Out the Mouth

“If you speak Chinese, you must be white.”


The other day, my son, age 6, my daughter, age 4, and my husband and I (age 30 something) were driving down a busy street on our way to drop me off to have lunch with a friend. On this street, there are a number of restaurants from many different cultures: Japanese, Chinese, Indian, American, Italian. For some reason still unbeknownst to me, my son noticed a Chinese restaurant and said the words that begin this post.

I don’t think my husband heard these words, but I sure did. I immediately responded, “Well, Big A, that doesn’t really make sense. Most people who speak Chinese are, well, Chinese. Not white.”

“Yes, they are. They are white.”

At this point, my husband says, “What? WHAT??” I put out my hand, meaning to signal, “SHUT UP.” Big A continues:

“This girl in my class, Benny*, she speaks Chinese. And she’s white.”

Now, I know Benny. Benny is certainly NOT white. But perhaps she is biracial, so I allow for this possibility. “Well, maybe Benny has a white parent and a Chinese parent. But she’s at least part Chinese. That shows that non-white people can speak Chinese.”

And then something really brilliant comes to me.

“And you know what, Big A? Ms. Arlene* speaks Chinese. Did you know that?” Ms. Arlene is a very close family friend, and she’s black. But she speaks fluent Chinese, and is teaching it to her (black) children.

Big A: “Well then she must be white.” Loving the 6-year-old logic.

Me: “But you know she’s not. She’s black, like us.”

Big A: “Ms. Arlene’s not black. She’s brown.” Ut-oh. Ms. Arlene is light-skinned, but only a little more so than Big A and his sister. At this point, I’m a little lost, especially because we have now pulled up to my lunch spot, on a busy street, with no time to sit and continue to chat. I’m torn between three interrelated issues that I’d like to address in my last words. So I chose what I consider to be the easiest.

“You know, Big A, Chinese is a language. Anyone can speak Chinese. Just like anyone can speak English. You can speak Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, Swahili – it doesn’t matter. Language is available to everyone.”

But this point, his eyes have glazed over and he’s on to some new distraction outside his window.


The other two issues, outside that of language specifically, was dealing with the “Chinese = white” racial confluence and the “light-skinned = brown not black” skin color conundrum. Several days later, however, these two kinda intercepted.

We’re watching Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. It dawns on me that this is a perfect time to address the “Chinese = white” issue. Kai-Lan is obviously Asian, right?

“Big A – look! Kai-Lan is speaking Chinese, and she is Chinese, right? Not white, right?”

Never looking away from the television: “She is white.” I suppose it’s not obvious.

“What do you mean? Kai-Lan is not white. Look at her!”

“Mommy. You look at her. She’s white.”


I thought I’d done well by “teaching” my kids that they were black. I wanted them to understand one of the social groups to which they belong, and to have a deep seated appreciation and love for their social group. I never wanted to reduce being black to skin color, but have definitely used skin color as a starting point for our conversations.

But now I realize that I must go deeper, even starting at such young ages. I somehow assumed that they would innately see and appreciate the difference among folks once I pointed out their blackness, but I now realize either (or both) one of two things is occurring: 1) they only see themselves (black) verses everyone else (non-black = white) or 2) they are utterly confused about themselves being “black” when their skin is not Crayola black and therefore are not able to tell the “difference” between other groups with similar skin colorings.


I’d thought that “teaching” them about race would be like “teaching” them about our religion, Christianity. I thought they’d hear the songs and the stories and the admonitions, “You should love God” and a love of the Lord and Jesus would just permeate their souls. And for a while, I thought that was what was happening. We started really “doing church” two years ago and since then, they will say on their own how much they love God and spout their knowledge of the Bible and prefer Bible songs over other songs and will talk about being like Jesus. And while I understand this is indoctrination in some form, it’s also been a full-court blast socialization, full of questioning and misunderstanding (“is God like magic?”). It hasn’t been one conversation here and there every few weeks. It’s been every day.

If I had to choose, I want my children to have a better understanding of Christ than I do them having an understanding of race. But now I know what I need to aim toward, at least somewhat. Race, ethnicity, culture, and language need to be a constant part of our conversations. Otherwise, one day they are going to misidentify the wrong person. Someone who ain’t playin’ “I don’t know the difference between White and Chinese because I don’t see race.” Yeah, that can’t happen.



Reclaiming the Narrative

Written by CocoaMamas contributor Rachel Broadwater; a version of this first appeared on Love Isn’t Enough here & here.

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.

fu!k Tyler Perry . . .

When I snuck and watched the film Friday (though I had previously sworn off any more TP movies), I sat thinking that you go see a for colored girls for all the collaborative, disciplined work of the black female actresses. You also go to see what can be considered the radical reality of having a black female playwright’s work be adapted for the Big Screen. It is this type of work that encourages these women, undoubtedly, to set aside their own critiques of TP, and of the overwhelmingly masculinst culture of Hollywood, and contribute to the only commercial feminist film production so far this millenium. There is no perfect feminism! Even if Shange had directed the work herself for a commercial audience she would have undoubtedly been plagued by some measure of heteronormativity (remember there are no alternative sexualities explicitly engaged in the play). She also may not have invoked any semblance of Diaspora (beyond the, arguably, Africanist religious practices of Alice/White in the film). She may; moreover, have likewise represented the fractured, discordant trajectories of black, brown, Ghanaian, Nigerian, refugee, African-American, Afro-American, hoodrat, babymama, buppie, butch . . . “colored” girls in a convenient, “framed” (as in frame story) social network, as if we all live in Harlem, by way of some African-American migration story, in a brownstone, or are seperated from a Harlem brownstone by one degree of separation at the most.

On the low, despite any warranted judgements of TP’s systematic Black Church narratives in all other films, I would like to suggest that Mr. Perry excercised a somewhat subversive move in the film. Piggybacking on Ntosake Shange’s assertion that “god” is a “her” (to be loved “fiercely”), I was struck by TP’s willingness to present all of the women together on the roof at the end, except Alice/White. He essentially ostracized the only outwardly religious character in the film.

Yes, there are ways in which Alice/White’s character did not represent traditional notions of Black Christianity in the play, particularly when she poured, “bacon grease,” as the woman sitting nearest to me in the theatre deciphered it to be, on to her daughter to pray over her. Yet, she was too holy to attend her daughter’s graduation party because they were playing the devil’s music. She also spent her days inundating Harlem residents with leaflets dutifully inviting them to her church. In her film poster, she literally totes the Bible. She is this new “colored” woman (there is no lady in white in the play) that TP deliberately includes to ultimately exclude.

Perhaps, after his “investment” in Precious, TP really is moving away from conservative Christian portrayals.

Tanji would like to apologize for purposely, and painfully, avoiding reading her colleague, LaToya’s post until today. Ironically, she was trying to avoid being “influenced” prior to her own screening of the film.

What the Holy Hell?!

When should you “know better”? How old is too old to lose innocence? I’ve been thinking about these things and the coercion that I feel was involved with the young men who were involved with Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Mostly because I know that those four young men are not the only ones harmed in this manner on a daily basis.

The summer after my freshman year in college my mother thought it would a great idea for me to volunteer at our church, helping out in the office. Since she’d already said I would, what choice did I have? I’d pledged my sorority during the spring of that year and the Sr. Pastor was a member of our brother fraternity. He was delighted with my neophyte self! We also had two junior pastors who were pledging grad chapter of his fraternity. Rev. Sr. took great delight in having my “little brothers” greet me and do little tasks. One of them took his pledging quite seriously; let’s call him Rev. Jr. – the youth minister. He was handsome and not too much older than me, funny and liked to flirt (in a church appropriate way of course). I didn’t take it too seriously but I was flattered and assumed his attention meant he was …interested in me. As a person.

We were in an office on the 2nd floor of the church that had a long countertop with selves above it. He asked me to sit on the countertop and talk to him. So we talked about school, being in the sorority, dating. I was sitting on the counter and he stood up, right in front of me, leaning on my knees. So I sat up straighter. In the movies, this is where the guy kisses the girl. But he didn’t kiss me. He moved my knees apart and grabbed my hips, pulling me forward.

 “What if your boyfriend did this? How would you react?”

I couldn’t move because there were cabinets behind me so I was stuck between him and wooden doors. I didn’t know how to answer his question or where to put my hands. I guess he read the confusion on my face, because he laughed as he let go and took a step back.

“I’m just looking out for you, little Big Sister… letting you know what men think about when they see you. You better get back down to the office.”

And so I was dismissed. And utterly confused. After that he took every opportunity to touch me when he saw me. I tried to make sure that I wasn’t alone with him upstairs anymore but he managed a hug or a squeeze quite frequently. I‘d had one boyfriend in high school, was a nerd to my heart (with great clothes, shoutout to my shopaholic mom) so my experience with dating and men was quite limited. I read a lot into the attention that was paid to me so when he said he wanted to take me to lunch for my birthday of course I accepted.

There was a Red Lobster near the church so we decided to go there. He wanted to stop by his apartment first, to get something. I didn’t want to be trapped there (ha!) so I followed in my car. We got there, he ran in then came right back out.

“Can you come in for a  second? It’s gonna take a minute to do what I need to do but we’ll still have time for lunch”

So I followed him in. He asked me to have a seat, went down the hall and was back a few minutes later. With champagne glasses in one hand and a bottle of something. Did I mention that this was my 18th birthday?

“Surprise! I thought we’d start celebrating here, and then get something to eat later”

“Oh, well…” and I didn’t know what to say. So I reached for the glass that was being offered and got pulled into a hug.

“Happy birthday to you…happy birthday to you…Happy birthday Dear Andrea…Happy birthday to you”, as sung in my ear.

“Let me pour you some bubbly”

I guess I looked at my watch one time too many, or sat too stiffly on the couch. At some point it became apparent that I wasn’t going to lunch and he wasn’t getting what he’d anticipated either. I declined the second glass and made a hasty exit. Now my mind was occupied with going back to work (at the church!) with alcohol on my breath and whether I would still smell like it by the time I saw my mom.

So nothing terrible happened, thankfully. Just some confusion, a little anger, mixed with the hopes of an 18 year old girl thinking she’d being pursued by a handsome older man. I never told anyone about it, went back to work that day, then school later that month. I skipped church for a few years (maybe a decade, don’t judge). But imagine that my relationship had become physical. Imagine that I’d known Rev. Jr. for more than a few months, shared intimate talks of hopes and dreams, fears and wishes. Imagine that he told me how special and chosen I was, showed his concern and support by listening and buying gifts…how devastating would it have been to learn that I was disposable?

This is what I thought of when I saw the young man talking about taking showers for hours, never being able to forget the scent of Long’s cologne. How alone and confused and heartbroken he must have been. Just as I’m confident that others knew of Long’s activities, I’m sure Rev. Jr. showed his “special interest” to other girls. What do you do as a teenager or young adult, charged with making your own decisions, being mature…when those you respect and admire give you terrible choices?

I owe my Twitter BFF @aaw1976 another round of drinks for her editing help 🙂

Teaching God…I think

Part I

7:40 pm . Olivia, my soon-to-be -4-year old, is in bed but not yet sleeping. Her eyes flutter, and she yawns. I drag the comforter from the floor, its usual place at nighttime (my two-year-old son, 30 minutes earlier, climbed on top of Olivia’s bed, threw her pillows and stuff animals and comforter onto the floor, and jumped his little heart out. Olivia joined him, and this is the bedtime ritual I have allowed, and it lasts for several minutes.). I pull the comforter over Olivia’s chest, stopping below her chin, and then she startles me with: “Mommy, we forgot to say our prayers,” and she says this in a loud whisper but she does not make any moves to get out of bed because she is sleepy and tucked in so nicely. Part of me just wants to let her sleep because she’s had a hard day (um, pre-k?) and she looks so angelic in bed. But a voice in my head suddenly starts criticizing me for even thinking this heathen thought so I reach for my child, pick her and place her on the floor. She’s leaning over the bed, burying her head in her folded arms. I am kneeling. “Kneel, babe.” She does so. We do not recite memorized prayers, but I do ask her, “What are you grateful for today?” Tonight, she does a half-shrug and yawns. She usually does a full-shrug with a half-smile.  I remind her of all the “good” things that happened to her today: singing songs at school, playing with her brother, talking to her aunt on the phone, and the cookie her grandmother gave her when she thought I wasn’t looking. And then I tell her to ask God to watch over all the people that she loves and cares about. She does so. This lasts two minutes, and I pick her up and put her back to bed.

We pray because this is the easiest way to explain God to her. I do not know how to answer “Where does God live, Mommy?” without feeling like an idiot-hypocrite when I say “He’s everywhere” and then quickly changing my answer to “He lives in the sky” and then I’m thinking, “Oh, shit. I made God a male.” We do not go to church regularly (I never did when I was growing up), and I am not interested in forcing a religion on her, but I do want her to have a relationship with God. But what does that mean?  I could not even tell you. The only way I can articulate God is through prayer, and praying is spiritual for me. Praying is a time to be reflective and to help my child articulate her gratitude toward being alive and being surrounded by people who love her. Am I crazy? Is this too much? Is it too early to teach empathy and sympathy through prayer? Do I tell her about the earthquake in Haiti and the devastation and for us to pray for our brothers and sisters in Haiti?

Last fall, my daughter’s school held a can drive, and Olivia reminded me for days that I needed to give her cans to bring to school. Then one afternoon, after I pick her up from school and we’re in the car, she tells me, out of slight frustration by my forgetfulness, “Mom, we need to bring cans to school for the poor people. They don’t have anything.” I look at my daughter’s face through the rear view mirror, and her expression is thoughtful and concerned. I make a detour and head straight to the grocery store.

Stay tuned for Part II, where I go shopping for a church…

Martha has lived in New Orleans, Louisiana for 30 years (with a few years here and there in Princeton, New Jersey and Washington, DC), and is the proud Cocoa Mama of two children, Olivia and Abraham. She is also a doctoral student and writing instructor in the English department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and her research interests are women’s and gender studies and American literature pre-1900.

My Marriage To Jesus

“Today, you’re marrying Jesus.”  Spoken to me in Kreyol by Granny, my caregiver, those words could only mean one thing: a Haitian First Holy Communion was about to commence.  Most Haitian Catholics make a big deal of Communions, and my mother was no exception.  On the day of the Sacrament, I wore a brilliant hand-made white dress so intricately detailed with lace, white beads, and chiffon, that it could only appropriately be described as a mini wedding dress.  Topped off with a white veil, attached to a crown of flowers, I was the most ornately dressed girl in my Communion class.  After the ceremony, my mother threw a party for me at our house.  So large was the crowd that preparation of the traditional Haitian dishes that would be served to our guests—lanbi, griyo, diri kole, banan peze, pen patat—began several days in advance.  I ran around the yard with the other children, while my parents and their guests talked, laughed, and danced the night away.  And because no Haitian Communion celebration is complete without First Holy Communion party favors, the hand-made white-chocolate lollipops (in the shape of the Eucharist, and of praying hands), candy-covered almonds wrapped in squares of white lace, and white lapel pins, all bore a ribbon with my name on it—“My First Holy Communion.”  Marrying Jesus, indeed.

Years later, my marriage to Jesus went the way of many American marriages: we separated.  The day a Catholic priest advised me, and the congregation of mostly working-class Blacks, that John Kerry’s stem-cell research platform transformed a vote for him into a sin that must be confessed was the last time I set foot in a Catholic church.  The day a Baptist pastor running a “New Members” class suggested to the participants (also made up, primarily, of working-class Blacks) that we weren’t meant to enjoy work was the last day I set foot in a Baptist church.  The hypocrisy of the former (so, Bush’s death-penalty stance did not similarly convey a disregard for life?), and the classism of the latter (what, only wealthy Whites got to pursue fulfilling careers?) have led me to avoid organized religion in general.  I am now, however, the mother of a 7-month old baby; and not to be too cliché, but the development of her spirituality weighs heavily on my soul.

My mother didn’t stop with a First Holy Communion; she enrolled me in religion classes that ultimately led to my making the sacrament of Confirmation.  Her persistence ensured not only that I understood the tenets of Christianity, but also that I have a store of beautiful memories associated with Christianity, no matter how estranged I am from the religion today.  I remember releasing into an Easter Sunday sky helium balloons, stuffed with scrolls bearing the message: “He Is Risen.”  I remember playing hand bells at Christmas; I remember attending midnight mass.

Today, I do not believe in the things that human beings, in our limitations, make God out to be—racist; sexist; homophobic; classist.  But I do believe in God, and so it’s important to me that my daughter also develops an understanding of something that is bigger than her; that she cultivates faith in a Higher Power that is guiding her life.  The academic in me wants her to have an understanding of the doctrinal underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian religions.  The mother in me wants her to develop her own cache of warm memories, reminding her of her special relationship with God.  But memories are not reason enough to expose her to those teachings I find so unacceptable in most religious institutions.  And so, I find myself unsure of how to proceed.  Is it time to join a church, if only for her sake?  Will I be cheating my daughter out of important cultural experiences if we don’t return to organized religion?  Are there other ways for us to teach her to be grateful for the gift of her life, a gift that surely comes from a Higher Being?

I don’t know how we will answer these questions, or what lies in store for my relationship with Jesus, but like many marriages going through a separation, it’s often the children that provide the motivation for reconciliation.