De-romanticizing & Transforming:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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