Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Review of Motherhood So White

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Motherhood So White
by Nefertiti Austin
Sourcebooks, 2019; 304 pp.; $25.99 (Hardcover)

Not long after adopting her son August a little over a decade ago, Nefertiti Austin went to the library in search of books by, or for, Black mothers, to educate herself on raising a Black child. The librarian pointed her to two books. That was it. 

Austin wasn't surprised: "My journey to motherhood as a Black woman was not part of mainstream culture's idea of motherhood, and thus, there would be no funny or ballsy mommy books written by Black mothers on the shelf." The absence of Black women's narratives from literature and other media means the erasure of our perspectives in the "mommy movement" and from public policy discussions around issues such as preschool, family leave, healthcare, nutrition, bullying, and education.

With her memoir Motherhood So White, Austin, now a single mother of two children adopted from foster care, has written the book that she and other Black mothers have needed, present company included. She begins with her own upbringing, being raised first by her struggling parents, and then subsequently by her maternal grandparents. This kind of "Black adoption"—Austin's term for informal kinship adoptions—is common within Black American families and is a cultural tradition with roots in Africa.

At 36, after publishing two novels, Eternity and Abandon, that helped launch the Black romance genre in the mid-1990s, Austin decided to become a mother, without the aid of a husband or sperm donor. Hers would be a traditional adoption of a child she did not know. She details the extensive training classes prospective foster and adoptive parents are required to take, a six-week course covering a wide range of topics to help participants prepare for the parenting, logistical, emotional and bureaucratic challenges that lie ahead.

Later, when Austin searched for representations of Black motherhood in mainstream media, she specifically sought "advice on how to handle the social and emotional consequences of becoming a single mother in a country where the term single mother was code for Black welfare mother," which meant being vilified by politicians and the culture at-large.

After searching, to no avail, for children's books featuring Black children adopted by Black parents, Austin wondered, "How would I normalize [August's] adoption journey if the available literature excluded us?. . . .The answer seemed to be that Black adoptive parents had to be responsible for documenting our own experiences; otherwise, we wouldn't even exist in the book and the imaginations of white people."

Motherhood So White fills the void of representation that Austin faced as a new parent, and it's an engaging resource for single, Black women who are considering adopting from foster care. Austin's style is conversational and accessible, which will resonate, especially with this demographic of women. Austin encourages them to ignore the naysayers and myths. "Adoption is a gift," she writes.

Through the lens of Austin's family's story, Motherhood So White is also the thoroughly researched how-to guide everyone raising a Black child needs. The book covers race and racism as they intersect with parenting and a wide range of topics including history, media, religion, pop culture, and politics. 

To wit: Austin takes two-year-old August to President Barack Obama's first inauguration and pens a poignant letter to her son explaining the importance of Obama's presidency. Both the reader and August get a history and civics lesson.

A few years later, after Austin adopts her daughter, Cherish, she writes:

August was a Black boy, assumed to be less innocent than he was, and Cherish was a Black girl, thought to be less beautiful, less smart, less kind, less everything. I didn't want to talk about race every day, every week, or even every month, but the political animus against August's hero, President Obama, was escalating. First Trayvon Martin, then Tamir Rice, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and so many other Black men and boys died. Then Sandra Bland, one of fifteen unarmed women killed by police, died in a jail cell. I had to keep my sleeves rolled up…

As the mother of Black children, I was often the bearer of bad news about how my kid would be perceived in the world. This was one of many burdens parents today carry trying to raise school-aged children of color in a racist climate. We instructed our boys and girls to be good citizens and a credit to the human race. We taught them to avoid being a stereotype threat . . . Their lives depended on us being honest and equipping them with age-appropriate tools to ensure their physical and emotional safety.

Research confirms what we parents of Black children already know about our children's stolen innocence and the targets on their backs. We know because our parents had to be the bearers of bad news too, when we were young. When Austin reminded August not to touch anything at the grocery store, lest he be accused of stealing, he was so young at the time, she had to define "stealing."

At home, they role-played what to do if he was ever stopped by the police—The Talk that parents of Black children give, in hopes of protecting our children from becoming the next social justice hashtag. We live with this terror, Austin notes, positioning our kids to thrive while dodging "booby traps" with disproportionately higher repercussions for them: "lack of access to high-paying careers, sexism, racism, gangs, mental illness, drugs, incarceration, and premature death at the hands of law enforcement."

When ten-year-old August "feared that the bully in the White House would come for him the way he came for undocumented immigrants and people from Muslim countries," Austin reassured him that they would get through this, as "Black people had weathered worse."

Austin perfectly captures the hypervigilance uniquely required of parents of Black children, as well as the balancing act we must undertake in order to also keep our kids hopeful. This a burden that parents of white children are privileged not to carry. And in this way, Motherhood So White is required reading for anyone who cares about children and public policies affecting children and families. Austin calls on "white sisters" to "be aware of your privilege and seek to build community with all mothers, regardless of race, religion or socioeconomics" in order to become true allies, while respecting and acknowledging the unique perspectives Black women bring.

The absence of Black mothers' perspectives from the public discourse around motherhood and adoption remains glaring. Austin notes that as of 2018, there were less than two dozen books in print by or for Black parents. Of those, three resonate with Austin. "Motherhood is so white and in need of a revolution," she writes. Her important book is the perfect clarion for it.

For more about Nefertiti Austin, click here.

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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