Ain’t shit men ain’t new. TLC sang about them. Cardi B trolls them. A few of us have them in our families, even dated a few maybe. You’ve def met one, or at least heard about his trash behavior: eating all your friend’s cereal without replacing it, hanging from the passenger’s side of his best friend’s ride, cheating on his wife with his ex then gets mad if wifey has lunch with some other dude.
They’re definitely in Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. Ain’t shit number one is Luke Sheppard: the preacher’s kid who gets Nadia pregnant, leaves her at the abortion clinic and avoids her afterwards, then tells her that in procuring the 600$ for the abortion, he’s done his part. It’s later revealed that he didn’t really feel this way, that he actually wanted to have the child, but he ain’t said shit, and left the emotional labor to Nadia, who was grieving the sudden and unexplained loss of her mother. Six or so years later, fuckboy Luke has an affair with Nadia, even though he’s married to her best friend, Aubrey.
But Luke is wounded. Fucked up his leg playing college football, eked out a living waiting tables at Fat Charlie’s, and pushed beyond his pain to play semi-pro for the Cobras till he started “innocently” flirting with Cherry, a teammate’s wife, a which point, the whole team re-fucked up his already fucked up leg.
The Lukes are pitied and forgiven because they’re “wounded.” Everyone knows how hard life is for a black man in America. Ida B. Wells published a pamphlet in 1892 (big deal in those days) on the lynching of black men in the south. She investigated the reasons behind the lynching and basically confirmed that it was a means of social control, a way of “protecting” white womanhood. In essence, black male bodies were hyper-sexualized and criminalized by white men, and white women need to be protected from them). That was all the way in the 19th century, and still stands today. Black women have been caping for black men, understanding their pain, and making space for their trauma during Jim Crow, Civil Rights, and The New Jim Crow. Now, black men expect this support but don’t reciprocate, forgetting that women (and queers, and folks from the diaspora) are part of the black lives that matter. Black men are the most wounded, so they matter they most. Cue eyeroll.
The book is called The Mothers, not just because it’s narrated by an omniscient “we” who turns out to be a group of female church elders known as “The Mothers”—women who have mad wisdom (even though it’s sometimes caked by respectability politics) and decades of experience with ain’t shit men. The title The Mothers also signifies the fact that women always somehow end up doing the emotional labor of mothering men, whether they’re their actual sons, partners, or even fathers. It refers to the shame prescribed to women when they don’t take on socially ascribed roles—and even when they do! Nadia and Aubrey are like Nell and Sula in the ways they perform womanity, and both are judged (though differently) for it.
In this book, the lives of women take precedence. Bennett highlights the emotional and social lives of young girls, middle aged women, married women, old church women, women who are friends with each other, college educated women. It deals with the taboo of abortion, and plays with the question of whether or not women’s lives are fulfilled or hampered by children, by their traditional roles of motherhood. It deals with female friendships and the result of women being taught to privilege men in their relationships with other women. It deals with the hypocrisy of society’s response to women who act as men do. Black women go through so much, and this book explores their pain.
That the church is the backdrop of this story adds another layer to the narrative. The black church promotes the idea that there is a strict demarcation between the virgin and the whore. Historically, black women have combat the Jezebel stereotype by foregoing any expression of sexuality. Of course, you can’t kill a stereotype by doing the opposite; stereotypes are based on one-dimensional understandings of a people, and always suit those in power. Plus, doing the opposite means the stereotype is still the foundation of the behavior. This books shows that in churches, women are simultaneously powerful and powerless. Men wield the “power” but the women call the shots.
This book also illustrates the church’s gossip-filled pews and shows that the line between the sacred and the secular may be thin, or may not exist at all. When a man and a woman have an affair, the woman carries the shame, and the man disappears. But that’s how it always is. Boys will be boys; men will be trash. The solution: women should try to avoid them—not that men should do better. Eventually, Luke becomes a physical therapist (making a career out of his pain) and “works late” to fuck Nadia. After pregnant Aubrey finds out about the affair, Nadia leaves Cali, and Luke, the soon-to-be father-who-always-wanted-to-be-a-father, gets to be part of his child’s life. This book calls attention to this hypocrisy, and is very necessary to the canon of literature, black literature, and black women’s stories.