Part One: College and a Baby
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), were “established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans” (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). In August 1997, I left my South Side Chicago apartment I shared with my mother to attend Fisk University, an HBCU located in Nashville, Tennessee. I took great pride in being a Fiskite; it is the moniker bestowed on both Fisk graduates and Fisk attendees. More importantly, I relished in being part of a small “sorority” as a Fisk woman. I knew Fisk women to be ardent writers and agitators like Ida B. Wells-Barnett. They were revolutionary poets like Nikki Giovanni. They were at the forefront of the non-violent student movements of the 1960’s like Diane Nash. They were United States cabinet leaders like the 1990’s Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary. Fisk women were comedians and actresses like Kym Whitley. They were South Side Chicago future leaders like me.
The summer after my junior year at Fisk University, I met a thirty-one year old man in my hometown of Chicago at the Redd Dogg, a hip-hop dance club. After a six-month courtship that included a two month stint in Chicago and then an inevitable return to Fisk to complete the Fall semester of my Senior year, I discovered I was pregnant. It was January 2001. I was twenty-one years old with an impressive 3.95 GPA, an invitation to join Fisk’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, a prestigious UNCF/Mellon-Mays Fellowship, a recent study abroad trip in Ghana, a founding member of cross-collegiate book club and a baby on the way.
I can remember the first trimester of this pregnancy being filled with so many emotions. At Fisk, I was considered a nerd, a bookworm, a social justice advocate, a sister-friend, a leader. My identity was wrapped in being a radical student who challenged notions of structural racism and sexism within the classroom. I was oftentimes compared to Freddie Brooks, the politically astute, yet quirky coed of the 1990’s NBC sitcom, A Different World. Set on the campus of Hillman College, a fictitious HBCU, the stories portrayed on A Different World were similar to my beloved Fisk and explored the complexities of the Black college experience. Accordingly, reproduction at age 21 by an unmarried Black woman did not fit well into the narrative of the “exceptional” Black student characterized by her tenacity, intellect, and more importantly, chastity.
So imagine me walking down the Fisk campus yard each and every day for four months over time with my belly noticeably swelling. I can remember my classmates looking at my stomach and wanting to inquire about what they already knew to be true. I can remember my good friends’ attempts at shielding me from potential shaming by retorting to the inquisitors “that’s Kimya’s business.” I can remember Mr. Berry, the counselor and patriarch of my school, pleading with concern “is the brother gonna marry you?” Having a 3.95 GPA as a magna cum laude student, I can remember being asked in March by the Fisk Dean of Students’ to give the student speech at graduation. Although I was deserving of this honor, I was hesitant to accept, because I feared judgement. I knew that my baby bump would be visible behind my robe in May. Could a Fisk woman be both a celebrated student representative and an unmarried mother? Would my protruding mid-section evoke the Jezebel myth of the highly promiscuous Black woman? The narrative seemed to contradict the legacy of notable Fisk women who came before me.
Nonetheless, I gave birth to a well-received graduation speech and more importantly my daughter, Zuri, who was born in October 2001. At the relentless insistence of my mother, I married Zuri’s father in a downtown Chicago courthouse. At the time, I found her stance to be hypocritical as she and my dad never married. Never even got engaged. Never really communicated about my well-being after their relationship dissolved three years after my birth. At the time, I wondered if my mother was inadvertently eschewing Moynihan’s 1964 stance which grotesquely implicated single Black mothers as the primary contributors of the Black community’s “tangle of pathology.” According to Moynihan (1964):
the Negro community has been forced into a matriarchal structure which, because it is to out of line with the rest of the American society, seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male.
Looking back, I see now that my mother may have been trying to correct her (and her mother’s) legacy of single parenthood and compel active Black fatherhood as she would frequently say during the first few years of my marriage “Men seem to stay in their children’s lives when they marry their children’s mothers- even if they eventually divorce.” My mother believed that marriage – and even marriages that ended in divorce – protected women from the pangs of single parenthood and inoculated their children from absentee fathers.
Part Two: Primary Parent and a PhD
Well, in 2006, I did divorce with peace of mind, integrity, and a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the University of Chicago (class of 2004) – “the Harvard of the Midwest.” My divorce imbibed me with contradictory feelings. Marrying at 22, an age deemed by social psychologists as “late” or “trial” adolescence, I was hopeful and happy to regain some of the lost freedoms and joys of my youth. Still, I embraced sorrow and guilt as I reflected on the perpetuation of the single mother identity shared by my maternal grandmother and mother. My daughter, Zuri, joined the 6.3 million other Black children reared in single parent household (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). Although gainfully employed at a university as a school-based mental health professional; single parenthood, oftentimes a stigmatized identity, especially when the mother is young and Black, was something I wrestled with. I knew I could attribute much of my academic, social, and career success to the dynamic parenting of my single mother. However, I jettisoned the single parent label and boldly proclaimed a new one – the primary parent.
The primary parent label summed up my experience for a two main reasons: 1) Zuri’s dad was still an active parent in her life (she saw him at least twice a week); 2) Unlike my mother whose mother passed away before I was born, Zuri’s maternal grandmother was also actively involved in her life. With my new parenting label in tow, I moved three miles away from a two bedroom apartment, the only home Zuri knew in her five years, to a one bedroom apartment in the same residential building as my mother, seven doors away, in fact.
I relished the proximity to my mother. The close living arrangement was reminiscent of stories I used to hear by her, her brother, and her cousins. Southerners who migrated in the 1940’s and 1950’s from Round Pound, Arkansas during the era of the second wave of the Great Migration, they would happily remember playing “country games” with cousins who lived down the road from each other. They would talk about how the elder women—the mothers, grandmothers, and aunts— would take turns loving, feeding, and disciplining each other’s children. I got my own taste of intergenerational love being fewer than 100 steps away from home cooked meals, impromptu babysitting, and motherly advice.
This proximity came in handy when I decided to continue my education and enroll as a Social Work doctoral student at Loyola University Chicago. When I was a student at Fisk University, I was exposed to so many Black professors; so many Black men and women with PhD’s. These professors were smart and cool. More importantly, they seemed to enjoy their jobs as teachers, researchers, authors, and mentors. I wanted a taste of the professorate life and decided that a PhD would be necessary to further my career in mental health; in addition, the hours and flexibility would provide me an opportunity to be a highly involved parent and earn a middle-class salary.
Parenting while in doctoral school was synonymous with parenting while working a full-time job. I treated my time in class, time reading course articles, time writing papers, and time supporting the research endeavors of my professors as my “job.” When it was time to write my proposal, collect data, and finalize my dissertation, my “job” also included working as an adjunct instructor in four Chicago-land universities. During my last semester at Loyola, I taught three different social work courses (one undergraduate level and two graduate level) at three different universities all the while rewriting and editing my final dissertation chapters. Even still, when my classmates and professors discovered I was a divorced mom of a 6 year old—raising Zuri (mostly) by myself—I was often met with incredulity. They responded to my family structure/work/school balance as if I were a super human being. Though unspoken, I believed they saw me as the archetypal “strong, Black woman.” Their open-mouthed gasps and praises of “you are amazing” were meant to be compliments. Yet I interpreted such responses as condescending as I was merely parenting the best way I knew how with the resources I was given – namely my intellect and grit.
At age 34, after six long years of study, I graduated with honors from Loyola University’s School of Social Work. I became part of the 6.4% of doctorate recipients awarded to African Americans (National Science Foundation, 2015). More importantly, I secured a tenure-line job as an Assistant Professor at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), a teaching university located in Chicago. NEIU was one of the four universities in which I taught as an adjunct instructor. Specifically, at NEIU, I was an instructor in both the Social Work and Inner City Studies departments.
Part Three: Assistant Professor and Mother of Two
During my first year as a tenure-line professor, I soared. I actively upheld the three pillars of academia—teaching, research, and service. I published an article which examined the impact of neoliberalism on African American debt and ethnic identity in higher education (Barden, 2015). I held key positions on two university committees. I was a featured presenter at a national conference which explored Black women’s trauma and resilience. My teaching evaluations were consistently rated excellent by my students, particularly my “high-energy” lectures, culturally responsive course readings, and experientially-based course assignments. In addition, my dual-enrollment proposal received university funding and I was able to offer an introductory college course to high school seniors enrolled in Chicago Public Schools.
During this year I also fell in love with my future husband and discovered I was pregnant with my second child, Lorenzo IV. Unlike the anxiety I felt 13 years earlier when discovering I was pregnant with Zuri, I was excited to become a mom again. I always wanted to have at least one more child and thought it prudent to have a child at age 35 while gainfully employed as a university professor. In addition, my life partner, a 35 year-old teacher and mechanical engineer was thrilled as this would be both his first child and his namesake.
I am a dues-paying member of both the American Federation of Teachers and the University Professionals of Illinois, labor unions that represents the employment interests of teachers. Being part of these unions afforded me the opportunity to take both FMLA and paid-university leave so that I could stay at home full-time and actively parent my son. Born in late December 2014, my employee benefits enabled me to care for my son, earning the same pay as if I were working full-time, from January to August 2015.
Being an at-home mother for my son and daughter felt like a privilege. Black mothers of babies I knew usually returned to work 6 to 12 weeks post childbirth. Thus, they opted for one of two child care options. They relied on their retired mothers, mother-in-law’s, god-mothers, or other elder Black women to care for their infants. Or these brave women entrusted their babies to strangers in “highly recommended” daycare facilities. I felt so blessed to be able to spend 8 months with my child. I was able to enact the essential amenities of mothering an infant and comfortably breastfeed, bond, and, even rest with an occasional nap.
In addition, during the latter part of my maternity leave, I began taking Lorenzo to baby-centric play spaces. In these spaces, whether located in mostly white neighborhoods or ethnically diverse neighborhoods, I noticed a lack of Black mothers and children. I was often one of two Black mothers. The other mothers were usually white. (Latina nannies of white babies also dominated these play spaces). Although my son resembles me, I was often asked if I was his nanny. The question mammified my identity as I was assumed to be the “help.” It appeared as if the stay-at-home Black mother was an anomalous identity foreign to many women who frequented daily public spaces reserved for mothers and babies.
The matrix of domination, a theoretical construct created by Patricia Hill Collins (1990), describes the tension I felt as a formally educated, stay-at-home Black mother. Specifically, the matrix of domination describes the tenuous relationship between oppression and privilege. Collins argues that oppression is a byproduct of privilege; everyone enjoys privilege, even those who are oppressed. For example, even though I experienced oppression being repeatedly stereotyped as a “nanny,” by store proprietors and guests, I was also privy to privilege as a doctorate-having mother enjoying the perks of a lengthy paid maternity leave from a unionized university.
Part Four: Admonished Professor and Mother of Three
Feeling as refreshed as one can be with an eight-month old baby, I returned to my job in Fall 2015 as a university professor with optimism. I resumed my previous roles as teacher, committee member, and writer/presenter. Because I taught evenings and Saturday mornings; and committee meetings were typically held less than five hours twice a week, I was able to forego costly childcare. My husband, mother, and future parents-in-law took turns watching both Lorenzo and Zuri while I was at work.
The system of familial help worked well and I discovered in October 2015 I was expecting my third child. The following Spring, my second daughter, Ameris, was born. As aforementioned, I always wanted a robust family; though I was surprised to get pregnant so soon after giving birth to Lorenzo (I was exclusively breastfeeding, a contraceptive method known for delaying menses). Nonetheless, I was excited. I felt like I was creating the African American family of my dreams reminiscent of those depicted in 1990’s sitcoms like the Huxtables, Winslows, and Banks depicted in The Cosby Show, Family Matters, and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Though I relished my childhood, growing up as an only-child was sometimes lonely. My growing family challenged my priorities and offered a different valuation of my home life with my husband and children. While I enjoyed my career in academia, especially supporting the academic and career goals of marginalized students through culturally responsive teaching practices, I looked forward to seemingly maternal tasks like cooking, visiting children’s museums, reading picture books, and learning the newest children’s songs. In short, I began to value the health and well-being of my husband and children exponentially more than my career in academia. Navigating the tensions between motherhood and academia I found myself in the “crooked room.”
Psychologists discuss the crooked room within the context of research experiments with human subjects. Study participants put into a crooked room with a crooked chair and asked to straighten their stance either aligned their bodies to the angles of the crooked room and chairs; or made concerted efforts to stand up straight. Melissa Harris-Perry, an African-American woman author, journalist, and academic (who was denied tenure from the University of Chicago only to go on and host an award winning show on MSNBC) applies the “crooked room” concept to the specific ways Black women adapt to oppression. Perry (2011) states, “when they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room and they have to figure out which way is up” (p. 16).
Both before and after Ameris’ birth, I experienced two crooked room experiences driven by two Baby Boomer women in their 60’s – my mother and a white university colleague, Emma. The former, a proud mother of one (me) looked despairingly upon me when I told her I was expecting my third child. My mother comes from the tradition of Black women who didn’t believe women should have babies after age 30. Moreover, she believed in the maternal gospel that forbade contemporary women from having more than two children. Operating under the single parent narrative, my mother clung to the belief that women are vulnerable to divorce and should guard themselves from the poverty and misery borne of divorce by limiting their number of children. Instead of offering her congratulations and support, she compared my budding motherhood to my economically fragile cousin who bounced in and out of single parenthood raising seven children mostly of her own. In addition, she continually asked, “What if you and Lorenzo don’t work out. Who will take care of the kids?” My mother had lived long enough to know that families impacted by divorce often seek the support of grandparents. Approaching age 70, my mother couldn’t be a surrogate parent if required as she was now limited by energy, time, and even patience. To straighten up in this crooked room of fear and judgment, I reluctantly refrained from sharing with her the details of my pregnancy.
Additionally, I entered another crooked room on my first day back to work, two months after Ameris’ birth. My colleagues and I had just wrapped up our first meeting since the end of the Spring semester, in preparation for the upcoming school year. As is customary at the end of a faculty meeting right before the Fall semester begins, colleagues who have not seen each other during the spring and summer months inquire of each’s happenings. Questions like, “How was your summer?” and “How was your trip?” and “How is your summer writing?’ typically are posed. Emma, a 60-something year old white woman with both tenure and a prestigious provost position asked me “How is the new baby?” I replied with joy and an ear-wide smile, “She is good…all the kids are good.” Emma then boldly replied in front of my colleagues—one Black woman and two Black men (both men have four or more children), “That’s good…now don’t have any more kids.”
Immediately after she spoke my heart sank deep into the pit of my stomach. I fought back tears of anger, embarrassment, and hurt. I saw my colleagues look a bit uncomfortable, averting their gaze and shifting in their seats. Her words invoked a subtle sterilization reminiscent of early and mid-20th century female castration practices when thousands of African American women’s reproduction was coercively halted by doctors, politician, and racist public opinion (Roberts, 1997). Like the eugenicists and medical racists of the previous century, I wondered if Emma saw me as an “undesirable” woman unfit for parenting. Even though I was in a committed relationship, obtained a doctorate, and expressed jubilation over the birth of my third child, Emma’s vocalization of her subconscious stereotypes became a crooked room; and given my status as a junior faculty member the only way I knew how to straighten up was to chuckle nervously to hold back the floodgate of tears.
Part Five: Up for Tenure and Mother of Four
There is an inverse relationship between family size and family income. Women with higher incomes tend to have fewer children (Pew Research Center, 2015). This is especially true for African American women. However, there is a unique demographic of women who are increasingly choosing to raise larger families. According to the Pew Research Center (2015), since 1994 educated mothers with a master’s degree or higher having three children or more has increased from 22% to 27%. At the time of this essay, I am happy to write that I joined this demographic and gave birth to my son, Austin, just four months before I will submit my tenure application.
Despite this statistic, I believe African American women’s reproduction, regardless of socioeconomic status, is subjected to shame. The prevailing narrative around Black women with many children is that she is young, unwed, uneducated, and hence irresponsible and a liability to the responsible others – the community, taxpayers, her parents, etc. When I step away from my university campus office and into the broader world with my children, strangers and kin often perceive me as irresponsible. During my last trimester pregnant with Austin, my next door neighbor looked at my belly, frowned and murmured “you like that again,” as if my womb were a chronic affliction. Her four word critique of my reproductive choice suggested that Black women, even those who have the financial and emotional means to raise large families, should refrain from doing so.
Nonetheless, as I prepare to apply for tenure, my reproductive choices have informed my recent career within the academia trifecta. For example, my scholarly interests have shifted from examining the intersections of ethnic identity formation and trauma; to exploring themes of gender, power, and motherhood (this article is an example of said shift). In addition, I have adapted my course readings and texts to highlight and expose students to women scholars and activists who relish being mothers of large families like labor-rights activist, Delores Huerta and Black reproductive scholar, Dorothy Roberts. Still, I am currently writing a piece which explores the intersection of Black motherhood and love to submit to a Black-woman centered conference, The Crooked Room Conference.
In sum, I am a bit nervous about obtaining tenure. Although I have the necessary requirements for becoming a tenured professor – innovative and culturally responsive publications, stellar teaching evaluations, and leadership in service positons across both the University and Chicago community – I do wonder if my efforts will be rewarded with academic job security. My doubts are no doubt supported by the latest data which suggests that “African American proportionate presence among tenured full-time faculty has actually declined from 6.3% to 5.8%” (Advancing Higher Education, 2016). Nonetheless, I am proud of both my motherhood and academic story stemming from age 22 to 39. I am an African American academic with four beautiful children. My contributions to both academia and my family are invaluable. I am the living embodiment of scholarly and familial traditions from Fisk University to my loving mother.
Advancing Higher Education (2016). Taking the measure of faculty diversity. TIAA Institute.
Harris-Perry, M. (2011). Sister citizen: shame, stereotypes, and black women in America:
For colored girls who’ve considered politics when being strong isn’t enough. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hill Collins, Patricia. (1990). Black feminist thought: knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Moynihan, D.P. (1965). The Negro family. The case for national action. U.S. Department of Labor. Office of Policy Planning and Research.
National Science Foundation (April 2015). Doctorate recipients from U.S. Universities 2013. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics.
Pew Research Center. (2015). Family size among mothers. Retrieved from http: pewsocialtrends.org/2015/05/07/family-size-among-mothers/
Roberts. D. (1997). Killing the black body. New York: Vintage Books.