Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Cecelie S. Berry

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As editor of Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood, freelance writer Cecelie S. Berry directs a diverse chorus, giving voice to black women's experiences with the triumphs and travails of mothering. In her own personal essays, Berry details the stay-at-home mom's struggles, joys, and the significance of her work. Berry's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Salon, Child, and O, The Oprah Magazine . She has also contributed commentary to National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Berry, a Harvard Law School graduate and former lawyer, lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband, Scott, and sons, 12-year-old Sam and 10-year-old Spenser. She chats with Literary Mama Columnist Deesha Philyaw about the birth of Rise Up Singing, mothering as a revolutionary act, and her earliest memory of race.

Deesha Philyaw: Tell me about the process of bringing the writers and their contributions together for Rise Up Singing. What were your selection criteria?

Cecelie S. Berry: I wanted to have writers from different media: journalists, print and television, fiction writers, Internet columnists. I also wanted to have women who had had different kinds of careers. Faith Ringgold was an artist, for instance; Maxine Clair was Chief Medical Technologist at Children's Hospital in D.C.; Evelyn Coleman was a psychotherapist and children's book author; Reverend Cook, a minister. I wanted to show how these women had to redefine themselves when they became mothers and how they often redefined their work during and after motherhood.

I wanted some people to discuss their everyday lives, others to address the social and political influences that shaped their experience with motherhood. I wanted to mix a personal dimension and a political dimension. And I wanted geographic representation with writers from every region of the country.

Sometimes, getting this mix was slow-going. It involved doing research and reading various authors, many of whom I did not know before embarking upon the anthology. But I knew this book was a calling, and that I would be guided to the right voices, and I was.

DP: What was the earlier reaction to your concept?

CSB: The initial reaction was quite positive. I think people recognized that with all the anthologies and novels published about the experience of modern motherhood, black women were not on the radar screen. The parenting magazines certainly don't delve deeply into the experience of being a black mother, and even Essence focuses mostly on service articles, featuring advice, not testimonial essays.

When I first began to write a proposal for the book, I was of the belief that an anthology on motherhood by black women had never been published. After some research, I found Double Stitch, which was an impressive collection of feminist writings, but not well publicized -- and out of print. Also, I think that writing about motherhood has drifted away from a direct association with ideology, although incorporating feminist themes, and is more personal, focusing on each woman's choice and her satisfaction. So although Rise Up Singing was not the first anthology [of its kind], I felt it was timely and its approach was unique.

DP: What is some of the feedback you've received on this anthology?

CSB: Black women are so scattered now -- in suburbs, the city -- and few maintain bonds to black mothers or black organizations. So organizations like Mocha Moms and Jack and Jill have embraced the book. The only reluctance of some in embracing the book is that it focuses on African-American mothers. Some people, both black and white, have suggested that that ethnic focus is sort of "retro," that mothers are mothers. There is some truth to that, of course, but given that so little is published about black mothers, and that we African-Americans are still unearthing a heritage long hidden or ignored, I feel that it is totally justified and important to focus on our motherhood experience, as it is informed by slavery, segregation, and integration. The black family has always been a subject of oppression, a political and economic threat to white supremacy, and the ways that that heritage clings to us today -- and the ways we have overcome it as mothers -- these are great untold stories of American history -- or herstory.

DP: Were there writers you wanted to include but could not?

CSB: ZZ Packer comes to mind as someone whose schedule -- thanks to her short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere -- couldn't accommodate participating, though she has been so gracious and supportive. Ruth Simmons, President of Brown University and a mother, could not participate, but also sent me warmest congratulations and encouragement. But I have to say, I am so grateful to and proud of the talented women who took the time to share their stories. I feel that Rise Up Singing is a fine cross-section of experience, imagination, and hope.

DP: The concept for Rise Up Singing was born at the Million Mom March. You wrote about attending this event alone but for the spirits of black women. What was the representation of black women at this event?

CSB: I don't have hard facts and figures about the representation of black women at the Million Mom March, though my impression, based on my visuals, was that black women were well represented. I also recall, and was quite moved by, a speech by a black woman who was the Chief of Emergency Medicine at Howard University Hospital, and who was also a mother, imploring the crowd to sustain the pressure to stop gun proliferation.

DP: Do you think this event succeeded where traditional feminism has failed, by adequately addressing the concerns of non-white women?

CSB: The event could not even begin to adequately address the needs of the mostly black mothers who are disproportionately affected by gun violence. The black women most affected will have to take the fight not just to Congress but back to their neighborhoods and wage war against violence, home by home, block by block. To root out violence, particularly gun violence, a grass-roots movement has to begin in the heart of the ghetto. The many caring but largely safe women I saw at the Million Mom March are not radicalized enough for this effort.

DP: You were purposeful in making Rise Up Singing representative of our diversity as black women. How would you address those who have not enjoyed the privileges you have, who think you couldn't possibly understand their struggles? How can we each, in our own spheres of influence, reach across class lines and the other lines which divide us as black women, and embrace each other as sisters in a common struggle?

CSB: I would try to persuade others not as lucky as I to believe that although our struggles may have been different, the feeling of struggle is always the same. As a writer, this is what I have observed: that we all feel heartbreak, disappointment, frustration, the same way. Blood, sweat, tears, pour out the same way regardless of circumstance. I would try to convince others -- and I don't believe it would be easy, because you have to get there to know -- that money or status, absent self-knowledge and direction, creates as many problems as it solves. Many young black people do not realize this, and understandably so, since everything in the culture suggests that material comforts, beauty, and success leave a person problem-free.

So, tremendous patience is called for, and a willingness to honor the feelings of all those who struggle. As black women, and mothers, the temptation to judge each other harshly is almost irresistible. But if we look deeper into the context of another's situation, regardless of where they fall on the spectrum of class, we can find the compassion we need to be loving, forgiving and encouraging.

DP: What is your earliest memory of race?

CSB: I must have been in the third or fourth grade in an inner-city school in Cleveland. I remember that the school district sent in two white men to fumigate our classroom for roaches. I heard one of them laugh and say, "They probably brought them from home." I knew that he said that because we were black, and I knew that it was a racist comment.

That incident is kind of late, given the turbulence of the 60s. At that time, my family and I lived in a black neighborhood, on a street with black teachers, funeral directors, doctors, and tradespeople. I remember that people looked out for one another and in those "black is beautiful" years, I shared a strong sense of pride in that community and a feeling of being at home.

As we grew up and moved up, we encountered more racism and I understood it better as my parents prepared to move us from Cleveland to Shaker Heights, an affluent suburb, after the riots of 1967. I remember most the effect on my parents' of having real estate deals subverted by whites who didn't want us in their neighborhood. Still, they persevered, and we moved to Shaker Heights in 1971. I was ten years old.

DP: A few years ago, black parents in Shaker Heights engaged a Berkeley anthropology professor to study the academic performance achievement gap between their children and their children's white peers. Professor Ogbu's findings indicted the parents' lack of involvement more so than the acknowledged racism and discrimination in the school system and the community at large. What factors do you think account for the achievement gap, not just in Shaker Heights, but in general when black students in "good" school districts, from middle- and upper-class families, are outperformed by their white counterparts?

CSB: I do think parents play a decisive role both in making learning a high priority in the family and in finding friends for their children who value academic success. Black parents often let the school system do all the work in educating their children; white parents more frequently engage their children in discussion and expose them to a broader range of activities, travel, the arts, that enhances their intellectual curiosity and cultural sophistication. They tend to do these things as a matter of course, rather than waiting for the educational system to do it. Of course, affluence can facilitate that, but affluence is not always the whole story. Black parents have to parent actively, that is, communicate, guide, set boundaries and clearly express our expectations, hopes and dreams for our children. This should be done routinely.

I also think black parents feel that if they surround their kids with the "right people" they are being snobbish and turning on their own kind. I recently ran into a black mother who has a very voluptuous 11-year-old daughter. Her daughter is being approached by teenage boys the mother doesn't approve of. The first thing she said was, "I don't want to be bourgie but . . ." And I said, "Look, you don't have anything to apologize for. If you don't think those boys are going to be good for her, they're out. It's not about being 'bourgie,' it's about protecting her from people and situations that are not good for her."

I think black parents don't want their children to feel isolated from other black kids and from black culture. I understand that completely. But is the black culture they're being exposed to reinforcing values of delayed gratification, hard work and integrity, or frustrating them? We have the right to be culturally discerning -- to exclude the videos, music, movies, or friends who undermine our values, regardless of their color. And we must point out to our kids that black culture is diverse, consisting of different styles and culture around the world, and we must constantly point out to them that there is no one way to be black, nor is everything labeled black worth including in their lives. While we must provide them with a strong identity and pride as African-Americans, we must also let them be free to explore their personal dimension, their unique and special individuality.

Although as a parent I am constantly making mistakes and not always living up to the high standards I preach, I am talking to my children about these issues constantly, often, I think humorously, until I am blue in the face.

DP: In your interview with The Mothers Movement Online, you observed that one reason work/stay-at-home issues are not being framed cross-culturally is because "the status of having choices is assumed, still, to be a 'white' thing." How do we strike the balance -- honoring our history, our legacies, and those who have come before, while at the same time making choices in our own personal best interest?

CSB: We have to understand that ultimately, the freedom to choose what is in our personal best interest was won for us -- and is the most desirable result of a history of oppression and self-sacrifice. The ability to act in our personal best interest means we prevailed. That said, the most important lessons of our history teach us that "self" has little meaning without a moral and ethical foundation and an obligation to make things better for people less fortunate than ourselves. Our children have to see us sacrifice and contribute, but they must be taught too that respecting and nurturing ourselves, placing value on our lives and interests, is actualizing our freedom. The balance takes constant effort and communication.

DP: How does unity exist within the context of personal differences? How do you think the need for and the expression of black unity changed in the decades since the beginning of the civil rights movement?

CSB: Previously we defined unity as everybody seeing things the same way. We need to realize that real unity is based upon the ability to respect differences and have a respectful, inclusive dialogue. The former type of unity will only be threatened and undermined by personal differences; it is basically a house of cards that can be defeated by one lone voice. But the latter concept of unity allows for differences of opinion and lays a foundation for compromise.

I really don't see any expression of black unity currently -- even on issues where you'd think there would be wide accord: voting rights or police brutality. Black people are now stratified across the spectrum of class, have entered a variety of fields, and live in different areas, and this has compromised a sense of unity. And ever since the 80s, and the Reagan-era, I think blacks have become reluctant to vouch for black issues, lest they be branded as advocating for "hand-outs" or "reverse discrimination." The language of the eighties made black unity seem regressive and morally bankrupt.

DP: You've described being excommunicated from the subset of black Ivy Leaguers who are preoccupied with status and material things. If this group is not your peer group, your support network, where do you find yourself being well received and encouraged in the choices you've made?

CSB: I find I am well received and encouraged in the choices I've made in odd, out-of-the-way places, by unusual people. I remember after I wrote a piece for Salon about being an Ivy-League-educated black mother at home with her children, I got a great e-mail from a woman that I've kept ever since. She, too, stayed at home and then returned to her career and assured me she had no guilt and was having a wonderful time in her life.

As I meet more writers, women like you, I find there is more support and we share a deeper sense of values than the law/med/business school types I knew at Harvard (and I'm sure you knew at Yale). This is a group I plan to stick with and cultivate, because while we certainly hope to be successful, we understand that being a writer, and a mother, is really a calling. You are promised nothing; you do it because that's where your heart is, and nothing else, no matter how lucrative or prestigious, could possibly make you happy.

DP: In your essay, "Home is Where the Revolution Is," you declare mothering a revolutionary act because it is imperative that we make our lasting mark in this capacity, and later you acknowledge your own mother as a revolutionary. Who are other women you admire in this vein, either as mothers or in other capacities which advance blacks, women, or other disenfranchised/underserved groups?

CSB: One person who has had a profound effect on me as a mother has been Oprah Winfrey. So often, at the end of a long day with my children, a program on her show would come on and seem to speak directly to me and the doubts I had about myself. The show challenged me to continue my personal growth because the fact that I had children made my quest more important than ever before. I know it might sound trite, but I think she has really opened up a lot for mothers, particularly stay-at-home mothers, in enabling us to discuss both our love of our children and our need to have a passion, to have something uniquely ours that so enriches us that we have more to give our families. She has said, time and time again, that women are not vessels that can be drunk from constantly without replenishment -- a stance that was considered hedonistic in my mother's day. I can't think of any other American woman who has done more for mothers, blacks, women or people. I admire her even more in light of the fact that she decided not to be a mother. For a working woman, particularly one as spectacularly successful as she is, to make speaking to mothers such an integral part of her show, reveals an empathy and respect for the crucible of family that I wish more career-oriented people had. Hers is a great example to women that even if they do not choose to experience motherhood, the institution is still so fundamental to womanhood, to the world, that they should care about it, respect it and give back to it, in any way they can.

DP: You wrote: "There is something about taking care of children that appears to wither the self." This is the kind of statement that perhaps only an at-home mother can fully appreciate without assigning the "whiny, complaining, spoiled" label to it, as you've said some black women have done in response to your writings. What advice do you offer to a new mother, a young mother, particularly a black one, who is experiencing this withering of self?

CSB: I believe the foundation for being the best mother you can be begins long before, in finding interests, friends, career and maintaining positive family relationships that will give you an enduring sense of your own importance and an invaluable support network. If you find yourself more alone, however, it is critical that you take control of your situation as much as you can. Take responsibility for finding the help that you need -- and every mother needs help. Don't apologize for it. Also know that you cannot do what you did before. You will drive yourself crazy trying to be as productive, as in-shape, as on top of things as you were before children. Figure out your top priorities, what you simply must do and let other things go for a while. Often that will mean that all you can do is get a little extra rest, daydream a little. Forget about having a perfect image, a perfect home, a perfect figure. Do the best you can, forgive yourself for what you can't, and be patient. As the children grow, so will you, and your life will be better, because sacrifice and struggle will have taught you what really counts.

DP: What do you do to refresh and renew, to regain "self"?

CSB: When I experienced that "withering" sometimes I would sing, terribly, but I would sing. Sometimes pray. When the children went to pre-school and I had a little more freedom, I would go to the local Y and exercise. Often I would write about that "withering," what it felt like, and remember the times in my life that I encountered it before and how I'd fought it off. I have grown a tremendous amount spiritually from reading a number of books about motherhood and spirit -- The Four Agreements comes to mind. I found a Wednesday afternoon church service and went to that for a while. I think it is good if you have friends who are also going through the same thing and you can have productive discussions, but often other mothers would just complain about their husbands, their houses, surrendering to bitterness. That, you don't need. Keep a lookout for the people who have a positive attitude and who can reassure you that the commitment you are making will ultimately set you -- and your children -- free. I think, for me, time spent alone, in contemplation of my goals: who I wanted my children to be, who I wanted to be, was the best thing for me.

DP: Is staying at home for everybody?

CSB: I think some experience with staying at home is good for every parent. I think it is very hard to make the transition into motherhood without focusing for a good long time on getting to know your child. Suzan Johnson Cook writes about that in her essay "Too Blessed to be Stressed." She talks about having always been a go-getter, and how she thought that she'd simply resume her active career life after having the baby. She didn't realize how much her life would change, or how critical it was for her family for her to adjust her priorities. A lot of times, maternity leave ends long before you can bond with your baby, certainly well before they have developed enough to communicate with you and begin to trust you. I fear that too many women return to work long before they have made that seismic shift that Reverend Cook discusses, where mother is now incorporated into your identity over and above everything else. I think we all can do it, but it isn't easy for any woman, even those who choose it willingly.

Of course, how long you stay at home becomes the second most difficult question a woman has to face. Certainly, if you can afford to, you might choose to until the children are in high school. But I think a gradual transitioning back into some income producing activity, whether in home or out, is best for the woman, the marriage and the children, who need to see their mother being valued and rewarded in a variety of roles.

DP: When did you first consider yourself a writer and how did you first get involved in freelancing?

CSB: I began to freelance for the ABA Journal and the Legal Times when I left my associate's position at a New York law firm and began life as a "contract" attorney, working as a temporary in various law firms on a single case. That life was better for me, being mostly a 9-to-5 commitment, and allowed me to begin to write more. Freelancing was tough going at the time. Few general interest publications were interested in having a lawyer write for them: it was generally thought (and is often true) that lawyers are poor writers. And it took me a while to figure out what I wanted to do: I experimented with straight reporting, reviewing, writing essays and fiction. An essay that I wrote for Newsday about being an Ivy-League educated temporary attorney in the recession of 1990-91 first made me believe that I might be able to succeed as a writer, writing about my personal experiences.

DP: In your writing, you've shared intimate details of your life, including ups and downs with nannies. How, if at all, do you address criticisms of your personal choices?

CSB: Those criticisms used to hurt me terribly. I mean, terribly. And I could be just as judgmental in turn. But now, I think that, on balance, I am happy with my choice to be an at-home mother. It is not perfect by any means. I have grown tremendously from the experience -- more I think in self-knowledge and self-respect than the career world would ever have allowed me to grow. I have had to do some serious soul-searching and I understand that this was part of my journey. We all have one, and someone who is caught up in judging me is probably missing some of the important signposts on their own journey.

I was also greatly inspired by something Maya Angelou said once (on Oprah!). She talked about how much it cost her to write about her life as a prostitute. And she talked about courage. I wish I could recall her exact words, but I remember I was standing in the kitchen, and it just brought me to tears. I knew that I would have to strive as hard as I could to be as brave -- it would be the only way as a writer to even begin to count. To be relevant.

It has astonished and uplifted me to find that so many people read with a degree of compassion and empathy that they, strangely, don't employ in their social lives. That's why reading is so important. We bring with us, so often, the best of ourselves to the effort, a genuine desire to understand the human experience.

DP: You've written about your son asking what you do for a living. How old are your sons, and what is their take on your job now?

CSB: My sons are now 12 and 10 years old. They have been excited and proud about Rise Up Singing. When I came back from my first book signing (attended by all of four people) they picked me up from the train station with big bouquets of flowers. And when I was on a recent local television program, they were so proud. It is one of the most gratifying experiences for me as a mother to make my children proud of me. I hope they will always be so.

But I see, too, on the horizon, that they don't want me revealing too many details about them personally, and I won't. Rise Up Singing was probably my swansong in writing about my children -- even though most of my essays focus really on me and my genesis. Their adolescence is totally off-limits.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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