A woman standing behind a young girl, resting her hands on the girl's shoulders
Nicole Corley, Ph.D., and her daughter, Zuri. (Courtesy of Nicole Corley)

Professor’s project showcases the art of Black motherhood

Nicole Corley, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, co-led a research project and art exhibit engaging with Black mothers in the community – and across the nation – to tell their stories.

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Nicole Corley, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work, co-led an interdisciplinary research project – and art exhibit – that was highly personal to her.

“And, Ain’t I a Mother?” explored the beauty, vulnerability and strength of Black mothers and the institution of Black motherhood, drawing on the stories and artistic talents of 26 Black mothers around the country.

“I’m a Black mother, so it was important to share the stories and unique experiences of other Black mothers. What was also special is that, by engaging in this process, I was able to learn more about myself,” said Corley, whose children are Jalen, 23, and Zuri, 8. “This project is about connection and building community. It was also an endeavor to learn more about the experience of those who share similar identities or experiences. Historically, understanding Black motherhood from the subjective experiences of Black mothers is an area that’s been under-researched.”

She was inspired by art as a form of storytelling and connectivity.

“I've always loved stories, hearing people share their lives,” she said. “You know how you just have some people who like to sit at the feet of people and listen to their stories? That’s me inherently.”

She found a perfect medium for the project in collage.

“Collage in many ways is like a metaphor for Black motherhood,” Corley said. “When collage came on the scene, it was not considered formal art. And, similarly, Black motherhood is deeply political. Black mothers often have had to face and contend with deficit notions about their mothering practices. The process of collaging and sourcing materials allows mothers to self-define and tell their stories in their own unique way.” 

Corley’s call for participants drew interest – and also some apprehension.

“A lot of the mothers said, ‘Oh, but I’m not an artist, I’m not creative,’” she said. “I had to remind them: You’re a Black mother. You are the ultimate creative!”

A woman standing in a doorway speaking into a microphone. To the left of the doorway, another woman sits on a chair in front of a canvas and paints two faces on it.
Nicole Corley, Ph.D., (center) an assistant professor in the VCU School of Social Work, speaks to the crowd at a showing of her "And, Ain't I a Mother?" project in The Anderson, VCU School of the Arts' on-campus gallery, in 2022, while artist Paris Allen (left) of IamHERArt paints alongside her. Corley's research project and art exhibit showed the collages of Black mothers in an effort to tell their stories. "A lot of the mothers said, ‘oh, but I’m not an artist, I’m not creative,’” she said. “I had to remind them: You're a Black mother. You are the ultimate creative!" (Courtesy of Nicole Corley)

Originally viewed as a Richmond-based project, “And, Ain’t I a Mother?” pivoted to a national focus and virtual engagement with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. Participants came from as far as California and New York. 

Corley sent each mother a basic set of supplies – “kind of elementary school art kits with glue, paint, paintbrushes, magazines and paper” – and stressed working with these and other materials they already had. “Don't go out and buy anything,” she told them. “You already have what you need. It’s an important reflective process.”

Time spent on the collage was “sacred,” she said. “Mothers are always attending to someone else, so this was a chance to sit down and focus on their own lives. I encouraged them to work on it by themselves – oftentimes we have other people tell our stories for us, and I didn’t want those perspectives. You tell your story.”

The culmination was an art exhibit in Richmond in 2022. She partnered with VCU School of the Arts and used its space in The Anderson, the school’s on-campus gallery.

“It was always part of the project design to have an art show because traditional modalities don’t touch the people that you really want to touch,” Corley said. “Art and our bodies are sites of knowledge. It is important to consider methodologies that go beyond text and that can embody the lived experiences of the storyteller.

“I was trusted to have these stories, and it’s important to give these stories back to the mothers and to the community,” said Corley, who notes that the collages were returned to participants after the exhibition. “So many folks from the community came and were delighted and saw themselves in these collages.”

As a researcher, expanding access to scholarly work outside traditional platforms is essential, she said.

Two women standing close together in front of a wall with the words \"And, Ain't I a Mother?\" written on it.
Nicole Corley, Ph.D., (left) an assistant professor in the VCU School of Social Work, poses for a photo with colleague Denise Burnette, Ph.D., the Samuel S. Wurtzel Professor of Social Work and Ph.D. in Social Work program director, at a showing of her "And, Ain't I a Mother?" project at The Anderson, VCU School of the Arts' on-campus gallery, in 2022. (Courtesy of Nicole Corley)

“Manuscripts aren't the only currency. Folks don't have access to journals. Community doesn't have access to journals in the same kind of way. So while I am writing manuscripts on the experience, the best part of the experience was giving these collage stories back to the mothers, back to the community. But you’re sort of trying to break the mold a little bit. It’s both.”

VCU film students Jasmine Elmore and Myles Manual created a video showcasing the artwork and the voices of the participating mothers. Social work Ph.D. student Britney Pitts and M.S.W. students Shayla Sanders and Brittany Watson also participated in the project, as did VCU postbaccalaureate student Kashmala Naz and Da’Shunnda Hayward-White.

A number of themes emerged from the project — an indication, Corley said, that “Black motherhood is multifaceted. It’s not just one thing.”

Some moms, she says, focused on “not raising their Black kids just to survive, but raising them to thrive.” Others explored how they are not raising their children as they were raised, specifically in avoiding “old-school disciplinary practices like corporal punishment.” Still others focused on the “tensions of Black motherhood as it relates to societies and impressions of their mothering … especially those with Black boys.” 

As important as motherhood is, though, the participants emphasized their full selves.

“Quite a few moms talked about, ‘I'm not just a mother. I am many things. And I don’t want to be just seen as a mother, it’s just one piece of my identity,’” Corley said. “Oftentimes that's the only way that you're looked at is, OK, you’re a mom, that's it. But they wanted to be seen as more than just a mother.”