. And that was actually kind of what first caught my eye even before I saw the title. It was like what a great cover, but I think that Alberta King is in the middle, correct?


Anna Malaika Tubbs 09:23



Cindy Burnett 09:23

And then who's on the left and who's on the right?


Anna Malaika Tubbs 09:25

On the left, we have Bertis Baldwin and on the right we have Louise Little.


Cindy Burnett 09:28

Okay, I was so curious. And so I was like, I have to ask you that.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 09:31

I wanted to put the women in order from left to right and the way that their names appear, but our designer basically said that because of the different quality of images and the different availability of images, it made the most sense to have Alberta in the middle. We had a lot more options for her. With Louise Little we only have this one picture that's really just kind of like a almost painted portrait. And even the family members though when I asked them they were like part of it is that we also do want to protect her. So it's this balance of how we can achieve protecting why also celebrating her. I would have loved to see more images of her and maybe the family will be willing to share more as the years go on. And then yes, on the left is Bertis. We had a few of her. But then it's also about getting permission from different photographers to use them in a way where we wanted to on the cover and have all three of them displayed in this beautiful way. So we really managed to achieve a beautiful cover. And I have to give credit to my editor, because she really spent time trying to get all the permissions for these images. We had a couple different versions, and we achieved it, but it's definitely a symbol of what arises when we do not document black women's lives accurately.


Cindy Burnett 10:35

Well, that is fascinating. And I wondered because Louise's photo, which I was I was thinking that was her, but I thought it does look a little different. And I'm sure I don't know, that's just so sad that those are the only photo that they're willing to share or that they may have.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 10:51

Yeah, yeah, exactly it is. It's really heartbreaking. And even to think about, we don't have any clear image of her and Macolm together, which would have been really sweet to witness that. It also speaks to the point that she was taken away from Malcolm and her children for 25 years of her life and put in an institution where she was separated from them. So the fact that we do not have these pictures of her, it just shows us how hard her life was, how much she was put away, how much she was kept from the light, kept from being able to tell her side of the story. And it's really just a reminder of that.


Cindy Burnett 11:29

Well, and I had always heard he was raised by his mother. But I had no idea that that when he was 11, she was institutionalized and that it was for so long, like I had no idea that it happened.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 11:39

Yeah. And that's one of those moments, I do hope that readers feel a lot of shock as they read the book. Shock that you don't already know the stories, but also shock that we don't know this, that she was taken away from her kids for 25 years of her life, a quarter of a century that Malcolm is then put in foster care, which really sets him on this path that we know in his life was dangerous, and not exactly what he ended up standing for. But that was influential in his life where he was able to see what it was to be addicted to drugs, and part of why he ends up being such an advocate for recovery and black pride and black independence, etc. All of this stems from first the lessons that she taught him before she was separated from him. But then what he witnessed in terms of white supremacist behavior and what happened personally  - they were separated from each other, his father was assassinated, his mother put in an institution. So we have a much better understanding as to why he is going to have a very different approach to black freedom movements than MLK, Jr. for instance.


Cindy Burnett 12:47

Absolutely. And I thought that very much shown through in your book that you could see where Martin Luther King, Jr. based on his upbringing, where he would feel like his approach was the best way to go. And you could see where Malcolm X would also feel the same way with what happened with his parents.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 13:01

Absolutely. And in general, even before this tragedy happens that these were the lessons that both of their parents raised them in. Alberta King and Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. both believed in social justice and faith and this kind of disciplined dedication to the movement. Alberta's parents were some of the first involved in the NAACP, they led boycotts of a newspaper that disparaged black community members, they advocated for the first public high school in Atlanta. So this like activist, nonviolent activist, history and Alberta's family goes back generations and MLK, Jr. just continues to fulfill what he sees as his family's legacy. And then on the other hand, we have Malcolm X and his parents who are these Marcus Garvey, Pan-Africanist activists who believe in black independence, they believe in separation between black Americans and white Americans versus assimilation. And this is what he also continues, and it's similar with James Baldwin. Bertis Baldwin believed in the importance of creativity and light, in love and in kind of seeing the positivity, even through the darkness, but also being honest about the darkness. And that's something that I think James Baldwin is always trying to achieve, this balance between telling the truth while also finding love and finding a way to bring more people together in conversation. One of the reasons he became so famous was because he could speak to audiences all around the world. And people were listening to this black man on their screen and respecting him in ways that were previously unseen and unheard of. So yeah, again, going back to this direct link between what the mothers taught and what the sons accomplish. That's just another example of it.


Cindy Burnett 14:47

And that's really mind boggling to me that that that knowledge isn't more common and that we're just now reading this story and providing that such a direct link to their mothers and what they stood for as they grew older.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 15:00

Absolutely, it was to my benefit that no one had thought about this idea before. But at the same time, it was really sad. And as I was writing it, you know, even before I knew that it was going to become a book, I was so frustrated with every detail that I found. I mean, it's something that I've always been deeply passionate about is correcting the ratio of black women's stories. But the more and more I do the work, the more frustrated I become. It's just ridiculous at this point, that when it's such an obvious connection, that we still didn't know about it. So I'm excited to be a part of changing that. And I do hope everybody feels that same sense of why did we not already know this, and it pushes us to re-examine the way we think about women in our society, and specifically women of color.


Cindy Burnett 15:40

Well, one of the things that seems to come up over and over again, with this podcast and talking to authors, is that history is written by the victors or by those in power. And so, so many people have been erased, or their stories haven't been told, or someone else has taken credit for something a woman did. It's just, it's mind boggling.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 15:58

It's constant. It's constant. And it's upsetting. And I think many of us even today feel this in our daily lives, how our contributions are erased. I certainly definitely feel that way. And I think part of it is that it was very personal to me to write this book, because I know what it feels like to have your contributions forgotten, and it's just something we need to correct. And it definitely can be corrected, we have to have a better focus on the importance of women in our country, in our history, in our world.


Cindy Burnett 16:31

And it's wonderful that people like you are making these stories known.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 16:35

Thank you, thank you, I really am proud to join so many others who are making this, you know, part of their mission to just correct the record.


Cindy Burnett 16:44

Now you have a young son, and you had him around the time that you were writing this right? How did that impact your telling this story?


Anna Malaika Tubbs 16:52

It was such a cool journey to embark on. I started writing the dissertation and doing the research before we were expecting my son. So I was already really excited about honoring black motherhood, but to then find myself expecting my first child. I didn't know the sex, I didn't want to find out until the day of. That was a surprise. But just knowing that I was going to become a mother, and I was writing about these incredible mothers. It gave me a lot of comfort, especially because black motherhood in the United States, and I speak about this in the book, can be really scary. We know that black maternal mortality rates are incredibly disproportionately high. And that it's a really risky decision to decide to have a child if you're a black woman in the United States. Whether you have degrees are not, whether you have access to money or not, the chances of you dying in childbirth or pregnancy-related complications is so much higher if you're a black woman in the United States. And I knew that because I do all of my research on black women. And so at the same time, I was very excited, and obviously so overjoyed to be expecting my child. But I was also really scared. Then my son was born, I was still writing the book and the dissertation, had him right next to me, and sometimes, you know, laying on my chest napping while I was editing chapters of the book. And it gave me just a deeper perspective, I felt even more connected to the three mothers. I mean, whether readers are or not mothers, you'll feel connected to these women's stories because their lives mattered before they became mothers as well. But for me personally, I just found myself smiling and even crying as I read about them with this new perspective in mind and holding my child in my arms. And it's also I'll say, finally that they reminded me that mothers shouldn't necessarily just be in the background. That yes, we are support for our children, but that they should know just how much we've contributed to their lives that they should be fully aware of how much we've worked to make sure that they can have what they have.


Cindy Burnett 18:59

I agree completely. And you talk a little bit about that, where people would say, oh, your son looks just like your husband and things like that. Because he's a boy, so many people attribute so much to the father. And the other thing that I find that our society does is they they devalue motherhood, but they also value it in terms of like, you should be doing everything. So I have teenagers, 19, 17 and 15. And teach them to do their own thing, but also have them realize that I have my own things, too, that like my sole purpose is not just to take care of them and take care of the house. That I can do other things also.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 19:30

And that's incredibly beneficial to them to know that I would say. My mom was always very clear, it was actually almost kind of funny. She'd always say, listen, I don't have to do any of these things for you. Y'all have to still be grateful. You still have to say thank you for what I do. But she also still was very dedicated to what her purpose and passion was. And at times that would make it so that she traveled far away from her kids, three kids and that was what she felt was important to her. Each mom has their different journey and what they're going to decide makes sense for them and and what they care about whether they want to continue working or stay at home with their children. But we still need to know about their identity and what they care about and what they love to do. And I think that's incredibly beneficial to their kids as well.


Cindy Burnett 20:12

I agree completely. And I think it takes a little while to get to that. But I think it is very important. And it's very important that that children understand that, that their mother does have an identity, whatever it is.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 20:22



Cindy Burnett 20:23

Did you have a highlight of writing The Three Mothers? I mean I know we've talked a little bit about some of that. But was there one thing in particular that really stood out to you?


Anna Malaika Tubbs 20:30

Gosh, the whole process was so beautiful. I've absolutely loved writing this book. And I'm, I'm just so excited about this next journey where I get to talk to people about it. People are going to be holding the book in their hands and giving me feedback, and I get to hear their reactions. It's been incredible just to have that thus far with the advanced readers. So now for it to almost be out in people's hands. I, I'm already getting emotional, just thinking about the ways in which telling these three stories, and people knowing these three stories is going to really help hopefully change lives. And even if it's just changing one person's perspective of their own importance in the world, that's just gonna, it's going to be huge for me. So that might be my favorite part really, is seeing what the book does now that it's out in the world.


Cindy Burnett 21:18

Oh, I love that. I'm not sure I've ever heard an author say that. And I think that is that is so great, you know, to have be able to discuss it with people and see how it impacts people and what people have to say.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 21:29

Yeah, I think it's just really cool, even with a few people who have already read it, seeing what they found to be most important, or what they found to be most interesting. There's a lot of things that yes, people agree with that, that I thought were important parts. And we are on the same page with that. But then there's other things that people highlight that I'm like, oh, yeah, I guess that was that was cool that I that I added that in there.


Cindy Burnett 21:52

Yeah, it really resonated with somebody and it was maybe a small part of the things you focused on.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 21:56

Yeah, in my head, I thought that was kind of maybe a fun fact. But to somebody else, it really that was the thing that stood out the most to them. And I think that kind of feedback is the best part of writing and putting something out there because it takes on its own life.


Cindy Burnett 22:10

And means so many different things to different people.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 22:13



Cindy Burnett 22:15

Well, Anna, before we wrap up, I would love to hear what you've read recently that you really liked.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 22:19

Recently, I'm in the middle of reading The Purpose of Power by Alicia Garza. And I'm loving, one of the intersections between her and her and my book where she speaks about the importance of generational knowledge around movements and how it's not just one thing that pops up out of nowhere, but instead is this continuance of something larger, and I just am absolutely loving it. So I definitely would recommend that. And I'd also say that another important one for people to read right now, especially after the rioters attacked the capital. And we're going to see this transition of power yet again is White Rage by Carol Anderson, where she speaks about this being a very accurate, I guess, summary of our nation's history. This is what happens when marginalized groups gain more power, gain more rights, are able to despite the obstacles put in their path, find a way to make sure their voices are heard. There is white rage that comes from that and white supremacist reactions to that. This isn't shocking if we know American history, it's not shocking at all. So I want more people to be aware of that so that we can see the path forward. So I think those both books together would speak really well to the history of how we arrived where we are today and gives you hope for where we can go moving forward.


Cindy Burnett 23:39

Well, both of those books sound like they might go a long way toward helping people understand a little bit, this vicious cycle. I certainly hope so. So well. Thank you so much, Anna, for talking to me today. I really enjoyed our conversation.


Anna Malaika Tubbs 23:51

Thank you, Cindy. It was such a pleasure.


Cindy Burnett 23:54

Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did please follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would really appreciate it. The Three Mothers can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to K.P. Regan for the sound editing, and I hope you'll tune in next time