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Motherhood in Black

MMO interviews Cecelie Berry, editor of
"Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood

Cecelie Berry is the editor of a new anthology of writing by African American women on motherhood, Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood. Berry is a graduate of Harvard Law School and her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, News Day, New Jersey Monthly and on Salon.com. In her personal essay in the Rise Up Singing anthology, “Slip and Fall,” Berry meditates on the cultural contradictions and fierce emotions she encountered when she put her legal career on hold to be an at-home mother to her two young sons. She talks with the MMO about motherhood, race, class, feminism and social change.

MMO: There 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?

CB: I’d 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 the experience.

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.

MMO: In 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?

CB: I 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 children 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.

MMO: As 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?

CB: There 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.

MMO: We 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?

CB: No. 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 at large.

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?

MMO: As 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?

CB: If 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 2004

On the MMO:

Breadth and Depth
Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers On Motherhood

book review by Jennifer James

On Salon.com:

Home is where the revolution is by Cecelie Berry
“When they forsake the revolution to raise children at home, smart women fear they've made a stupid choice.

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