One of the things I am enjoying about writing for this blog so far is that it gives me a more specific reason to seek out books I’ve been meaning to read and have conversations I’ve been meaning to have. This week I wanted to kick off what I hope will be a recurring series on the blog– The Bookshelf– in which I write up books I’ve read that relate to feminism and/or parenting. This first installment tackles a book that was actually brought to my attention by a student. Toward the end of my women’s writing class, we were talking about how maternal desires and ambitions for work outside the home have been historically different for black women and white women in the U.S. After class, one of my bright, thoughtful students approached me to say, “My mom wrote a book about this sort of thing. They teach it in some women’s studies classes, I guess.” I asked her to send me a link for the book, and when she did, I purchased it immediately.
This student’s mom turns out to be Lonnae O’Neal Parker, an accomplished and acclaimed Washington Post reporter. The book her daughter told me about is I’m Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, published in 2005. Parker’s book devotes a lot of attention to motherhood, but more generally it is rooted in her experiences of growing up as a black woman among black women and trying to create the life she wants to imagine is possible for herself. As Deesha Philyaw suggested back in 2008 (and recently posted on twitter), black motherhood has been woefully under-represented in the media conversations about women who try to strike a balance between motherhood and work. Writing specifically about Parker’s book, Philyaw suggests “black women readers embraced I’m Every Woman, hungry for a perspective different from that found in the usual mommy-book fare. And, as Parker had hoped, some white women ‘tired of the echo chamber’ are now teaching the book in university classrooms.” My experience of learning about this book underscores Philyaw’s point. I’ve spent the past several years reading widely about feminism and motherhood and have scoured bibliographies specifically looking for discussions of black motherhood, and yet I had no idea this book existed until I had the author’s own daughter in my class.
Count me among the “white women ‘tired of the echo chamber,'” though, because I would have gladly taught from I’m Every Woman in my own university classroom if I’d known about it in time. I would recommend it highly to students and peers alike even if it only taught us things we should know about black motherhood, because black motherhood should be discussed more frequently and more positively in the media than it is. Early in the book, Parker argues that because black women’s experiences often fail to be acknowledged and considered, the lessons black women have learned and are equipped to teach have gone unnoticed, as well. She writes, “it seems, few of the combatants and cultural arbiters in the mommy wars see me in three full dimensions– to the extent that they see me at all. They seem not to realize that women of color might have different imperatives, a different history, different sets of assumptions, not to mention a few cousins, who might need a helping hand to make it into the middle class” (13-14). I wish people would read this book because it IS necessary for feminists to educate ourselves about these differences, and certainly we should listen when women of color speak about them.
Parker further clarifies: “it’s not that I think that black women have all the answers– only that we have struggled with the questions longer and that sometimes our tool sets are more expansive” (14). This gets the the heart of the second reason I want to recommend the book– it’s not only wrong to ignore the experiences of women of color, it’s also really foolish. The book contains important and helpful lessons for all feminists, but especially for feminist moms. It provides a useful model for how we can learn from women who share our experiences as well as women whose lives are very different than our own.
At the close of the book, Parker writes “There is so much history that is hidden from us, I want to tell my daughters, which is why you have to seek out the stories of other women and make them your own. They let you know you have everything you need. That there is nothing new under the sun and you are just, most appropriately, customizing your beats, because that will make your remix strong” (238). Parker describes how she makes her own “remix” in the book, but she also models this practice throughout. She tells us, for example, what life lessons she gleaned from the few TV shows that had black female protagonists and what lessons she was able to learn from white TV characters when she looked at them from a black woman’s perspective. These lessons are interesting and may be useful to readers– but even if each lesson itself is not something a reader can apply to her own life, the approach Parker takes IS something we can apply to our own lives. She has a knack for processing all the stimuli to which she is exposed, figuring out how to discard the harmful ones, use the helpful ones, and renegotiate others to make them suit her purposes. This makes the book entertaining– I enjoyed how seamlessly she transition between writing about personal experiences, family stories court cases, song lyrics, novels, essays on critical theory, television shows, and more– but it also helped me to imagine how I might apply these types of practices to my own life.
This practice of “customizing” my “remix” is the main thing I will take away from the book and carry with me as I work to become a better mother, better feminist, and better professional. I am pretty good at looking to the women who’ve come before me and figuring out what lessons their lives teach me, but I hadn’t given much thought to the benefits of renegotiating my perceptions of these examples in order to suit them to my own experiences. Parker’s method will widen the scope of what I can learn from others because it teaches me to look differently at those who’ve already blazed trails similar to my own AND to pay attention to others whose trails look nothing like mine but needed to be blazed nonetheless.
Rather than trying to further paraphrase Parker’s own powerful words, I wanted to share some of the quotes that really stood out to me as insightful, important, helpful, and/or entertaining. My hope in sharing these quotes is that readers here can learn from these insights but, most importantly, that they’ll encourage you to want to read the book for yourself.
“The history of black women, the stories of my grandmothers and mother, lets me know there is no magic pill to conjure time, and we can’t go around shaking a stick at our lives to stop everybody from tugging on us. Sometimes we can’t alter a physical reality, but we can bend our minds. We make our choices, and whenever possible we choose joy, mindful that just having options is, in itself, a luxury and such an amazing grace.” (xix)
Writing about the inspiration she draws from historical figures like Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Shirley Chisholm, and more, Parker writes, “I do not pretend to have these women’s mettle or humility or seriousness of purpose. I just know the thought of them keeps me up late writing when I’d rather be asleep” (34).
“Since then, some very good editors have given me skills, but it was the babies I was afraid to have who made my need to write bigger than my fear of failing at it; who made me pregnant with resolve. It is my kids who have given me deeper connections, keener insights, or at least a whole lot more raw material to work from.” (73)
Quoting her friend Joby Dupree, one of the founders of Mocha Moms: “I don’t try to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do, I can only tell you what has worked for me. So many people come out and say this is what you should do or shouldn’t do. You don’t know me, you don’t know my family, and you don’t know my children. Tell me what worked for you and maybe I can try it.” (91)
“Do you remember Will Smith in Men in Black? When he put on his suit and dark glasses, turned to Tommy Lee Jones, and said, ‘I make this look good.’ Well, that is exactly how I’m going to rock a Dodge Caravan. I reject the notion that minivans desexualize. After all, sex is the reason I need one in the first place.” (153)
“…since a hundred years before their white counterparts found the words to speak it, black women have known that the personal is political. It’s the bodies of black women that have been among the most politicized terrains on the planet, and used to be there was little more public than black women’s sexuality. Sometimes that’s still the case.” (154)
“One of my girlfriends once chided me because I fussed about walking through the parking lot, since my husband usually drops me at the door. ‘See, Ralph’s got your ass spoiled,’ she said. I understand the perception, that in many ways I’m pampered. But I just continue to stand by my final answer: Perhaps, I say, but then you don’t know all the things I do for that man.” (169)
“Feminist, abolitionist, and former slave Sojourner Truth had thirteen children and saw nearly all of them sold. That didn’t stop her from whipping her kids in the time she had them. When Truth became a mother, writes Paula Giddings, ‘she would sometimes whip her child when it cried for more bread rather than give it a piece secretly, lest it should learn to take what was not its own.’ She whipped because what do you imagine they did to slaves caught stealing? Black families would whip their kids because white people might kill them. Because the streets could consume them, because the police would jail them… They whipped because the stakes were high, missteps were costly, and Stop! Don’t! and No! had to mean what they said the very first time since colored people couldn’t rely on second chances (as true for Emmett Till as it was for Amadou Diallo).” (175-176)
“Sometimes I marvel at the breadth of experiences we’ve been able to bring into our lives. But sometimes it feels like such an uncharted place that I’m standing in… but I am a product of my times, grounded in both culture and middle-class entitlement, driven to peel off the best parts of all the worlds I know and desperate to try to avoid the worst. And only time will tell what sticks with my children.” (214)
“I can have it all, just not on the same day. And as a practical matter, that means daily decisions about how best to spend fifteen- and twenty- and forty-five minute blocks of time.” (224)
“I may not thin gin at the juke joint, like Sofia from The Color Purple, or let it all ride at the track, but I’m not mad at those who do. A woman’s got to take care of home, and then has got to carve out her own inviolate space. And when you find the thing that keeps you sane, that piece of something that’s yours alone, you don’t sacrifice it. Not even on the altar of motherhood.” (232-233)
“I don’t have all the words I will ever need to make it all all right tonight. I just have to have faith that the words will come in time, because I am a good listener. A mindful daughter of the god of black women.” (239)
Please get your hands on a copy of this book. And then give it to someone else you care about. Mine’s ready to go out on loan. If you know other books in the same vein, please leave that info in the comments!