There are three books about black women and motherhood that rocked my world when I read them: Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood; I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work; and a novel, Jump at the Sun. Lucky me, I also got to interview the authors, Cecelie S. Berry, Lonnae O’Neal Parker, and Kim McLarin, respectively. Read on for those interviews and my reviews of the books…
[Lonnae O’Neal] Parker herself, the mother of three young children, didn’t become familiar with the “mommy wars” until she’d written a couple of work and family articles for the Washington Post. In a piece called “The Donna Reed Syndrome,” Parker wrote about taking a year’s leave of absence from the paper to freelance and travel, and her decision to ultimately return to her career. The response to the essay included letters from women who took Parker’s choice personally. In her book, I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, Parker recalls one letter: “[One woman wrote], ‘I suppose [Parker] would think I’m pathetic – I have stayed at home since the birth of my son three years ago,’ and I clearly remember my reaction – about how I wasn’t thinking of that woman at all …I was thinking about how I can’t ever recall a conversation with a black woman who asked me why I worked, and when I hear of a black woman who doesn’t, I’m glad she’s got a man who’s earning money and willing to give her the opportunity to nurture her own family because the historical significance of her position is profound.”
While the mommy wars are very much a new millennium phenomenon, Parker views them as a throwback, and a woefully self-referential oneat that:
“Like [Victorian women] a hundred years ago, it seems, few of the combatants and cultural arbiters in the mommy wars see me in three full dimensions – to the extent that they see me at all. They seem not to realize that women of color might have different imperatives, a different history, different sets of assumptions, not to mention a few cousins, who might need a helping hand to make it into the middle class.”
DP: So you wrote the book to give black women and their experiences a place in the larger discussion of work and mothering. Did the book register on the radars of those who follow mother-writing? Was it noted by those who concern themselves with what’s been called “The Mommy Wars”?
LOP: The short answer is: not as thoroughly or as completely as I would have liked. “Oh, and there’s also a black woman’s perspective on [motherhood and work].” So we get that obligatory sentence! But what I was responding to with the book was that even that sentence was absent. I would read these articles in various publications that suggested there was one reality, it was the overarching reality, and no one else brought any thought or history or critical analysis to modern motherhood or modern womanhood, for that matter.
So I reacted to that very strongly in the book. And if I measure the feedback I’ve gotten in terms of real dialogue and openness to other voices on these issues, then it’s still embryonic. My hope was that, frankly, white women had gotten tired of being in an echo chamber, and that their conversations had gotten so shrill and intractable, that they would recognize the need for other perspectives, that they had reached an impasse. There is a need to open up the dialogue, listen in to other voices and other histories, and to realize that other people have something of value to offer to this discussion. And this isn’t just about the Mommy Wars. It’s important and necessary to hear other voices. It’s human, it’s sisterly, it’s progressive.
If I had written about being a victim, or overcoming odds, or being placed in a certain strata of society and trying to fight against that– I feel that that would have been easier for women in the mainstream to accept, than to hear a voice stepping to them as an equal, and disagreeing with them. “You’ve got a college education and a good-paying job. I’ve got a college education and a good-paying job. You’re married, I’m married. You’ve got three kids, I’ve got three kids.” I’m writing as an equal saying, “Some of the ways you’re doing things are off and self-indulgent. Let’s dialogue about this. Maybe you have some things to share that I haven’t taken into account, and I’m telling you that I do as well.”
Oh, how I hated Candyland. The most mind-numbing of all mind-numbing children’s games.
Novelist Kim McLarin had me hooked way before this little gem of a quote appeared in the middle of chapter four of her third book, Jump at the Sun. But I still whispered an enthusiastic “Preach!” (as we used to say in church down South) when I read those words. I recalled thinking the same thing almost verbatim six years ago when my oldest daughter was three, during the height of the Candyland craze at our house. The idea of feeling obligated to play another life-sucking round of that board game really did make me crazy; I would have much rather been writing a short story or reading a grown-up book. I could have used a copy of Jump at the Sun back then to affirm my sanity and my ambivalence about the mixed blessing of being a so-called stay-at-home mom.
Where McLarin had me hooked was with the opening lines of prologue to Jump at the Sun:
He was not the first man to slither up behind her in a field of whispered white and throw her down upon a cotton sack. But he was the teacher’s son.
Set in a sharecropping field in 1941 Mississippi, the prologue recounts an act of conception involving a black woman-child we later learn is main character Grace Jefferson’s grandmother, Royal Rose. Clearly, this is not just another I-am-ambivalent-if-not-outright-resentful-about-being-a-stay-at-home-mom tome. McLarin takes this decidedly new-millennium discontent and weaves through it a complicated family history, a continuous backstory unfolding during the Jim Crow era, the Civil Rights Movement, and the early post-Movement era.
DP: W.E. B. Dubois wrote about black Americans living with a double consciousness. We can say then that black American women have a triple consciousness: black, female, American. What does it mean to you to add “writer” to this consciousness?
KM: How does one separate out which parts of my consciousness come from being black, which from being a woman, which from being a writer, which from having grown up in Memphis, etc.? I do know that writers tend to the view the world in a way non-writers do not. I know for certain, from having covered them as a journalist, that cops tend to have a separate and distinct worldview. In other words, who you are shapes what you see. Landscape is character, said Henry James. So my character was formed by being black, female, southern, post-Civil Rights, poor, and, yes, a writer, and I view the landscape of being human in the world through all of those things. Most of all I try to force myself to really look. The great filmmaker [Akira] Kurosawa said something like, “To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes.” That’s what being a writer means to me.
In his essay, “Fires,” Raymond Carver describes being a young parent and a writer: “There were good times back there, of course, certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I’d take poison before I’d go through that time again.” When I read those words in a bookstore, I sagged against the shelf, my eyes filled with tears. That’s exactly how I feel, I thought. That the person who had articulated my feelings was a white man, a brilliant writer who revolutionized the short story form, and a recovering alcoholic who left his first wife, were not lost on me. Only a white man whose place was established, and who had nothing to lose, could write with such brutal honesty. For a woman, especially a black woman, to talk so is almost unimaginable. I sweat even as I type these words …
With her essay, “An Unnatural Woman,” in Rise up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood, Martha Southgate’s words affected me the way Carver’s had affected her. As a black writer working from home and a mother of young children, I read her words and felt relieved, validated. While much of mama-lit and black women’s-lit give voice to some of my experiences, there is still room within both genres to better reach me. There are few, if any, stay-at-home protagonists in black women’s fiction, and the mommy tomes I’ve read do not address how to talk to your child about racism, for example. Given this dearth, I eagerly read Rise up Singing, in search of affirmation, hope, and voices like mine. With its two dozen-plus fiction, poetry, and essay selections, this anthology did not disappoint.
DP: What was the early reaction to your concept?
CSB: The initial reaction was quite positive. I think people recognized that with all the anthologies and novels published about the experience of modern motherhood, black women were not on the radar screen. The parenting magazines certainly don’t delve deeply into the experience of being a black mother, and even Essence focuses mostly on service articles, featuring advice, not testimonial essays.
When I first began to write a proposal for the book, I was of the belief that an anthology on motherhood by black women had never been published. After some research, I found Double Stitch, which was an impressive collection of feminist writings, but not well publicized – and out of print. Also, I think that writing about motherhood has drifted away from a direct association with ideology, although incorporating feminist themes, and is more personal, focusing on each woman’s choice and her satisfaction. So although Rise Up Singing was not the first anthology [of its kind], I felt it was timely and its approach was unique.