A Son’s Gift to His Mother in “I Hold Your Love”

The second Sunday of May—Mother’s Day, in America—is one of the busiest days of the year for phone calls. A whopping amount of flowers are bought—a quarter of all flowers sold on holidays annually—and total spending on Mother’s Day gifts only seems to go up. This year, that spending is expected to reach a record high: thirty-one billion dollars’ worth of opera tickets, jewelry, brunches, and vouchers for spas. The private shows of affection are all very beautiful—but these family-level celebrations happen against a background of public policies that send another message. The United States remains the only wealthy country in the world without guaranteed paid parental leave at the national level, and more women die of pregnancy-related complications here than in any other high-income country. The rates are two to three times higher for Black women and other women of color. The artist Titus Kaphar explores these issues in his short film “I Hold Your Love,” which he has conceived as a gift to his own mother.

Kaphar’s film is a rather quiet vignette, mostly filmed inside his gallery, where large oil canvases show Black mothers with cutout children—blank space where a child should be. The pieces are part of one of his most popularly recognizable series; one of them was famously featured on a Time magazine cover on George Floyd. In a striking scene, he talks to his friend Serena Williams, who also owns one of the paintings. She’d been moved by how similar her hand looked to the mother’s hand in the George Floyd cover when she first saw it. “It’s almost as if she’s holding or she’s trying to hold on to that baby,” she said of the mother. “And you can see the muscles of my hand and then the flexion and then the tendons of my hands are just trying to hold on to the child.”

Sitting with Kaphar in his gallery, Williams tells him of her frightening experience after giving birth to her daughter. “What I learned when I had my daughter is that African American moms and women of color just don’t get the attention they need in the hospitals. For me to go into the hospital, I had to be very firm and say, ‘I’m not breathing and I need help.’ I was just thinking, like, Of course they wouldn’t listen to you. Your voice isn’t big enough.”

Williams had a medical complication following the birth of her daughter, and has been publically open about the experience. She had been diagnosed with blood clots in her lungs years before, and knew she was at high risk for future clots. Soon after giving birth, her legs became numb and she found herself in excruciating pain. “In the hospital room with my parents and my in-laws, I felt like I was dying,” she wrote in a recent essay in Elle. Williams described talking to a nurse who was dismissive of her complaint. “I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy,” Williams recalled the woman saying. Still, Williams said she persisted until the nurse finally called her doctor. As the professional tennis player suspected, she had a blood clot in her lungs, which the hospital staff needed to break up before it reached her heart. “This really speaks to me because of all the struggles that women of color and Black women have to go through when they’re having a baby. And so many people didn’t make it, to be honest,” she tells Kaphar.

“That’s what the numbers are telling us, right?” Kaphar told me in his art studio, referring to the high number of Black women who die giving birth each year. “Even if you account for economics, you’re still at risk. Serena is as high as you can possibly go,” he said. “What you’re telling me is that, still, at the top, you’re still having to wrestle with these issues.”

That brief moment in which we see Kaphar sitting across from Williams in his gallery is the only time that he appears in the film, and he is mostly silent. “Love is listening,” he told me, explaining what he hoped to do with the film. He feels exceptionally close to his mother, and the film came out of long, unscripted conversations between the two of them. “My mother had me when she was fifteen years old, so, in many ways, I grew up with my mother,” he told me. “Most children can’t say that they watched their parents become adults. I watched my mother become an adult.”

The film, which Kaphar dedicated to his mother, gives her the gift of his listening. She’d told him about the time she’d given birth, how especially scary it had been, and how similar it had been for his sister-in-law, who also appears in the film. “You’re not loving if you’re not listening,” Kaphar told me. “And so film is a medium that allows you to record your listening. And so, if I’m an active listener, I can show you that I love you through showing that I’m listening.” Today, it feels like a unique expression of love to recognize that children’s private appreciation for their mothers coexists with enduring social obstacles set up against motherhood.

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