Poignant pictures are spilling out of Baltimore. Photos of what we may soon regard as the latest protest in our “Spring” movement show brave bodies in various states of resistance. Some with faces covered, others brazenly identifiable — but all filled with the justifiable rage of living in what feels like a police state where black lives definitely do not matter.
As a scholar of black parenting, one picture stood out from the rest, one that surprisingly united folks from across the ideological divide on “acceptable” forms of protest. First reported on CNN, which has recently come under fire for their selective and sensationalized reporting, the photo shows Toya Graham and her 16-year-old son who, with face covered and rock in hand, had been a part of the resistance events of Monday afternoon. With the cameras rolling, Graham repeatedly smacked and hit the teen upside his head, obviously incensed by what she was seeing and his presence. (I choose not to link to it here.)
Graham had become #MomOfTheYear. For those who saw “thugs” and “looters,” here was a black mother determined that her son not be a criminal. For those who saw “people tearing up their own community,” here was a black mother who seemingly advocated for non-violent protest, in the style of the MLK of revisionist history. On both sides, here was — finally — a black parent who cared. (Even Oprah said so!)
I understand why she did what she did. Fear is a powerful motivator. So is love. As a black mother of black boys, I understand that if my 16 year old child was in the streets throwing rocks at the police, justifiably or not, I would want nothing more than to snatch him up and take him home. I likely would not have beat him over the head, but I would have done everything else in my power to get him off the street and Take. Him. Home. That’s the love of a parent who wants to protect her child. I hope, in her children’s eyes, that she is their mom of the year.
But she’s not THE mom of the year.
She’s the poster child of the moment for how we see black responsibility for the conditions in which we find ourselves.
I was sitting in the front row, amiably chatting with the woman next to me at the middle school’s Geography Bee finals. My daughter Mimi, a 7th grader, was one of the 40 finalists, and she’d been a little nervous, so I’d found seats up front for my two other daughters and myself, so that we could catch her eye and make faces and try to help her relax. I had just collected our belongings and sacrificed the seat I’d been saving for my husband, who was late getting out of a meeting, so that the couple next to me could sit down. The white women in this affluent Silicon Valley community generally seem to fall into two types, and the woman next to me was more like a techie mom than a trophy mom – one who did programming instead of Pilates, who’d married late, had a kid in her early forties, and was spoiling the heck out of him. She’d been telling me all about her son, and how excited he was to be here, and how they’d always known he had a gift for learning and retaining these kinds of facts, and how incredibly smart and talented he was. I could see the moment that she remembered — if I was sitting in the front row, it was most likely because I had a kid in the competition, too.
“So, which one is your daughter?”
“She’s just there, in the front row. There are two girls sitting together? She’s the one on the right.”
She shifted and began to gush about what an achievement it was that our kids had made it to the finals and what an accomplishment it was in a school of this size to be among the finalists and how proud I should be, clearly thinking that as a black mother I must have no idea about how important education was to my child’s success and that I should be encouraged to value this experience. She smiled at me, pleased with herself for doing her liberal duty on behalf of the less fortunate. I closed my eyes briefly and took a breath, my usual coping strategy when I’m getting racially read as inferior, condescended to, and underestimated. I was really glad she didn’t try to pat me on the hand. Actually, she should be glad.
“So where is she? I don’t see her.”
I turned to look at the woman next to me. What more could I say? You can’t pick out the two girls in the front row? You don’t know your right from left? I tried one more time, just to be nice.
“Front row. Fourth from the left. One. Two. Three. Four. Ponytail. Glasses.”
The woman looked away, turned toward her husband, and started telling him about how there were snacks on the table in the back of the room, if he wanted some. Apparently, that was the end of our conversation.
I’m a brown-skinned woman, I’ve loc’d my hair, people clearly read me as African American. But my husband is white, and we have three daughters who vary in hue from golden brown to pale. Nadia, our oldest, is dark enough that people assume she’s related to me, but that doesn’t always happen with our younger two girls. Mimi was evidently light enough by this woman’s measure that she couldn’t see my daughter as mine. My presence at this event was already slightly illegitimate in her eyes; she’d already behaved as though she believed black families aren’t supposed to value education. But in that moment we went from illegitimate to invisible, because we didn’t fit her idea of what a family should look like. I’m not mad about it. It happens often enough that I don’t often get angry anymore. Instead I thought, “How sad for you.”
How sad, because no black woman has ever questioned whether my kids belonged to me. And how sad, because our ability to define family broadly and with love is one of the ways black folks have survived in this country. Being able to lean on each other, to care for each other’s children, and to rely on each other for support and advice builds the resilience of black women and black families. My kids have so many ‘cousins’ because of all the friends we claim as family, and these relationships ground them and connect them to a collective identity that carries them through the inevitable challenges they face. There are so many people in our lives who’d have claimed my baby as theirs, and been just as proud of her as I was. And having just come off of a week of vacation and visits filled with the experience of kinship, I wasn’t all that mad about her ignorance. I was just grateful for what we have.
As it turned out, her son and my daughter washed out on the same question, which three-quarters of the finalists weren’t able to answer correctly. No shame there – they all did well. Mimi had regained her cool after the first question was asked, and she genuinely enjoyed herself. At the end, we celebrated and clapped and cheered, and they all received an official certificate and pin for their participation. And I left feeling some compassion for that woman, whose definition of family was so narrow that she couldn’t see my daughter was mine.
Amanda Frye Leinhos is a mother of three daughters and a doctoral candidate in sociology of education at Stanford, where she studies race, inequality, and language and the role they play in schools. She holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Harvard and was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area.
I am many things. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am black woman and mother to black kids. I am a Christian. I am a liberal. I am a feminist.
I am pro-choice.
I am pro-life.
I am anti-abortion….for me.
I am pro-Roe v. Wade.
Roe v. Wade…abortion…life…choice… these words mean so much. And we talk about them as if they are opposites, as if life and choice and abortion cannot coexist. And I’m not sure that they can. But one thing I do know — the right to abortion cannot be disconnected from the cultural context in which it exists.
I don’t think it makes much sense to argue about when life begins. Any woman who has experienced the loss of a miscarriage – whether it happened at 8 weeks or 8 months – will tell you that the life lost began as soon as she knew the life existed. Other women will tell you that the life did not feel “real” until that child actually appeared out of the vagina. But I don’t think that really matters.
For the right to an abortion is not about the abortion at all. It’s about self-determination in a world that hates to let women have a say and hates to make sure children have a life worth living.
As much as I know in my heart that I will never have an abortion (hence my “anti-abortion”), I also know that the right to have one is a pivotal right for every woman to hold in the world in which we live. This is a world that throws food away while people – including children – starve. This is a world that does not guarantee each person clean water and fresh food and preventative health care. This is a world that uses the education system to perpetuate and exacerbate racial and class inequality. This is a world were women are blamed for sexual violence. This is a world were many women cannot earn enough to support the children they have. This is a world where our kids can’t even be safe in school.
This is a world where no one is assured a life worth living – especially if you are female and/or a child.
No woman should be forced to bring a life into this world.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t value life. Because I do. My children are the most precious thing in the world to me. They give me three reasons to live each and every day. I think I was destined, by God, to be a mother. It’s the most important thing I do. If I were to have another pregnancy, unexpected, I would birth that baby. No doubt in my mind. But I would do it because I wanted to. Not because God told me to. Not because anyone else wanted me to. Because I wanted to.
I would likely not feel that way if I didn’t have a choice.
Which also means that if the world were perfect (not sure what that would look like), I would still be pro-Roe v. Wade. Because as distasteful as abortion is to me (and to most people – I don’t think anyone takes pleasure in the loss of life), the moment we start policing how and whether and when women bring life into the world we have made life less perfect, made life less equal for some of us. As soon as we start telling women that their bodies no longer belong to them to do with them as they please in pursuit of their liberty and happiness they no longer have liberty and they are forced into someone else’s conception of happiness.
I’d rather have free, happy women than constrained, oppressed women. I’d rather trust that the person who will be responsible for nurturing that life growing inside of her as to whether she can or is willing to do that responsibly.
I think there can still be restrictions, because I still think that abortion is the taking of a life. Freedom does not mean carte blanch. But I think that should be left to a truly democratically-elected legislature, and not a court of nine individuals who are not elected. Because it is that democratically-elected legislature who determines whether an unemployed mother will be able to rely on the social safety net to feed her children. They are the ones who decide how much money we put into educating children. They are the ones who decide who is worthy of health care. And who is not. The same people who want to force women to have babies should be the same people who will make sure those babies have healthy, happy lives.
So I support Roe v. Wade, but I don’t “celebrate” it. Abortion is not a cause for celebration. But I understand that choosing to end a life often means choosing to lead a life worth living. Who is to say – other than the person making the decision and living the life – which is more important?
Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. –Billie Holiday.
I wasn’t a proponent of the death penalty yesterday; I’m not one today. But today I feel a new urgency to end the death penalty in America. What happened to Troy Davis wasn’t just a miscarriage of justice; it was murder. It was state-mandated, legalized murder. Our nation has turned a corner where it is not only unafraid of getting it wrong, it embraces it’s an arrogant sense of its own perfection. How many times was Davis’ execution postponed? No murder weapon found. No physical evidence. Seven witnesses recanted out of nine. Seven. And guy number eight? That’s Sylvester “Red” Coles. He’s the one the other seven said killed Officer Mark MacPhail.
Reasonable doubt? Better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to jail? Right. It’s disgusting that we killed a man. It’s disgusting that the MacPhail family lost their police officer son. It’s disgusting that the killer will never be brought to justice for that crime. I’m saddened that a man was murdered in Georgia and it was legal. I’m sad that the barbarism is visited more often on people of color and poor people than not. A 2005 California study found that one is three times as likely to receive the death penalty if you’re accused of killing a white person. I’m sad that sometimes the system doesn’t work, and the checks we put in still don’t prevent the worst outcomes.
How many times in the past 10 years has DNA evidence learned a man’s name? How many times has 20 years been served when we realize a person is innocent? Over 130 death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973. We can’t take this back. We can’t discover new evidence and let him out of death. That alone should compel us to end the death penalty. As a mother I am heartsick. Too often Black boys are assumed guilty anyway.
What gives us as a nation, as a society, the right to kill a person? It’s expensive. It’s cruel. As imperfect beings; we will get it wrong occasionally. That fact illustrates the inherent flaw in the system. We’ve practiced capital punishment far too long in this country. It needs to end. We need to support the Innocence Project, which fights to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. We need to support Amnesty International. I hope this stinks to high heaven and the stench is so bad we change the laws just so we can breathe again.
The last straw is the fact that there were no dissenters on the Supreme Court. They just signed on to the whole mess. And they had Troy Davis strapped to a gurney, just waiting? That is cruel and unusual. I love cops. I respect the work they do and know that most are good men and women. I hate that Mark MacPhail was killed going to someone else’s aid. I can empathize with his family. It is difficult to lose a loved one to violence and you do want revenge. But for the state to authorize murder is wrong. It will not bring Mark MacPhail back and the risk it too great that we got it wrong. We need to do better.
The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. The struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones that will come after me. ..Georgia is prepared to snuff out the life of an innocent man.
My teenage daughter often stops by my office for brief visits. During one of her recent visits, I found myself telling her about one of the couples I follow on Twitter, who are planning their wedding.
“Ugh, I guess, whatever,” she said, or words to that effect. “I mean, I just don’t see the point in getting married.”
This isn’t the first time she’s expressed those feelings. I understand why. During the time her father and I were together, we didn’t exactly model marital bliss. What she said next, though, shocked me.
“I hope you and ____________ [my current boyfriend] never get married.”
My kids get along great with my boyfriend. He likes them, and they like him. He does “guy stuff” with my son, like wrestling and playing basketball, that I can’t do or have no interest in doing. My boyfriend talks to my son about all those “guy” things my son no longer wants to share with Mom (although my son uses me as a sounding board for the advice he has gotten from my boyfriend). My daughter says he’s “cool,” and he gets extra cool points for treating me well.
But I have only been seeing my current boyfriend for less than a year. We’ve talked about marriage – as a concept, as an institution – plenty of times, but we’ve never discussed the idea of getting married to each other. So the fact that my daughter brought up the subject of us getting married seems a little odd to me. I guess it’s the influence of movies – in the movies, two people who get along and care for each other in a romantic relationship, are by definition head over heels in love and destined for the altar.
My daughter’s comments were even more pointed than, “I hope you don’t get married.” When I asked why she hoped ___________ and I never get married, she said,
“I don’t want a stepfather.”
The kids are 100% in agreement on this “no stepfather” thing. A few months earlier, my son told my boyfriend that his Mom didn’t need another husband. “It didn’t work out so well the first time,” my son said.
My boyfriend and I concluded “don’t marry my Mom” was my son’s way of warning, “Don’t hurt my Mom.” Later, I asked, and my son confirmed “don’t hurt my Mom” was what he meant. Judging from my daughter’s remarks on the subject, it sounds like she and her brother have talked and agreed that one father – even if they don’t see him very much – is enough.
In the abstract, it’s easy to understand why a stepfather would be undesirable. In literature and movies, and especially on TV news, stepfathers are violent, cruel, and abusive. The evil stepfather is almost as common a trope as the wicked stepmother.
But it is still hard for me to comprehend why the thought of my marrying this particular man – someone who is not violent, not cruel, not abusive – is so scary to them.
“It would change things,” my daughter said. “My attitude towards him would change.”
I could see from her facial expression that the very idea of it was upsetting her. There was no point in continuing the conversation, especially since it’s not even a possibility at this point.
“No need to worry about that, since it’s not something we’re considering,” I told her. “If we ever need to, we’ll talk about it again.”
“Ugh,” was all she said in response, making sure she got the last word – or noise – in.
I just read an article about a woman named Sandra Laing who is a black South African born to white South African parents. The problem for her is that she was born in Apartheid South Africa, 1966.
Yes, you read that correctly, a black girl born to 2 white parents. She was biologically linked to both of them. It was found that a latent gene from black ancestors popped up and Sandra was the winner of the “look totally different from your parents sweepstakes.” Unfortunately for Sandra, her visible differences resulted in disconnect from her parents, domestic violence, and many years of guilt and anger. Today, she is happier and proud. Reading the article made me think about race and raising my own children.
I recall 2 years ago, my son had just started first grade at a local catholic school. He didn’t know anyone at the school, and he was not strong at meeting new people. He mustered enough strength to ask a child if he could play with him, all to be informed that he was too brown to play. Yes, my little 6 year old son had his first experience with racism. My initial response was to march down to the school and rip the child’s head, the parent’s head, and the teacher’s head right off. My husband had a different reaction. He asked my son, “What did you do?” My son responded, “I walked away and found someone else to play with.” Yes, majority of the children in this school are white. Trust me, I was livid.
Many people probably feel we responded in too passive a way, but as a person who grew up in a posh resort town, I know a lot about dealing with white people on a regular basis. I thought about my husband’s reaction, and realized, my son will deal with ignorant people throughout his life. He might as well learn how to handle it in first grade. We explained to him that his skin color is just fine. His classmates’ skin color is also fine. He moved on and life went on as normal.
Three years later, along comes my daughter. Girls really are wired differently. She began to pay attention to color at a much younger age. I had to literally brainwash her at one point, because thanks to Barbie, she told me many times at the age of 3 years old that she wanted to be white with blonde hair. My little girl went from being a wannabe to “Angela Davis” in mere seconds. I then had to add another layer to the issue of color. I explained to her, just as I did to her brother, that her skin is beautiful. I also had to tell her that other people’s skin color was beautiful to, but for them not her.
This is a complicated issue, because you want to raise well-rounded open-minded individuals. The question remains, when do you deal with color, and how do you answer those difficult questions? I was devastated both times I had to face the fact that racism as well as color issues, is something I had to explain to my children. I realize now, both experiences opened the door for me to show them in small ways how to be proud of their color, heritage, past and future. It was nice to see even through all the heartache that Sandra Laing found that out too. Being black is truly beautiful, no matter what someone else will have you believe.
Mikila is a 35 year-old mother of 2 beautiful children: an 8 year old son, and a 4 year old daughter. She graduated from college in 1998, and will be attending Law School August 2011 to study Child and Education Advocacy. She is very passionate about helping parents of special needs children, as she is learning more about how to help her own daughter navigate this world. She has a super supportive husband who is a very active participant in their children’s upbringing. Mikila is also a partner in a debt management consulting firm. A born-again Christian, Mikila also enjoys volunteer work, music, and helping her children grow into the people they are destined to become.
Written by new CocoaMamas contributor Tracy B. Welcome to CocoaMamas Tracy!
I am blessed in that I am surrounded by beautiful Black men. These include (but are not limited to) an older brother, younger brother, husband, and two perfect boys who love their mommy dearly.
When I look at them, I see strength, intelligence, perseverance, purpose, promise and my reasons for living. But somehow, in the midst of all of the positivity and goodness I see in them and feel from them, it saddens me to know that the world doesn’t see the same thing.
For my older brother and I, life has been challenging. Our father was killed when we were very young – and while it has certainly had a profound impact on me, I can scarcely imagine what it has been like for my brother, his namesake. I have watched him grow into an inspiring young man who continues to overcome adversity and defy odds daily. He is a father, a husband, a brother and a mentor and I don’t know who I’d be without him.
My younger brother is a gift from God. He was born when I was 12 years old and has been a joy to our family from the start. Young, smart and saved, he is also an anomaly. A college graduate with a promising future, he is one of those young black men we don’t normally hear about. He loves God and his family and the world is a better place with him in it.
I married a man who was made to be a great father. When I see the way my husband lights up when he holds our youngest son, I can only smile with pride. This wonderful man brought our first son home from the hospital alone as I recovered from a stroke after his birth. He gently fed our first born with a syringe because he knew that I would want to continue to nurse him when I was able to come home. He takes pride in being a father and he loves his sons tremendously.
Because I am surrounded by strong men who each love me in their own special and beautiful way, I feel extremely blessed. I cannot imagine how anyone who would encounter any of these men would see anything but smart, loving and caring individuals – most of whom would give their last to help someone in need.
I never really thought much about what it was like to grow up as a Black male in America. How could I possibly know what life was like on that side of the spectrum? Being a Black girl, growing into a Black woman – that’s what I know and it is an experience that continues to provide lessons and opportunities for understanding. Becoming a mother was one of the most powerful and scary things I have ever endured. And as I watch my beautiful young boys grow, I am afraid for them.
It is no secret that Black men are not viewed positively in this world. We could blame television, rap music, or any number of disparate images – but that doesn’t mean a thing. Truth is, when my brothers, my husband, my sons walk out the door, they are seen as criminals, thugs … threats.
I have seen women clutch their bags as my husband passes by because to them he’s a scary, big Black man who’s surely going to rob them. White people have scowled at and scolded my playing toddlers with such hate and disdain in their voices and faces that I wanted to hide my babies away. People looked and instantly judged my younger brother in his locks and baggy pants, assuming that he was just an everyday thug menace to be monitored. All the while they remain true to who they are and keep proving the world wrong, but I still worry for them.
I know that they have to experience life – for better or for worse – as who they are. It is beyond our collective understanding why Black people have been burdened with being hated, used and abused. This is not a diatribe about race relations – or at least that was not my intention when writing it. This is a writing to express how much I wish the world would change. I wish I could just love my Black men freely, without fearing that they will be taken away or hurt. I wish I could raise my precious sons and send them out into the world without worrying whether they will encounter racism in school, on the playground, or anywhere – because it is painful and they don’t deserve to have to endure it.
Somehow I hope that they will be able to fly above all of the hate and pain and disappointment in the world. Just as they all are blessings to me, I hope that they will be able to find peace and prove wrong all of the stereotypes that have been passed down from generation to generation. I pray that when they look in the mirror each day they see what I see. May they see their beauty so clearly that it is reflected off of them so brightly that anyone who encounters them can’t help but stand amazed – by their character, their commitment to greatness and caring for their families and themselves.
May my brothers, my husband and my perfect, precious sons know in the depths of their souls that they are loved, that I am proud and that God made them all for a divine purpose. And it is a blessing to be Black. It is a grand responsibility to be a Black man and I am here to help them be the best that they can be – thankfully blessed to also be a blessing.
Tracy B. is best known as an expert communicator and brand development professional. With extensive experience as a journalist for prestigious national publications, Tracy honed her skills and natural talent for recognizing newsworthy subject matter, topics and personalities in positions ranging from General Assignment Reporter to Managing Editor of daily newspapers as well as monthly magazines. A mother, wordsmith, world traveler and woman of many talents, Tracy B. is gifted while yet demonstrating her truest desire to leave a positive mark on the planet. Using powerful and transformational words as vehicles of communication, bridging divides and authoring an American fairytale one day at a time, Tracy intends to change the world, endeavoring to, in her own way, make each day more meaningful than the last.
So….Ellen Pompeo is running around giving her opinion on race relations, and what black people need.
(h/t @daowens44 on twitter)
The relevant parts are between 45 seconds and 2:45.
As you can see in the video, Whoopi asks her about her plans to adopt a baby of color, and what people have said about that. Ellen Pompeo says, with a certain amount of what she must of thought was black girl sass, “No one can say anything to me cause I had a baby of color…” [Yeah. I paused too.] Then she goes on her rant about HBCUs and the NAACP. She doesn’t think we need “black schools and white schools,” referring to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She doesn’t think we need the NAACP awards; we only need “People Awards.” And I don’t think she is referring to the magazine.
What makes Meredith Ellen feel this way, let alone think she has a legitimate voice on these issues, that actually don’t affect her, considering she would have never even attended an HBCU or would get an award from the NAACP**?
Cuz can’t nobody say nuthin’ to her cause she already has a black baby. And a black husband. And who really cares what Jill Scott has to say, right? The experiences of black mothers can’t really be worth as much as those of a white mother of a black child, huh?
I’ll spare you the suspense: I think not. Now read on for the rest.
Here’s my position: I’ve never had an abortion. And I don’t think I ever will. I have friends and family who have. I am staunchly pro-choice. I was kind of pro-choice before having children. I am even more so after having children. It’s a responsibility only those who truly want to do it should take on. We don’t support parents in this country. And arguments about all the people who want unwanted kids are BS. Look at how long kids stay in foster care.
So here’s the deal. As I regularly troll the internets for stories about black children and black mothering, I came across this op-ed from Dennis Byrne, a columnist at the Chicago Tribune, commenting on the billboards across the country that try to shame black women into not having abortions. Although he is neither black nor a woman (his words), he thought it his (duty? calling?) prerogative to comment on the “high abortion rate among blacks.” Here’s the gist:
Political correctness and ideological dictates discourage discussion of the culture of some black communities as explanative of violence, ignorance, high rates of abortion and other dysfunctions. But for those communities, culture is described by the growth of a matriarchy, as displayed by the many grandmothers raising their daughters’ children. By the absence of men in child rearing. By men who prey on young women who have never learned what to expect from decent, caring and responsible men. By the collapse of the family and the destruction of men’s and women’s traditional, balanced roles in making children strong enough to resist the challenges of today’s broader culture of irresponsibility, casual sex, substance abuse and other plagues.
In this op-ed, Byrne rehashes an old, but reborn, theory: that there is something intrinsic to black “culture,” independent of any outside factors, that accounts for the disproportionate numbers of abortions in black communities.
This makes my blood boil. One, because as a scholar who studies culture, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
First: on culture. Byrnes defines culture as “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic or age group.” Um, not quite, homie. Where do these beliefs and behaviors come from? They don’t just spring forth from the middle of the earth, waiting for people to adopt them. Culture is not “created” nor does not exist in a vacuum. Culture is both responsive to and part of shaping structure; many sociologists, such as myself, explain culture as the opposite side of the coin to social structure. The growth of a matriarchy (which is largely a myth, I believe to demonize black women) and the dearth of men available to actually father their children are events, happenings; they are not culture. Nor did not happen outside of the influences of social structure. Many factors colluded to affect that outcome: collapse of manufacturing industry; subsequent high rates of black male unemployment; mass incarceration; felon disenfranchisement; the crack cocaine epidemic.
Culture reflects options available within a given social structure. Yes, people make choices, and they have agency. But agency is not what we think it is as total free will, ability to choose anything and everything. Culture reflects what one BELIEVES to be their options, what one can do with what one is given. So black “culture” can never be defined as one thing, one way of being, one way of behaving. Because we live in a myriad of structural positions, and some of us have options that are not available to others and vice versa. And among the options, some of us choose #1 and others choose #4 and so on.
The “collapse” of the family structure is less to do with any possible independent effects of culture than with the structural effects of class. As I’ve discussed here before, a class structure that allowed for families of any configuration to make a decent living would have more time for child rearing. A school system that did not grossly and blatantly favor wealthier children over less wealthy children would be one in which all women could be educated enough to take care of themselves, and not fall “prey” to vicious and violent men.
If you want to change how people behave, you need to change their options. You need to change what is available to them. You need to change their structural reality.
And two, if the pro-choice side is the “right” side, why should we care about disproportionality?
Making arguments about cultures connection to disproportionality makes clear that true intentions are to get rid of the option to abort altogether. For if you are pro-choice, do you even care about disproportionality? Or rather, should you? If you believe that anytime a woman gets pregnant but for some reason – any reason – does not want to go forward with that pregnancy, she should have the right to choose to end the pregnancy, then every abortion should look the same to you. Regardless of the race of the woman. Disproportionality then appears to be that black women are having more unwanted or mistimed pregnancies, but are also using this option, the option to terminate, more than other women.
This can be interpreted multiple ways, but I’ll offer two that I find the most liberating. First is that black women are more aware of their reproductive rights, are more in tune with what they do and do not want, and are more willing to choose to abort. If you are pro-choice, this doesn’t seem to be a problem – black women are, in not the best language, taking advantage of exactly the right Roe v. Wade stood for – the right to make a decision about your body without anyone else second-guessing you or interfering. Calling these numbers a problem feeds into the idea that black women are not capable, or are somehow ignorant (or culturally deficient), of making this decision for themselves.
Second, this can be interpreted as other women – white, Latino, Asian – are not as gender liberated as black women. Bryne in the article above – as do many men – lament the “matriarchy” in the black community as a disruption of “balanced” gender roles. Who said gender roles had to be balanced? Instead of considering that black women are having too many abortions, maybe women of other races are having too few. In other words, women of other races are less willing to have abortions when they actually would choose to under different structural circumstances. Again, with culture as the flip side of structure, women of other races may feel as though their options (culture) are limited, despite Roe v. Wade, given their structural position.
This is not to say that black women do not experience and live under patriarchy. They absolutely do. But the facts are that black women are less likely to marry than other groups. Not being legally bound to your oppressor is sure to make a difference.
Spoken from a sociologist who studies culture: If you want black women to stop having abortions, if that is your true goal, you need to change their world. You need to make it so that there are no reasons for why a pregnancy would be unwanted or mistimed.
A billboard does not change the world. It just pisses people off.
After years of black motherhood being equated with abandonment and neglect, it was pure joy to see the Obamas walk across that stage to accept the nomination and then the results of the election. Those nights – and those ever since – have been an affirmation for those of us who were what they are: A strong, loving, playful, and spirit filled African American family. The Obamas, of course, are not the first nor will they will be the last, but they are in the here and now, tangible and concrete. It is important to note the Obamas – including Marion Robinson, First Lady Obama’s mother who has been hailed by both of them as being instrumental in the development of their daughters – deserve every bit of praise. It is clear that they not only are extremely devoted to their children but also to their own relationship. If there were to be a soundtrack for the Obama family, it would be Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me off My Feet”.
They are the flip side to the many single black women – grandmothers, aunties, sisters, and every other in between – who are indeed mothering under siege. These examples seem to be the only dots on the spectrum. For those of us who seem to embody the Obama model it can be a lonely, isolating and conflicting experience.
I am a 34 year old mixed race woman – Puerto Rican father and African American / Cherokee mother – who identifies herself culturally as an African American- who mothers 2 amazing little girls: my daughter, 8, and my niece, 9. I have been married to an awesome guy for 10 years and on our second wedding anniversary our daughter was born. I work in pharmacy, a profession where there are more women than men. Because of this, I would find myself in conversations with the pharmacist- sometimes white but frequently themselves or their families hailing from the Middle East or South East Asia – about parenting. There was almost always a look of surprise and wonderment when I would talk about the regular every day struggles of mothering. I could almost see the thought bubble: “Oh my God she is just like me!” Usually at some point in time they would admit to being pleasantly surprised at how devoted I and my husband were to our girls. I was different, you know, unlike “those other” parents. Meaning “regular” black people. I would insist that every mother regardless of race, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socioeconomic or marital status wants the best for her child whether they have the resources or not, and I was not, in fact, an anomaly.
But I admit that I do feel invisible. There are very few mediums where black mothering is normalized. Normalized brings to mind for many a two parent, heterosexual, often Christian family. That is not what I am talking about. I mean I want to see black and brown mothers in advertisements for safety systems, breastfeeding campaigns, and educational enrichment pitches. I want to see sensitive portrayals of black and brown women as being nurturing, caring, responsible, patient and concerned about their children. I would no longer have to endure a picture of a black child automatically followed by these or any combination of words: challenge, crisis, chaos, dangers, death, neglect, and dysfunctional.
To black and white people I did right. I got married then had children. “You are a good mother” they nod approvingly. It’s like because I married when I married that I automatically get 500 points on the SAT’s of parenting. Why should that be? There is so much discussion concerning the ills of out of wedlock mothering in spiritual, economic, and emotional terms. Single mothers have their actions shredded apart. People feel it is justified by pointing to the high incarceration rates, poverty, violence etc. but is it any more right for a married woman to have a baby to save a relationship? Is it right for a married couple to bring a child into a household where the father is emotionally distant or even cruel because of their own unresolved demons? There might be a temptation to point out that society “pays” for out of wedlock children but don’t we “pay” when children are conceived under the matrimonial fairy tales that don’t work out. But there are a whole lot of ways to pay for a baby.
There seems to be a concerted lack of nuance in the discourse in both white and black spaces. If white spaces don’t acknowledge my presence black spaces insist only on the respectable. In a way I can’t say that I blame them. Slavery did not allow for slaves to be recognized as humans much less families. Even if an enlightened slave master allowed for slaves to be married, it was never legally binding. At any time these two people, who chose each other despite the pure hell of slavery, could be separated and sold along with any of their children or told to mate with another salve who had their own family or did not and simply had no desire to breed. When freedom was won the majority of slaves legalized their marriages. They may not have had much but they had each other. Literally.
So against that backdrop it is no wonder when pastors look out into the pews of their church and see the couple sitting next to each other, an arm draped across their partners back, maybe with a child or two on either side, maybe in between, they are not necessarily seeing patriarchy and submission. What they see is a stone in the eye of the naysayers who use charts, polls, and studies to prove that these people sitting in church on a Sunday morning don’t exist. There is no doubt that something pulls at you when you see a couple married for 40 plus years helping each other put their coats on. It is pride, love, joy, hope, an abundance of every bit of positive energy in the world. It is also tempting to stay rooted in that energy. It is so warm and wonderful. It makes me believe that I too will be in that number. To believe that this is the right way, the only way, the best way. But I can’t and I won’t.
Poor mothers do not automatically equate poor mothering. The No Wedding, No Womb and Marry Your Baby Daddy/Mama movements although conceived with good intentions have left so many important threads blowing in the wind and it seems like few are interested in catching, examining and then tying them together. Lack of comprehensive, fact based sexual education, the denial of mental health services (both in idea that it is needed and actual services), the lack of safe spaces or even language for men and boys to discuss their own feelings that are not steeped in patriarchy and the sustained unwillingness to deal with the effects of physical, mental, sexual and emotional abuse and how that affects interpersonal relationships all impact both parents and children alike.
The first step to correct this is the insistence that black women take back their own maternal narrative. Take it back from whoever is mishandling it, whether the person is wearing a three-piece suit, a black dress with pearls, pastoral robes or jeans and t shirt. This is your story. You and your child’s. There will be laughter and tears. There will be slammed doors and cuddles on the couch. There will be fear and certainty. There will be clarity and bewilderment. These things will happen at different times or maybe all at once. Doesn’t matter really. When you tell your story I will sit down and make myself comfortable, ready to listen to you.