A Review of Rise up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood
In his essay, “Fires,” Raymond Carver describes being a young parent and a writer: “There were good times back there, of course, certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I’d take poison before I’d go through that time again.” When I read those words in a bookstore, I sagged against the shelf, my eyes filled with tears. That’s exactly how I feel, I thought. That the person who had articulated my feelings was a white man, a brilliant writer who revolutionized the short story form, and a recovering alcoholic who left his first wife, were not lost on me. Only a white man whose place was established, and who had nothing to lose, could write with such brutal honesty. For a woman, especially a black woman, to talk so is almost unimaginable. I sweat even as I type these words . . .
With her essay, “An Unnatural Woman,” in Rise up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood, Martha Southgate’s words affected me the way Carver’s had affected her. As a black writer working from home and a mother of young children, I read her words and felt relieved, validated. While much of mama-lit and black women’s-lit give voice to some of my experiences, there is still room within both genres to better reach me. There are few, if any, stay-at-home protagonists in black women’s fiction, and the mommy tomes I’ve read do not address how to talk to your child about racism, for example. Given this dearth, I eagerly read Rise up Singing, in search of affirmation, hope, and voices like mine. With its two dozen-plus fiction, poetry, and essay selections, this anthology did not disappoint.
While many common threads run through the challenges and joys of motherhood regardless of race or class, in Rise up Singing editor, writer, and mother Cecelie S. Berry has assembled a rich collection of writings that capture the complexities black women experience as mothers. Just as mainstream feminism has been rightly criticized over the years for ignoring or at best paying lip-service to the realities of non-white and working-class women, fictional and non-fictional chronicles of the state of American motherhood have also tended to focus on white, upper-middle-class mothers. To wit: in the latest incarnation of the “mommy wars” (the false dichotomy pitting “working” and “stay-at-home” mothers against each other), the debate has been framed in a way which fails to capture how race and class further complicate this already emotionally charged issue. Born of an idea conceived while Berry attended the Million Mom March in 2000, Rise up Singing is an invaluable addition to the canon of literature about motherhood.
I can attest to the fact that while mothers do not always love the roles in which we are cast or the work mothering requires, we do, with the very rare exception, love our children. “That [love] is a given in our society,” Southgate writes, “reinforced at every conceivable turn. And a black woman is the mother to the world.” From plantation wet nurses to post-bellum mammies to Park Avenue nannies, black women have raised children, our own and other people’s, and in doing so, have become subject to the Supermother/Superwoman mythology. “A black mother’s love is supposed to be uncomplicated,” Southgate observes, “Aretha Franklin-like, it moves mountains. Some of us have always known the picture to be more nuanced than that.” This more nuanced picture is presented in each of the four sections into which Rise up Singing is divided.
The stories and essays in Section I, “Aria of the Matriarch,” honor the black matriarch in her various manifestations: uneducated and proud, a society matron, a political prisoner. In all her forms, she is, as Berry writes in the introduction to this section, “both a quiet sufferer and an inexhaustible warrior.” Reading about such women made me sad and wistful, thinking of how my own mother and grandmother have at times given up the fight. I thought, too, of my daughters, wondering if when they are older they will see a warrior woman in me.
The next section of the anthology, “Dream Song: A Mother’s Interior World,” delves into the emotional terrain mothers must navigate. The tears, the tantrums, the selfishness, the reckless behavior — and then there are the children. These are mothers at their best and doing their best, coming up short, and all the while striving to affirm themselves, their personhood, within and beyond the role of mother. Also in this section, as well as throughout the anthology, we hear from daughters remembering their mothers.
“Dream Song” is my favorite section in Rise up Singing. The appeal lies in the contributors’ searing honesty and their willingness to be vulnerable, less than perfect. This section includes Martha Southgate’s essay as well as editor Berry’s unabashed “Slip and Fall.” I find “Slip and Fall” particularly resonant because, like me, Berry is an Ivy League graduate who chooses and ultimately relishes being a stay-at-home mom, but who has also struggled to make peace with the consequences of that choice. In this essay, Berry endures a literal slip and fall in service to a child’s birthday celebration. Flat on her back, she thinks:
Get up. You are not going to die, a voice said. I thought perhaps it was God, but it was just me, the one who never says die. She’s inside all of us, the Kellys and the Hilarys, the black girls with perfect manners masking irrepressible fight. She-who-never-says-die keeps us going when the doors are slammed in our faces and our hearts seem irreparably broken. I always thought that she existed to guide me through the labyrinth of proving myself into the land of Being Somebody, a person of consequence. I had no idea it would take all those gallons of water choked on in synchronized swimming and all the falls off the balance beam and all the wrong notes played, musical and otherwise, to help me survive becoming a Nobody; in other words, a stay-at-home mother.
While white women fought for the freedom to work outside the home and be fairly compensated for that work, by and large, black women historically have had to work to support themselves and their families. (Ironically, many black women have worked in service to white women, caring for their children when they chose to work outside of the home, and even when they did not). Too often, a black mother not working outside the home evokes the stereotypical “welfare mother” imagery. This imagery is troubling in its own right, but it also suggests that black women at home with their children by choice are an oddity compared to their white counterparts.
Amongst blacks, the choice to stay at home is also sometimes suspect, and we deal in our own stereotypes. Berry, a former lawyer, has written about her experiences in Salon.com, The New York Times, and elsewhere. A few black women readers have accused Berry of being “whitified,” “complaining,” “whining,” and “spoiled.” I am reminded of visiting family and friends in my hometown and being asked each and every time if I “still don’t work.” Berry and Southgate’s essays reveal that many of us work hardest perhaps at proving ourselves, our worth and our significance. Southgate explains:
I love my children, enormously. I’m a fairly good parent, but it’s not easy for me. It’s not easy for anyone, but I find it harder than most. Family life — taking care of others, the bump and rub of a group — I’ve never been comfortable with it. My children’s needs intrude on my need for solitude, reflection, selfishness, time to be. I resent it. I try not to let my resentment affect my parenting, but I must be honest. As I become more serious about my work as an artist, I am less patient with . . . all the minutiae that fragment a mother’s day.
Section II also contains the decidedly un-Hallmark gem of an essay, “When Wild Southern Women Raise Daughters” by Evelyn Coleman. Coleman, the titular “wild woman,” looks back at herself as a young mother, back at the time in her life when sex was a higher priority than “having a boyfriend or husband . . . [or], to my mother’s embarrassment, figuring out how to raise my daughters.” She opens the essay with: “I am a radical woman,” and, given her parenting and lifestyle choices, few would accuse her of exaggerating. With her daughters now in their thirties, Coleman writes with wit, no regret, and refreshing candor, proud of the women her children have become in the wake of her unorthodox mothering. Coleman’s reality, like Southgate’s and Berry’s, belies the Supermother/Superwoman myths, reflecting the broad spectrum of black women’s inner lives.
Section III, “Torch Song for Mother and Child” focuses on loss and loneliness, including deaths of mothers and babies, abortion, and miscarriage. As in the previous sections, the writing is compelling and vivid, transcending the understandable sentimentality to which the subject matter lends itself. The stand-out piece from this section is the disturbing and exquisitely written short fiction by Felicia Ward. In Ward’s “Good Night, Moon,” the protagonist’s predator-prey relationship with her young children makes the garden-variety “bad Mommy” moments we all have look like child’s play.
The final section of the anthology — while still engaging — is perhaps the weakest in an otherwise consistently strong collection. “The Round: Rowing Gently Down the Stream” explores the symbiotic relationship between mother and child, the clinging and the letting go. Perhaps owing to the absence of fiction, the writing here feels more self-conscious and less lyrical. If the essays in the other sections can generally be characterized as creative nonfiction, the essays in the final section read more like straightforward nonfiction, with less of a universal ring to them than the rest of the anthology.
This section succeeds, however, with depictions of mothering in a variety of circumstances, such as “My Girl” by Bethany Allen, a single mother who had her now-teenaged daughter at age 18, and novelist Dawn Turner Trice’s remembrance of her child’s near-death experience in “Welcome to the World.” A powerful finish is provided by Florence Ladd and Maxine Clair in their very personal reflections on their adult children.
Most of the writings in Rise up Singing are original to the anthology. Among the notable exceptions are best-selling author Edwidge Danticat’s haunting “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” from her short story collection, KRIK? KRAK!; a 30-year-old but timeless story from Alice Walker; and excerpts from the memoirs of acclaimed artist Faith Ringgold and novelist Maxine Clair. Previously published poems by Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Rita Dove preface each of the anthology’s sections.
Rise up Singing is well-organized by themes, such as the celebratory “Aria of the Matriarch” (Section I) and the ode to the mother’s inner struggles (Section II). This thematic approach speaks to the intricacies and the overlapping of experience amongst black mothers (and daughters) across class, time, and place. So we find clinical psychologist and sociologist Jewelle Taylor Gibbs’ praise song for her mother (“My mother was thoughtful and compassionate, optimistic and hopeful, energetic and enthusiastic, witty and wise, charming and coquettish, frank and feisty . . .”), alongside Faith Ringgold’s raw and revealing essay in which she writes, “To make up for some of the closeness I missed in my relationships with my daughters, I made a number of works of art. Through art, I tried to create the peace we could not achieve in real life.”
The chorus of voices in Rise up Singing includes tributes and triumphs as well as confessions and laments, lyrics penned by poets and a preacher, by mothers who work outside and inside the home, poor and affluent mothers, famous and not-so-famous mothers. In this regard, the collection achieves the diversity for which it strives.
However, some perspectives are missing. Deborah Roberts writes about step motherhood, but no adoptive mothers share their stories here. Gay women are among the anthology’s contributors, but none are writing about the unique experiences of lesbian mothers or daughters. In “Dancer of the World,” champion slam poet Patricia Smith writes about the custody battle for her biracial granddaughter (the child of her incarcerated son), but there are no selections primarily about being biracial or the particular challenges of raising a biracial child. Finally, there are no contributions explicitly addressing the wrangling many of us, biracial or otherwise, do over black identity.
The contributors to Rise up Singing harmonize on a single truth: all mothers are working mothers, whether working to put food on the table or working to drive to yet another soccer game instead of driving away and never looking back. Whether working to shape public policy or to shape a young conscience, mothers are, as Berry wrote in Salon.com “authentic revolutionaries” and as such “we make our most lasting mark.”
Revolutionary songs are often deceptive in their simplicity. Likewise, Rise up Singing bears witness to black mothers’ lives, which are at once ordinary and miraculous. This collection is a testament to days when children are teachers and treasures, as well as to days when they feel like an albatross around the neck. But as Martha Southgate concludes in “An Unnatural Woman,” motherhood is ultimately a song worth singing.