Throwing off the yoke of respectability politics in single Black mamahood
"We say that comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t forget that respectability is a thieving bitch, too."
by Tanya Fields
On a daily basis, I have to quiet the voice in my head telling me that I ain’t shit.
It constantly compares me to all of the fabulous Black women whose lives I get to witness snippets of on social media and beyond. Women with the alphabet behind their name, posing for photo-ops in front of some ancient ruins of a bygone civilization, publishing books, and teaching graduate level courses at a variety of academic institutions. Respectable Black women.
We say that comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t forget that respectability is a thieving bitch, too.
As I scroll through my timeline, amazed and happy for these beautiful Black women who I know did not accomplish these things by happenstance, I try and try to quiet that ever-increasing voice that tells me again and again that I ain’t never gonna be shit—that all I am is a “breeder.”
I successfully started an organization that has been featured in the New York Times. I recently gallivanted around Paris on Sodexo’s dime while dressed in custom Ankara and accepted an award while I was there. I just secured a significant amount of money from a large global bank for one of my organization’s projects. I am a sought after paid speaker and a burgeoning food and lifestyle personality with a Youtube channel, Mama Tanya’s Kitchen.
You would think I’d feel “accomplished,” but I constantly beat back feelings of shame, of not belonging, and of not being accomplished enough because I am raising six children who were fathered by three different men. This isn’t to say that entrepreneurship, travel, and awards are the only means of measuring success. I reject that capitalist notion. And make no mistake—I am not exactly financially comfortable. This is to say that, as a dark-skinned and larger than life Black woman with six kids and three Baby Daddies, I am hyper aware that, no matter what I achieve, this is all some people will ever see.
A few years ago, I was one of The Grio‘s 100, a modest, but exciting recognition. The opening line of my feature included the words: “ single mom of four (who’s expecting her fifth).” It seemed to be meant as nothing other than salacious. And it worked. The Facebook thread under the article boasted literally thousands of comments, the vast majority of them negative. How could an unwed Black mother of five legitimately achieve anything?
They were mad at me. They were mad at The Grio. They were mad at Black Jesus for allowing me to flourish in such a way. How dare I have multiple children, multiple baby daddies, and this kind of visibility and success? An anomaly so fucking rare, I must be a fraud.
I once had a conversation with Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks at The New School, as an opportunity to promote my activism. During our talk, I got really real about how I have felt ostracized by Black women. How I am often denied my full humanity when it is revealed that, while I am an educated professional, I have a gang of kids at home. Off stage, Melissa Harris Perry came and whispered lovingly in my ear, put her hand on my then-pregnant belly, and hugged me.
I woke up the next morning to editorials, blog posts, lipstick alley threads, and one Boyce “I Hate Black Women” Watkins declaring that I was “what is wrong with the Black community” and that Melissa Harris Perry should be ashamed for encouraging “Baby Mama-ism.” People assumed that I didn’t have a college degree. I do. They assumed that I was unemployed. I am not. They assumed that I was asking for a handout. I’m not, and I never was. I had no expectations from anyone, other than compassion.
And the attacks have not stopped. Like clockwork, I find myself back in that same space, being verbally assaulted, sometimes sought after. It hurts that it comes from mostly Black folks, especially Black women. It’s ironic because my work is and has always been about elevating and centering Black women and girls. And that isn’t going to change. I am compelled to do this work specifically for us, to give us space to flesh out and embrace our full humanity, our complexity, and our multiplicity.
Black women have consistently been reduced to our reproductive organs and perceived hyper sexuality. So, when I am visible in spaces that others believe that I should not be in, I am triggering. I am a conundrum. To many Black women, I feel like a betrayal, because we are tasked everyday with both disproving stereotypes and proving our humanity.
This is why Black mothers can achieve so much and still feel like nothing but Baby-makers. Some of us never dare to imagine that we could be anything else, because we have always been told that we are not. We want to be visible beyond our wombs, beyond our sexual partners.
I am human and no more immune to these tropes and stereotypes about Black women’s sexuality than anyone else. I internalize it and I reduce myself. I feel the frustration of living under the pressure to be nothing more than a maternal and sexual being, while simultaneously being shamed for my sexual expression and the bounty of my womb.
And that damn voice. It can be so loud and relentless. When something goes awry in my life, it’s because I have all these kids. When I don’t do well, it’s because I have kids and no husband. My continued issues with quality affordable housing—it’s these damn kids, of course.
I have to beat that voice back, because my mothering is my choice and I love all of my six children, abundantly. I force myself to remember that I do this work to constantly affirm myself, my children, and all the mothers and children who look, love, and live like me. Because poor single Black mamas are not poor because we simply made the wrong decisions. We live in a society where the intersections of disastrous racist, sexist, pro-capitalist policies punish those who mother without husbands—especially Black mothers.
I tell that bitch ass voice to fall back and remember that I do not have to continue to carry the burden of proving my humanity or disproving any stereotypes. My foremothers made sure of that. The groundwork has been laid. I remember that I exist and I am inherently worthy and so are my children, and that I am not just the sum of my circumstances or decisions—poor or otherwise.
I remember that Black women are constantly denied the space to learn ourselves and to be complex, and we are hindered even by—shit, sometimes especially by—other Black women. And I remind myself that this is a result of our collective trauma. But the thing is women like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Loretta Ross, and our own Big Mamas have given us the language to fight for the space to be multilayered, to examine our own humanity by our own standards, and to explore the nuance of the entire spectrum of Black womanhood, and Black mamahood, how it relates to our reproductive choices.
Black women continue to be denied reproductive agency. We have been forcibly sterilized, disproportionately experimented on, are given hysterectomies as a “cure” for fibroids while not offered alternative treatments, and have agency “interventions” resulting in children being removed from our homes more than any other group. Black mothers experience the highest infant mortality rates, regardless of socioeconomic class, due to racial bias and misogynoir in the healthcare industry.
All things considered, my choice to mother my six amazing Black children in a loving and healthy way in anti-Black society is an incredibly radical act, because this world tries relentlessly to take that away from me.
So, when that bitch ass voice gets too loud and makes me feel unworthy or diminishes my successes because I’m not a Respectable Black Woman and I got “all these damn kids,” I repeat the mantra of the wise prophetess Cardi B: “I’m a boss, you a worker, bitch, I make bloody moves.” I won’t let the voice of respectability shame me anymore.
Inspired by her experiences as a single working mother living in a marginalized community, Tanya Fields founded the BLK ProjeK in 2009 as a response to sexist institutional policies, structurally reinforced cycles of poverty, and harsh inequities in wealth and access to capital that result in far too many women being unable to rise out of poverty and sustain their families. You can support her work here.