I have to confess that I became interested in the relationship between black maternity and the parental leave by a rather circuitous route. It was at the end of my second year on the job, right when I and other faculty across the university were filling out our end-of-year activity reports. It is a tedious and time absorbing task where you tell everything you’ve done over the course of the academic year, all the conferences, talks, publications, advising, and other services to the university that you’ve engaged in. And so it requires a lot of remembering, but also a lot of guessing- should you only include submissions of articles that were accepted or also those that were rejected? What if you’ve submitted nothing for publication; do you simply detail the progress you’ve made with your writing? What about the time you spend unofficially advising students whose primary advisor is on leave or simply M.I.A.?
One evening I took advantage of dinner with a more advanced colleague to ask her some of these questions about the end-of-year reports. Though I found them rather annoying and tedious, she said in no uncertain terms that she hated the reports and regarded them not only with skepticism but also with outright distrust. Several times the report asked about research in different ways, she pointed out. It was beyond comprehension for her why this was necessary. Though department chairs and deans described the report as a way to highlight individual accomplishments across the year, she contended that it was devastating for faculty who had not been prolific over the course of two semesters to have to enter this fact into the report multiple times. And it was especially troubling to have to report no publishing activity when family obligations made such progress impossible
But what about the final question on the report, I asked her? What about the one question that asks quite clearly at the end of it all if there were any mitigating circumstances throughout the year that hindered one’s work? Surely this should be the place where one could talk about such obligations. “Of course it is” she started “but they’re not trying to hear a black woman talk about family problems.” She went on to say that such crises were things that women like her were just expected to deal with. And then there was the reaction of the students that she also was worried about. “If I left without warning to take care of me, will they complain at end of semester reviews? Quite frankly I’m not interested in giving administration any additional ammunition to use against me when it comes time for my next review…”
As I learned that evening, this colleague had a severely ill family member who she was caring for. It’s a situation that could and does happen to all sorts of people. Yet in black families it is often- though by no means only- a situation that is experienced intensely by black women. In both media image and across everyday urban landscapes we are reminded over and over of black mothers and grandmothers who sacrificed dreams and aspirations of their own to raise children and grandchildren. It is both a reality that sometimes happens but also a story that has entertainment and commercial value, a narrative that turns black women into almost always long-suffering heroines and abstracted symbols of survival and vindication. And so, as a black woman this colleague felt that she was barred from admitting family crises; or from asking for any family leave time to become accommodated to this new situation; or from listing it as a reason why she had not been able to submit anything for publication that year. It was not the image or experience of black motherhood that many of our other colleagues were ready or willing to see, she contended. In short, more than half a century after Frazier and Moynihan she felt that she was still overdetermined by tropes of black matriarchy.
And she was not alone. After talking with her I began to pay significantly more attention to the ways that black matriarchy was invoked to talk about other colleagues, including most notably one who had three kids, commuted upwards of two hours back and forth to work, and seemed to be on every committee no one else wanted to be on. She was frequently regarded as a marvel. White male and female colleagues alike were amazed at “how she does it all,” never once acknowledging that it had been several years since her last publication and that she in fact doesn’t- and that indeed with her current work/life balance can’t- do it all.
The moment was a profound one for me for several important reasons. To begin with, until that moment I had not associated parental leave with anything other than new births. And in fact, the parental leave policy at the university in question (and I suspect at many others where such policies exist) was only applicable to parents of newborn babies. What of parents such as this one? Granted, she could have also used the university’s family medical leave policy in lieu of a parental leave, but that would have been a leave with no pay, not an optimal condition for someone attempting to care for a sick youth. And so on the one hand there’s a conversation that needs to happen: can parental leave be more comprehensive to incorporate those who must deal with intense family crises? And can such a comprehensive vision of parental leave be discussed in a way that works assiduously to shed legacies of Moynihanisms? What would that vision of parental leave look like? If, on the other hand, parental leave is or cannot be made more comprehensive along these lines, are there other ways to make leaves possible for non-traditional parenting experiences?
Of course one could make the argument that the colleague in question should have just come clean with her department chair and offered to do some additional work or service for the department in return for some time off. 1. Yet the problem here is that many black female academics are often already burdened with “invisible services” that perhaps should count towards securing leaves or course reductions in the very least. Indeed, the second reason why this particular colleague’s story remained with me is that in her case the myth of the black-matriarch-who-needs-no-rest was not only made in reference to actual childrearing but also to the kinds of performances that institutions of higher learning tend to expect (and take for granted) from black female academics.
If tropes of black fatherhood are structured around the theme of absence, then tropes of black motherhood are structured around both absence and a multiplicity of presences. In other words, not only is the black mother imagined as an absent parent, she is also and alternately imagined as being present in a number of ways. She is often represented as the long suffering figure who raises her kids alone; but she is also often represented as a figure who provides guidance and discipline to other people’s kids. And these are just the representations that skew towards a “celebration” of black matriarchy. The black mother is also imagined as being negligent towards her family; or of being abusive and harmful and destructive in her childrearing; or of being too headstrong or uncooperative in her relationships with men. We can stop here, but the list just goes on, with a seemingly endless number of ahistorical configurations becoming synonymous with the words black mother. 2
But of course these are also tropes that float between literal and figurative associations, alleged objective descriptions of black family life that can be called on at anytime to insert and make sense of black women within the structures of mainstream institutions. In academia, this blurring of literal and figurative motherhood is quite prevalent in the kinds of service to the department and/or university that are expected of non-white female faculty. At predominantly white campuses across the US, for example, students of color who are either in crisis or who are simply looking for intellectual validation and exchange often take advantage of office hours with faculty of color. It is a phenomenon that is expected (and taken for granted) on most campuses with liberal leanings, and indeed it is understood to be a good thing in most cases. Yet it is also not the kind of service that is calculated and considered to be an indicator that some time-off or away from campus may be necessary for faculty of color who perform this service. Furthermore, the duty almost mechanically seems to fall to female faculty more than males. Take the case of another junior professor I know who in her first year had become so popular with black students that she was in her office for four hours every week meeting with an endless stream of students who felt that they had nowhere else to turn for support. “She’s so good with them,” I would hear folks say as a prelude to some suggestion that she should direct undergraduate studies, or head up a roundtable discussion about diversity, or take over undergraduate programming, or be the speaker for the department at graduation. And so in the space of a year she went from newly minted PhD to “den mother”, and not many people, it seemed, cared or wanted to care about the fact that she was a tenure-track faculty member who was giving more time to service than to research.
Thus, in addition to a discussion about different kinds of parental leaves that might go beyond giving birth we might also need to have a discussion about the ways in which we expect mother-like service from much of our black female faculty and yet have no system in place to recognize and reward such service with mother-like leaves or reductions in course-loads. Of course, black women in academia certainly experience dilemmas related to work and parental leave after giving birth, and it is not my intetion to suggest that new motherhood is not a site of tension for many black female academics. Yet if we restrict discussing the politics of leave to only this dimension of motherhood, then the ways that the phrase “black mother” gets multiplied and used to make sense of black female presences in mainstream institutions will continue to operate silently and in a manner that incessantly reproduces the black female academic as she who should be able to do it all without fuss.
- This in fact is what is sometimes suggested to faculty who work at universities or colleges with no parental leave policy, or at schools that have parental leave policies that come with half pay or no pay. See Megan Mackenzie, “Academic Parenting 101: Parental Leave Erosion,” at http://duckofminerva.com/2014/04/academic-parenting-101-the-myth-of-parental-leave.html ↩
- These timeless and ahistorical configurations of black motherhood are similar to, and perhaps derive from, what Hortense Spillers refers to as the “grid of associations… that come to surround and signify the captive,” a set of discovery narratives that must describe African as irreducibly different from European to successfully transform black flesh (a living, dynamic form) into black bodies (what is marked and marketable). See Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 210-11. ↩