Black women have been balancing the competing demands of work and home since before women even won the right to vote. But black voices and experiences are barely acknowledged in the mainstream "mommy wars" dialogue. Lonnae O'Neal Parker is about to change all that, in this uncommonly smart and often witty examination -- part memoir, part reportage -- of how today's black women meet the challenges of marriage, motherhood, and work.
On the surface, Parker has the ideal life: she's a reporter for the Washington Post and has three adorable children and a doting husband. Yet behind the perfect persona is a woman on the verge of a breakdown from the stresses of trying to have it all. Only a pantheon of voices -- from spectral slave women and ancestors who speak to her across time to her favorite pop cultural icons -- keeps her sane and helps her to navigate the complex waters of being a woman in the modern world.
With an intelligence and range that recalls Anne Lamott and Paula Giddings, Parker proves herself not only a welcome addition to the ongoing discussion of race and gender in America but an astute cultural critic.
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Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a Pulitzer Prize–nominated reporter for the Washington Post and a contributing editor to Essence. She lives in Prince George's County, Maryland.From The Washington Post:
This could have been a marketing ploy, a filling of a niche. After all, search an online bookstore for "working mothers," and you might get 750 hits, reports Lonnae O'Neal Parker. Add the word "black," and you get only seven. But as a black working mother herself, Parker knows there are many women like her out there and have been for a long time -- surely long enough to have a few more books on the shelf. With I'm Every Woman, Parker claims a spot on the shelves for her perspective on what it is to be a married, professional, black, middle-class mother. And her book -- part memoir, part analysis -- is far too heartfelt to be a mere marketing ploy.
Black women have watched the mommy wars ("the media-fueled at-home- versus at-work-mom conflict," as Parker, a Washington Post reporter, defines it) from the sidelines because, for most, the outcome has already been decided. Black mothers work, end of story. It's a backhanded gift from American history, left over from slavery and the Jim Crow laws that made it illegal for a black woman to stay at home and not toil as a sharecropper alongside the rest of her family: "Black women and field work and house work and paid-outside-the-house work simply go too far back," Parker writes. "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."
History can intrude even upon the daily routine. Parker pulls her fellow black mothers right in when she notes that running out of hair grease is a major element of a hectic morning, right up there with volunteering at the kids' school just before having to interview officials at the Cuban Interest Section: "Unless you have a child whose hair goes out instead of down, it can be difficult to quantify the pressures, time and otherwise, that a kink coefficient can add to your day. Hard to describe the necessity of gripping a hairbrush until . . . your fingers begin to spasm. Or to convey the ritual constant -- sometimes affirming, sometimes tearful -- stretching back over all the generations we remember, of planting a daughter between your knees and trying to bring a diasporic sensibility to the Africa growing from her head."
But Parker's respect for history -- with the giant asterisk of slavery and loved ones lost that African American women have suffered -- keeps her from whining too much about day-to-day annoyances. Race and culture can be funny and, as Parker writes, the obsession with hair is "a black woman thing, and I'm not sure if other folks understand." But she does an excellent job of explaining it to everyone else.
Parker is a passionate storyteller, remembering her childhood on the South Side of Chicago, living first in an all-black area, then in a more integrated one. Her mother, with whom she has had plenty of ups and downs, emerges as the hero. Betty Lou is a survivor, raising three kids amid a hard marriage to Parker's alcoholic and schizophrenic father, who killed himself in 1985 when Parker was 18. Betty Lou retired after 32 years as a schoolteacher and recently confessed that she once burned down an abandoned house next door that was a "beacon for winos and children." Now that's a real mother for you.
Parker, too, must make difficult decisions about how to protect her kids from unfortunate influences. To find faces and thoughts and humor in popular culture that jibe with her educated, middle-class, forward-thinking sensibilities is a constant challenge. "The Cosby Show" and "The Andy Griffith Show," with their homespun lessons for living, are approved for the Parker family television. UPN fare, which she describes as "cartoonishly black," is not. Music, which Parker loves (the book's title is from a Chaka Khan song, and R&B lyrics are sprinkled liberally throughout), is equally problematic. Long a hip-hop fan, she has always hated its misogyny and explicit videos. The filter on her stereo is as strong as the one on her TV. Her children probably know more about the 1979 hit "Rapper's Delight" than they do about current superstar 50 Cent.
Parker is refreshingly frank about the cultural hurdles she's had to overcome to keep it all together: Her marriage has required a counselor and her house well-compensated domestic help. So if Parker seems at times as if she can handle anything, it could be that she is speaking for herself when she writes, "It's not that I think black women have all the answers -- only that we have struggled with the questions longer."
Reviewed by Lori Buckner Farmer
Copyright 2005, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
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