are abundant stereotypes of African-American mothers— for
example, feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins writes of the
myth of the “Superstrong Black Mother,” and as Erin
Aubry Kaplan writes in her essay Mother, Unconceived, “Culture
has long had it that black women are empathy made flesh, …nurturers
by nature or default, …bricklayers of discipline. We harbor
steely resolve in our sleep… We have been firewalls of
trouble for all kinds.” But the poetry, essays and fiction
you selected for Rise Up Singing represent African American
motherhood as emotionally complex, highly diverse, deeply
conflicted and vulnerable. When you were in the process of compiling
this anthology, did you begin with an intention to seek out stories
that moved beyond the stereotypes and archetypes of African American motherhood?
say that what I first confronted was my own story— and that
was hard to do. I had to face the ambivalence, depression and loneliness
that I was feeling in the process of raising my two sons and I
wrote about it in articles for The Washington Post and
the Internet site Salon. I was bowled over by the response. It
seemed few people had heard a black woman write frankly about motherhood.
And, though a minority of black women felt that I was “whitified” in
my experience— “complaining, whining, spoiled” come
to mind— the majority of black and white mothers could embrace
my story. I was emboldened by the response to keep writing not
only about motherhood, but the nuances of race and class that inform
I also began to read the
novels and nonfiction books available on the market. I read
Danielle Crittenden's book What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us and
the popular Surrendering to Motherhood. I felt that while
I could identify with what those women were observing and experiencing,
the particular burdens and advantages of being an African American
mother were, not surprisingly, missing. I wanted to hear more from
African American mothers about their special journey as I went
on my own. So I came up with the idea for Rise Up Singing.
In my early preparations
for the anthology, I spoke to a black woman journalist and mothers
who lamented the way black mothers are portrayed in the mainstream
media. Usually it's not the enduring matriarch, but the abusive,
angry and self-destructive welfare mother that one sees most often.
I felt it was important that an anthology reflect the complex emotional
lives of black mothers on every point of the strata, from the affluent
to the impoverished, gay or straight, working or stay-at-home.
I recently read an interview by Toni Morrison in which she urged
African American writers to strive for complexity in their characterizations,
in order to reflect our humanity. I have tried, under the umbrella
of Rise Up Singing, to bring diversity and depth to the
portrayals of black mothers.
The Superwoman mythology
is damaging to all women, but the Superstrong Black Woman you refer
to is especially harmful to black women who, in being denied vulnerability,
are denied their humanity and their womanhood. The stereotype suggests
that our strength comes from animal brutishness— a neutered
status of being neither male nor female— not from determination
or spiritual transcendence. I see this Superstrong Black Mother
stereotype less in mainstream culture now, but it still survives,
notably updated as the black Superwoman in Phylicia Rashad’s
character in the Cosby Show. She personified the “have it
all” zeitgeist as a stern but loving taskmaster to five children
who was also a partner in a law firm!
I think black and white
Americans have a tough time peering beneath the icon of the black
matriarch to see the person—and the sociological truth— beneath.
Black Americans love the image of the black mother who towers against
adversity and oppression, and that romanticized image is a powerful
cultural touchstone. It sometimes keeps us from dealing with the
real issues: black men and their irresponsible, self-destructive
behavior, the near-impossible odds of raising healthy children
on meager resources in impoverished, violent and drug-ridden communities.
White Americans don't want to deal with the pain of being black
or Hispanic— it humanizes us too much and produces a great
deal of guilt that white Americans don't want to deal with. So
white culture is deeply invested in regarding black and Hispanic
women as natural born caregivers to keep from confronting how much
we are abused and exploited in that role.
your introduction to Rise Up Singing, you critique the
second wave of feminism for focusing “primarily on the
needs of middle-class White women who wanted the right to work.
Black women had always worked, usually raising other people's
children as well as their own. If White women tired of the pedestal,
Black women longed for respite from the double yoke of being
breadwinner and nurturer.” Do you see this dynamic changing
in what has been described as the postfeminist era? In your opinion,
what lessons can leaders of the emerging mothers movement learn
from the oversights of the feminist movement in order to craft
a more responsive political agenda?
don't see it changing. I think the postfeminist era has made traditional
choices more acceptable for white women, staying at home, for instance,
after having had an elite education. But, again, the focus of postfeminists
has been on white women and their choices, and that has been readily,
maybe eagerly, reflected in the mainstream. In October 2003, The
New York Times Magazine published a cover story on women who
had chosen to stay at home, opting not to climb the ladder of success
although they were educated to do so. There was not a minority
woman in the article. In April 2004 Time Magazine did
a similar article and there wasn’t a black woman in sight.
In the feminist era, white and black women were coming from very
different realities, as I indicated in the quoted portion of my
introduction. In the post feminist era, when many black women have
moved into the middle class and achieved careers, black and white
women are in comparable places and face many of the same dilemmas.
But you wouldn’t know it. Why we are not framing the work/stay-at-home
issues cross-culturally, to be inclusive of all women, is a question
that I reflect on. I think it has something to do with the status
of having choices being assumed, still, to be a “white” thing.
And though we speak of the values of diversity in our society,
the fact is there is still a strong ethnocentrism in the way we
conduct ourselves in private, and mothers and motherhood is a very
private realm. In this highly competitive society, mothers are
preparing their children to be competitors, to achieve the American
Dream— harder and harder to do. One of the dark sides of
motherhood people don’t want to deal with is that one way
of giving our children the competitive edge is to make them see
of other races as less deserving and less important than they:
to render them invisible. The post-feminist era focuses exclusively
on the issues facing white women because to include minority mothers
would equalize us— and there is still resistance to that.
Because once we are equalized we will have a legitimate claim to
sit at the proverbial table of the American banquet.
If we are to change this,
if the political agenda is to include and be responsive to all
women, we have to stop looking at American society as a zero sum
game and at people of other races and their children as illegitimate
contenders on the playing field.
you’ve noted, recent media coverage of well-educated, professional
women abandoning careers to become at-home moms has largely ignored
the work/life conflict experienced by African-American professionals
(and mothers of color in general). As an Ivy League-educated
attorney who left a demanding job to stay at home with your sons,
what kind of pressures did you face— from with and without— that
affected your decision to put your career on hold?
were tremendous pressures. My family, my parents in particular,
wanted me to have a dynamic and successful career. They grew up
in a segregated America and sacrificed a great deal to move to
Shaker Heights, Ohio, send us to private schools and Ivy League
schools so that we could enter the professional world on equal
footing. The end goal of integration, really, was to see me move
up on the socioeconomic scale and possibly achieve wealth and acclaim
from mainstream society. At the same time, my parents couldn't
imagine my leaving my children in the hands of someone I didn’t
know. They were traditional people— my mother did not work,
my father, a physician, supported the family— and so were
deeply conflicted about this. In dealing with my own conflicts,
they weren't much help. My brother and my sisters also held conflicting
values of career success and family stability. Nobody could tell
me how to have both, but it was clear that I would be a flagrant
disappointment to choose either one.
Of course, and I refer
to this often in Rise Up Singing, there is a cadre of
Ivy League black professionals who believe that the only thing
that matters is the title you have and the car you drive. To them,
what I had done was anathema. I think they are similar to zealots
who evangelize not because their faith is strong, but because they
harbor deep, unspeakable doubts about the truth of their gospel.
From this group I was excommunicated. I have no regrets.
Then there is the assumption
in the society that the only reason you went to Harvard or places
like it is because of affirmative action. So as a black professional
woman at home, I face a pressure that white professional women
don't: the assumption that I’m at home not because I have
chosen to be, but because I really don’t have the ability
to do anything else or because I couldn't “make it.”
Negotiating these pressures
was tremendously difficult because I am actually a highly motivated
and ambitious woman with big dreams for myself. I also adore my
children and believe that it is my duty and my right to give them
my best and create a comfortable, safe and stable home for them.
As with all women, these two truths lead to conflicts and pressures,
but I’m glad that I feel, as my mother perhaps didn’t,
free to explore both aspects of myself.
seem to be treated to a new spate of crossfire in "Mommy
Wars" whenever the media reports on mothers in the workforce
and the impossibility of “having it all.” How do
the “Mommy Wars” play our for middle-class African
American mothers? Are they just a white thing?
I think black mothers who work and those who stay at home have
a great deal of conflict. There is defensiveness and judgment on
both sides. The wars might even be a little bloodier because black
mothers feel more insecure. Stay-at-home mothers feel insecure
financially; we generally don't have all the “extras” that
double income parents have and there is always the sense that our
husband’s careers are more precarious, due to the last hired/first
fired dynamic. Working mothers feel insecure about not spending
time with their children, and black children are more susceptible
to peer pressure and underachieving. The tension is heightened
by the need to embody the image of black success and the sense,
still lingering from history, that only a “talented-tenth” of
us are good enough to “have it all.” This we inflict
on ourselves, but it is reinforced by the prejudices of society
I have tried to distance
myself from the “mommy wars”— whether among white
mothers or black mothers. In the end, it was important for me to
look at my own family history, the lessons of my parents’ experience
and my own deepest desires and come to some Third Way that would,
mostly, satisfy my needs to be a terrific mother and a contented
woman. So ultimately I'd advise women not to get involved in these
silly competitions over who is going to have it all or who is more
fulfilled because the truth is you never know how fulfilled another
woman is with her choices about mothering or career. (Often many
women, caught up in the grind of life, don’t really know
themselves how fulfilled they are.) You can only ask: what will
it take for me to be happy with myself, my family and confident
of my future?
I read through the essays and stories in Rise Up Singing,
I was shaken by a sense of how much human intimacy— in
this case, a mother’s love for her children and family— puts
us at risk for grief, disappointment, rage and even betrayal.
I also gained a fresh perspective on how motherhood is not only
about our hopes for our children's future— it's also about
finding new ways to fit into our own complicated and sometimes
unhappy histories. In other words, reading Rise Up Singing made
me realize that motherhood presses us right up against the stuff
of humanity. Could this be the shared thread of motherhood that
reaches across social and racial boundaries to unite mothers
of all classes and colors in a common cause?
confronting the “stuff of humanity” doesn't bring us
together then, frankly, nothing will. People have often asked me
if black mothers are really different from other mothers and, of
course, the answer is no. Not fundamentally. I have read books
about Jewish motherhood and Irish motherhood, as well as the mainstream
novels and books and what people want is not different from one
group to another. Motherhood’s emotions and struggles are
universal—but from mainstream parenting magazines and most
anthologies, you wouldn't know it. Black women are continually
marginalized in the discussion of what it means to be a woman and
a mother. We must keep asking the world, “Ain’t I a
Woman?” but ultimately we must proclaim the answer ourselves.
If Rise Up Singing can create a foundation for cross-cultural
discussion and understanding, then it has achieved something very,
very important. But if its impact is just to sustain, encourage
and inspire black mothers, then I'll have achieved my primary objective.
mmo : May