Mothering Without Shame

Photo credit: thinkloud65

Written by CocoaMamas contributor Rachel B.

“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”

There is not a black mother on Earth who has not said those words to her daughter.  They are said in anger, resignation, frustration and guilt.  We, like any and all mothers, want the very best for our daughters.  We want them to explore every possibility and to experience things that were beyond our reach.  We also want them to avoid the pitfalls, the traps and the trick doors that we befell us.  Instead of imparting to our daughters wisdom, we often give to them our shame and regrets.  We tell them if only we had listened to so-and-so, not gone to that place, stayed there, or hung out with those people, our lives would be radically different.  We are so quick and so sure that the blame lies entirely with us despite many of us being aware of our unique position at the intersections of gender, race and class.  If we had turned left instead of right or had looked up instead of down, life as we know would not be so hard.

We say these words to our daughters knowing that both black and white spaces endanger a black girls’ journey to self-fulfillment.  We know we are judged by a different set of rules.  Our actions, whether positive or negative, acquire a supernatural ability to exalt or demote the entire black race.  We are also keenly aware of the pervasive double standard that still in full effect in our own communities regarding the actions of black men/boys and black women/girls.  Black respectability politics have placed black women as the gate keepers of our culture although many of us resent it.  While teaching our daughters how to navigate a world that has a morbid fascination with our degradation, we seem to follow one of two paths; hanging our heads in shame or distancing ourselves from our pasts.

“I don’t want you to make the same mistakes I did.”

What are those mistakes?  More often than not, they are sexual in nature.  We feel that we gave it up too soon, too easily, to the wrong person at the wrong time.  We tell our daughters’ we were hard headed, naïve, foolish, stupid and spiteful.  We found ourselves in a position where our private vulnerabilities became public shame.  We are so quick to assume and claim responsibility; we ignore the other very real circumstances that lead to make those choices in the first place.  It is painful to even remember that we had to have sex for survival, that those were in positions of power and authority took advantage of our lesser position.  If we had just listened, we never would have been in that car, in that room, at that party, with that boy, with those men.  If we had just listened, everything would have been ok.

If we are not using our shame to deter our daughters, then we are holding up as an admonition to our daughters those who seem to shamelessly embody the loose morals and decay of our culture.  The baby mamas, poor women, junkies, and the sex workers are plentiful and disposable warnings to keep our girls on the straight and narrow.  We point to them to illustrate what will happen if they don’t heed our warnings.  We may have pity, arrogance, condensation, disgust in our voice but the end result is that for our daughters these women and girls cease to be complex and complicated people and become caricatures.  Their “mess” highlights our accomplishments, refinements, education and position.

It is tempting to believe that if you just follow the rules, somehow you will be protected or at the very least buffered from the sexualized racism that is so omnipresent now.  We see the billboards stating that we are a danger to our children, read the “studies” that declare with  authority that we are not desirable, hear at any given time “hoe” and “bitch” out of thumping cars, while walking down the street, or as a “joke”.  We feel the pain, hurt, confusion, and helplessness though we do our best to be as dignified as possible.  We have to be dignified because we know that we are always being watched.  We look into our daughters’ eyes and see sweetness, innocence, intelligence and curiosity.  We watch them as they run and laugh impervious at the moment to the harsh realities of the world.  We as mothers want nothing more than to let our daughters have those moments but we also know the world will not allow such frivolity.  We don’t mean come off as harsh.  We don’t mean to be so judgmental or to suck our teeth at the girls who we determine to be “ghetto”.  We really don’t mean to hiss that “she” is a “fast ass” and predict she’ll end up in “trouble”.  When communications between ourselves and our daughters is at its worst, we yell out in frustration “You want to end up like her?!”

The reality is that no matter what we do or don’t do, black women and girls will continue to be under attack.  Although Mrs. Obama is accomplished in her own right, she continues to be exposed to some of the most vicious racist and sexist attacks.  A maid who was recently sexually assaulted in New York by one of the most powerful men in the world, bravely reported the attack, and underwent an invasive exam afterward has had her honesty questioned, her identity and that of her daughter exposed in French media and her role as the victim questioned.  Even where she resides has been tarnished as an AIDS building.  Even in death, black women and girls have to prove our worth to have justice served.

Our daughters will be the next generation that will be under attack.  They will be the ones who march, speak, protest, write, dance, paint, sing, and pray in creative protest.  They will have at their disposal their own talents that will enable future generations of black women to reclaim their narrative.  What will not help is shame or separation from their sisters.  When we insist that the fault was all ours, they internalize our shame.  When we use those who are the most vulnerable to as a deterrent, we make those girls the other.  What our daughters need is for us to be tender with ourselves.  When we look at our past with soft eyes, we do the same to others.  Our daughters will see that and not accept debts that they did not incur.  When our daughters are witnesses to our healing, they in turn will learn to do the same for themselves and others.

Father’s Day is for Fathers. Period.

Father’s Day just passed, June 20, 2010. It was a beautiful day, for the most part, and it was so wonderful to see so many fathers out with their children. Their proud smiles beaming, happy children laughing… it was just amazing.

However, it wasn’t so positive for a number of people, mainly a lot of single mothers. Every year, I see more and more single mothers being wished “Happy Father’s Day” and every year, it really grates my nerves. Women are not and can never be fathers. It’s against every possible biological, emotional, mental, spiritual law known to us. It is an impossibility! Similarly, men cannot be mothers.

Father’s Day is already a diminished holiday as it is. The top day when greeting cards are exchanged? Mother’s Day, followed by Christmas. Father’s Day was created after Mother’s Day. Much of this dates back to the time when mothers stayed at home and took care of the children while men worked and remain somewhat disconnected from their children. Mothers have since been looked at as the primary parent, so giving special attention to fathers has not been something we’ve done as a society. The tide is changing, however, and more fathers are taking active, hands-on, equally nurturing roles in their children’s lives. More and more men are staying at home and more men are acting as single fathers. Fathers deserve their day and I don’t think we should do anything to take that day from them.

Yet, there are those women who are rather bitter about being abandoned and believe they deserve to be celebrated on Father’s Day in addition to Mother’s Day, because they believe they play both roles.

No, they don’t.

Single parents more often than not have to work harder, spend more money, time, and energy raising their children. Single parents probably experience more stress on a day-to-day basis. Some single parents may find that they don’t have a lot of support when raising their children. However, this does not mean they somehow have absorbed the role of the missing parent. They are just doing what they are supposed to do and what the other parent is not doing. Do single parents deserve kudos for not giving up in the face of adversity, when it is easy to do so? Sure. Should they receive special treatment for being the parent that didn’t leave? I don’t think so. Leaving is not the default; staying is. Therefore you get no extra props.

What is up with us congratulating parents on doing what they are supposed to do? Like, why do we give special props to Black men who are active in their children’s lives, when that is what they should be doing?

I read so many Facebook posts and tweets from some really bitter women! I kept saying, why are we focusing so much on the ones that don’t when we should be focusing on the ones that do? I asked a number of women to explain how they “play both roles” and I have yet to read a coherent answer that justifies those assertions. Nothing they described was any different than any mother who has an active partner co-parenting with deals with.

I understand being hurt. I understand wishing your child had a father around to provide that fatherly attention and support. I understand wanting to give up. I understand that the struggle is harder for most single parents. I’m sympathetic to that, really and truly. But there is no way a woman can fill the role of the father. Fathers bring something different to a child’s life, something that cannot be mimicked or reproduced by a woman. As strong as single moms might have to be, that strength doesn’t translate into some weird morphing into fathers.

I think wishing single mothers “Happy Father’s Day” undermines the spirit of the day for fathers. I think it steals something from them and I don’t think it is fair. I really hope that we move past this and we stop saluting mothers on Father’s Day. It’s just sad all around.

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Chasing the Jones

This week, the NYTimes published an op-ed referencing a famous report: The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. In this 1965 report, Moynihan, the Asst. Sec’t of Labor, declares the deterioration of the black family as the main reason why blacks were and would perpetually be at the bottom of the indices for well-being in the country. What Moynihan most considered pathological is that

In essence, the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.

This report angered many, and continues to anger. Pathology is a deviation or difference from some “normal” condition, and this report made it quite clear that what is normal is what white folks do.

The report itself does contain some references saying that the differences in the black community are pathological because they differ from the white community, not because the practices themselves are inherently bad. Like in Chapter IV:

There is, presumably, no special reason why a society in which males are dominant in family relationships is to be preferred to a matriarchal arrangement. However, it is clearly a disadvantage for a minority group to be operating on one principle, while the great majority of the population, and the one with the most advantages to begin with, is operating on another. This is the present situation of the Negro. Ours is a society which presumes male leadership in private and public affairs. The arrangements of society facilitate such leadership and reward it. A subculture, such as that of the Negro American, in which this is not the pattern, is placed at a distinct disadvantage.

Of course, that is not the dominant narrative of the report, which then goes forth and gives all the testimonies of the black leaders of the time that spouts thinly veiled black female hating nonsense, such as:

Whitney Young:

“Historically, in the matriarchal Negro society, mothers made sure that if one of their children had a chance for higher education the daughter was the one to pursue it.”32

“The effect on family functioning and role performance of this historical experience [economic deprivation] is what you might predict. Both as a husband and as a father the Negro male is made to feel inadequate, not because he is unlovable or unaffectionate, lacks intelligence or even a gray flannel suit. But in a society that measures a man by the size of his pay check, he doesn’t stand very tall in a comparison with his white counterpart. To this situation he may react with withdrawal, bitterness toward society, aggression both within the family and racial group, self-hatred, or crime. Or he may escape through a number of avenues that help him to lose himself in fantasy or to compensate for his low status through a variety of exploits.”33

The report is pretty clear that it believes that these “pathologies” began due to the three centuries of injustice and oppression, but that going forward, the burden is on the nation to strengthen black families. After it does that, blacks are on their own:

In a word, a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure. The object should be to strengthen the Negro family so as to enable it to raise and support its members as do other families. After that, how this group of Americans chooses to run its affairs, take advantage of its opportunities, or fail to do so, is none of the nation’s business.

The report is fascinating in that it both “blames the victim” and properly roots the problem in history at the same time. In 20 pages, the report gives an overview of American slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and urbanization, and shows how it has contributed to the “pathologies” it identifies. It recognizes the horrors inflicted on Black people, but consistently downplays that racism still existed in 1965 or that racism or bias has any effect on family structure, test scores, education, or crime and delinquency.

In recalling the report in the op-ed, the author of the NYTimes op-ed interestingly ends with a call to provide for the safety and well-being of children, citing some of Moynihan’s predictions about out-of wedlock births and fatherless homes. While I obviously agree with the sentiment, these days family structure is not the primary reason for why children are unprotected. A single mother could do a damn good job raising her children if she had a job that could adequately provide for them. If the criminal justice system did not disenfranchise felons, making them ineligible to live in public housing or receive student loans, then perhaps more fathers could live with their children, or get educations.

If we continue to base what’s “normal” on what white folks do, we will continue to miss what the real problems are, and continue to believe the lie that there is something “wrong” with us. There is nothing wrong with us. There is something wrong with the world we live in.

Homegirls Just Aren’t Hand Grenades

I’m a tick . . . tick . . . tick. Boom!!!! kind of person. After a series of repetitive injustices committed against me, I respond in the loudest, most unruly manner imaginable. Often times the person who executed the offense is caught off-guard. I am convinced it is not because they are incapable of evaluating their behavior as malignant, but because they thought they were “getting away with it,” with me.

I often say that I wish I was more like my sister, who assertively checks anyone right at the door when they do something offensive. From the deliberately inattentive “customer service” representative to the occasionally biased Mom-Mom, everyone catches her quiet, controlled critique at the appropriate time, every time!!!

Last year I faced clear (and documented) gender discrimination at my former workplace. A few years before that, I was subjected to it at school. My husband and I “argue like cats and dogs” and the only negative relationship with a woman that I have had in the last eight or nine years is with . . .  you guessed it . . . my mother-in-law. I find myself now, more than ever, grateful that homegirls are not hand grenades.

It took me until college to fully value and integrate, irreplaceably, sisterhood in my life. I have also been blessed with longer female friendships that have grown over the years to be awesome, mutually beneficial, supporting, nonjudgemental relationships. Sometimes I wonder why it is that these unions are run with such ease.

This week I went to lunch with one of  a few “grown and sexy” (50+) sistagals I am fortunate to have. I call her Mommy Nett. I “dated” her son in the seventh grade 🙂 He and I weren’t meant to last but I am so grateful she and I were. Yesterday I had my first spa massage, a belated birthday present courtesy of my BFF who I can thankfully go to to relieve stress, fully assured not to have any undue stress returned on to me.

Are black women the models for sisterhood among other races? Are these “sisterhoods” the model minority or majority?

Tanji is a wife and mother of three. She has two boys and one girl. She lives in Philadelphia, her favorite chocolate city. She is an educator and her first “baby” is now a Howard University graduate and a Cocoa Mama.

To The Left

“Every mother deserves a daughter.”

– Melissa Harris-Lacewell

I had already heard some of the criticisms, feminist and otherwise. “Why does the princess have to turn into a frog?,” “Why do the character’s sound like that?,” and my personal favorite, “Where is her magical kingdom?” If any little black girls deserve their own hometown princess, Post-Katrina New Orleans black girls do.

I know, I know, I know . . . this is the moment of the black girl. Indicated first and foremost by the “hope,” and eventual realization, of a black First Lady and two black First Daughters, and followed by several Vogue covers with black women, including the controversial Vogue Italia . . . hell, even Pottery Barn Kids had more varieties of black dolls in Holliday 2009 than I could find at my local Target. However, I went to see the movie anyway, with my little princess in tow.

Two and a half-decades and running/supposedly ending? Oprah, voices Tiana’s mother in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Is this our mother’s fairy tale? She wants her daughter to marry, give her some grandkids, stop “dreaming” and start courting. Tiana solely desires to open her own swanky New Orleans restaurant instead. She starts off the movie with savings (as well as a penchant for her profession)! This is not a Cinderella story.

All the men in the movie, at least those survived by Tiana’s late father, are uninspiring. Dr. Facilier, the villain, is a capitalist conjurer who wants to run the city. The Prince himself is “lazy,” as Tiana rightfully admonishes. Even Bruford, Tiana’s dayshift co-worker riffs, “You have about as much chance of getting that restaurant as I do of winning the Kentucky Derby.” However, Tiana puts on her superwoman cape and keeps truckin’, believing firmly, “the only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work.”

Is Tiana truckin’ or trickin’? After all, she only kisses the frog because she wants him to turn human, marry someone else with money and share the wealth. Though she does wish upon a Disney star, she also digs into some deep pockets. Her mother is a seamstress, her daddy is dead. According to Mark Henn, supervising animator, “A lot of times in fairy tales the leading character is a little more reactive, things happen to them, with Tiana, and some of our other leading ladies, they were more proactive.”

The “problem” with Tiana is that she wasn’t loving, as her fairy godmother, Mama Odie, instructs. If she can find it in herself to follow in the footsteps of her father, who was both a dreamer (however unrealized) and a devoted father/husband, then she can live happily ever after. Of course she gets married at the end of the movie. However, her running her own restaurant is the final scene.

Legend has it that actress Anika Noni Rose, voice of Princess Tiana, asked the animators for her character to be left-handed like her. Let’s here it for “left-brained” learners/creatives! This may very well be my daughter’s feminism, a little to the left.