This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

December 25, 2009

Santa Claus is a Black Man—and a Black Woman

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We do not do Santa Claus in our home. We never have. Our children—from day one—knew that any gifts they received under the decorated tree were from me, their father, and family and friends from far and wide.

Before we had children, my husband and I talked about this. I had nothing but fond memories about believing in Santa Claus and in our family we went the full nine yards: taking pictures in the mall sitting on his lap, compiling our massive wish lists, leaving cookies and milk out for him to consume before leaving our gifts and flying off to the next house. My Point of No Longer Believing was pretty unmemorable. No major trauma of, say, an impossible wish followed by a glaring disappointment that showed me the folly of my faith. Rather, I just sort of gradually didn’t believe, until one day I felt sure enough to broach the subject with my parents. They confirmed what I knew, and I felt fine being “in” on the story for the sake of my younger sister and cousins.

My husband’s experience with Santa was quite different from mine. He was the son of working class parents who wanted to make sure he knew that his parents—not some bearded White man—were the ones who sacrificed all year long so that he could have a chemistry set or a 10-speed bicycle.

When we compared our Santa histories, my husband and I decided we would just never start the Santa myth with our then-future children. Not that we would rail against it or anything. And since our kids have been old enough to understand, we never delivered an anti-Santa speech to our kids. For them, the jolly heavy-set man is a character—much like SpongeBob Square Pants or Harry Potter. He seems to be as “real” to my daughters as these two much-beloved-by-them figures.

We have told our daughters that some children “believe” in Santa in a different way, and that they are not to spoil this fun for those kids by saying that he is not really real. I sometimes can’t hep thinking that this must set up some sort of logic chain for my kids: belief in Santa is fun for other children; We do not believe in Santa; We must be missing out on some sort of fun.

Yet they have never shown any hints that they have come to this conclusion.

For a while, my confidence in Santa-less parenting faltered. When my daughters started loosing their baby teeth, I did the whole Tooth Fairy thing with them: having them put their tooth under their pillows and placing four new quarters under their pillows over night as they slept right before removing the tooth. At one point one daughter asked, “Mommy, are you the tooth fairy?” Why do you want to know? I asked. “Because if you are, can you leave us $2.00 instead of $1.00?”

It will be interesting to see what my daughters do with regard to Santa if they someday raise children. I won’t be surprised if one of them does pretty much what she has experienced as a child, while the other goes all-out, full-tilt Santa immersion. But so far, from what I can discern, Christmas is no less magical, no less special, because of our lack of participation in the yearly Santa mythology. Of course, I could be wrong. In that case, at least my children will have something interesting to discuss with a therapist later in life.

November 23, 2009

Census and Us

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Just a quick plug: When you receive your 2010 U.S. Census forms, fill them out and return them. At the Scribe house, we turned the whole experience into a civics lesson for our kids. They were in charge of interviewing me and their father: reading to us the questions and filling in the American Community Survey forms. My daughters not only learned about the census—why it is done, what the data are used for—but also learned a thing or two about me, their father, and our family during the course of their “interviews.”

November 18, 2009


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I was in the middle of writing a post about 5-year-old Shaniya Davis of Fayetteville, NC and found myself stuck. It was like trying to swallow a huge, chalky pill without a glass of water. Then once you manage, the thing gets stuck somewhere in your chest…feels like it’s actually stopped up in your heart, though of course you know that anatomically that’s not possible. One of my little ones gets occasional gastrointestinal problems that so far has not been diagnosed as anything that doctors can find. One time she was describing to me her ailment: instead of saying the term she had heard her father and me use—heartburn—she said she had heart stuck.

What an accurate word.

That is what I felt when I tried to write about the short life of this little girl in North Carolina.

It is tempting to try to place her life and death in some sort of context. Others have written beautifully about Shaniya and how her life, abuse, death—and media coverage of her death—fits in with other current events or broader societal ills. In the post I was writing, I tried to link Shaniya’s experience to that of a girl I once tutored—who also, coincidentally, was 5 years old when I met her—who had a similar story of pain and abuse. But I started to get that uncomfortable feeling—that hearstuck—and stopped writing.

I didn’t like the ending to that post that was coming clearly into view, even though I had not yet typed it. I think I was aiming to write a post of One Who Survived. One who was not Found Dead. One who was not a headline or a post in blogs from across the sphere.  I hadn’t seen the little girl from my past in many years. But recently I got a report about her and it was not cheerful. She had become a mother as a teenager and was currently serving time in a detention center. I think I was aiming to write a post with a happier outcome than what happened to Shaniya. But my blog post could have no happy ending. Unless I invented one.

So I am heartstuck and writing stuck and instead of commenting any more about this tragedy (or any number of other such tragedies of similar girls and boys) I choose instead to restate something I wrote a while back. I don’t know if Shaniya or the little girl I used to tutor ever had an outing with girl cousins like the ones in this post. But after thinking about their stories I am more dedicated than ever to make sure I get my Girl Cousins together soon and often, and make sure I fight for their right to be fully themselves, safe and sound, for their long and happy lives.

Working With Black Women, Epilogue: The Next Generation

***Part 1 here; Part 2 here***

So, as the blog says: What about our daughters?

Will they be destined to travel our same paths, stumble over the same exposed roots and boulders we did? Will they be able to be all their selves with each other? Will they decide to identify as feminists, womanists, multi-ists, or nary-ists? Will they be more than their hair, their skin tone, their names? Can they be yoked romantically to men, other women—to no one in particular—without being defined solely in terms of these connections or lack of them?

…The Family Reunion is an ideal natural environment to gain insight into these questions. The aluminum foil is peeled back from the homemade mac and cheese and the pork ribs. The card decks and dominoes are slapping table tops. Frankie Beverly and Maze is echoing across the green grass of the public park, and the living is easy.

"We all gonna get a chance to stir", PPR_Scribe

"We all gonna get a chance to stir", PPR_Scribe

Hugs and greetings of long-losts have been exchanged and now the sub-groupings have been formed. Loosely based on age and gender, but not completely.

A group of Girl Cousins, from 3 to 10 years old, has coalesced around a shared love of babies and homemade ice cream and a cooler full of juice in pouches. At some point I take them across the field to the portable potty. In-depth discussion: toilet paper and hand sanitizer, who is doing number one versus number two, the merits of High School Musical underpants versus plain white or pink, the odd looking “cookie” in the urinal (“where men go pee-pee; see, their penises fit inside there”) beside the toilet. After all this—and of helping with lining the dirty seat with paper and fastening snaps and belt buckles and buttons—I am ready to head back to the picnic site.

But the Girl Cousins are not.

They have found a sewer drain, full of water from three straight days of rain. The sewer drain is actually a pot of stew, and a discarded stick has become a wooden spoon. Beans are required from amongst the pebbles of the adjacent baseball diamond. Leafy greens are needed from the dandelion plants and grass. Seasoning in the form of sand from the pitcher’s mound gives it extra flavoring.

"We need more beans for the stew", PPR_Scribe

"We need more beans for the stew", PPR_Scribe

Braids and twists and puffs top the heads. Inside the heads minds work to create a state-of-the-art kitchen. The conversation is focused and intense. No, that’s a little too much salt. Yeah, great idea—Get the brown beans up under the lighter ones. Please let her add her greens next. Look at what I found—we can use it for a measuring cup! OK, OK, we all gonna get a chance to stir! Mmm, it’s almost done; Y’all wanna taste?

The Girl Cousins are from the inner city and the suburbs. They participate in vacation bible school and swim practice and drill team. They sing all the words to Kidz Bop and Beyonce and Keke Palmer and Alicia Keys and Hanna Montanna. Their parents are married, never married…their siblings are theirs by biology and social agreement.

"No, it needs to cook a bit longer" PPR_Scribe

"No, it needs to cook a bit longer" PPR_Scribe

They are a diverse bunch.

After the stew is made, the oldest calls for everyone to join hands and bow heads for a prayer. Her words give thanks for this food and the hands, Lord, who has prepared it. She asks for the continued safety of our family, Lord, and the love that we share for each other today and all days. The other Girl Cousins nod, their eyes tightly closed in reverence.

At the end of the prayer they all say amen and begin to eat their meal.

Eventually we head back to the picnic area. The Girl Cousins run ahead, leaving me to snap a few more photographs.

I pray that if there is a God, she or he listens to and answers the prayers of little children over make believe stew.

"And now may we please bow our heads", PPR_Scribe

"And now may we please bow our heads", PPR_Scribe

November 9, 2009

Wanted: Voices of Black Mommies

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One of my favorite pieces from writer Deesha Philyaw is re-posted over on Love Isn’t Enough (formerly Anti-Racist Parent), “Ain’t I a Mommy?”:

The absence of black mommy memoirs mirrors the relative absence of black women’s voices in mainstream U.S. media discourse about motherhood in general. In particular, this discourse is concerned with how women balance the demands of family and careers, and with the decision by some college-educated women to opt out of the labor force altogether and remain at home with their children. When this discourse ceased to be polite, the explosion was dubbed “the mommy wars.”

…The abundance of ink and airtime devoted to a vocal minority of women promotes the idea that this minority’s experience is somehow universal. Low-income and working-class women, black women, and other women of color don’t see their mothering experiences and concerns reflected in the mommy media machine, and we get the cultural message loud and clear: Affluent white women are the only mothers who really matter. Further, media overexposure of these women bolsters the perception of them as self-absorbed brewers of tempests in teapots.

The “mommy wars” as it has been framed is part of a topic known in academic circles as “work-family” (or, the more general “work-life”). In my field, the topic of “work-family” balance is very hot, with at least two of my academic mentors actively pursuing work on the subject. Because of our relationship, these researchers have been very open to listening to my objections about and concerns with how much of this work is conceptualized and carried out. Chief among my beefs are the very issues that Deesha brings up. I will be attending a conference of my professional organization soon. It will be interesting to see how much of current research on work-family issues addresses the diversity of parenting experiences.


Migrant Cotton Picker and Her Baby..." US National Archives,

By the way, I have to say that since first reading Deesha’s article, I have a new twist to my own reaction. For many years I resisted moving back to the city where the majority of my family resides. But in the past year of living here I can say that I was very wrong on so many counts—and a big part of where I miscalculated has to do with work-family issues. There is nothing like being able to call a grandmother or a cousin or a teenage brother to help with child-related needs when work issues conflict with other areas of my life. Nothing like it.

In addition to the day-to-day help, however, is the sense of connection my children are now getting just by virtue of being near their family members on a regular basis. This year several people have asked me what my daughters want for the holidays. My answer has always been “nothing; they are in no need for more material things.” But this year I am adding a request. A request to come by the house and cook a special family recipe with them. A request to bring by some photo albums to share with them. A request to write them a letter that they can keep forever.

Of course I am continuing to “build family” with non-related families. When we lived away from home this was more challenging, but I did it as a matter of necessity. Now I do this as a matter of choice. These relationships and connections, too, have been incredibly valuable to me as a mother and to my daughters.

Since making this move, the “mommy wars” are even more foreign to me than they were before. It seems that this kind of angst is intensified in situations where mothers are living in isolation from the kinds of extended kin that can make childrearing less lonely—whether the mother works outside the home or not. At the heart of the (fake) wars is probably a sense of feeling unsupported, of feeling that one’s work (broadly defined) is not recognized or valued.

Yet another casualty of the American middle class focus on the nuclear family.

Yet there are other tensions that I now have, being a Black mommy raising kids around family. What happens, for instance, when my values for my children conflict with my extended kinfolks’ values? I have had to explain and justify all manner of decisions from why my children do not have a kiddie perm to why we do not regularly attend church; from why I let them read some of the books they do (e.g., the Harry Potter series) to why I believe anti-homophobic parenting needs to be as big a part of their upbringing as anti-racist parenting; from why we do not feed them many processed foods to why they do not get an allowance.

Of course, none of this parenting disagreement has reached a level of “warfare.” Nor is it ever likely to. But as a Black mommy, I wish more of the conversation could be around these issues rather than the ones the media (and academia) seem content to focus on.

October 29, 2009

The Obamas and The (Re)Discovery of Blackness

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The past few months have seen a constant string by the mainstream media of discoveries about Black people. I use the word “discoveries” in the same sense of Christopher Columbus and his discovery of what we now call the United States of America. Of course the land mass already existed. Of course other people were already living on it. And indeed, others from other places had previously “discovered” it.

We Black people—like the land mass and folks living there—did not become that interesting, that open for analysis, that ripe for exploration (and exploitation) until others discovered us.

There have been other times when attention has been focused on Black people and all things Black. But the most recent interest is the direct result of Barack H. Obama and his family.

I am sure someone has the data:

The number of news stories on interracial marriages and multiracial people pre- and post-Barack Obama (e.g., “Should we call Obama ‘black’ or ‘biracial’?” NY Times).

The amount of discussion about Black people’s (men, women and children) hair pre- and post-Barack (e.g., re: his barber), -Michelle (e.g., “Why Michelle’s Hair Matters,” Time Magazine), and -Malia (e.g., re: her hair style during a trip to Russia).

The level of fascination about Black women’s bodies pre- and post-Michelle (e.g., “First Lady Got Back“).

We have even been exposed to the shocking!yes,shocking! news that the First Lady has Whiteblood!yes,whiteblood! in her genetic ancestry.

Now comes the latest (for the moment) oddity of the Obamas: their marriage. Of course, married presidents are not something new. But according to the writer of this New York Times Magazine cover story, “the Obamas mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple quite have before.”

The entire article is worth a read. And in fairness, I cannot blame the media for being somewhat fascinated by, or at least interested in, the Obamas. What’s there not to be interested in?

But I suspect that with this NY Times Magazine story may follow a rush of articles trying to figure out What is going on with marriages between Black professional men and Black professional women? … to uncover the truths about What forces are challenging these unions in the 21st Century? …to declare that the Health and Future of The Black Family is dependent upon these Black Marriages! …to headline all manner of other questions, and problems, and observations about a demographic that—I am sure it will seem—sprung up out of nowhere. I would like to supply some perspectives from one woman involved in such a fascinating Black Marriage, so as to save some writers some research effort when it comes time to produce these news pieces.

* I have been half of a Black Marriage for almost as long as Michelle and Barack. (They’ve got us beat by almost exactly 1 year.) Our circle of friends include other Black couples who have been married as long or longer than the First Couple.

* “The centrality of the Obama marriage to the president’s political brand opens a new chapter in the debate that has run through, even helped define, their union….” Though my spouse’s and my marriage is not a capital-P political one, that we are both Black and married (to each other) seems to be very political in some people’s eyes. For example, my spouse has had Black women in his workplace act warm and friendly toward him after previously being cold and aloof once they find out that his wife is Black. Part of our “brand” very much seems to be that we are individually successful, individually well-educated, and yoked to each other. Like the Obamas, we have learned to deal with and even embrace this.

* We’ve dealt with those imbalances that come from managing continuing educations/training, jobs, a marriage, and two children. Like the First Lady, I have usually been the one who has had to put something on hold, take up some slack, slide something to the back burner, make some extra adjustments. Many women of many different races deal with this. However, the racial component makes things that much more interesting for me. For example, I once had a fellow mother at a private school where our daughters attended express surprise when she found out that (a) I had an advanced degree and (b) my husband was a physician. (I suppose, when she heard that we both worked, that she assumed we were what was euphemistically called a “scholarship family.”) She—a stay-at-home-mother—asked me why I didn’t just stay home, as she had done. Further, she couldn’t understand why I did not hire a nanny to help me with my twins when they were younger as she had with her twins. That was not a very pleasant conversation after that, and as a result, this woman avoided me for the next two years.

* Black married couples have all sorts of married models they are drawing on for inspiration. I know part of the fascination with Michelle is that, unlike her spouse, she grew up in an “intact” family. Both my own spouse and I spent our childhoods in such homes. And in my case, both my parents had advanced degrees. There was nothing necessarily “unique” about this upbringing. Once during the run of “The Cosby Show” a White colleague on a college campus expressed how “unrealistic” the family was. I probed her to explain to me what made the family such an inauthentic portrayal of Black life. (You can probably guess where the conversation went from there.) I certainly knew of Black single mothers, or men who had second (or third) simultaneous families. But I also had “traditional” couples to draw from, and those are the ones that have informed my own relationship ideas. (Not to mention my relationship models that were “non-traditional” same-sex couples…a different story for a different day.)

When she interviewed for a job at the University of Chicago Medical Center, her baby sitter canceled at the last moment, and so Michelle strapped a newborn Sasha into a stroller, and the two rolled off together to meet the hospital president. “She was in a lot of ways a single mom, and that was not her plan,” recalls Susan Sher, who became her boss at the hospital and is now her chief of staff….

* I can relate. Because of my spouse’s schedule at one time, I was the one rolling around a stroller, alone, with two little babies strapped in. But this comment by Mrs. Obama’s old boss reminds me of an additional element to all this that I never quite got used to:  Frequently people assumed, just by the sight of me, that I was a single mother. Once, a colleague I had known for just a few weeks told me that if there was anything she could do—anything at all—to help me out, to just give her a call. This, because she had “so much respect for what it must be like for a single Mom.” Another time, a woman pushing her child-filled stroller on the sidewalk in the opposite direction from me stopped to comment. “Are they twins? My hat is off to you! You are one strong sister to be able to raise two by yourself.” (The first woman was White; the second was Black.)

* I cannot relate to complaints from some of my married friends (of any race) about their husband’s lack of help around the house. In addition to working full time my spouse also cleans and cooks. He even does little girls’ hair so long as what is required is a basic symmetrical afro. I once had a woman at an academic conference tell me that this was because we were a Black couple and Black couples are a lot more egalitarian than White couples and White men had a lot to learn from Black men. (You might be able to imagine where that conversation went from there.) Once again, the way that we have organized our lives, our parenting, and our household has become political. Yet our arrangements are really just what work for us. We do not join each other in a round of “I (She) Am (Is) Woman, Hear Me (Her) Roar” following a joint clothes-folding session or after tucking our children in bed at night. Things do not always go smoothly. There are “bumps,” as Michelle Obama said about her own marriage, and yes they are pretty continuous. But in general, things are good.

I often find it strange that I sometimes feel disloyal or embarrassed for saying so.

* “…Parenting in the White House is more complicated….” Actually, Parenting-While-Black is complicated enough already. The biggest challenges my husband and I face as a couple have less to do with us as individuals or a couple, and more to do with our roles as parents. As my battle conversation with my children’s school personnel over their decision regarding the President’s back-to-school speech illustrates, raising Black children in the USA can, indeed, be life on a battlefield. There are some negative things my children have faced that I thought were over with. There are new negative things they’ve faced that have completely bewildered me. They have also, however, been fortunate to be exposed to a similar diversity as I was in my parents’ 70s college-era environment. (Alas, not so much now as when we were in the Twin Cities.) Life as a Black couple parenting Black children is challenging—but not all gloom and doom.

As the great experiment of the presidency rolls on, the Obamas may finally learn definitive answers to the issues they have been debating over the course of their partnership. The questions they have long asked each other in private will likely be answered on the largest possible stage. They will discern whether politics can bring about the kind of change they have longed for and promised to others, or whether the compromises and defeats are too great. They will learn whether they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough. And even if they share the answer with no one else, the two will know better if everything does in fact become political — if their marriage can both embrace politics and also at some level stay free of it.

Then, in three or seven years, the president’s political career will end. There will be no more offices to win or hold, and the Obamas will most likely renegotiate their compact once more — this time, perhaps more on Michelle Obama’s terms.

The equality of any partnership “is measured over the scope of the marriage. It’s not just four years or eight years or two,” the first lady said. “We’re going to be married for a very long time.”

* In the end, that is what it is about with my own Black marriage, too. A belief in the long-range. A faith in the this-too-shall-pass. That to some my spouse and I are considered an anomaly, an outlier far beyond the normal data points—none of that matters. It should not make me feel more special than anyone else, or less “authentic” than anyone else.

There is no Black Marriage. There are Black Marriages. And mine is just one of them.

October 19, 2009

On Grief and Guilt

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Folks who followed me on my Old Blog know that my research area was child adoption. With my new gig, I do not get to follow the adoption literature as much as I used to. But every once in a while I come across a story in the mainstream press that makes me feel my time in the trenches was of value and that reignites my desire to get back to that work someday in some capacity. The former Anti-Racist Parent blog—rechristened as “Love Isn’t Enough” (tagline: “on raising a family in a colorstruck world”)—features an excellent post on one such recent story.

Whenever one of these stories surfaces, I am usually involved in giving the other side of the man-bites-dog aspects, assuring people that in the majority of cases it is the other way around but that dog-bites-man is deemed to not be a very interesting news story. Alright. Perhaps not the best metaphor. But the point is, despite stories like a family “returning” a child they had adopted, most adoptions do not entail this result—even most special needs and transracial and transnational adoptions. This is in large part due to the increased skill and preparation of many adoption agencies in screening and preparing potential and prospective adopters. (I’d like to think that academic research and the adoption blogosphere has also played a role, but that is a separate story…)

Nevertheless, stories like Anita Tedaldi’s usually strike a chord and, in the process, reveal much about our attitudes about family and privilege. Thea Lim’s piece is one of the best I have read discussing the issues. She concludes:

Tedaldi describes her feelings as “grief.” Grief is what we have when we lose a friend or a family member to death, or to the vagaries of life. Grief is not – at least not mainly – what we have when we utterly fuck up and totally let someone down. That is called guilt.

Grief is also what we have when we lose a dream. But D. is not a dream, not a realisation of the adoption fantasy Tedaldi admits to having had her whole life. He’s a human.

This is not a story about a mother and a child. This is not even a story about a woman and a baby. It’s a story about two humans. But that keeps getting lost in the mix.

Original posting at Racialicious! (plus lengthy comment thread)

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