By now, Orlando Shaw and the 14 women who gave birth to his 22 children probably have Harriet Tubman turning over in her grave.
That’s because Shaw and his baby mamas are doing what abolitionists like Tubman tried to help other slaves escape from being forced to do: To become nothing more than breeders – and reinforce racist notions that black people are more animalistic than human.
“Durin’ slavery there was stockmen [males used for breeding],” recalled Maggie Stenhouse, a former slave, in the book “African-American Studies: Voices of African-American Women in Slavery”.
“They was weighed and tested. A man would rent the stockman and put him in a room with some young women he wanted to raise children from.”
Today, though, the stockmen have been replaced by men like Shaw, who recently made headlines when he was hauled into court in Nashville for failing to pay child support. The only difference is that now, the system that once viewed them as chattel now treats them as expendable.
Instead of working on a plantation, Shaw will likely wind up doing some measure of free labor if he is ultimately incarcerated for not paying child support. Desmond Hatchett, another Tennessee man who made headlines last year for fathering 24 children with numerous women, already sits in prison for his failure to pay child support.
And what’s sad is that they – nor their baby’s mamas – have not a clue as to how bad that is.
A recent television news story about Shaw included a chart that broke down the $7,000 a month that the state will have to pay to care for Shaw’s offspring. But what was really cringe-inducing was the way in which the white reporter treated him like an imbecile.
Even worse is that it didn’t seem to bother him.
Shaw: “Well, I wanted 50 kids.”
Reporter: “Well, you’re almost halfway there.”
People can be heard laughing in the background at that answer; at how the reporter, instead of asking a question that attempted to get at a serious answer as to what circumstances led Shaw to have so many children without having the means to care for them, only egged him on in his cluelessness.
It got worse.
“I was young and ambitious and I love women. You can’t knock a man for loving women,” was Shaw’s answer.
Spoken like a stockman – defining “ambition” through his ability to impregnate women.
Tubman probably tossed mightily over that response.
In any case, what’s happening with black men like Shaw and Hatchett, and the mothers of their children, is disturbing.
On one level, it’s disturbing because for some reason, black men like them have decided that the only way to assert their manhood in a society that they feel devalued in is to have a lot of children they can’t afford.
We need to start asking why that is.
It’s also sad that the mothers of these children see no problem in having children with irresponsible men – and putting themselves in a position in which they will have to rely on a social service system that will only enable them to survive and not thrive – if that.
Just like during slavery.
And while the old plantation is gone, new ones are springing up to profit off children produced by the Shaws and Hatchetts of this country.
The people who run private prisons are counting on children who grow up in poverty, mostly because of little support from fathers like Shaw and Hatchett, to fill those cells by falling into criminality and dysfunction. They’re counting on them to fill minimum-wage jobs that won’t give them a decent chance of getting ahead.
This is the kind of fate that no black person ought to be settling for; to being reduced to an object of ridicule by being a throwback to the days when they were treated as breeders and nothing else.
People like Tubman fought so that black people could avoid being reduced to that. It’s sad that nearly 150 years later, some black people still believe that’s all they have to offer.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.