Tanya Fields, Melissa Harris-Perry and the Single Mom Moment Heard ‘Round the Sister Circle.

On Friday, The New School hosted an historic conversation between black feminist academics bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry. A public meeting long anticipated, the talk yielded high online traffic as live-streaming viewers tweeted feedback in real-time. The effect was akin to an hours-long group hug — and a bit of group therapy.

But for this blog and its readership, perhaps the seminal moment was during the Q&A segment following the talk, when food activist and single mother Tanya Fields took to the mic and voiced following:

As a low-income black mother, I have been struggling to find my voice and I’ve been using my platforms — Twitter, Facebook — and talking about being this whole person, what it means to be unmarried with three baby-daddies and four kids…. The pushback that I am often feeling is not from the white folks in the community. It is from the other sisters who tear me down, tell me that the reason I am low-income is because I didn’t have the insight to choose good men, that I should’ve kept my hand out and mouth closed and my legs closed…. So I’m trying to figure out, as we talk about this ‘plantation culture,’ as I try to rise above my circumstances and literally create meals that the children in my community can eat… it stops you from wanting to have that voice. I have people who tell me, ‘When you talk about being low-income, don’t talk about feeding your kids on food stamps. You don’t need an audience for that. Suffer in shame and in silence. The situation that you are feeling is your own and is a product of your own bad choice.’ I am pregnant with my fifth child and just had this man walk out on me. How do you wake up every morning and… I consider myself a black feminist but some days, it’s just so hard to get out of the bed and face other black people.

After attempting to speak to Fields’ frustrations from the platform, Harris-Perry stepped off it, walked over to Fields and, without microphone amplification, gathered Fields in an embrace, addressing her privately. Later, Harris-Perry did address the idea of single-mother shaming, evoking her own experience after divorce for added context. Two key points raised were these:

bell hooks added:

Many who watched the panel live remarked on what a safe space it was for black women to discuss their championed causes, insights, observations and insecurities. This was especially important for single mothers watching who, like Fields, have had to live under the oppressively critical gaze of our own communities.

Fields mentioned that she had appeared on The Melissa Harris-Perry show last month, but I hadn’t seen it. This moment, where Fields cut to the core of an experience many a black single mother has weathered, was my first introduction to her. I immediately went to Google and looked her up (something I encourage everyone reading this to do) and found that Tanya Fields is a veritable force in the Bronx, in the five boroughs of New York, and well beyond.

Here she is as a keynote speaker at CUNY’s School of Professional Studies 2013 commencement, where she speaks specifically to the challenges she and other single mothers face in returning to college:

Here she is speaking last year at The Scholar and Feminist Conference 2012, “Vulnerability: The Human and the Humanities” at Barnard College:

The Executive Director of The BLK ProjeK, a food justice and public/mental health organization committed to urban farming and the elimination of food deserts, Fields and her work are gradually, quietly revolutionizing low-income neighborhoods in one of many cities in this nation where it is toughest to survive while poor.

… And folks are focused on her family dynamics?

Some might argue Fields is an exception to the single mom rule: educated and at the frontlines of activism while low-income and expecting a fifth child. Those who’d make this argument would assert that “most” black single mothers are not invested in the betterment of their communities and are instead solely reliant on their communities to invest in them.

The mothers featured here at Beyond Baby Mamas time and again defy that logic. We are non-profit workers, college professors, hospital workers, writers, artists, intellectuals, engineers, public servants, students at all levels of education. There are too many of us to be “exceptions.”

Black single motherhood is not just diverse in its professional representations; we have distinct attitudes toward our families, personal narratives that may converge at some points but all possess unique characteristics. And we deserve to be able to believe about ourselves and our children that which makes us strongest and most productive.

But friends, family, and strangers actively work not only to attack that belief but to willfully ignore any and all work we do for the betterment of our own families and others’. They do this in the name of advancing a single narrative black single mothers as poor, money-hungry, lazy, bitter, and/or pitiable. And, to Tanya Fields’ point, plenty of them are black and brown like us.

It can be exhausting to get out of bed and challenge those deeply ingrained stereotypes. It can be paralyzing to face a world that won’t acknowledge your pain, your disappointment, or your endurance — an endurance that, some days, is nothing short of heroic.

This was what made that moment last Friday so significant. For once, for a few moments, we all bore witness to a single mother as a whole woman and were all called to contend with any of our own culpability in making her and women like her feel so staggeringly tired.

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17 thoughts on “Tanya Fields, Melissa Harris-Perry and the Single Mom Moment Heard ‘Round the Sister Circle.

  1. Thank you so much for this piece. I have had the pleasure to interact with Tanya personally and she is truly an amazing and inspiring human being. She needs our support, love, and understanding, as well as acknowledgment of all that she has achieved in her life, while still being a low-income single mother of 4 children.

    In the face of the same kind of life, how many of us would say that we would BE as powerfully as she is BEING?

  2. Jane says:

    I don’t know. As a single black woman with no children who has considered single motherhood I think this is a little problematic. I feel bad because I think an unwed woman with 5 children with 4 different men who cannot sustain herself is shameful. I just can’t get past that. It just seems to reflect a lack of values. I would never want to be in that position which is why I refrain from having kids now even though I think I would make a good parent. I just think that women like this, and the support they get, mars it for the rest of us who are considering this road. I have considered motherhood without marriage and adoption outside of marriage but, because there are so many women like this, I fear that people would put me in the same category. As an educated woman who might make this choice someday if I don’t get married in time to have children I would not want to be lumped in with this type of woman. Despite her activist work she is making some really bad choices. And the thing that gives me great pause is what my eventual children may think of me. I want their respect most of all and, if I behaved in this manner, I don’t think I would have it or really deserve it. What happened to our values as a community? No offense meant. This is just my honest opinion.

    • Hi Jane,

      Thanks for commenting. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read this black married mother’s account of enduring stigma, assumption, and shame in get own neighborhood despite having done “everything right” (by her own definition): http://watercoolerconvos.com/2013/11/15/i-was-black-while-mothering-today/.

      You can’t control public opinion. In most cases, your behavior and personal choices don’t influence it at all in one way or another. Stereotypes aren’t informed by your experiences or realities.

      In the end, how you feel about yourself reflects how your children feel about you. If you don’t feel like you “deserve” their respect, you won’t likely get it. But that will have less to do with the circumstances surrounding their birth than with your self-perception.

      • Jane says:

        Thank you for your reply and I will read the recommended articles but I just wanted to add that I’m not trying to shame people I’m just expressing my own opinion and why I can’t support this behavior.

        I have to disagree with you on one point. I think that the circumstances surrounding a child’s birth will affect the amount of respect that child has for their mother. I have watched it play out in my own family when people have made less than stellar choices. The way you treat the child while he/she is here is of the utmost importance but the circumstances surrounding their birth are also important factors influencing how they see you and themselves. I am also an educator and many of the children I have witnessed experiencing problems in the school system can trace the seeds of those problems back to their birth circumstances and the preparation or lack thereof of their parents.

        I am a progressive in many ways but I just can’t support this mentality. We need to return to having better values and respecting ourselves more. I’ll also add that women can end up as single parents because of many different circumstances and I’m not talking about those instances. It’s just 5 children with 4 different men is really problematic and speaks to a deeper issue on this sister’s part. Just my two cents.

      • We certainly welcome the discussion of different perspectives here, and often, we find ourselves agreeing to disagree with commenters who believe single motherhood reflects a “lack of values” or a “deeper problem.”

        What I’d assert about children who grow up and internalize negative attitudes about their mothers because of “the circumstances surrounding their birth” often do so because they’ve heard adults and other children problematizing their households, ostracizing them, and speaking negatively about their mother’s values.

        When a woman is, by an outside observer’s standards, “ill-prepared” for parenting, it does very little in the way of changing anything or better preparing her to frame the conversation around her “lack of values” or the outsiders inability to support her family structure or personal choices.

        Here, we prefer to frame the conversation around support of her current mothering efforts. This has always been a more productive practice than for this community than pointing out what we might speculate or label as her “deeper issues.”

  3. DLB says:

    @SLB I agree with you. When a couple is about to have children, can be or are just as “ill-prepared” for parenting as any anybody else.

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  5. Lilyb45 says:

    Of course there is no one reason that women become single mothers. And this young woman should be celebrated for her massive efforts to bring healthy food to her community.

    But it’s possible to admire her determination to be of service to her community while still questioning the wisdom of continuing to have children even though she is struggling financially. The choice to limit family size is a decision made daily by many middle class folks not because they don’t won’t more kids, but because they want to stay in the middle class.

    This young woman impresses me as being someone who has great concern for the well-being of her children. But how can she expect to improve her situation for the children she already has if she is constantly adding to her family while getting apparently very little support from the fathers of her children? What example is she setting for her children? Doesn’t she owe it to her children to exercise better judgement in both the number of kids she has AND the quality of the men she becomes involved with?

    Nobody expects any parents to be perfect.

    But her pregnancies aren’t something that just happens to her.

    • It’s important, as outside observers, to engage in discourse based on what information is available to us, not what can only be presumed by what hasn’t been said. We don’t know how much support Fields receives from her co-parents. We don’t know how her children presently perceive her parenting or how they will in the future. And it shouldn’t be our place to speculate or project what we think they might (or “should”) believe.

      This is the point the post above makes; it diminishes the accomplishments we do know of to critique what we don’t know.

      Fields presents as a food activist, and her comment at the hooks/Harris-Perry talk is but one moment and one time when she spoke on the difficulty of being a single parent to multiple children. She’s also spoken on persevering as a single parent, of earning a degree while parenting, and of getting her work off the ground despite intense judgment and steep odds. We don’t recall her ever having publicly asserted that her pregnancies “just happened.” Her financial challenges, such as they may be, aren’t really ours to indict. And she doesn’t owe the public an apology for the number of children or partners she’s had over the course of her life.

  6. LilyB45 says:

    No, she doesn’t owe the public an apology OR an explanation for the number of children she has. It’s her business and her choice.

    But the article was not focussed on her activism. It was mainly focused on taking to task those people who question the wisdom of ANYONE growing their family while struggling financially.

    That’s a choice that many people think is unwise.

    Had the article been about her community activism, well, that’s something I really admire.

    • Lily is right. You can support her community activism. She stood up on that platform and began her speech with telling about how she has 4 kids, 3 baby daddy’s, I’m pregnant with a 5th and that baby daddy just left me. That is not good! Especially if she is speaking to her struggles and people judging her. Someone needs to exercise some common sense because this woman is not doing that. No one ever told this woman about birth control, abstinence, nothing!? I have women who do this in my family (though not to this extreme) and I don’t coddle them or pull punches when they ponder out loud about their sub par living situation, their lack of funds from the father(s).

  7. I realize I’m a little late, your article has been published for some time but I just discovered it. I never thought about the concept of single-mother-shaming. I guess it is true. We do hold women accountable for being single mothers by insisting that their poor choices have left them in that situation. But isn’t that true. We all make poor decisions, I know I make them all the time. And ultimately my current existence is a reflection of both poor and good decisions I have made. So are we really shaming people when we ask them to be accountable. I realize that many of us grow up in communities where single motherhood is more common than not, and may not have great role models. I didn’t suffer from a lack of great role models, I had great women around me. But most of the women in the generation above me ended up single. As a young girl, I never thought about being married, and even now can’t bring myself to marry because it seems like more of a burden than a blessing. So in the end, I am the captain of my own ship. Although I don’t have to raise my child alone, I’ve made decisions that have caused me to be an unwed mother. I’ve recently started my own blog to document the wonderful journey between my son and I – http://justmeandyoukid.com . Thanks for writing this great post.

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