On Friday, The New School hosted an historic conversation between black feminist academics bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry. A public meeting long anticipated, the talk yielded high online traffic as live-streaming viewers tweeted feedback in real-time. The effect was akin to an hours-long group hug — and a bit of group therapy.
But for this blog and its readership, perhaps the seminal moment was during the Q&A segment following the talk, when food activist and single mother Tanya Fields took to the mic and voiced following:
As a low-income black mother, I have been struggling to find my voice and I’ve been using my platforms — Twitter, Facebook — and talking about being this whole person, what it means to be unmarried with three baby-daddies and four kids…. The pushback that I am often feeling is not from the white folks in the community. It is from the other sisters who tear me down, tell me that the reason I am low-income is because I didn’t have the insight to choose good men, that I should’ve kept my hand out and mouth closed and my legs closed…. So I’m trying to figure out, as we talk about this ‘plantation culture,’ as I try to rise above my circumstances and literally create meals that the children in my community can eat… it stops you from wanting to have that voice. I have people who tell me, ‘When you talk about being low-income, don’t talk about feeding your kids on food stamps. You don’t need an audience for that. Suffer in shame and in silence. The situation that you are feeling is your own and is a product of your own bad choice.’ I am pregnant with my fifth child and just had this man walk out on me. How do you wake up every morning and… I consider myself a black feminist but some days, it’s just so hard to get out of the bed and face other black people.
After attempting to speak to Fields’ frustrations from the platform, Harris-Perry stepped off it, walked over to Fields and, without microphone amplification, gathered Fields in an embrace, addressing her privately. Later, Harris-Perry did address the idea of single-mother shaming, evoking her own experience after divorce for added context. Two key points raised were these:
bell hooks added:
Many who watched the panel live remarked on what a safe space it was for black women to discuss their championed causes, insights, observations and insecurities. This was especially important for single mothers watching who, like Fields, have had to live under the oppressively critical gaze of our own communities.
Fields mentioned that she had appeared on The Melissa Harris-Perry show last month, but I hadn’t seen it. This moment, where Fields cut to the core of an experience many a black single mother has weathered, was my first introduction to her. I immediately went to Google and looked her up (something I encourage everyone reading this to do) and found that Tanya Fields is a veritable force in the Bronx, in the five boroughs of New York, and well beyond.
Here she is as a keynote speaker at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies 2013 commencement, where she speaks specifically to the challenges she and other single mothers face in returning to college:
Here she is speaking last year at The Scholar and Feminist Conference 2012, “Vulnerability: The Human and the Humanities” at Barnard College:
The Executive Director of The BLK ProjeK, a food justice and public/mental health organization committed to urban farming and the elimination of food deserts, Fields and her work are gradually, quietly revolutionizing low-income neighborhoods in one of many cities in this nation where it is toughest to survive while poor.
… And folks are focused on her family dynamics?
Some might argue Fields is an exception to the single mom rule: educated and at the frontlines of activism while low-income and expecting a fifth child. Those who’d make this argument would assert that “most” black single mothers are not invested in the betterment of their communities and are instead solely reliant on their communities to invest in them.
The mothers featured here at Beyond Baby Mamas time and again defy that logic. We are non-profit workers, college professors, hospital workers, writers, artists, intellectuals, engineers, public servants, students at all levels of education. There are too many of us to be “exceptions.”
Black single motherhood is not just diverse in its professional representations; we have distinct attitudes toward our families, personal narratives that may converge at some points but all possess unique characteristics. And we deserve to be able to believe about ourselves and our children that which makes us strongest and most productive.
But friends, family, and strangers actively work not only to attack that belief but to willfully ignore any and all work we do for the betterment of our own families and others’. They do this in the name of advancing a single narrative black single mothers as poor, money-hungry, lazy, bitter, and/or pitiable. And, to Tanya Fields’ point, plenty of them are black and brown like us.
It can be exhausting to get out of bed and challenge those deeply ingrained stereotypes. It can be paralyzing to face a world that won’t acknowledge your pain, your disappointment, or your endurance — an endurance that, some days, is nothing short of heroic.
This was what made that moment last Friday so significant. For once, for a few moments, we all bore witness to a single mother as a whole woman and were all called to contend with any of our own culpability in making her and women like her feel so staggeringly tired.