Column: Cries of poor black mothers too often go unheard

Frankea Dabbs, who left her 10-month-old daughter on a New York subway platform, said she could no longer take care of the child.
Frankea Dabbs, who left her 10-month-old daughter on a New York subway platform, said she could no longer take care of the child.
Published July 16, 2014

It was several years ago — a hot summer evening in July — when the receptionist buzzed my office phone for the umpteenth time that day. "Why me?" I thought to myself. I was on a deadline. I had to prepare my sermon for the evening service.

"Yes?" I inquired after the third ring.

"There is a young woman here to see you."

"I don't have any appointments scheduled this evening."

"No — she really needs to see you."

She could not have been older than 17. She came down the hallway disheveled, with tears in her eyes, pushing her baby in a stroller. Before I could ask her name, she collapsed on the floor of my office door and said, "I just can't do it anymore."

When I finally got her into a chair she admitted, quite evenly, that she was going to throw her baby off the roof of her building. In fact, she was on her way home when she passed the church. The doors were open so she decided to come in.

She cried, and cried, and cried some more. The young woman told me the particulars of her story — young, black, poor and alone with a child — that echo the social realities of so many young black women. Notwithstanding the realities of postpartum depression and other forms of mental illness that are aggravated by social inequity, she had no job, no money, no permanent place to live, no food, no diapers, no formula, no support system to help her care for her infant — nothing.

"I just can't do it anymore."

This is what Frankea Dabbs, the 20-year-old black mother who was recently arrested on child abandonment charges, said when was asked why she did it. On July 7, Dabbs left her 10-month-old daughter in her stroller on the subway platform at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station in New York City.

Dabbs has been cast as this summer's poster child for the pathological, depraved black mother — a caricature that has historically haunted black mothers who live at the intersection of race, gender and class oppression.

The realities of being a poor black woman are misunderstood. When there is no money and possibly no food beyond the insufficient rations of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program; when there is no home with a heart, but merely substandard housing in vermin- and gun-infested buildings with no heat in the winter and no air in the summer; when there are no locks on rooftop doors, and when predators with knives lurk in elevators and stairwells that reek of urine; when this is the disproportionate reality of poor black mothers and they cry out, "I just can't do this anymore," nobody hears them.

When hope for tomorrow is threatened by the impossibilities of today, it is no wonder that women find themselves coerced into doing the unthinkable. Hopelessness, the nihilistic threat that Cornel West so carefully outlined in his groundbreaking Race Matters, is real. As a social ethicist, I am convinced that doing the unthinkable is not always a symptom of mental illness, but is sometimes a moral response to what is really going on in the flesh-and-blood realities of women's lives.

This is not new. In the Book of Genesis, Hagar, Abraham's slave, abandoned her son Ishmael amidst the distress of the wilderness. In Toni Morrison's Beloved, the character Sethe slaughtered her own daughter under the weight of American slavery.

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Now Frankea Dabbs, drowning in a political economy of misery that historically afflicts poor women of color over and over again, left her baby, who had been well cared for up until that point, in the subway.

For now the baby is a ward of the state, and Dabbs is in prison. All because she cried and nobody heard her.

I regret to admit that I don't know where the young woman who wandered into my office on that summer evening in July is today. I was so busy writing my sermon that I almost missed out on living it. I do know that, at least for that night, she felt she could press on a little longer without hurling the baby or herself from the roof.

The Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman is an assistant research professor of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School and director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke University. She formerly served as assistant minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem for 10 years. Her essay is exclusive in Florida to the Tampa Bay Times.