For Single Moms: In Search of Alternative Narratives

S. L. Writes has embarked on a new series, this time on Single Parenting. I aim to break down the “broken” home stigma and build up the credibility and credence of single-parent households. I want to offer encouragement and empowerment for single moms in particular, but for single dads too.

Nothing inspires this first post more than my longstanding weariness with the stories (narratives) about single moms leading to the demise of society. I tired of the same old bedtime fairytales that drowned out the true story that I lived and the true stories I witnessed others living every day. I always asked, as recently as this month, Where are all the stories about successful single moms? Where’s all the research and study about how single moms can achieve success? These narratives are much harder to find than the slanderous propaganda of Moynihan-esque tale-tellers.

I suppose we’ll have to tell our own stories.

“And so I tell myself my life.” ~ Nietzsche

I actually wanted to call this post “Alternarrative,” a word synthesized from alternative and narrative that looks and sounds like alternative. I thought it was clever, but that might be the geek in me. I googled the word and realized I wasn’t so original either. There’s actually a blog named “alternarrative: we are what we tell,” on which I spotted the Nietzsche quote.

To present an alternative narrative (sometimes called a counter-narrative), I must establish the mainstream narrative that I oppose. How do I accomplish this without giving the mainstream narrative yet another space to contaminate?  We’ll see if it’s possible.

Mainstream Narrative that has Infected the Attitudes of Many People:

Single-parent families are toxic to society because they drain public resources through welfare, create teenage parents who suck up more resources, produce juvenile delinquents who endanger society and suck up more resources when they’re thrown in jail, and result in masculine women and effeminate men, which causes further breakdown of the traditional nuclear-family pattern and sustains the cycle of poverty and brokenness.

In “How to be the Best Single Parent You Can,” Shellee Moore explains one the emotional effects of the mainstream narrative and suggests a response to the narrative.

“Broken home.” This is a derogatory label that causes much pain and misunderstanding. Too often, children living in single parent households have to contend with negative stereotypes and hurtful remarks made by insensitive adults…. As adults – teachers, coaches, neighbors, family, and friends, we can change our attitude, be more sensitive and compassionate, and recognize that SINGLE PARENTS RAISE GOOD KIDS TOO!


Let me brag for a sec by saying I am one of those “good kids.” I’m not bragging on myself, but I’m bragging on my mother who raised three children as a single mom (two girls and one boy). Nothing in the mainstream narrative reflects our experience…nothing.

It’s time to offer families other alternatives to “doom and gloom.”

For anyone in search of alternative narratives, I offer my life and the lives of those I know. I don’t know how many blog posts it’s going to take to transcribe the epic that has been brewing in my spirit for the past two decades (I don’t like to go over 800 words a post) but I’m in it for the long hall. I hope you’ll visit often and recount your own stories, offer advice and tips, or just ruminate.

Love, Sarah L. Webb

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Can a Poet Raise a Boy to be a Man?

Here’s poetic inspiration for single moms. Nikki Giovanni, famous writer and single mother, raised a son who grew up to be a man. Thomas Watson Giovanni graduated Magna Cum Laude from Morehouse College and Georgetown Law Center, and currently works as a lawyer in New York. Though his occupation doesn’t prove he’s a “man” in every sense of the term, his accomplishments exceed what many people expect from the child of a poet who happens to be a single mother. Admittedly, Nikki Giovanni’s relative fame afforded her opportunities that many less famous poets and single mothers don’t have; however, the most likely roots of Nikki’s parenting success are her connection with family and friends, her wisdom, and her stubbornness.

Nikki Giovanni candidly writes about her family life, and it’s apparent how close they are. In her essay “Don’t Have a Baby till You Read This,” Nikki talks about going into labor and giving birth while visiting her parents in Cincinnati. She originally thought she was having a girl and wanted to name the baby after her grandmother, which shows that she values a family legacy. Nikki describes one scene when the family discusses the baby’s name (Gary is her older sister):

“You know how group oriented Gary is. So she called everyone and said, ‘We have to name Nikki’s baby.”

Nikki’s family didn’t just offer to help name the child. They also offered to help take care of it. Everyone from her little nephew who told her, “If you have a boy I can give him all my clothes and teach him how to swim and give him my football helmet,” to her sister and parents who selfishly wanted her to rest so they could take care of the newborn baby.

Strong relationships with family and friends is not a privilege reserved for famous writers. Anyone can have it, and single parents need it. Not just for the practical things like babysitting, but simply for the emotional support. In Nikki’s words:

“Then I had to admit that they still loved me and that did make it a lot better. Or harder. But anyway, I needed a lot of love and that’s what I knew.”

I can dig all the love, but family couldn’t be the only reason Nikki Giovanni raised a successful son. I mean, it ain’t like they lived around the corner. Nikki lived hours away in New York. But being Nikki, she could always use her wisdom (which she probably got most from her family life). Nikki might not call it wisdom. She says in an interview with Jill Scott,

“The collection really shows my growth, my understanding, I don’t want to say wisdom because I am not trying to be some sort of Buddha, but I’ve learned so much and I want my work to show that.”

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni

While her writing shows how much she’s learned over time, her perspective on raising her son attests to her practical application of what she’s learned. In an interview from The History Makers Nikki Giovanni explains important decisions she made as a parent:

“I said, ‘You don’t have a right to privacy. You have a right to your own apartment, in which case, when it’s your apartment, I’m not going to come in there, but as long as you’re living in my house…. Because like all parents I worried about drugs. So I said, ‘Don’t have anything in your drawers that you don’t want me to see….’ And I signed a permission when he went to junior high that the principal could open his locker without any forewarning.”

“People sometimes say, ‘You made Thomas go to law school.’ I said, ‘No, I made Thomas go to the Army because I knew he would hate it.’ And I knew in the hating of it—because you know, you know your child. I knew that in the hating he would begin to focus.”

“I think people make a mistake leaving the kids at home…. If you start to take them young enough, they learn to behave because it’s something that they get used to.”

“What we learned is that no matter how young you are, when we expose you to things you retain something. And so, I took [Thomas] around the world with me so that he could somehow have a memory of knowing that the world belongs to him, so that he lives with no boundaries.”

Most single parents, especially mothers, don’t have the funds or time to travel around the world with their child, but I think the lesson is to expose children to things beyond their world. It doesn’t have to be a major cultural event. My mother took us to weddings, to funerals, to her job, to visit her friends in the hospital or in their homes, to the store, to run business errands, and we learned so much about how to act and interact from being in those various settings. Of course the museums, plays, libraries, historical sites, and festivals all count too, but it doesn’t always have to be a big hurrah.

Tons of folks gasp at the idea of children not having privacy, but Nikki doesn’t care what people think. She’s stubborn. If stubborn sounds too negative for you, try insistent. I think this factor is just as important as family bond and wisdom because you must consistently insist that your children follow your guidance and be their best. Nikki expresses this kind of insistence in The History Makers interview:

“So then what am I supposed to do? Just watch him piss his life away? I don’t think so. I didn’t want that.”

Nikki Giovanni insisted that her son become a man. She had frank conversations with him and gave him ultimatums when he tried to waste his time on her dime. Thomas wanted to spend a few years “finding himself.” Nikki said something to the effect of, “I didn’t know you had lost yourself. You can’t find something that isn’t lost.” She wanted him to go to college because, as she put it, a Black man needed skills. His other options were to support himself or go to the Army. Hence his going to the Army, hating the Army, then going to college and law school.

The History Makers interview brought to light another aspect of Nikki’s stubbornness that more single mothers need. When prompted about the stigma attached to unwed mothers, Nikki Giovanni responds:

“I never looked at myself through anybody’s eyes…. So anybody that didn’t have anything positive to say about my expecting the baby, I knew they weren’t a friend.”

Fearless! NO Shame! Life on HER terms! DELETING the Haters!

I know I won’t change most of society’s perception of single parents, particularly single mothers, but if I could just get single mothers themselves and their children to stop buying into the stigmas of female headed households, I’ll be at peace. It won’t be all, but some? Can I get some?

I truly believe that more than the absence of a father, the mother’s attitude about her situation determines the outcome for her children.

Whether you agree or disagree with Nikki Giovanni’s approach, it seems to have worked for her and her son.

Peace and Love, Sarah L. Webb

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Colorism: A Mother-Daughter Interview

For this edition of Colorism, I interviewed my mother. This was eye opening for me because in our face-to-face conversation I learned about details of my childhood that I have no memory of. I hope you enjoy a new voice in this conversation.

Do you consider your self dark-skinned, light-skinned, or neither?

Honestly, I still don’t consider myself a light-skinned African American. I may be a light brown but certainly not light-skinned. I attribute that to where I grew up. There you had a large population of really light-skinned African Americans that sometimes looked more white than black. We called them mulattoes.

What moments in your youth made you most aware of colorism?

I heard on a daily basis comments like, “Girl I don’t like that old black boy” or “That’s why yo momma so black.” It was everywhere. You were aware but just didn’t make a big deal about it. You kept it in, but you thought about it. Lighter skinned girls and guys were always considered cuter and many times smarter. The key is I knew many of them weren’t smarter than I was, so I asked myself how come they get to be selected for this or that.

What do you think were some of the reasons you didn’t make a big deal about it or kept it in even when you were thinking about it?

Because those instances were in my youth, and it was such a part of living that I didn’t think about trying to do something about it back then. Who would you speak out to?

Was there ever a moment in your life that you participated in or agreed with or supported this type of bias? Why or why not?

No, because I knew it wasn’t right. I had dark-skinned people in my family, and I didn’t feel it was a reason to criticize somebody. I never heard my mother speak in those terms with anyone or about anyone. None of my family really spoke that way. I never wished I had lighter skin or that I was white. Part of my youth I did rebel against people thinking that black is ugly because of the generation I grew up in, being a teenager in the 70’s with “black is beautiful” and afros. Perhaps I grew more comfortable as I matured into my teens. Perhaps I wasn’t as empowered as a younger person.

Have you ever dealt with colorism in the process of raising your children? If so, what kinds of situations arose and how did you handle them?

Yes. You see, I have two dark-skinned children and one lighter skinned child. Fortunately for me, they loved each other so much that I never had to deal with this issue in the relationship between them, but definitely from outside. I was asked several times if these were my kids. I would pridefully say, “Yes, indeed these are my babies,” and I would pull them close to me. I knew what people were thinking.

Each of my dark-skinned children had incidents at school where they were called black or charcoaled. My daughter was being called black and charcoaled every day by an African American male child. I thought it was important to let his parents know what he was doing and perhaps make them aware of the need to correct his thinking about his own race. I took my little girl to his house and spoke to the parents. Surprisingly, the mother was very receptive and handled it well. I think that day was an experience all of us will never forget. I know my daughter won’t.

I would constantly let my children know how beautiful they were, and that I wasn’t just saying that to make them feel better. It was true no matter what anyone says, and it was. Especially in the case of my daughter, I recognized and acknowledged her pain. We talked about it; we called it out when we saw it; we didn’t act like it wasn’t happening.

In what ways did your children respond to those situations? How did you observe them grappling with the issue? Did their responses change over time?

It didn’t come up with my male child as much. I don’t think he was as conscious or as affected. I don’t think it crippled them socially or hindered their will to succeed. They definitely didn’t live miserable lives because of it. Sometimes facial expressions when people would make comments let me know that they knew. I also just knew that it exists. They also weren’t afraid to talk about it. My daughter verbalized it.

My daughter was five and had already figured out that people said her sister would be able to attract boys easily because she was lighter skinned. At age five she identified her sister’s lighter skin as the reason they were saying that. I didn’t say to her, “Oh, get over it.” I carried that comment in my mind and did what I could so that she could conquer the world.

Why do you think your daughter was aware of this at such a young age?

Some children have a keener sense. Part of it is that I was a culturally aware mom. I didn’t hide that there are prejudices in the world, so that might have brought it to the forefront. Some people are more conscious and think a lot anyway. She was the kind of girl that always had to know why, and she felt free to ask why and that she had the right to let it be known. I can imagine kids whose parents ignore the problem, and the kids who don’t feel that freedom to express themselves.

To the best of your memory, was that incident when your daughter was five the first time you witnessed colorism in her life, or was it just the first time you witnessed her awareness of it?

It goes back for me when they had to stand up in kindergarten for head counts, and two African American girls stood up to be counted as white. I felt sad about that, that no one told those girls that they were black. Even the teacher, who was white, was embarrassed and not sure how to tell them to sit down. That showed a colorism to me, and it stuck with me. Also when they were younger, again, people often asked if they were mine.

Do you recall times when your light-skinned daughter also showed an awareness of skin color or colorism? If so, how early did you observe her awareness?

She wanted to tan at a young age, maybe since middle school. She was aware because, as with me, people always questioned and made a big deal about her siblings being dark. I will say that I don’t think she ever used her skin color to gain privileges or extra attention.

Did you ever deal with colorism in terms of raising your light-skinned daughter, interventions, conversations, etc.?

No. She was always there in our conversations as a family, so she knew how I felt about culture and equality. We talked about how crazy and bothersome it is to always have to explain that these are her siblings.

family of four

Where do you think colorism comes from, particularly for African Americans?

For African Americans colorism definitely came from a combination of things. The separation of dark-skinned and light-skinned slaves, the overall portrayal of dark-skinned people as negative in the early movies. We learned way back that the closer to white you were the better chance you had to succeed. [Perhaps we should add that chances for success were better because of racism, not because of inherent or biological superiority.] We learned that the closer to white you were the prettier you were considered to be. It was everywhere.

What sort of remedies can you suggest for this issue of colorism either collectively of individually?

Talk about it. Don’t act like it doesn’t exist and has existed for a long, long time. Support magazines and television shows that make an effort to show that there is beauty in all skin tones and are not afraid to showcase dark-skinned women and showcase them in a positive way. Be sensitive to how it impacts our girls at early ages. Every chance I get I purpose to tell a dark-skinned little girl how beautiful she is. I do it because it is true.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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