Aissatou Bey-Grecia and eldest grandson Hannibal Alawode in 2014
Photo: Hannibal Alawode (courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia)

Editor’s note: This year, to celebrate Mother’s Day, The Glow Up interviewed four generations of mothers within a single Harlem family that recently welcomed its fifth generation. We’ve asked these mothers, ages 19 to 83, the same 12 questions about motherhood, daughterhood and matriarchy. These are their stories. 

If you want to know about a woman, look to her mother—or so conventional wisdom says. When I first met the mother of my closest friend over 20 years ago, I was overwhelmed—by her personality, her vibrancy, her spirituality, and her unconditional love of life, culture and family—immediate and extended. I was quickly whisked into their orbit, and to this day, I feel like one of the family whenever I’m in their midst.

My experience isn’t uncommon; this is simply what it is to know Aissatou Bey-Grecia, mother of three, grandmother of seven, (new) great-grandmother of one, and such a fixture and force within her Harlem community (where she’s been an organizer for decades) that she’s often jokingly called “the unofficial mayor of Harlem.”

But while I’ve known Aissatou over half my life (and have since grown into my own big personality), I never knew the story of how she became mother to my best friend, Moji, and Moji’s siblings, Lemuria and Akhnaten. Graciously, Aissatou has once again opened her home and family to me—and, by extension, to The Glow Up—to talk about her unexpected but destined path to becoming a mother, how the proverbial “village” has become a family legacy, and how motherhood—even now—is a work in progress, with the sweetest rewards.

The Glow Up: Were you always sure you wanted to be a mother? Was motherhood a deliberate choice for you?

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Aissatou Bey-Grecia: Good question—one that I can answer (in part) without hesitation or pause, as I have always been 100 percent on board with motherhood. It was probably the one event that my heart always desired. I see childhood and children as sacred in all the ways they come to us, [and] of major importance to our African and historical alignment; the ultimate gift to the world and our people.

I radiated as I carried my babies, feverishly studied the birthing process and then jumped feetfirst into the motherhood journey. Lamaze childbirth classes, La Leche League [breastfeeding] groups, workshops and college courses in early-childhood development. I was determined to be knowledgeable and as prepared as possible. But was it a deliberate choice for me at the time in my life? Nope.

The proverbial “order of things” seemed to dictate a different way to go about my personal life—like college graduation, job, good job, husband—but nope, [they] would not stop me. I could not wait and was pregnant just before college graduation and then married. It was a whirlwind experience that—full disclosure—I am [still] not sure I have caught up with.

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Akhnaten Spencer-El, Lemuria Alawode-El, friend Marcha Tracey, Aissatou Bey-Grecia and Moji Alawode-El on Aissatou’s second wedding day, circa 1983
Photo: Hakim Mutlaq (courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia)

TGU: How did you first discover you were pregnant (the first time)?

ABG: It’s been a while, but if memory serves, I missed my [like] clockwork 28-day cycle I’d been on since adolescence. Likely I “threw up”—[pregnancy] is the only time I can recall throwing up, and when I do, it is certain that I am “in the family way,” as the elders would say when you are having a baby.

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TGU: How did you feel about that discovery?

ABG: New journeys have always put me emotionally somewhere between fear and super excitement. Pregnancy is the grand prix of journeys, with a full range of feelings and sensations—at least, that is how I remember it. I have come to know that it’s a choice that a woman must make alone, no matter her situation. “Trust women” is one of the best phrases I have heard on the subject.

As an only child, I always wanted siblings, close friends, confidants, playmates, adventure mates, and in a funny way, I got that in my children. Odd, as I was never really a big fan of babysitting before I started having my own children. I kept a loving and comfortable distance from babies and children until I had my own.

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I do remember that I took the discovery seriously—and I was terrified! I found support among like-minded women in the Baltimore community circle, a circle that went beyond my Moorish-American and African-conscious communities. There was my friend Joyce’s mom [Elizabeth Scott] with that old-school Southern wisdom that kept me grounded in the ways of the Southern heritage. And my own mom, grandmoms and aunties who were in my ear with guidance long-distance from Harlem and Ohio.

I was the first gestating vegetarian women I had known at that time (1975), so I found a group of women from the “Golden Temple” community. They helped me understand nutrition in a practical way and food considerations during pregnancy without eating meat. I’m forever grateful.

And my ride-or-die close sisters circle was on hand daily as we attended classes, discoursed and cried together, growing comfortably and purposefully into motherhood, marriages and life. We embodied the village concept, which is still in place decades and generations later among our children.

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Lemuria, Aissatou and Moji, circa 2003
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

TGU: What was your mother’s response when you told her you were pregnant?

ABG: I do remember that my mom was not particularly happy with me being pregnant then. It grew on her as the months passed. She had not had a great experience with a similar scenario at the time of my birth in the early 1950s. Fast-forward to the ’70s; I did not understand yet; now I do—mothers typically just want the best and even better for their children, full stop. [They want this] despite the child and their ability to come to terms with that fact.

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TGU: What was special about your birth story?

I miscarried a few days after my first pregnancy ... the miscarriage was difficult physically and emotionally, with no explanation except an ovarian cyst the size of a grapefruit in my uterus. The doctors pronounced that I could not carry a child. I ignored them with every cell of my being.

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Before the next year, I was pregnant with Mojisola (Moji), then Lemuria—they are 18 months apart—and two years later, Akhnaten. That’s five years of being pregnant and/or breastfeeding. They all shared space with the cyst until I had it removed when Akhi was about 18 months old. I like to think the power of prayers and absolute will made my children possible for me and my life.

TGU: What is the most surprising thing about motherhood?

ABG: How intuitive the experience is among “willing souls.” Motherhood is not easy or hard, it just is. It’s just like other types of challenges in life, and for me [reaped] boundless daily rewards, tears, negotiations and bright moments. I am now deep in, as my children now have children—that’s seven grandchildren. And my first great-granddaughter, Naiilah, was born in March. They all bring wonder and joy and adventure and add new pathways to the life journey. I now never walk alone. [Editor’s note: In addition to grandchildren Hannibal, Zaiane and Garvey, all of whom have been featured in this series, Aissatou’s son, U.S. Olympic coach Akhnaten Spencer-El, and his wife, Erica, are parents of four: Skye, Elijah and twins Zoé and Olivia.]

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Granddaughters Skye (eldest daughter of son Akhnaten) and Zaiine, Aissatou, and daughters Lemuria and Moji, circa 2013
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

TGU: What is your mothering style?

ABG: New age, with some old-school values. I always leaned toward the concept of the open classroom: discovery and inquiry, a worldview with lots of commentary. Everything is not perfect or sweet, but manageable. I am here for the questions and the love without conditions.

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TGU: How does your mothering style differ from your mother’s?

ABG: In many ways, I have mimicked what I learned from my mom and her mom (hard not to), but with the “new age” take on it: love, love and more love.

I work hard at the “no guilt” style so popular among past generations. It seems that old habits are hard to shake, plus the goal is balance. But I do try and catch myself when I sound judgy and overly authoritative. We are all a work in progress … moms, too!

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Lemuria Alawode-El; Aissatou Bey-Grecia; Aissatou’s mother, Rasheedah Ali-Seck; and Moji Alawode-El
Photo: Aissatou Bey-Grecia

TGU: What is your strongest impression of your mother?

ABG: My mother is deeply spiritual, open to newness and real artistic in everything. She has a flair for beauty and is deeply caring for family and friends. No alcohol, no drugs, lots of life, not a fan of hard work. She always did the best she could with what she had and could make a little seem like a whole lot.

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TGU: What do you hope will be your child’s (or children’s) strongest impression of you?

ABG: I would like them to know how much they have meant for my life and for my development as a human on this earth. How proud of them I am and how much I love who they are as people. They are the children, playmates, travel mates, adventure seekers that I have always wanted. Not perfect, but real close.

They are the community-conscious, opinionated, loving and smart people I have always wanted to be associated with. I want them to know they are beautiful and wonderful, and I am so full of pride and joy when I think and speak of my precious gifts from God and the ancestors. I see so much hope for the world in them and their children. They are also respectful, vulnerable, inquisitive and full of wonder—consummate lifetime learners—and I like that.

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Moji, Lemuria and Akhnaten, present day
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

TGU: What is/was your greatest wish for your child (or children)?

ABG: My greatest wish is for their happiness and grounding in a crazy world. I want them to stand firm in faith, history, determination and the ancestors. May all of their hopes and dreams come true and manifest in this lifetime. They know so much more than I did, so much more than I do, and there is so much to learn.

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TGU: Do you consider your family to be a matriarchal one? Why or why not?

ABG: Oh, hell yeah! She who guides the culture rules, I have noticed.