Not long ago, when Pulitzer Prize-nominated Washington Post reporter Lonnae O'Neal Parker mentioned the release of the latest "mommy wars" book to a good friend, an award-winning former journalist and mother of an 11-year-old daughter, the friend asked, "Mommy wars? What's that?" Like Parker, her friend is black. Historically, black women are no strangers to working outside the home. So, not surprisingly, the at-home versus at-work mom conflict taking place nationally on the pages of books, magazines, and newspapers isn't showing up on a lot of black women's radars.
Parker herself, the mother of three young children, didn't become familiar with the "mommy wars" until she'd written a couple of work and family articles for the Washington Post. In a piece called "The Donna Reed Syndrome," Parker wrote about taking a year's leave of absence from the paper to freelance and travel, and her decision to ultimately return to her career. The response to the essay included letters from women who took Parker's choice personally. In her book, I'm Every Woman: Remixed Stories of Marriage, Motherhood, and Work, Parker recalls one letter: "[One woman wrote], 'I suppose [Parker] would think I'm pathetic -- I have stayed at home since the birth of my son three years ago,' and I clearly remember my reaction -- about how I wasn't thinking of that woman at all . . .I was thinking about how I can't ever recall a conversation with a black woman who asked me why I worked, and when I hear of a black woman who doesn't, I'm glad she's got a man who's earning money and willing to give her the opportunity to nurture her own family because the historical significance of her position is profound."
While the mommy wars are very much a new millennium phenomenon, Parker views them as a throwback, and a woefully self-referential one at that:
"Like [Victorian women] a hundred years ago, it seems, few of the combatants and cultural arbiters in the mommy wars see me in three full dimensions -- to the extent that they see me at all. They seem not to realize that women of color might have different imperatives, a different history, different sets of assumptions, not to mention a few cousins, who might need a helping hand to make it into the middle class."
The mommy wars also ignore the multiple layers of consciousness permeating many black women's lives. Writing in the early 20th century, civil rights activist and scholar W. E. B. Du Bois used the term double consciousness to describe, in part, what he observed as the internal conflict inherent in being simultaneously black and American. Parker makes the similar observation that black women have a triple consciousness: black, American, and female, with second-class citizenship across the board, a sentiment reflected in the title of the seminal black women's studies text All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave.
Feminism as a social and political movement has not fully recognized black women's triple consciousness, our history and everyday lives, lives lived through the dehumanizing experience of slavery and the unfulfilled promises of Reconstruction; through lynching, Jim Crow, segregation; through contemporary racial disparities and injustice. At its worst, feminism has not only failed to challenge the larger society's racism and classism, it has mirrored it.
Parker reminds us that while Betty Friedan was writing in The Feminine Mystique about "vaguely discontented white women . . . asking themselves, 'Is this all?' some of the most intensely feminine women I've ever known were, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, telling themselves, 'Lord, chile, I can't take no more.'" And what countless numbers of these mothers and grandmothers couldn't take any more of was being underpaid and overworked as domestic workers in the homes of white women, many of whom did not work outside of the home.
Reflecting on the second wave of feminism in her essay in the 2000 anthology On the Move: Feminism for a New Generation, journalist Katharine Viner writes:
"The personal as the political was never meant to be a prescription of how to live your life. It was never meant to be a rallying cry to shave off your hair and take up with the lady next door. But what it was really meant to do was create an awareness of how our personal lives are ruled by political forces. Of how the fact that women were not economically or politically equal to men meant that their relationships were unequal too . . . It is easy to agree with equal pay for equal work. It is perhaps more difficult to open up to troubling truths about our personal lives, and accept that our actions might have a political grounding."
Black American women have had no choice but to open up. Our personal has been political since 1619. Parker writes, "Black women and field work and house work and paid-outside-of-the-house-housework simply go too far back." Black women's personal lives have always been inextricably tied to larger issues of justice, equality, and human rights. Abolition, the club women's movement, anti-lynching crusades, and the boycotts and protests of the Civil Rights movement were matters of survival, with unmistakable political grounding. Of feminism in general and the mommy wars soldiers in particular, Parker writes, "I find myself deeply unmoved by people who are unable to look outside of themselves or pick up lessons from other histories and cultures."
"De nigger woman is de mule uh de world," Zora Neale Hurston said through her character Nanny, who lived through slavery to see the early part of the new century, in Their Eyes Were Watching God. If Nanny's summation is to be believed, there can be no serious discussion of "women and work" if black women are not at the table. Any sincere discussion about gender equality and sexual empowerment and choice must recognize centuries of enslavement, routine rape, and black women's lack of ownership of their bodies and those of their children. The voices of those "other histories and cultures" legitimize this discourse.
Amid protests, abolitionist and former slave Sojourner Truth addressed the 1851 Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, on the subject of women's rights (the women's rights movement having grown, in part, out of the anti-slavery movement). Responding to male contention that women's delicacy and need for pedestals relieved them of any pesky need for rights, Truth wondered allowed where her pedestal was. Having plowed fields as well as any man, and endured whippings and the sale of her children, across a century Truth's question still echoes: "Ain't I a woman?"
So it is in the tradition of and in homage to Truth, Du Bois, Hurston, and women ancestors Parker knows by name and those she does not that she writes I'm Every Woman. In doing so, she takes her seat at the national roundtable on work and marriage and motherhood -- just long enough to say, "Your blues ain't like mine. But some folks who couldn't be here tonight paved the way for me to be, so I'm gonna sing my song."
The word "sing" is appropriate because Parker's prose is lyrical, figuratively, and at times, literally. She references the blues, R&B, and hip-hop, the soundtrack to black life and to Parker's own cultural and social awakening. The book is part memoir, part American history textbook, and part celebration. Parker possesses the skillfulness to bring those disparate parts together seamlessly, resulting in writing that is resonant, provocative, informative, and deeply personal. Parker's engaging girlfriend-to-girlfriend tone coexists easily beside the book's history lessons. The book is accessible enough to be useful to and spark dialogue among a diverse readership, but when Parker talks about hearing rap, The Sugar Hill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," for the first time in 1979 and ties it to her cultural identity, which is inextricably linked to her womanhood -- well, you kinda had to be there.
And I was there, eight years old (Parker was twelve), rapping to the beat. From pop culture-saturated nostalgia to present-day black Mama hair drama, I saw myself in the pages of I'm Every Woman. I experienced the kind of excitement black folks of my mother's and grandmother's generations felt decades ago on those rare occasions when they saw black people on TV. Everything stopped and folks gathered round the black-and-white to catch a glimpse of themselves, acknowledged and visible.
I'm Every Woman isn't, however, a navel-gazing shout-out to black folks. Parker's crash course in black women's ante- and post-bellum existence is worthy of any college classroom. Also, giving credit where credit is due and constructive criticism elsewhere, Parker soundly and rationally challenges the shortcomings of the hip-hop she once loved, as well as those of the modern black church, the venerable cornerstone of a movement that changed the world.
In I'm Every Woman, Parker examines our institutions, our history, and representations of ourselves as workers, wives, and mothers in the larger society. She examines them, reclaims them, and remixes them. Once remixed, traditional "women's work" -- cooking, for example -- is no longer just another battleground in the gender wars over household labor. Parker recognizes the historical significance of breaking bread together, as well as the relationship between food, music, and sexuality, in black consciousness. Food, deeply rooted in our culture, honors the past and provides comfort and even a creative outlet. Soul food, indeed. And I'm speaking as a woman who only has five good dishes to her name, but who stands in awe of sister-friends who can really "burn" in the kitchen.
Even remixed, black mothers' cups do not overflow with domestic bliss, parental patience, or energy to spare any more than anybody else's. "I see things that other people in my family cannot," Parker writes. "Sock, lint balls, the underside of beds; drawers full of clothes that have to be separated seasonally and packaged by age [to be handed down to younger children] or carted off to Goodwill. I see the hundreds of family photos that need to be framed or wrapped . . ." Parker continues with a long list of tasks ("And that's just for starters") before concluding, "I see everything in my house that needs to be done, and I know I can't possibly do it all."
Rejecting the mythology of the black superwoman, Parker chronicles, with candor and humility, her marital woes and the subsequent counseling, her not-so-proud Mommy moments, and childhood ghosts that lurk at times, complicating the present. Parker gives herself a time-out in a wide assortment of places: amid her "brain trust, a sister-girl circle"; at the times when she ignores the knocking and endless bleating of "Mommy!" on the other side of the bathroom door; in the garden she tends in remembrance of her loved ones; and in the voices of weary working women, slave and free, who resolved to press on for the sake of the Lonnaes of the world.
Parker also insists upon a psychic as well as physical room of her own. "I no longer ask the people around me [husbands, kids, colleagues] to give me time. I do not know if it is fair to ask them to go against their most basic nature, which is to want me there, available for everything they need me for, for as long as they can have me. Instead, I do the hard work of being completely clear about what I need."
While black mothers do not have a monopoly on pulling the second shift or being overwhelmed, some of us do experience what Parker, borrowing the phrase, calls "bone memory," something at our core that emerges when we are overextended, something that evokes the words of Sarah Gudger in Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives:
"No'm I nebbah knowed what it wah t' rest. I jes wok all de time f'om maunin' till late night."
Against the backdrop of history, our "I'm tired" becomes relative. History is the lens through which Parker feels compelled to observe the mommy wars. She explains:
"I understand the . . .day-to-day challenges that cause some women to snipe and try to police one another over the appropriateness of their motives and the discharge of their responsibilities. I simply possess a different historical perspective, one that is often more simple and in some ways more creative. It is a perspective that finds comfort, succor, and solidarity in the collective, we're-all-in-this-together aspects of women's work. It is, for black women, a very old concept."
In I'm Every Woman, Parker presents black women's work and family lives in context, including her own life and those of other women. Lives linked to the past, grounded in a society that doesn't always respond affirmatively when we ask, "Ain't I a woman?" In doing so, Parker reminds us that the personal is not only political, but often, universal. This book has practical wisdom for any woman who has ever been too exhausted to give a damn about the latest volley in the mommy wars.