Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”

Image of Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse”
Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
Henry Holt and Co.
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Emily Raboteau is a 47-year-old Black woman of mixed race, who lives in the Bronx, NY, with her husband and two adolescent sons. She and her husband are both professors at the City College of New York, where she teaches creative writing. Her husband is a novelist.

In Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against the “Apocalypse,” Raboteau has assembled previously published essays and offered them as a lament for the state of the world she has brought her children into. Her concerns range over a wide array of contemporary problems that seem to lack solutions: systemic racism against people of color, urban decay and poverty, environmental degradation, and growing threats to the survival of Earth’s life forms from human caused climate change. In her essays, Raboteau details how these social and natural stresses impact her and her family and friends as they go about their daily lives.

Raboteau's greatest fear is that her children will come to harm at the hands of police who abuse their authority and act out society’s endemic racism. She wonders when it will be time to give them “The Talk”—the explanation of why, as Black people, they are at risk from America’s white patriarchy. Her father, a professor who taught at Princeton, gave her “The Talk” when she was ten. He told her that her grandfather had been murdered in Mississippi by a white man who was not prosecuted for the crime. “My childhood was over,” she tells us.

Her next greatest concern is the degraded future awaiting her children because of climate change. She wonders if it was moral to bring them into a world that has been severely compromised by human recklessness and greed. She writes, “I am a mother raising Black children in New York City . . . Often I am afraid for my children’s lives. Where my family lives, the storms are growing worse, and the water is rising. These are not the only threats to our safety.”

Several of the essays describe walks that Raboteau has taken through New York’s neighborhoods observing responses that communities are making to the threats they face. One is a mural project dispersed through Black neighborhoods that informs people of their rights when confronted by police. The murals are both a show of solidarity and a message to the police that they are under observation by the community.

Another project addresses climate change. An artist and activist placed lighted traffic billboards with messages about climate change in public parks throughout New York’s boroughs. Raboteau visits all of them with her friend Mik, an African whom she meets on Twitter. Mik worries that whites, faced with losing what they consider rightfully theirs, will become violent.

And then there are the bird murals, which provide a linking visual theme for all the essays. The Audubon Society in New York initiated the project to call attention to bird species that are threatened with extinction because of climate change. The murals are painted on store fronts easily visible to pedestrians. Robateau uses her photographs of them to illustrate her essays. The murals are a reminder that the fates of birds and humans are intertwined.

Reading Lessons for Survival can be disheartening. Raboteau’s catalog of the urban woes she and her family face is grim. In one of the essays, she reports on a visit she made to a poor Palestinian village in the West Bank whose water supply is severely curtailed by the Israelis. She wonders why the villagers don’t simply leave. She asks the same question of herself. She and her husband are career professionals with options. Yet they remain in their inhospitable environment. Why?

The answer comes in the final essay, as Raboteau and her family move into the rundown house in the Bronx they have purchased with all their savings and renovated. She is determined to be resilient, to survive.

“I’m learning to grow food for our table, sensing that the truest sacrament is eating the earth’s body. . . . I have planted lettuce, tomatoes, sweet peas, and beets. I collect water in a barrel under the gutter spout. The children lift the stones to peer at the bugs and worms. I see in my mind’s eye, as I garden, that our land is a quilt, and our house is only a structure among structures among pollinating plants visited by bees.”