Rasheedah Ali-Seck holding great-great-granddaughter Naiilah; great-grandson Hannibal Alawode; granddaughter Moji Alawode-El holding great-grandson Garvey; daughter Aissatou Bey-Grecia; granddaughter Lemuria Alawode-El; great-granddaughter Zaiane Alawode in 2018
Photo: 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. This final installment is the conclusion—and also the beginning—of their stories. 

Grace. Grace is an often underestimated quality, generally associated with poise and elegance, and maybe a degree of feminine attractiveness or demureness. And while it is all these things, grace is also the ability to adapt, to face life’s surprises and disappointments with the unwavering faith that nothing is insurmountable, and all is as it should be.

“Grace” is the word that comes to mind when I think of Rasheedah Ali-Seck, better known as “Grandma Rasheedah,” matriarch of the Harlem-based clan known as the Alawodes. She is the grande dame of the five generations that make up her family, including one daughter, three grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and, now, her first great-great-grandchild, whose March birth she watched via FaceTime.

But while she is enjoying a long life full of family, Grandma Rasheedah’s own journey through motherhood began in an unexpected instant. Now, on her first Mother’s Day as a great-great-grandmother, she talks to The Glow Up about change: how she’s navigated the changes of her own life with grace, about the changing expectations for black families and how becoming a mother changes absolutely everything.

Rasheedah Ali-Seck
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

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

Rasheedah Ali-Seck: From a very early age, I was always sure I would someday be a mother, as I liked to “mother” my brother, who was only 13 months my junior. [But] at 17 years old, I cannot say it was a deliberate choice to become a mother so early. I like to think it was a choice made by the Creator/nature for me that l accepted. It would turn out to be the only pregnancy in my lifetime.

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TGU: How did you first discover you were pregnant?

RAS: I discovered I was pregnant—and birthing a child—when my stepmother looked between my legs as I lay on the couch and exclaimed to my father, “William, that looks like a baby’s head!” With that, my baby was born into the world.

I had only a stomachache in the hours preceding her birth; I can truly say I did not suffer with severe pain and thought I was [just] having menstrual cramps after not menstruating for months, which was not unusual for me. I was 17 and irregular.

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Rasheedah Ali-Seck, then known as Billie Jean Hunter
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

TGU: How did you feel about that discovery?

For me, it gave me another sign that my daughter was truly a gift given to me by the Creator. Coming from the “bogeyman” churchgoing environment in which I was raised, had I perhaps known in advance, I don’t know if I would have been able to have the experience I had. I felt a myriad of feelings, from joy to surprise and “What am I going to do with this child and only a high school diploma [received three months before] and no work experience and alone?”—and I do mean alone.

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When I left my grandparents’ home the night she was born, I was not welcomed to return after a one-day stay in the hospital. My very good friend and soon husband arranged for me to stay with an aunt of his until I turned 18 about two weeks later, when we could go to Kentucky and get married.

(Far right) Rasheedah Ali-Seck and a young Aissatou, joined by family friends, mid-1950s
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

I know my daughter is my miracle, as I have never been pregnant since nor practiced any kind of birth control. She was my one shot for the life I now have, filled with gratitude and an abundance of joy and a family of whom I am very proud. Today I can say it was the single best thing that ever happened to me, although at the time I did not realize it.

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I can also say those endless hours as a child going to church every Sunday with my grandparents blessed me with the knowledge that trusting the Universe and your God-given inner self can guide you through any challenge if you but trust it. I believe God makes the plans; we only make arrangements.

Four generations of the Alawode clan, circa 2011 (clockwise from left): Lemuria Alawode-El, Hannibal Alawode, Aissatou Bey-Grecia, Akhnaten Spencer-El, Moji Alawode-El, Zaiane Alawode, Erica Spencer-El (Aknaten’s wife), Skye Spencer-El (Akhnaten’s eldest daughter) and Grandma Rasheedah Ali-Seck
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

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

RAS: My mother was surprised to hear I had given birth; she lived in another state, [and like me] she didn’t even know I was pregnant. My daughter was some months old when my mother responded to her birth with a visit.

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TGU: What was special about your birth story?

RAS: Everything was special about my birth story. The moment of conception, my naivete about sex in general—I was raised by a grandmother who did not discuss it—and the times and expectations set upon girls by their families.

TGU: What is the most surprising thing about motherhood?

RAS: The most surprising thing to me about motherhood is how it changes everything about you. It changes what you think about family, responsibility for family, yourself and your relationships with others, to name a few.

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Rasheedah Ali-Seck and Zaiane Alawode, circa 1999
Photo: Hakim Mutlaq (courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia)

TGU: What is your mothering style?

RAS: I must admit I don’t know my “style.” At best, I would say take one day at a time and do your best to figure out what the best is with guidance from your heart, experience and God’s help.

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

RAS: I feel my mother was young and felt overwhelmed with two children 13 months apart before age 20, so she chose to flee and leave the responsibility of raising them to my father and grandparents, who were good people, but not my mother.

Rasheedah’s mother, Maxine Keys-Kennedy
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

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TGU: What is your strongest impression of your mother?

RAS: My strongest impression of my mother would be described as being beautiful, vulnerable and not particularly sure of herself.

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

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RAS: I would like my descendants to remember me as being kind, forgiving and accepting of life’s challenges fearlessly and with faith that all is in divine order and in God’s hands. Patience is the key.

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

RAS: The greatest wish for my children is that they find happiness, fulfillment in their work, and a best friend to love and love them back in return. I wish for them good health, long life and wisdom to pass on to their children, knowing that example is the best teacher.

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Rasheedah and great-grandson Garvey in 2015
Photo: Courtesy of Aissatou Bey-Grecia

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

RAS: I most definitely feel my family—like many black families—is matriarchal. In my family, the women outnumber the men in births and [our homes] are mostly run by strong women, whether there be men in the home or not.

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During my era, the women were expected to run the home and be the primary caregiver of the children while the man provided the means to do so. However, whether it is good or not, this is changing, depending on the needs of the family regarding income possibilities and financial responsibilities. The roles of breadwinner and caregiver are not as defined as in the past and adjustments must be made accordingly, which in my opinion is not particularly healthy for the black family but must be considered.