By TAMARA WINFREY-HARRIS
Excerpted from “Motherhood: Between Mammy and a Hard Place,” a chapter in the new book The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America
More than 70 percent of black births happen outside marriage. From Tea Party candidates to black clergy, folks will tell you that statistic is a sin and a shame. For a society that is mistrustful of sexually active, unmarried women and wedded to the superiority of male-led households, those numbers demonstrate unchecked aberrance and are used to confirm stereotypes about black women’s femininity and sexuality. This statistic is positioned as the reason for every social ill plaguing the black community and, once again, very likely the fault of black women.
Conservative columnist George Will said on ABC’s This Week that single mothers present a bigger threat to African Americans than the loss of voting rights. Jimi Izrael, frequent contributor to NPR, wrote in his book The Denzel Principle that high rates of black divorce and single-parent families “really reflects less on black men and more on black women and their inability to make good choices.”
Dr. Sarah J. Jackson says that black women’s sexuality and motherhood have been part of public discourse since slavery, when our reproduction was an integral part of the economy, like the livestock that kept the agricultural engine going. People were as inclined to talk about black women birthing babies as they were cows bearing calves. And, like those cows, black women were viewed as uncivilized and unintentional breeders. The institution of slavery required a voluntary blindness to the idea of black family. “If you’re treating a group of people like animals, you have to believe that they’re not capable of making the same emotional bonds with their children that you are. Otherwise, you might feel bad about selling their children off down the river,” Jackson says.
Here again, the Moynihan Report and its support for the stereotypes of the Matriarch, Sapphire, and Jezebel play a role in ensuring that the public discussion of black motherhood is relentlessly negative.
“If the male isn’t the primary breadwinner of the family, then the children of that family are forever deviant. It’s right there on the page,” says Jackson.
Ronald Reagan, in his 1976 presidential campaign, abetted this idea with his bogeywoman, the “welfare queen.” His frequently repeated anecdote about the Cadillac-driving Chicago woman who swindled government programs out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by using disguises, fake names and addresses, and possibly a stolen baby, cemented the idea that black female reproduction is unreasonable, tied to lasciviousness, and reflects a desire to leech off the state rather than to be a loving parent and contributor to the future of society.
As with marriage, the structure of family is undeniably changing all over—most American women under thirty, regardless of race, will give birth outside marriage; across the Atlantic, in Iceland, 66 percent of children are born to unmarried women; and heterosexual marriage rates are falling and divorce rates rising in the United States and abroad. But black women and their families are still seen as dysfunctional, and uncommonly so.
Opponents of single motherhood say they have black children’s best interests in mind and point to decades of research that indicates that children do best when they’re raised in healthy two-parent families. But, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy, research results related to the offspring of single-parent households are often oversimplified and exaggerated. Most children in single-parent families grow up just fine, and it is still unclear how much of the disadvantages to children are caused by poverty or family structure or whether marriage itself makes the difference or the type of people who commonly marry.
Demonizing single black motherhood does not improve the lives of children. On the contrary, the idea that 70 percent of black boys and girls are congenitally damaged stigmatizes them.
“It’s messed up that we have to figure out how to keep our kids from being negatively impacted by generations of misinformation about the way that our households are run,” says Stacia Brown, thirty-five. “I don’t want my child to feel that the way we live is something that we have to defend to the world.”
Stacia herself was raised by a single mother. And she learned from her mother to protect her own daughter from the stain of so-called illegitimacy.
“We didn’t use stigmatized language around our family structure when I was growing up,” she says.
And when a young Stacia was confronted with condemning language about her family, it felt foreign. “I thought, ‘We’re happy here.’ It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t have a dad and my life is definitely really bad because of this.’ I mean, I do have a daddy, he just lived in another state. I have a lot of things that felt like bigger barriers to my long-term success than fatherlessness or whatever.”
Stacia, who co-parents with her child’s father, says, “We need to, in our households, set our standard for how we’re going to feel about ourselves. When your kids hear you say, ‘I don’t want to be a statistic,’ they feel like their household is…. There’s something wrong with it. You’re bringing that into your house. “Even if somebody at school dogs them about it, when they come home, you’ve got to be able to say, ‘Nah, we’re not accepting that.’”
The negative focus on single black motherhood is also not about helping black communities. If it were, those who rail against unmarried mothers would spend at least equal time calling for affordable family planning and reproductive health care, universal access to good child care, improved urban school systems, a higher minimum wage, and college education that doesn’t break the banks of average people. And they would admit that the welfare-queen image is a distortion and a distraction.
Heidi Renée Lewis, thirty-three, says condemnation of single-parent families also unduly shames mothers trying to do their best. She tells a story about attending a neighborhood outing with her oldest son and his father while she was pregnant with their second child.
“Our kids are only nineteen months apart. This one woman that I grew up with said to my cousin, ‘Oh my God! I can’t believe Heidi is having another baby. Didn’t she just have a baby?’ My cousin said, ‘Well at least they’re both by the same man!’”
Heidi’s cousin had three children with two fathers. “She was kicking herself in the face to defend me,” she says.
“I grew up with more examples of nontraditional than traditional. Women on welfare, struggling. All the women I knew on welfare worked, just like most people on welfare work. There was still this ‘don’t be like them’ narrative. Why would I want to be like people who weren’t being affirmed? People hate to feel ashamed.”
Heidi’s parents were married when she was born. They grew up together and were high school sweethearts. When they married, her father built a house for his young wife, across the street from his in-laws in a small Ohio town. But it was the eve of the 1980s crack epidemic, and Heidi’s father became addicted. Her parents divorced.
Heidi always wanted to get married, in part to prove that she could do what her parents could not. A child of the ‘80s, she was partly influenced by popular culture—“[Whether the families were] piss poor like Roseanne and Dan or upper middle class like Clair and Cliff, we were being indoctrinated with that traditional family model” — but she was also guided by her beloved grandmother’s conservatism. “My grandfather, even though he was minister, was more forgiving than my grandmother. My grandmother was not for the shit like out-of-wedlock babies! Oh my God, no!
“What I really think I wanted was to have kids and for my kids to not have the family trouble that I had. They would not have to go through divorce, and they would not have to have a drug-addicted parent, and they would not have to have parents who married other people and made life uncomfortable that way.”
In graduate school and unmarried (though in a committed relationship), Heidi became pregnant.
“I was devastated. . . not devastated, but I was scared…. I’ll tell you how respectability crept its way back in….
I was like, ‘Well, I’m not married, but at least I have a bachelor’s degree!…I finished school, and I’m halfway through a masters. Damn! Can I get a break for that?’”
Though she and her husband have been together for eleven years, they married only five years ago…or was it six?
“I can’t even remember. What is this, 2014? I think we got technically married in 2009? I don’t know. Yeah, 2009. You know what? Our wedding anniversary is the same as the day we first got together. We didn’t change the day cause we felt like we wanted to honor the whole eleven years. Who gives a shit that it’s not on the official paper?”
If America were having an honest conversation about black motherhood, the screeds about the scourge of baby mamas would also note that birth rates among African American women are lower than ever before in recorded history and that part of the explanation for the high percentage of out-of-wedlock black babies lies with the fact that fewer black women are marrying and many of those women are deciding not to have children. Married black women are also having fewer children.
No. The conversation about black single motherhood in America is driven by gender- and race-biased moral panic and is primarily a means to exonerate systemic inequality for America’s problems, while leveraging age-old stereotypes to scapegoat black women and their children. The reduction of black motherhood to concerns about indiscriminate fucking, emasculating black men, draining the public teat, and releasing frightening, no-daddy-having offspring onto beleaguered American streets stains every black mothering experience, no matter how much individual realities differ.
Despite their decades-long marriage, Michelle Obama was derisively called then-candidate Barack Obama’s “baby mama” in a Fox News graphic. Yvette Perry, a married mother of twins, found her swollen fingers uncomfortable in her wedding rings after giving birth. But she wore the rings anyway to avoid being stereotyped as a single black mother. It didn’t help. “A new graduate student in my program, who had seen me at a couple of welcome/orientation activities with my babies, kept going on about how much respect she had for me. It took me a while to figure out that she assumed I was a single mother.”
When life experiences collide with stereotypes, drawing a distinction can be even tougher, the burden heavier.
Thirty-four-year-old Brandee Mimitzraiem is not the woman people imagine when they hear about single black mothers. She is working on her PhD in theology and philosophy and is a member of the clergy in the AME Church. She gave birth to two sons, becoming a single mother by choice after realizing at twenty-six that marriage would never be for her.
“I do see myself reflected a lot in the stereotype and it bothers me,” she says. “You know, I’ve had to go on food stamps. My babies are on Medicaid right now, because I cannot afford insurance for the three of us.
“People say, ‘You’re getting a PhD. It’s not the same. You’re not like them.’” But I am, and my kids go to school with ‘them.’ I take those issues of class very seriously. I’m not going to look down on somebody else because they don’t have the same education as me. I don’t have a baby daddy, but at the same time, I’m a black single mom, whose kids are on Medicaid. And I get talked about horribly for actually raising my kids, too.”
All black mothers are forced to expend energy (as if being a parent isn’t hard enough) trying to outrun the idea that they are bad mothers who birth and then neglect bad kids with uninvolved, bad daddies.
Now, that is a sin and a shame.
Excerpted from the new book The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America. It is available on Amazon.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.