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Breadth and Depth

A new anthology offers an honest glimpse of black mothering

Rise Up Singing:
Black Women Writers On Motherhood

Cecelie S. Berry, editor
Doubleday, 2004

Review by Jennifer James

As Mother Lit soars into bookstores nationwide and websites, magazines and newspapers report about its existence, much notice is given to this new genre of writing that purports a new ideal of mothering and motherhood and challenges traditional mothering roles at every turn. These books, chiefly written from varying perspectives and intended to transform the archaic notions and expectations of modern moms, are indeed causing mothers themselves to get active and take notice as well as others who are struck by this new flurry of ideas.

Although Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers On Motherhood, edited by Cecelie S. Berry, can upon first assumptions be lumped into this new class of writing, one quickly realizes that it does not seek to transform black motherhood, but instead looks to provide an honest glimpse of black mothering; one that is quite constant in its outlook.

Rise Up Singing, with its storied list of contributors such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Maxine Clair and with the foreword written by Marian Wright Edelman, seems well-intended to serve as a celebration of black motherhood, with all of its triumphal victories as well as its copious and devastating defeats. Throughout the collection of poems and essays there is an overwhelming tinge of sadness about motherhood that is incomprehensibly balanced by an ever-present notion of the strict ability to overcome.

Throughout, Rise Up Singing takes its readers into the worlds of 29 totally different black women who grew up in completely different parts of the country and with vastly different mothers and grandmothers, but who all are connected by their inherent ability to express their thoughts on paper. We are given a wide range of perspectives as well from single mothers, working mothers, stepmothers, at-home mothers and even from one who is unremorsefully not a mother at all.

With no two essays or poems alike three themes, however, are echoed throughout with incessant regularity. They are the quiet courage of all of the black mothers in the essays, the protectionist spirit over their children—despite the not-acted-upon urge by some of the mothers to simply walk away and never come back—and the brutal honesty in which the writers relay their true feelings about being or not being mothers. There seems to be no sugarcoating going on here. In fact, some of the essays even makes one catch their breath with the uncompromising rawness of their words, thoughts and emotions.

Although there is a noticeable absence of writing about black motherhood on the market today, one might suppose that the aim of a book like Rise Up Singing would be to challenge the stereotypes about motherhood and mothering for black women in America from the thoughtful voices of articulate mother writers. Instead, Rise Up Singing does precisely what its title implies and that is to show the authentic lives and nature of black mothers and their intrinsic knack for coming out of harrowing situations, albeit a bit cut and bruised emotionally and sometimes physically.

With its rich stories and superb writing, Rising Up Singing proves to have the weight and breadth of a true classic anthology that deserves recognition notably for its pioneering role in addressing the need for black women to write about motherhood but primarily for its unapologetic candidness.

Jennifer James is the editor and publisher of Mommy Too! Magazine (www.mommytoo.com), the first and only full web magazine for mothers of color.

Also on the MMO:

An interview with Cecelie Berry

An interview with Jennifer James

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