Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Singing, De-romanticizing & Transforming:
An Interview with Cecelie Berry
by Robin Bradford

No one is born a mother... You have to be made into a mother, nail by nail, plank by plank. –Carolyn Ferrell

In 2000 Cecelie Berry was the mother of sons aged five and seven and one of the million moms who marched in Washington against gun violence. A Harvard-educated attorney, Berry had, as friends deridingly pointed out, gone from DINKs (double-income, no kids) to sinks when she chose to stay at home and be a mom. Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood is Berry’s answer to those who might have mistaken motherhood as a lesser profession than the law. What she saw that day -- women acting out of the power of motherhood -- confirmed what she already knew: motherhood certifies one’s importance in the world. And Rise Up Singing certifies the importance of hearing African American mother’s voices.

Rise Up Singing gathers together many favorites -- Alice Walker, Edwidge Danticat, June Jordan, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, and Rita Dove. Berry also includes many new voices such as those of AJ Verdelle, Martha Southgate, Carolyn Ferrell, Evelyn Coleman, and Felicia Ward. In her own introduction and essay, Berry ably connects her personal journey with larger themes that mothers, and especially Black mothers, know as well as their own children’s hands.

To gain a black mother’s perspective, I recruited the input of my friend Cheray Ashwill, mother of Liam (8) and Avery (11) and admissions officer at a private school.  Bolstered with Cheray's thoughts, I spoke recently with Cecelie about her new book, motherhood and life. 

Austinmama: Cecelie, reading this book was so pleasurable to me. I loved encountering the familiar beauty of Alice Walker’s story (“Everyday Use”) about the disconnect down between a rural mother and her “Africanized” daughter and Rita Dove’s poem (“She wanted a little room for thinking…”). But there are also some strong writers who are new to me. I especially enjoyed Carolyn Ferrell’s short story “Linda Devine’s Daughters” both poetic and mysterious and Felicia Ward’s personal essay “Good Night Moon” which is bold, funny, and heart-breaking all at once. My friend Cheray was also impressed with the variety of voices and experiences you brought together. What was your process in putting together this book? 

Cecelie Berry: I wanted to edit a book that celebrated the diversity of the community of African-American mothers so I considered a number of factors. Geographical diversity was important, and I'm glad that the writers of Rise Up Singing represent every region of the country. It would be easy to populate an anthology of this kind with writers from the New York area alone, but it was important to reach beyond my normal East Coast parameters to find writers like Tananarive Due, who writes about her grandmother's life and death in Florida, and Evelyn Coleman, who writes about being a "Wild Southern Woman" raising two daughters. Our Southern roots are strong, and African-Americans have carried with them a sense of Southern tradition with them wherever they landed in the migration North and West.
Because I felt particularly conflicted about leaving behind a career as a lawyer, and was urged, like many women of my generation, to do and have it all, I wanted stories of transformation. I sought authors who could tell stories about starting out in one avenue of their lives, and how motherhood was a catalyst for them to become something different—and, of course, happier and more fulfilled in the process. I was immediately drawn to, and am always moved by, Faith Ringgold's essay, "My Daughters and Me", about her genesis as an artist and her struggles as a mother in the 1960s. And I was impressed by Maxine Clair's swansong, "Journeys." Maxine was Chief Medical Technologist at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. and after raising her four children as a single mother, she returned to George Washington University, getting an MFA and becoming a prize-winning novelist and a professor of English. I suppose, for me, Rise Up Singing was a personal investigation into how women before me managed the process of their own growth as their children grew. I found many of the stories inspiring and instructive.
I also knew that much fine writing by African-American women on motherhood has not reached the public and had not been gathered together in a single volume. Rise Up Singing is my modest attempt to do so, but, of course, several more volumes would be required to even begin to be definitive. I will always be astounded by June Jordan's fabulous 1963 essay, "Many Rivers to Cross" about her mother, the type of selfless, long-suffering woman celebrated in African-American culture, and her suicide. Her mother's suicide gave birth to Jordan's lifetime of political activism and feminist commentary. The poems in the book, by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and Lucille Clifton provide structure to the essays and short stories of the anthology and are classic evocations of the moods of motherhood.

AM: Rise Up Singing is arranged in four sections, the first being “Aria of the Matriarch.” One theme that reverberates in this part is the conflict between generations and classes within a family. I’m thinking of the granddaughter in Jewell Parker Rhodes’s essay (“Ernestine: A Grandmother’s Memories”) who’s sick of her grandmother saying “Down South…” and Faith Ringgold who writes (in “My Daughters and Me”) about trying to raise her daughters as feminists yet feels like a failure when they join a commune in Mexico that promotes drugs and subservience. Do you think African-American mothers experience this disjunct often? What can they do to bridge and honor differences among African-Americans?

CB: The conflict you speak of, between generations and classes within a family, is very common now in the African-American community and certainly, a part of my own experience. I think often about the dissonance between me and my own parents; I was, due to their efforts, raised in relative comfort and in integrated environments, but they grew up during segregation. As a result, we see so many things differently -- sexual relations, politics, the concept and importance of freedom in individual life. My parents had all the hang-ups against which Baby Boomers rebelled. They were aghast when I had sex before marriage and lived with my future husband, appalled when I quit my job at a prestigious law firm, and were generally wary of the notion of "speaking truth to power." I know now that their conservatism was heightened by the memory of racism and the power of racial stereotyping in America.
I also have encountered the question of whether or not I, an upper middle class, Ivy League-educated black woman, can "relate" to the problems of mothers in the inner city. Of course, I believe that I can, because I know that the feelings people share -- hope, joy, frustration -- are the same, regardless of their circumstances. I have endeavored to include stories across the spectrum of class in Rise Up Singing, and I have been told by black and white readers that they can relate to the stories because the feelings they express are universal.

AM: Next, Rise Up Singing explores “a mother’s interior world.” You write about (“Slip and Fall”) running over the food processor a former coworker gave you when your second child was born, angry that her job was so valued in our culture and yours was by comparison so mundane. Evelyn Coleman (“When Wild Southern Women Raise Daughters”) writes about not giving up doing the Bump every weekend. AJ Verdelle writes about how for mothers “the time before us is full even when it has not yet come” (“The Complex Mathematics of Motherhood”). How can mothers balance their need for an interior life -- or to have fun! -- and the reality of children’s dependence?

CB: It isn't easy, but it has to be done. I truly believe that the feeling of depletion, of bone-weariness that leads to depression and despair is actually a calling card for the abuse and neglect of children. So we have to see our protecting ourselves, our sanity and energy, as protecting them as well. Some people might think that view is extreme; it's natural to feel that you would never harm your children. But when you start feeling depressed, you can begin to harm yourself, drinking too much, taking pills, giving in to bouts of explosive anger, that can harm them accidentally. We must, we must, take care of ourselves.
So, how? Every woman is a little different, and you'll have to experiment with what actually relaxes you, and how much time you need to re-enter a state of sanity and willing sacrifice. Whether it's time exercising, reading or daydreaming, you must find it and fight the guilt for taking it. I was particularly happy to read in Reverend Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook's essay that time to rekindle one's spirit is Biblically ordained. If God says so, it's okay.
Then, too, while I am not an advocate of "quality time" I think that mothers have to remember that whether you work outside the home or not is not really the issue. The issue is how much you talk to your children, how free they feel to express their true selves in your company, how much trust there really is. I have seen too many stay-at-home mothers distract themselves with volunteer work and PTA activities so that they barely know their children, and I have seen many work-outside-the-home mothers who have, in the time available to them, built a strong and enduring closeness with their kids. The time we take for ourselves can help us to be more communicative and deepen our family relationships.
I also think that planning can -- to some extent -- alleviate the stresses of motherhood. Having a network of trusted supporters in friends and family before you have children is essential. A sense of accomplishment in career or education helps battle the loss of self-esteem that childrearing can bring, and a nest egg is advisable, too. To persuade young women to postpone pregnancy until they are more secure financially and socially is an effort we cannot suspend. We must continue to demystify and de-romanticize motherhood, and this, I hope, is accomplished in Rise Up Singing. Motherhood is perilous, must be undertaken thoughtfully and, even then, it will try your very soul.

AM: The book’s next section is the darkest part of the book. Here mothers grieve unspeakable losses -- babies they lost, mothers who left painful legacies, and even the idea of ever being a mother. I was particularly moved by Erin Aubry Kaplan’s essay (“Mother, Unconceived”) about choosing not to become a mother and how as an African-American woman that makes her doubley “less than.” Felicia Ward writes honestly about the dark power of a mother’s rage in “Good Night Moon.” The loss that Carolyn Ferrell writes about is a generational one (“Linda Devine’s Daughters”), tracing a connection from a slave mother who gives up eight children to a modern one who chooses to abort a baby with birth defects. Can you speak about the sense of enormous loss that pervades these stories and essays? Do you think that contemporary black mothers carry a larger burden of loss than some others?

CB: Black women have, historically, been relegated to the role of domestic caretakers, of other people's children and homes. The expectation that we are born nurturers is so strong, and has been codified into black culture, so that it is extremely difficult to give voice to the rage or ambivalence that defines Section III, Torch Song for Mother and Child. Erin Aubry Kaplan's essay has always moved me too, and although I am a mother, I was proud to publish this paean to not knowing, not being sure that motherhood is part of one's destiny. These are questions we should all ask ourselves before we become mothers, but black women need to be particularly conscious of their choice because that identity is thrust upon us: why am I giving birth to a child? Is it what I want, or what I assume to be "right?" Or because it's "time?"
If Erin's ambivalence gives her the freedom to explore her future as a woman and writer, Carolyn's story, one which illustrates the tensions between Northern and Southern culture, and between generations, subtly and elegantly, explores the reality that with this ambivalence, regret sometimes comes. Our family history and slave heritage places unique psychic burdens on black mothers. We are constantly negotiating the rage and rebellion that our ancestors could not express -- or the sense that we must prove ourselves "good women" equal to the sacrifice and vision of the matriarchs of Section I -- so it is difficult to make choices that are truly our own. So I think, if we bear a greater burden than other mothers, it is to find and give expression to our individual needs, as separate from societal expectations or stereotypes.

AM: The book’s final section is named after “the round,” a song like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” that is sung over and over in an overlapping way. For Patricia Smith who is raising her granddaughter (“Dancer of the World”) because her son is incarcerated, this “round” is a hard one: “I am the mother to the ghost of someone.” For Marita Golden (“A Miracle Every Day”) and Bethany M. Allen (“My Girl”), the “round” is sung with pride as they each write about choosing to be a single mother at a young age and overcoming great challenges to succeed. And finally Maxine Clair writes in her essay “Journeys” that being a mother of a child is like taking a trip to a foreign country -- or in her case three foreign countries for her three children. If our children are foreign countries -- and the path to motherhood is varied and always changing -- what should we pack on the trip? If we are black mothers what should we additionally bring along?

CB: We all have to leave certain things behind: the notion that our children will be clones of ourselves, or that the world they are encountering resembles the one we knew growing up -- and the same rules apply. I think we all have to bring a sense of vision for the type of world we want to see, that is informed by our heritage, but not restricted by the past. We have to bring a moral standard that is expanded by compassion and curiosity. But we cannot, and should not, reconstitute ourselves based on the country our children reside in -- a "when in Rome" approach to parenting.
Black mothers have to bring a more particularized understanding of the dynamics of race, an appreciation for the process that social change is, and formidable patience and vision.

AM: In Austin, white and Latino culture are really overwhelming black culture which has become physically fragmented and just very outnumbered. Our city is quite segregated -- by both class and race. Through my work for an affordable housing nonprofit I am fortunate to know many black mothers -- co-workers and those who live at our apartments -- but in my personal life the only black women I know are married to whites. Do you have any advice for non-African-American mothers -- ways we can help black mothers, be more sensitive to their fears and challenges and to those of their children? After, of course, reading Rise Up Singing!

CB: I think that we should leave aside the idea of "helping" and try relating as equals, even if the mothers we encounter are in precarious circumstances. "Help" automatically implies a paternalistic, up-down relationship that only breeds distrust and resentment. Trying to relate to a black woman as an equal, a person who has her own judgment, perceptions and history, and you will probably find someone more willing to relate to you as a woman and, if need be, an advisor. This is actually more difficult for most white women than they are willing to admit (and may be a challenge for Latinos as well). You would be surprised at the number of black families I know who do not need anybody's "help," but who are constantly confronting a patronizing and diminishing attitude from the whites in their community. This is just another form of prejudice, of seeing blacks as "less than," in the guise of being progressive and caring. Try seeing the women you work with as equals and the very laudable work you do will be even more successful.

AM: Cecelie, can you give us a quick update on the “Great Hiatus of Motherhood?” You’re now busy promoting Rising Up Singing. What else are you up to?

CB: I think I have to wait until the dust clears before I know exactly what I will undertake next. I think a lot about the gifts middle-age has brought me, the price that I have paid for my education as well as the doors it has opened, and always, how to be the best mother I can be.

AM: Thanks for visiting with us about motherhood and race, two of my favorite topics! I hope you can come to Austin one day. I’d love to hear you read some of these stories and poems aloud.

CB: I don’t have any plans to come to Austin right now. But I love visiting AustinMama.com!
Robin Bradford is an Austin writer and mama.  She writes the popular Motherload column for AustinMama.com.  Cecelie Berry is editor of, and contributor to, the new anthology, Rise Up Singing!