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Learning to Resist: Educational Counter-Narratives of Black College Reentry Mothers


by Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz — 2013

Background: College reentry women are often older than the traditional college student, and in this study are distinguished from other students because of their parental status as mothers. As one of the the fastest growing populations in colleges and universities across the nation, it is alarming that many Black college reentry women, despite their educational gains, continue to face stereotypes about who they are socially, politically, and educationally.

Purpose: The purpose of this study was to examine the schooling experiences of Black college reentry mothers (n = 5) and explicate the ways in which they theorize and make meaning of the complexities of their lives, particularly in regard to the intersections of race, college reentry, and motherhood.

Research Design: Employing qualitative case study and narrative analysis methods, the larger study from which some data for this article derive examined the educational narratives of Black college reentry women. The original study investigated the influence the participants’ college reentry had on their lives and their daughters’ educational choices. The study reported in this article, then, includes data from individual interviews with the 5 mothers from the original study as they focus on their college reentry experience and motherhood.

Findings/Results: Contrary to what some researchers assert about schools not providing welcoming spaces for Black women to develop an optimistic sense of self, the reentry mothers in this study viewed college enrollment as a crucial step toward positive self-definition. Their efforts to become educated represent their resistance to public stereotypical images of themselves as Black mothers. In other words, they believed their college reentry served as counterpoint to the three stereotypes about Black mothers discussed in this article: the mammy, the matriarch, and the welfare mother/welfare queen.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The counter-narratives these mothers offered to the three stereotypes suggest that there are psychological barriers (fear of belonging, self-doubt, fear of marginalization, racism, sexism, negative stereotyping) to their academic success. This conclusion has the strong potential to move educational researchers toward a deeper investigation of challenges to the college reentry experienced by Black mothers, in the hope of creating institutional support structures, systems, and policies that can propel the academic success of this population.

INTRODUCTION


At the turn of the century, most Black women within the context of the United States worked outside of the home, usually as domestics (Arnesen, 1993; Barnes, 1993; Clark-Lewis, 1996; Tucker, 2002). While domestic work is historically tied to slavery and is generally viewed as a form of “appropriation and exploitation of Black women’s domestic labor on behalf of white families” (Perry, 1998, p. 119), it was the only area of employment in which Black women would be hired. According to Coble (2006), six decades after slavery was abolished and during the height of the Great Depression, it was commonplace for Black women to be excluded from all other forms of employment except domestic service. With little to no opportunities for employment in any other area, countless Black women began to seek education to better their lives and the economic conditions of their families, given their growing understanding that education represented a means to uplift themselves and their race (Collins, 2000; Giddings, 1984; Perry, 2003; Washington, 1987). According to educational psychologist and historian Noble (1956), education allowed Black women to avoid the limitations placed on them by society. Clearly, education was understood as a vehicle for Black women’s advancement out of domestic service and as a means for Black people to move, however gradually, out of abject poverty.


The occupation of Black women as domestic workers and their desire to acquire an education served, in part, to generate national debates on women and education, as evident through the emergence of the Feminist Movement of the 1970s. That is, the 1970s Feminist Movement placed attention on the adult woman’s return to school. However, the racist stereotypes that developed around Black women who were employed as domestic workers at the turn of the century continued to persist in light of the obvious gains in women’s rights garnered by the Feminist Movement. Decades after the formation of the Feminist Movement, there remains notorious historical links to Black women as domestic workers, links that are filled with pervasive stereotypes of contemporary Black women, a point that participants in this study recognize and seek to combat. With these things in mind, this article addresses the following questions: In what ways do participants view their role as mother, and what do they believe it means to be a Black mother in America? What images do they believe come to mind when people hear the phrase, “Black mother?”


To address these questions, I present a brief review of literature on college reentry women, a theoretical framing in Black Feminist Thought and Critical Race Theory, and an overview of the methodological underpinnings of this study. From there, I offer findings from my research on Black college reentry mothers as a way to demonstrate larger, more complicated ideas that circulate around the presence and success of Black adult women in higher education. Implications point to the need for educational researchers to examine the ways in which these mothers can be supported by the institutions they attend since these institutions often ignore Black college reentry women’s narratives and lived experiences. A rationale for this study is to provide educational professionals who work with Black college reentry women with an understanding of their lived experiences, and to also offer insight into the ways in which these women view their reentry. Providing information on the reentry experience of these disenfranchised learners will allow these professionals to better serve this group of students who are inundating their institutions of higher education.


LITERATURE ON COLLEGE REENTRY WOMEN


College reentry students are characterized mostly by their age. During the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, the typical profile of the reentry woman—a non-traditional female student who entered or returned to college later in life to earn an undergraduate degree—was that of a White, middle-class housewife in her mid-30s with some level of college education (Rifenbary, 1995; Thomas, 2001). By the 1990s, this demographic of college reentry women had significantly changed from White, middle-class housewives to poor and/or working-class women of color who were at least 30 years old (Coker, 2003; Rifenbary, 1995) and entering college for the first time (Coker, 2003; Thomas, 2001). While today’s college reentry female population is racially diverse, this population includes a large majority of Black women with varying socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of them have children and are married, divorced, or separated from their spouse (Coker, 2003; Thomas, 2001). The American Council on Education (2010) reports that between the years 1998 and 2008, college enrollment among Black people grew to nearly 2.3 million, which represents a 52% increase from a decade prior. The majority of these students were Black women. Black women continue to outpace Black men in college enrollment, a national trend that became noticeable during the 1980s (Yeakey & Bennett, 1990) and persisted throughout the 1990’s and into the new millennium (Marriott, 1990; JBHE, 1997, 2001-2002). There is an undeniable presence of Black college reentry females in higher education institutions. The United States Census Bureau (2010), for example, shows that of all females 35 years or older enrolled in college, nearly 20% are Black women.  


Although college reentry women are a formidable presence in higher education, there is not an overwhelming amount of research on their experiences, and even less research about Black college reentry women (Coker, 2003; Thomas, 2001), a decent portion of this ever-expanding population. Much of the existing research on Black college reentry women focuses on the barriers they face to academic reentry such as financial needs and the discomfort they experience as Black, older women in a college setting with traditional-aged students (Epstein, 1986; Holliday, 1985; Johnson-Bailey, 2000; Ntiri, 2001). As a result of racism and discriminatory educational and employment practices, Black women are more likely to be poor, underpaid, undereducated, and therefore marginalized in society in comparison to their White counterparts. Indeed, Black college reentry women often fall into these categories—poor, underpaid, undereducated, and marginalized—because they have gone decades without sufficient formal schooling. As well, many have endured hardships that prevented them from completing high school or college in a traditional manner (Johnson-Bailey, 2000; Sealey-Ruiz, 2005, 2007). Rarely are the narratives of Black college reentry women cast in a broader context by which to examine their lived experiences as citizens in our society.


CONSTRUCTING A THEORETICAL FRAME: BLACK FEMINIST THOUGHT AND CRITICAL RACE THEORY


Black Feminist Thought and critical race theory, when brought together, require researchers to consider specific challenges Black women face in America and the importance for them to tell their stories in their own words. In the United States, the dominant culture has insisted on negatively defining Black women’s roles and identities (Miller, 1986). As a result, Black women have been forced to use their lives as forms of resistance to this trend. Even under the subjugation of slavery, Black women insisted on defining themselves by “asserting their humanity against stereotypes and controlling images” (Richardson, 2000, p. 682).


Black Feminist Thought


Black Feminist Thought (BFT) places Black women at the center of analysis, and requires an examination of their lives and lived experiences. A major tenet of BFT is that the experiences of everyday Black women must be central to understanding their needs, desires, and shifting places in society. As a theory, BFT gives voice to Black women who have been told in many ways they do not matter. From being excluded from educational and employment opportunities to being misrepresented in the media, decisions pertaining to Black women continue to take place without their participation. In fact, Black women tend to be ignored in discourses that determine research agendas and policy that affect their well-being. BFT, then, is concerned with how Black women interpret the world and is interpreted within the world. In other words, BFT pushes forth the belief that “the daily living of Black women in a society that is racist and sexist has produced a collective consciousness that resists being defined as less than, resists being stereotyped as undesirable, and seeks to define and empower its members by interpreting existing as a triumph” (Johnson-Bailey, 2000, p. 98).


Collins (1986, 1991, 2000) established BFT as a viable and critical social theory that empowered African American women. As a theory, it advances the importance of viewing the experiences of Black women as a way of understanding how they perceive the world. A principal tenet of the theory is to stimulate Black woman’s consciousness, which can lead to self-reflection, self-actualization, and personal freedom. According to Collins (2000), among other intentions, BFT utilizes the “collected knowledge” of Black women, fosters their empowerment, and documents the existence of such knowledge (p. x). Individually and collectively, the collected knowledge and counter-narratives of the Black mothers in my present study rejected stereotypes about Black motherhood, and replaced them with authentic voices of everyday Black women who do their very best to raise their children and set positive examples for them.


Additionally, Black feminist scholarship suggests that schools, with their hostile climate toward Black people, are the least likely spaces for Black women to explore their identities and develop positive self-images. In fact, many scholars argue that the Black church is a more welcoming than school contexts, and a more likely space for self-development to happen for Black women (Collins, 2000; Giddings, 1984; Gilkes, 1985). However, participants in this current study assert the important role that the space of schools and their reentry into schools have played on the emergence of strong self-images and self-definitions. This is a significant point that I take up in this article.


Critical Race Theory and Counter-Narratives


Counter-narrative is a methodological strategy used by critical race theory (CRT) scholars. CRT attempts to explain existing racial inequities and provide supporters with a method to expose and work toward eliminating racial disparities. As a tenet of CRT, the personal story permits those who have been marginalized by society to name their own reality and define their experiences. Ladson-Billings & Tate (1995) explain: “Members of minority groups internalize stereotypic images that certain elements of society have constructed in order to maintain their power. Historically, storytelling has been a kind of medicine to heal the wounds of pain caused by racial oppression,” (pp. 64-65). Counter-narratives reject stories that are accepted as normalized; stories that support racist ideologies help maintain the status quo. For example, in her article with Ron Cervero, “Different Worlds and Divergent Paths: Academic Careers Defined by Race and Gender” (Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2008), Johnson-Bailey presents her counter-narrative to the harmful stereotypes of the “angry woman” and loving “mammy” Black professor that both students and colleagues assign to her. These stereotypes attempted to diminish her status as full professor, her effectiveness as an educator, and her stellar publishing record. By their very nature, counter-narratives are inherently feminist, as they require women, and particularly women of color and poor women who have been ignored or misrepresented by society, to speak for themselves about their everyday realities and circumstances. Particularly for the Black mothers in this study, personal stories served as powerful alternatives to the social, material, and psychological forces of stereotypical representations of Black motherhood.


In most research literature on American Black women, it is rare to find their stories cast in theoretical frameworks that aid in understanding their unique position in American society. In this study, I deliberately turned to Afrocentric/Africentric (Asante, 1988; Colin III, 1994/2007) approaches to mothering as an entrée into understanding some of the nuances involved in mothering Black children in the United States. An Afrocentric/Africentric view of mothering is grounded, first and foremost, in sociocultural and philosophical perspectives that reflect people on the African continent and those of the African Diaspora (Hayes & Colin III, 1994). Specifically referring to the history of African Americans in this country, this approach to mothering takes into consideration the challenges and social constraints Black mothers face in raising their children. Most significant, this view of motherhood identifies the need for bloodmothers, othermothers, and women-centered networks (Collins, 1991) as crucial components to successfully raising children. Perry (1998) asserts the connection that Black women make among race, culture, politics, and the meaning of family. Thus, Black women do all that is in their power to protect their child(ren) from the wrath of a racist society in which their child(ren) will come of age and transition into adulthood.


In her essay, “The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother-Daughter Relationships,” Collins (1991) explains that Black mothers must encourage their daughters to develop skills to resist oppressive conditions. Their daughters know that they must work and get an education, acts that oftentimes occur simultaneously until educational goals are reached. Carothers (1984) notes, “the Black cultural tradition assumes women to be working mothers. It is through this tradition of a dual-role that Black women acquire their identity, develop support systems (networks), initiative, mutual support, and mutual respect” (p. 3).


Thus, as it relates to mothering, an Afrocentric/Africentric approach is about interpreting the role of mother from a validating perspective grounded in the African-centered values of humanness, harmony with nature, solidarity, collective responsibility, individual and community accountability, spirituality, and respect of elders (Sefa Dei, 1994). It is not intended to be an alternative version of the Eurocentric way of mothering, but a theory that recognizes the significance of an African-centered way of raising children, particularly in a racist society.


OVERVIEW OF GUIDING METHODS


The research reported in this article employs ideas from Black feminist theory and critical race theory to investigate the lived experiences of Black college reentry women who are mothers. Utilizing a qualitative case study approach, the article focuses on some of the narratives of this fast-growing population of higher education students by highlighting complex meaning-making processes in the search for human understanding (Creswell, 1998). According to Denzin and Lincoln (2008), qualitative researchers seek to make sense of phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. As a comprehensive research strategy, case studies are especially well suited to examine contextual conditions (Yin, 1994). With this research, a case study methodology was used to examine what meanings the participants made of their mothering experiences and their positions as Black mothers in society. Thus, this approach allowed me to intentionally focus on a group of Black college reentry women with whom I had previously worked in order to better understand their perceptions of mothering and their experiences as mothers.


Not surprisingly, it is well documented in adult education research (Aslanian & Brickell, 1980; Cross, 1981; Valentine, 1997) that adults’ motivation for learning is driven by social roles. Yet so much is still unknown about whether or not adults, particularly Black women, use their education primarily for career advancement and roles related to their family (Aslanian & Brickell, 1988; Kim, Collins, Stowe, & Chandler, 1995; Kopka & Peng, 1993). Also highly unknown are the ways identities relating to race, gender, and socioeconomic status impact Black college reentry women’s lives and lived experiences. Therefore, this study focuses on Black college reentry women, a significant yet often ignored group in adult education research.


DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS


Participants for this study were selected through purposeful sampling (Patton, 2001). The women were members of a previous 18-month study I conducted in 2003-2004 with Black reentry female students who attended one of four New York City campuses of an adult reentry college. The campus is located in Harlem, New York City where I worked as an Instructor of Letters for 9 years. The college has a 30-year history of serving adult reentry students. The majority of students on all four campuses are Black and Latino/a. The campuses are located in urban neighborhoods, and many of the students who attend the college are from the community surrounding the college campus. The participants self-identify as Black/African American, acknowledging family roots in the United States, and as poor or working class. Their ages ranged from 23 to 57. The purpose of the original study was to explore their educational narratives and gauge the effect their reentry had on their lives and educational choices of their daughters. The results of the study foregrounded the ways in which the participants viewed their reentry as a means to cope with life’s challenges and serve as role models for their daughters (Sealey-Ruiz, 2005, 2007). However, during my analysis of the data, I noticed a particular pattern emerging related to participants’ concerns about stereotypical images of Black mothers. As a Black feminist researcher and first-time mother of a female child, I wanted to investigate this further. My experiences as a Black woman in America showed me that stereotypes about my womanhood, and now my mothering, would be an issue I had to deal with in various contexts of my life. As much as I was seeking to understand how these women understood and managed these stereotypes, I was eager to discuss with other Black mothers the new ways in which American society would interpret my existence. This current study was conducted during 2006-2007 to delve deeper into the mothers’ thoughts and feelings about the three stereotypes that were frequently mentioned during the original study; it provides insight into how these Black college reentry mothers perceive their roles, and how negative societal views of Black motherhood affect them.


Eighteen months after completing the original investigation, I contacted the mothers in my first study, initially by email and then with a follow-up telephone call, to invite them to participate in this current study about their role as mother and thoughts about Black motherhood. All 5 mothers who were invited agreed to participate in the study, and returned signed consent forms to my home address within 2 weeks after the forms were mailed to them.


Of the 6 participants in the original case study 5 were mothers. Consequently, those 5 mothers are the focus of this current study: Browne, Keisha, June, Lisa, and Veronica. The study participants, who varied in age and educational experience, chose their own pseudonyms and are profiled in Table 1, which lists educational background, age, occupation, and the number of children they had at time of the study. All of the mothers identify as Black/African American.


Regarding secondary educational attainment, Veronica, June, and Keisha were high school dropouts who earned their GEDs. Browne was the only mother in the study who had graduated from high school. Lisa completed all 4 years of high school, but was denied her diploma after failing a state-required mathematics examination. According to an agreement with her home state, Lisa would earn her high school diploma upon completion of her Bachelor’s degree. It took Lisa 10 years after leaving high school to return to the classroom and 5 years to complete her Bachelor’s degree. Of all the mothers in the study, Browne took the longest time to reach her goal of obtaining a degree. She entered college immediately after high school in the early 1980s, but took breaks in her education over a 25-year period. June had been away from the classroom for the longest period of time, noting that when she entered college she had not been in a classroom for nearly thirty years. Keisha had been away for a decade before reentering, and for Veronica, 16 years had passed before she entered the academy to earn her Bachelor’s degree. Keisha, Lisa, and Veronica completed their undergraduate degree within the traditional 4 years. Browne graduated within 5 years, and June had recently graduated at the time of my first interview with her during the original study.


Over the course of 6 months (November 2006 to April 2007), I conducted 2 semi-structured interviews with each participant in their home. All interviews were on a weekend, which were the most convenient days for the participants. The second interview occurred approximately three months after the initial interview. Three participants lived in the Harlem community, and 2 lived in the Bronx (New York). The average time for each interview was 3 hours. I used a semi-structured interview guide (see Appendix A) to encourage the narrative process. The focus of narrative research is on the individual—to understand life through a reconstruction and a retelling of stories (Cole and Knowles, 2001). The narrative research approach allowed for a deep understanding of the multiple contexts that the women negotiated as mothers and Black women (Bell-Scott & Johnson-Bailey, 1998). The mothers in this study shared moments when they were negatively labeled or stereotyped, and through the telling of their stories they made sense of and affirmed their mothering styles, and the ways in which they resisted these stereotypes. The questions I asked the women evolved into a conversation about their lives to help provide an understanding of their motherhood experiences.


I listened intently for details that revealed times when the women felt they fulfilled or resisted the stereotypes. The interviews were free flowing and followed the pace of the participant and how she was feeling at the time of the interview (Rubin & Rubin, 1995). For three of the five participants, the initial interview lasted as long as six hours. The second interview occurred up to three months after the first interview, which allowed me ample time to analyze transcripts from the initial interview and modify my questions if necessary. At the end of the second interview, which also served as a member check session (Bogden & Biklen, 2007), I presented each participant with a partial list of the emerging themes, and with random quotes taken from their individual interviews. Each participant and I spent time discussing the list of themes and quotes; this gave them the opportunity to comment on the list and the quotes that were shared with them.


All interviews were audio recorded, transcribed verbatim, and read through a narrative analysis lens. I numbered all of the lines on the transcripts, with numbers running sequentially from interview to interview. Therefore, no lines had the same number as to avoid confusing data or attributing data incorrectly when the data were being managed. Data were analyzed using the constant comparative method (Maykut and Morehouse, 1994), which involves comparing a particular incident or segment of data from interviews, researcher notes, or documents with another segment of the same or different data set (Bogden & Biklen, 2007). I constantly compared certain occurrences, categories, and thematic elements within the data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Pidgeon & Henwood, 2004). This task was performed from the first point of data collection until the final stages. The categories of data were compared across the 5 women’s stories to establish and eliminate emerging themes to develop a data-coding scheme. As I analyzed the data, I kept in mind the constant comparative method, which requires the researcher to conduct a “systematic and inductive analysis that allows for the researcher to stay close to the participants’ feelings, thoughts, and actions as they relate to the focus of inquiry” (Manglitz, Johnson-Bailey & Cervero, 2005).


Searching for meaning in the data begins by identifying chunks of meaning; smaller units of meaning can serve as a basis for creating larger categories. An important step in categorizing the data occurred after the first round of interviews with my participants when I created a document consisting of words and phrases taken verbatim from the transcripts. These words and phrases were spoken by the women when they were describing their role as mother and/or how they believed society perceived them as mothers. I coded and synthesized concepts, and created a color-coded numeric system whereby I assigned colors to themes and listed the frequency of phrases or words related to that theme in a word processing program.


At the second (final) interview, I presented this document that categorized the data under three thematic titles: Mammy, Matriarch, and Welfare Queen/Welfare Mother. Sharing these findings with participants is a type of reciprocity found in Black Feminist Theory that pertains to methodological issues: (a) The researcher should value the concrete experiences of participants; (b) The researcher should use dialogue as a means of data collection; (c) The researcher should be caring toward his or her participants; and (d) The researcher must take personal responsibility for representing the participants. The end result was a list of 36 words and phrases organized into the three categories of the stereotypes (see Appendix B). There were minimal changes to the list. The participants verified the comments they made and overwhelmingly agreed with my categorization of the data.


During my analysis of the transcripts from the final interview, I added additional words and phrases and designed a matrix that included the words, phrases, and key quotes. I matched the data with the names of each participant. This matrix facilitated my analysis of the interview transcripts. Appendix C provides samples of data from the transcripts of 3 participants to show how responses to questions were coded for the emerging themes. Equally important is the utilization of constant comparative analysis and narrative analysis, two methods that help in the discovery of central research themes and categories (Anfara, Brown, & Mangione, 2002; Leech & Onwuegbuzie, 2007; Strauss & Corbin, 1990).


In alignment with the constant comparative approach to analyzing data, I reviewed the transcripts three times to code and categorize themes. For the fourth and final reading, I read through the transcripts and made notes in my researcher journal relating to the participants’ individual and collective experiences. Narrative analysis was particularly helpful in making sense of the non-linear, fragmented, and highly complex stories participants told and re-told about their lives (Bell-Scott & Johnson-Bailey, 1998; Chase, 1995; Etter-Lewis, 1991; Weiland, 1995). Therefore, utilization of narrative analysis revealed deeper, multilayered understandings of participants’ stories, while eliminating expectations for neatly packaged narratives. Throughout the process of working with the burgeoning narratives I corresponded with the participants by telephone or email if I had questions or needed clarification of the data. Over the 13 months of data collection and analysis, I kept a researcher journal to assess the ways in which I understood my feelings and experiences of being a Black feminist researcher and mother doing this work. As a method of clarifying my possible researcher bias, I had multiple conversations about the difficult moments in the study when I deeply empathized with the women with a senior scholar in the field of adult education who is also a Black feminist researcher. I wrote extensive entries (thick, rich descriptions) in my analytic log, and engaged in triangulation of data, and member check verification strategies (Creswell & Miller, 1997) to ensure the study’s reliability.


FINDINGS FROM THE STUDY


As previously stated, data were collected from two separate qualitative interviews and were analyzed using the constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Maykut and Morehouse, 1994) which involved a constant comparison of the data through a repetitive integration and refinement of categories and identification of emerging categories. The three stereotypes that emerged from the interviews—the mammy, the matriarch, and the welfare mother/welfare queen—were repeatedly mentioned by the mothers as images they have constantly struggled against or were recently confronting in the context of their community, school, or society (representations in the media). The number of times the stereotypes were mentioned, the context in which they were mentioned, and the constancy with which they were mentioned with a “counter” explanation were numerically tracked within and across each interview (Miles & Huberman, 1994). As recognized in the original study, the mothers made sense of their reentry journey as a way to serve as role models to their children and others, but also as a way to counteract negative images that Black women, generally, and Black mothers, particularly, are faced with in society. Patterns in the data indicate that the participants made meaning of their reentry at the intersections of race, gender, socioeconomic status, motherhood, and society.


As much as the mothers rejected the stereotypes that were mentioned, they also expressed pressure to disprove them. They held on to the beliefs that education can be transformational and change lives for the better. The mothers contextualized their reentry in similar ways that Black women in the early years after slavery viewed education as a means of “racial uplift” (Giddings, 1984; Perry, 2003; Washington, 1987). Some of the participants were conscious of how they actively engaged in confronting stereotypes about Black mothers through their own thinking about the stereotypes or the debates they had with family members or classmates on the topic. Others simply recognized their enrollment in college as a way to resist the stereotypes. Such recognition led me to label their narratives of reentry/Black mothering as counter-narratives to the stereotypes they labored against.


TROUBLED BY STEREOTYPES


Black college reentry women (Coker, 2003; Johnson-Bailey, 2000; Ntiri, 2001; Sealey-Ruiz, 2005, 2007) like the reentry mothers in this study are motivated to model possibilities for their children (their daughters in particular). They view their college reentry as a step toward becoming positive role models who create educational legacies in, and for, their families. This current investigation sought to deepen the findings from my original study with Black college reentry mothers. I wanted to understand their beliefs about the way Black mothers are perceived in American society, and how they viewed Black motherhood. At various times during both studies, participants shared their comments about how they felt Black women should be viewed; their responses concerning the racist attitudes toward Black people that permeate American society were passionate. They shared a particular hypersensitivity toward images of the Black mother1 and what appeared to them as a lack of positive media coverage of women who were successfully raising their children with or without partners, enrolled in college, and serving as role models for their children.


During our first interview, Veronica asked if I would publish these stories as a way to “change what’s out there about us.” In reference to the many negative images about Black women in the media, Browne said: “There are bad apples in every race. Everyone’s got them. I just don’t get why America is hell-bent on making the Black woman seem so bad.” Based upon their feelings and perspectives about public (and negative) readings of Black women, the participants in this study restory-ed stereotypes about themselves as Black mothers. Lisa, a young mother, questioned the validity of “just one story” as she pushed for the significant role played by counter-narratives. Rhetorically, Lisa asked: “Why Black women gotta have just one story? As different as we are, is as different as our life experiences can be. No one else is held to the standards we are held to. It’s like if one Black woman does something negative, suddenly all Black women do that thing. We are different, you know.” Keisha provided powerful commentary regarding the stereotype of the welfare mother/welfare queen:


It depends on how you want to see it. We don’t have to buy into these myths that try to destroy us. What if I flipped it? What if I said that it’s not about being a welfare queen, but about getting my due when I need it? Stereotype that!


Along with Keisha, Browne also vehemently resisted the ways in which Black mothers were viewed in society. However, she admitted it was harder for her not to fall victim to such stereotypic images because of her past as a former drug-addicted prostitute. She questioned the demoralization of being “weighed down” by the stereotypes that exist about Black mothers, stereotypes that do not allow Black mothers to be seen as an “individual doing her best to make her own way.” Eventually, Browne agreed that:


Being a Black mother in society is hard. We have so many obstacles in front of us; we have so many things that put us down. We have to survive and nobody really gives us an edge on that, you know what I’m saying? Nobody says ‘okay, she is doing this let me help her.’ We have to fight hard for everything. We have to really struggle. It’s a struggle and I don’t see it stopping.


Browne said that for most of her life, she believed people measured her against stereotypes about Black women and never chose to see her as a Black woman just doing her best to make it through some rough times. She argued, “I don’t represent every Black woman, though I do admit that most Black women like me catch hell. But I’m on my way to making a new life for myself. School is a big part of that.”


When Browne made the comment, “most Black women like me catch hell,” she was referring to her working-class, single-mother status, confirming again that as much as the mothers resisted the stereotypes, they recognized the real consequences attached to them. During her second and final interview, Browne mentioned she was on a “personal mission to break down these stereotypes.”


THE STEREOTYPE OF MAMMY


Certainly, Black women’s lives create multiple narratives; however, there are some storylines Black women do share. For example, and particularly in the United States, at an early age Black girls are exposed to the harsh realities of racism, classism, and sexism. Thus, their childhood and adult socialization processes are significantly different from those of the daughters of White women. Collins (1991, p. 53) affirms this notion in her assertion:


A key part of Black girls’ socialization involves incorporating the critical posture that allows Black women to cope with contradictions. For example, Black girls have long had to learn how to do domestic work while rejecting definitions of themselves as mammies … at the same time they’ve had to take on strong roles in Black extended families without internalizing images of themselves as matriarchs.


During the nineteenth century, it was a commonly held view that Black women were “the inferior sex of an inferior race” (Sterling, 1984, p. ix). Society stereotyped them to be fit only for roles related to domestic work, prostitution, and the caretaking of White families. Given the Black woman’s involvement—past and present—in domestic work, the mammy image is one of the most challenging distortions Black women fight to eliminate, a point that participants in this study were all too well aware of as they talked about public images of Black women.


Collins (2000) reminds us of the ubiquitous nature of this image in Black America. She argues that, “the first controlling image applied to African-American women is that of mammy—the faithful, obedient domestic servant.” She goes on to explain the reason why this image was created in the first place: “to justify the economic exploitation of house slaves and sustained to explain Black women’s long-standing restriction to domestic service.” In other words, “the mammy image represents the normative yardstick used to evaluate all Black women’s behavior” (p. 71). Just as with other stereotypes formed about Black women, the mammy image was created for the social, economic, and political interests of White America (West, 1995). The mammy was a caricature image of a happy-go-lucky female slave whose sole purpose in life was to look after her master and his children. She was unattractive, strong, and overweight, and she loved the White people for whom she worked even as she was forced to neglect her own family.


As a former nanny for a middle-class White family, Veronica held a healthy disdain for the historical image of the mammy, but she also did not see this stereotype as exclusively applied to Black mothers: “Honestly, I see less and less of Black [American] women doing the nanny thing. I think more Spanish and Caribbean, more immigrants taking on the job.” At first, Veronica did not immediately connect the negative history of the mammy to the current-day work of a nanny, but emphasized the pragmatics of needing a job: “It’s a job. Off the books. Decent pay. They want your blood, but you can always leave when it gets to be too much.” When she did connect the job of nanny to the slave mammy, she noted: “Why get crazy about it? C’mon, this ain’t slavery times any more. I mean you can leave the job.”


To be sure, in large metropolitan cities like New York and Chicago, Black women were ensnared in illegal networks for slave-like, domestic jobs that paid them extremely low wages (Glenn, 1999). And as Veronica mentioned, although Black women still work as nannies, current trends reveal more Latina and Caribbean women, as opposed to Black women, are working as nannies for middle- and upper-class White families (Hondagneu-Sotelo, 2007; Roberts, 2009).


THE STEREOTYPE OF MATRIARCH


The second, most frequently mentioned stereotype by the mothers in this study was that of the matriarch, a lasting image of the Black woman as the all-knowing, all-powerful head of the Black family. As with the mammy, the myth of the Black matriarch is another image that has dominated past and contemporary culture. Slave women assigned to take care of White homes as well as their own slave quarters were labeled as overbearing, controlling, strong and aggressive – the opposite of how White women (mistresses) were perceived and stereotyped (Asbury, 1987; Briscoe, 2000; Stephens, 1992). Joseph and Lewis (1981) note that the qualities of strength and independence observable in many Black women have been stereotyped as female dominance attributed to the “matriarchal” character of the Black female servant developed during slavery. Interestingly, the image of the matriarch is a distorted view of the “take charge” attitude assumed by slave mothers whose husbands and whose children’s fathers were sold to other plantations, often right in front of their eyes.


Frazier (1939), a Black sociologist, promoted this matriarchal myth by insisting that Black women were more concerned over the livelihood of their children than the father, and that Black women were controlling and strong-willed people who ruled the lives of their children and husband (p. 57). According to Browne, the oldest mother in the study, the matriarch is “one of the most misrepresented images of the Black mother we live with.” She reflected on and rejected this image as she referred to her relationship with her daughter, also a college reentry mother who Browne encouraged to enroll in college:


We are not on the same level because I am the mom, but on some level we are women and that makes us on the same level, you understand? We are Black women so that keeps us grounded. I mean sometimes I have to pull motherhood out, but then most of the times I respect them for what they say and the decisions they make. …  My youngest daughter and I have always been close. There was a period in my life when I was going through some odd things. My daughter was always there.


Browne continued with the following sentiments: “So you mean to tell me that we [Black mothers] are the only ones who try to steer their children’s future? I can’t believe that. I think every mother wants the best for her child. Children still got living to do.” She went on to explain: “They can’t see what we see. It’s our job to help them see what we see and help them avoid the pitfalls. If that’s being controlling, then you’re just gonna have to call it that.”


In discussing how she disciplines her four children, Veronica highlighted some of the maternal-style similarities and differences with an aunt who raised her, making a point that Black women have different ways of mothering, but the intent is the same: to do their best in raising their children to have successful and productive lives. Veronica went on to allude to the questioning looks and assumptions that Black mothers receive from the general public who will never understand “what you do, or how you choose to raise your children [because] as a Black woman, especially if you are a Black mother, you’re gonna be looked at in a certain way,” noting, “It’s like everyone thinks you beat your kids and try to run their lives. My kids are teens, they need someone to steer them right. Someone to tell them what to do.” An important goal for Veronica is to inspire her eldest daughter to go to college someday. She acknowledges that her desire does not guarantee this will happen, but it remains atop her “wish list.”


The narratives of these Black college reentry mothers contrasted with the image of Black woman as matriarch. These mothers openly shared their hopes and dreams for, and with, their children without seeking to control their lives. Instead, they sought to forge a bond of mutual respect, admiration, and appreciation. Hyman and Reed (1971) suggest that the myth of the Black matriarch, one of the most powerful stereotypes of Black motherhood, has become “widely accepted as truth rather than a proposition still in need of … critical analysis” (p.186). Related to Hyman and Reed’s (1971) sentiments, Ladner (1973) noted that, “the stigmatizing labels have perpetuated the White majority’s treatment of Afro-Americans as inferior.” Although the recent U.S. Census (2010) show an ever-increasing number of White female-headed households, the matriarch stereotype is still mainly associated with Black mothers, and as Ladner (1973) stated, the “matriarchal structure” is seen as culturally deprived (p. xxi).


THE STEREOTYPE OF WELFARE MOTHER/WELFARE QUEEN


The third most frequent stereotype that participants in this study mentioned was the welfare mother/welfare queen. This image emerged after Moynihan’s (1965) government report that blamed Black mothers for the “breakdown” of the Black family because of their alleged laziness and reliance on the welfare system. Each of the mothers in this study believed that encouraging their children to earn a college degree is the most reliable way to prevent them from settling for low-paying jobs or relying on welfare. All of the mothers reflected on moments in their lives when they needed financial assistance from the government while raising their children. More than any other stereotype that emerged during the interviews, the welfare mother/welfare queen was the image the mothers most strongly rejected. Keisha powerfully objected to the image of the welfare mother/welfare queen as an image exclusively applied to Black women:


I’m not proud that I was on welfare and I’m not ashamed either. It’s there if you need help. Black mothers were not the first, nor will they be the last to get welfare. We’re not the only ones who need help. I work now. I pay taxes, people in my family pay and have paid taxes. Welfare ain’t free … when I was getting it, believe me someone in my family or someone I know paid for my benefits.


In contrast to this image, the five Black college reentry mothers in this study made it clear that they were always determined to get off welfare as soon as possible and never to return. Although the percentage of Black people on welfare remained stable at 39% between 1998 and 2000, and the new law (Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act under President Bill Clinton, 1996) has moved many Black women from welfare and on to employment roles, the image of the Black welfare mother/welfare queen continues to persist.


June said, “Even though I am in school and getting a check, it doesn’t mean I’m always going to need welfare. That’s the whole point of being in school in the first place. School is helping me make a future where I don’t rely on a welfare check.” Furthermore, according to June, “nobody wants to be on public assistance forever. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Oh, let me see how much welfare I can get, and how long I can get it.’ Everybody needs a little help sometimes. Isn’t that what this country is about?” Veronica talked about how welfare benefits “saved her and her kids’ lives” after she and her husband split (they reunited after their twins were born). She admitted that being on welfare bothered her, but she knew it was a temporary fix until she was able to stand on her own.” Lisa rhetorically asked, “What’s the big deal? Besides everyone knows that there are more Whites on welfare than Blacks. There’s just more of them so that makes perfect sense to me. All White folks aren’t rich, and not very Black person is getting a welfare check.” Keisha talked about how dropping out of high school put her in the position of needing welfare, but once she got a job she vowed she would never rely on welfare again.


At the time of this study, June was the only mother who was receiving federal benefits. She had legally adopted 3 of her 5 grandchildren and received benefits for them in addition to her own benefits. The other 4 mothers in the study held full-time employment while they attended school. Veronica had already begun a graduate program in Special Education, and Keisha was beginning to make plans for her Master’s degree. The mothers saw education as significant to, and for, their future. Undoubtedly, education was viewed as the key by which they, the Black college reentry mothers in this study, could avoid future reliance on welfare benefits.


LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY


Historically, Black women have always valued education and the role it can play in their lives in attaining upward social mobility and economic empowerment. Although this study with Black college reentry mothers confirms this finding, the small number of participants in the study presents a limitation: The study cannot claim that a majority of Black college reentry women view education in this way. Similarly, this study does not seek to generalize that all Black college reentry women who are mothers are coping with the pressures that are created by stereotypes about Black motherhood.


In qualitative research, the researcher is an instrument of the study and the sole data collector and analyzer. Therefore, for this study, it is possible that unconscious biases occurred during data collection and analysis. For example, as a Black woman and a mother, I have a particular understanding based on my lived experience of what it means for gender, race, and the role of motherhood to intersect, and because of this connection to my participants, it is possible that the ways in which the final themes were selected was influenced by my positionality. I believe that additional research needs to be conducted with Black college reentry women mothers by researchers who differ in race, gender, socio-economic status, and family status from the participants.


DISCUSSION


Many Black mothers, like the reentry women in this study, strive for higher education as a way to combat society’s limitations of, and for, them. They encourage their children to confront the demands and challenges posed by an unjust society that will consistently judge and label them because of their race, class, and gender. The Black college reentry mothers in this study viewed their presence in college in ways that are similar to those described in a sociological study on Black reentry women’s school efforts at “becoming somebody” (Luttrell, 1997, p. xx). Likewise, the participants in this study believed their lives were enriched because they were enrolled in college. The Black mothers in this study and the Black mothers in Luttrell’s study were cognizant of how White society negatively and unfairly viewed them (e.g., their identities, abilities, and futures).


The reentry mothers in this study did not feel as if their personal and professional lives were “split” in half, a description labeled as “common sense versus schoolsmarts” (p. xx) in Luttrell’s study. For Browne, Keisha, June, Lisa, and Veronica, school was a unifying factor that connected their school and private lives. They viewed school as a central part of their lives, just as the Black college reentry mothers from North Carolina in Luttrell’s study understood that motherhood was a central part of, and not separate from, their work/professional lives.


As revealed in the presented data, the participants in this study grappled with the historical stereotypes that continue to circulate about Black mothers, stereotypes that have not disappeared and that threaten way too many Black women, generally, and Black mothers, particularly. Thus, there is an ongoing need to understand and interpret the Black reentry narratives of Black mothers through the lens of Black Feminist Thought (Collins, 2000), critical race theory (Delgado, 1989; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995), and Afrocentric/Africentric epistemologies on mothering (Asante, 1988; Colin III, 1994; Sefa-Dei, 1994). Emerging as counter-narratives, the stories of Black women provide necessary portraits of their experiences as individuals, college reentry students, and as mothers.


The narratives and perspectives presented in this article serve as critiques of three specific images—the mammy, the matriarch, and the welfare mother/welfare queen. These images still persist about Black mothers, even in the twenty-first century. More specifically, a close examination of the counter-narratives of the women in this article reveals their attempts at cultural interventions against negative stereotypes that exist about their identities. Stanley (2007) argues that the use of narratives “is a powerful way to confront the beliefs held by whites about people of color. Often the first step in confronting such beliefs is to examine master narratives critically in light of emerging counter-narratives” (p.17). The narratives of the mothers in this study highlight their undying dedication to family, rejection of damaging stereotypes about Black motherhood, resilience in the face of adversity, and a determination for education that rarely, if ever, gets presented in current research about Black women.


While millions of socially progressive Black women struggle against negative stereotypes as they make educational gains, their lives continue to serve as daily resistance against these harmful images. Black college reentry mothers who have returned to school or college many years after their education has been interrupted are especially vulnerable to these stereotypes because they tend to be poor or working-class, and have limited educational experiences and job skills. Black college reentry mothers, like the mothers in this study, participate in a triangle of toil since many of them work outside the home, raise families, and attend college. As shown in this current study, this triangle of toil becomes ever more challenging when the women find themselves in battle against society’s negative images of who they are as mothers. For some of them, their mere presence in higher education classrooms is a testimony to their strength, determination, and resiliency, and a way to disprove the damaging stereotypes they feel bombarded with in society and in school contexts.


IMPLICATIONS FOR ADULT EDUCATORS


The increasing presence of Black reentry women in colleges and universities offers faculty and administration the opportunity to get to know a significant group in higher education in non-stereotypical ways. As these women show up in classrooms, faculty members have the chance to learn about their individual and collective challenges, triumphs, and lived experiences. The women reported on in this article use their lives to combat the ill effects of racism, classism, and sexism, and persist in higher education “despite racist and sexist treatment in a variety of institutional contexts, they [Black women] have continued to struggle for equal access, fair treatment, and images of themselves within the academy” (Guy-Sheftall, 1995, p. 451).


The mothers in this study, and many Black college reentry female students face various challenges associated with pursuing their education (Coker, 2003; Johnson-Bailey, 2000; Sealey-Ruiz, 2005) including meeting peers on the weekend for group projects, staying late after class to discuss issues or bond with peers, and feeling comfortable among traditional-age college students. The reality of racism, gender bias, and negative stereotyping in the face of these challenges creates psychological barriers to their reentry journey. This often sparks feelings of marginalization, isolation, and discouragement.


If there is a deeper understanding of how Black college reentry mothers view their reentry and their maternal status, and institutions create structures to mitigate the effects of the bias and negative stereotyping these women encounter, perhaps other members of their families can follow in their footsteps and be encouraged to see the promise and possibility of an education. And institutions can develop a more nuanced and complex understanding of the daily lives of these women and how race, gender, and their status of mother can both challenge and enhance their educational experiences. A better understanding of a Black college reentry mother’s views about reentry and motherhood can impact the ways in which these and other Black women are researched, discussed, recruited, and treated by academic institutions. Studying their narratives and learning from their experiences may encourage educators and researchers to further examine the ways in which these mothers can be better supported by the institutions they attend through appropriate social, financial, and academic programming which takes their daily existence into consideration.


In their own words, these college reentry students offer realistic images of their reentry experiences, and discuss what it means for them to be a Black woman/mother who is in school and raising children. If we listen, as I sought to do in my role as both an educator and a researcher, to the stories of Black college reentry mothers, then we (e.g., teachers, educators, researchers, administrators, policymakers) might be able to better hear what we least expect: not stories of victimization for the oppressive treatment Black college reentry women experience in our institutions, but personal stories of triumph over victimization, a deep desire for educational attainment, legacy, and collective achievement.


CONCLUSION


Recent statistics indicate that the face of higher education is changing. In large numbers, Black adult women, many of whom are mothers, are entering the college classroom (Thomas, 2001). As Black women garner educational gains, there seems to be a continued presence of stereotypes that seek to undermine their accomplishments. The Black college reentry mothers in this study resisted victimization of oppressive stereotypes and used their positionality as college reentry students to reject the stereotypes that troubled them as they created positive narratives about themselves.


Undoubtedly, Black women exist in a society where the interest and viewpoints of the dominant class (White, male, Christian, heterosexual) are the law of the land and the yardstick for how life is to be interpreted, however unfairly and problematically. These reentry mothers offer an example of how Black women use their lives to resist this normative worldview, one in which Mannheim (1936) identifies as the “thought-model created by those in power that maintains the affinity it has to the social position of given groups and their manner of interpreting the world” (as quoted in Collins, 2000, p. 341). The narratives of participants in this article should encourage us to listen with critical ears, privilege their experiences as legitimate, and recognize the demands placed on countless Black women, and Black mothers, who are motivated to receive a quality education.


Table 1.

Name

Age at Time of Study

High School Diploma / GED

Occupation

# of Child/

Children

Keisha

27

       GED

Social Worker / Retail Clerk

1

Lisa

32

High School Diploma*

Administrative Assistant

1

Veronica

37

        GED

Secretary / Master’s Student

4

June

45

       GED

Full-time Student

5

Browne

54

High School Diploma

Administrative Assistant

2

* Diploma granted when Bachelor’s degree is earned


Notes


1. The reentry mothers in this study seemed most concerned with three particular stereotypes: the mammy, the matriarch, and the welfare mother/welfare queen as a result of their experiences as nannies and home-health aides, experience with single motherhood, and having to rely on government assistance at some point in their lives. The Jezebel and the “Hot momma/mama” stereotypes were also mentioned, but not with the same frequency (Maykut & Morehouse, 1994) as the three aforementioned stereotypes of Black women/mothers.


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APPENDIX A


SEMI-STRUCTURED INTERVIEW GUIDE FOR BLACK COLLEGE REENTRY WOMEN’S PERCEPTIONS OF MOTHERHOOD


1.

Describe what it is like being a mother.

2.

How do you view your role as a mother?

3.

How do you believe a Black mother is perceived in American society? In other words, what images do you believe come to the mind when people hear the phrase “Black mother?”

4.

Talk about a favorite motherhood experience.

5.

Talk about a challenging motherhood experience.

6.

What lesson(s) do you most want your child(ren) to learn from you about life?

7.

What has life been like for you thus far?

8.

Talk about what motherhood been like for you thus far.


APPENDIX B


FINDINGS FROM FIRST ROUND OF INTERVIEWS – LIST OF WORDS AND PHRASES


Thematic Title: Mammy

Code: MY


1.

Missy Ann

2.

Mammy

3.

Taking care of other people’s kids all the time

4.

Aunt Jemima, headscarf-wearing lady

5.

Looking out for White kids, not time for they own children

6.

Black girls pushing White babies around

7.

Honestly, I see less and less of Black women doing the nanny thing.

8.

Being a nanny

9.

Every possible stereotype in the book. Especially the mammy and the welfare queen.

10.

The Black mother is seen as the mother of civilization. I think some of us believe this to be true and believe we must care for everyone in the world, like their own children or something.

11.

Resisting the mammy image at all costs

12.

I ain’t nobody’s mammy


Thematic Title: Matriarch

Code: MAT

1.

Controlling the people in their families

2.

Running their kids’ lives

3.

So you mean to tell me that we [Black mothers] are the only ones who try to steer their children’s future?

4.

Telling their men what to do

5.

Being in charge all the time

6.

Big Mama is running things

7.

Most of the Black women I was raised with were the matriarchs of the family, but so what? They were strong women because they had to be.

8.

I believe there is a plot to destroy Black men and try to put the woman in charge. No other race has had to endure what we have endured.

9.

There was a period in my life when I was going through some odd things. My daughter was always there.

10.

What you do, or how you choose to raise your children [because] as a Black woman, especially if you are a Black mother, you’re gonna be looked at in a certain way.

11.

It’s like everyone thinks you beat your kids and try to run their lives. My kids are teens, they need someone to steer them right. Someone to tell them what to do.

12.

I mean sometimes I have to pull motherhood out, but then most of the times I respect them for what they say and the decisions they make.

13.

It’s our job to help them see what we see and help them avoid the pitfalls. If that’s being controlling, then you’re just gonna have to call it that.


Thematic Title: Welfare Queen/Welfare Mother

Code: WQWM

1.

Always looking for a handout

2.

I’m no welfare queen

3.

Perceived as not really wanting to work

4.

I’m not proud that I was on welfare, and I’m not ashamed either

5.

No one grows up to want to be a person on welfare. Life isn’t always fair.

6.

Going to face-to-face interviews was not something my mother did. I wanted no part of that process. It’s humiliating. I remember going with her as a child. The way people who worked there treated you was awful.

7.

No dad at home. Needing welfare.

8.

Black mothers were not the first, nor will they be the last to get welfare. We’re not the only ones who need help. Black women have always taken care of everyone … everyone.

9.

The world wants to paint us a tragic, unlawful, evil, unattractive, and horrible mothers who are always looking for a man or the government to take care of them. I’m sorry, but the last time I checked there was more than Black women who were seeing it hard. These stereotypes are old already.

10.

I’ve worked since I was 14. I’d rather have my own, who wouldn’t? You know that Billie Holliday song, “God Bless the Child that Got its Own.”

11.

I work now. I pay taxes, people in my family pay and have paid taxes. Welfare ain’t free … when I was getting it, believe me someone in my family or someone I know paid for my benefits.


APPENDIX C


SAMPLE TRANSCRIPTION CODING


Codes: (MY) = Mammy; (MAT) = Matriarch; (WQWM) = Welfare Queen/Welfare Mother;

CN = Counter-narrative


Question: How do you believe a Black mother is perceived in American society? In other words, what images do you believe come to the mind when people hear the phrase “Black mother?”



Participant: Keisha


I think people see us as women with problems – problems that we want someone else to solve. The bottom line is this country have never made it easy for Black mothers to care for their kids (CN). I’m not saying that other people don’t have hard times, I know folks is struggling, but it just seems to me that Black women in general, and Black mothers especially, have a tough time and go through more than most people do. I remember the day that we went into that shelter. I will never forget it. It was the worst day of my life. I can still see my mother crying and trying to figure out how and the hell did she get herself and her kids in this situation. After a few weeks I ran away to be with my grandmother. I begged her to take me in and I promised not to be any trouble. But it was trouble because I had to spend time at the shelter. My mom was trying to get an apartment big enough for all of us, and so the family had to be there. It was a horrible time. And when we finally got placed, it was an apartment around University Heights. Yeah, up in The Bronx. The first few years was really hard. We had some family to help us, but mostly my mom had to get help from the government (WQWM) so we could have money for the things we needed. It’s a vicious cycle to break. Education can help break it, but even when I had my son, I needed the help. I’m not proud that I was on welfare, (WQWM - CN) and I’m not ashamed either. It’s there if you need help. Black mothers were not the first, nor will they be the last to get welfare. We’re not the only ones who need help. I work now. I pay taxes, people in my family pay and have paid taxes. Welfare ain’t free. … When I was getting it, believe me someone in my family or someone I know paid for my benefits. (WQWM). So I think they see us in a not so flattering way although there are so many great things about us, we’re talented, we’re beautiful. You just don’t hear that as much.



Participant: June


I can’t really explain how the world sees me, us, I just know it’s not at all positive and this has affected our view of self on some ways. We have to resist feeling beat down and believing what is being said about us. For example, even though I am in school and getting a check, it doesn’t mean I’m always going to need welfare. I’m no welfare queen (WQWM - CN). That’s the whole point of being in school in the first place. School is helping me make a future where I don’t rely on a welfare check (WQWM - CN). You have no idea what I have been through. At one time, I had all my neighbors against me because I was the one who spoke up. If people played their music loud, I would say something. Whatever it was that would make living here more like a real community I was all for it. But a lot of people didn’t like that. I thought the world was against me again. The first time I felt the world was against me is when my son got stabbed; the second time is when he ended up in the system. It’s like nobody cared and I felt all alone. There was no way I could function. I couldn’t work anymore. My nerves were awful.


Participant: Veronica


A time in my life where I felt really challenged as a mother was when my husband left. It was tough because here I was a single woman, barely hitting 30 with 4 kids – 2 with special needs. My family could help me but so much. My aunt who raised me was there as much as she could, but she has her own family. It was really just me. I didn’t really have nowhere to turn. So, I think about that question and the one you asked before about how society sees us. They probably think most Black mothers are like me when my husband left – struggling. No dad at home. Needing welfare. (WQWM) They might think, sometimes they may see some of us as good, and smart, like Oprah, while others see us as hustlers and someone always looking for a handout. (WQWM) It’s not even true. I’ve been in the system before, yes, but I’ve also worked since I was 14. (WQWM – CN) I’d rather have my own, who wouldn’t? (WQWM–CN) You know that Billie Holliday song, “God Bless the Child that Got Its Own.” I had no idea that my husband would leave. If I would have known, maybe I would have been better prepared. If I can have my own and raise my kids without the line up (that’s what some folks used to call welfare cause you had to line up for your check), then why wouldn’t I? (WQWM – CN) I am so thankful I work. That’s all I can say. Thank God I got a job now and my husband is back. I don’t ever want to live those years again.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 4, 2013, p. 1-31
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16911, Date Accessed: 12/18/2017 7:48:15 AM

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About the Author
  • Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    YOLANDA SEALEY-RUIZ is an assistant professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include racial literacy development in urban teacher education, critical English education for Black and Latino high school males, and the educational narratives of Black female college reentry students.
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