Q & A Race

What We Talk About When We Talk About Black Unwed Mothers: A Q&A With Tanya Fields of the BLK Projek

Regina Mahone

Fields drew attention during a recent live-streamed conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, when she asked about the tearing down of Black unmarried mothers by other Black women. Rewire spoke with her about being a woman of color leader, stereotypes placed on Black unmarried mothers, and more.

On November 8, hundreds of viewers were introduced to Tanya Fields during the Q&A portion of a live-streamed event with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, when Fields asked about the tearing down of Black unmarried mothers by other Black women. One of MHP’s Foot Soldiers, Fields runs the BLK Projek, a food justice initiative in the South Bronx.

Last Friday, I had the chance to talk to Fields about her organization and her experience being a woman of color leader in that field. We also discussed the stereotypes placed on Black unmarried mothers, and what’s missing in the reproductive rights movement’s conversation about barriers to access. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Rewire: Having created a number of community initiatives to, ultimately, improve your life and the life of your children, you are a leader in your South Bronx neighborhood. What has your experience been like as a woman of color leader?

Tanya Fields: In the South Bronx neighborhood, I don’t think my experience has been any more unique than any other women of color who have done work here. I mean the South Bronx is definitely a place where you see patriarchy play out. I think that if you talk to many of the amazing woman of color leaders here, like Kelli Sepulveda of The Point and Karen Washington, I think we would have very similar experiences of what it’s been like doing work in the South Bronx.

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Now, being a woman of color doing food work on a national and a citywide scale has been interesting because of how all of these things overlap, and how you see them play out. Folks on the Internet have said that I’m too big or made comments about my skin color or my hairstyle (I wear my hair in locks). The good food movement is often times very much seen through a normative white lens. We’re having discussions about it now [among leaders] in the movement, and a lot of folks are much more open to having the discussion, but I am still every day pointing out to someone their privilege. 

Rewire: What about that experience surprised you?

TF: I was very surprised when [people judging me on how I look] started happening, but I should’ve been less naive. I’m a woman. And any kind of woman in any kind of public space should know she is going to be judged regardless of her ethnic background, her race, or her nationality. If you are a woman, then our patriarchal society says your looks are up for discussion.

It was surprising to me to be talking about starting a mobile market, or a veggie truck, and to hear somebody make a joke about the fact that I don’t eat enough vegetables. Or, you know, saying, “She should start eating what she’s preaching.” That was hurtful, on a human level.

Then I realized why I am doing this work. I realized that not only am I responsible for getting better access [to healthy food] for my community and communities like mine. But I’m also responsible for dispelling myths about this idea that’s been force-fed to us in this country that stick-thin equals healthy. And that if you’re a larger bodied person you could not possibly be healthy. And that Black people don’t care about health. And that poor Black people don’t care about good food.

Rewire: I really love what you said on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show last week about how your children are not your circumstance and that they’re live human beings, and if we don’t nurture them, along with all other children, we’re going to see ourselves in some deep stuff in the next 20 years. With public benefit programs being cut left and right at both state and federal levels, what “stuff” are we looking at?

TF: We’re going to be looking at more children with learning disabilities who are not performing in a way that they need to, and more economic disparity because lawmakers are making it impossible for people to be able to actually climb their way out of poverty, whether they have children or not.

This idea that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps—that’s a bunch of bullshit. I wish people would stop saying that. After you get off the phone with me, I want you to get down on the floor and try to pull yourself up by your shoelaces. I’m telling you it’s physically impossible. You cannot do it. If you try to pull yourself up by your shoelaces, or your “bootstraps,” without the aid of a chair or putting your hand on the floor, it won’t happen. So even this euphemism that we keep giving to people itself is not physically possible. Why do we think it would actually be possible for people to help themselves out of poverty without some sort of systematic changes, some legislative changes, or without institutional changes? It is the systematic barriers, institutional barriers, and legislative barriers that are keeping people in poverty!

America does not care about poor children, no matter what color they are. I’m not saying that to be controversial. I’m saying it because it’s the truth. Because you can’t say that you do, and then cut food stamps. And then poor parents have to make choices about whether they’re going to feed their kids or themselves.

Rewire: Do you have any thoughts on the idea that’s so pervasive in our culture today that Black women are responsible for their own poverty?

TF: I don’t want to get into it. And not because I think you’re being too personal. Melissa Harris-Perry said in her conversation with bell hooks that people like stories. It does not matter how many times people put up different speeches of me speaking, or show my work, there’s a significant amount of people who will continue to reduce me down to the woman who has four kids and three babies’ daddies, who is now pregnant again, and who ain’t married. They don’t give a shit about anything else I’ve done. The only trope they want to hold onto is that I am some poster child for poverty. That I am what’s wrong with Black America.

Half of this country is in poverty. Dual-parent homes, married families, all of that—they didn’t create poverty. Corporate welfare is creating poverty. And legislation is creating poverty. I didn’t create poverty.

They are comfortable in that trope because they get to have a scapegoat. And when you’re talking about a racist, sexist, patriarchal society, [that’s] just easier.

Black people are not immune to doing the same type of damage that right-wing Republicans would. We absolutely need to blame the conditions we find ourselves in as Black people on somebody. And the single Black mother is an easy one to blame it on. People have totally bought into this idea of the “welfare queen,” which was propaganda made up out of the Reagan administration.

So all I can do is exist and teach my daughters and my sons to be tremendous, and that their very existence is revolutionary. Every time that they accomplish something and they are successful, they are revolutionary. They are the legacy that [shows] Black women do not create poverty.

Rewire: So tell me about the BLK Projek and how it’s helping to address these issues in your community.

TF: The elevator pitch is that the BLK Projek is harnessing the local good food movement to create economic development opportunities for marginalized women and youth. In laymen’s terms, we really just want to get better food in our communities and make sure that those who are the most impacted are the ones who benefit from the economic opportunities that it would bring. We’re working on two big projects right now.

I’m tremendously proud of myself. After running the organization for three years, this last year we were able to raise close to $100,000 through organizational funding, an IndieGoGo campaign, and individual giving. We’ve also had a conference that was attended by over 300 people. We got them to come out to the Bronx. More than half of the audience had never been to the Bronx before, because like many folks they had some negative predispositions about what it means to live in the Bronx, or to go to the Bronx.

One of our two projects is a bus to deliver healthy foods in our community, which we turned into a clean-energy vehicle. We got a $10,000 grant to put solar panels on it. We converted the engine so that it runs on used vegetable oil, because in a community like ours sustainability is important.

My community is next to the largest food distribution center in the world. We get 16,000 diesel food trucks every day, with three major highways running through our community. And that food does not come into our community. But we do reap all of the negative impacts of having those things, including epidemic rates of asthma and high rates of childhood obesity. It was really important to us that we make sure that this vehicle be a responsible, clean-energy vehicle.

We are working with local farmers and growers in rural areas, like Corbin Hill Farm and Wholeshare, to bring food into our communities at reasonable prices. We’ll take EBT. We’re going to work on making sure we can take WIC farmer’s checks as well. And we want to create jobs through this program. Our bus driver is from this community. My program coordinator is from this community. The people that we will hire to pack the bus will be youth from the community. And then we just want to continue to grow that so that we can get to a point where we can pay living wages and make sure that people here really feel invested in the food that comes into it.

And then our second project: We are in the process of registering a city-owned lot, with GreenThumb, because we are going to work with Sustainable South Bronx and turn it into an urban farm.

That’s how we’re addressing the issue of food access in our community, by creating open, green spaces where folks can become educated, grow food, and have a relationship with the land, or just have a safe space to come into where they will not be criminalized for simply existing. That space will support the mobile market, which provides better access to folks as well as some economic development opportunities. And then from there, I kind of feel like the stratosphere is the limit. I think there are so many other things that we can do. And my hope is that I can train some young woman from the community in the next four to five years to take over the organization.

I really feel like part of my calling is also to continue to get my ass kicked because I chose to be the voice for women who feel like they don’t necessarily have a voice. There are so many tropes and stereotypes about low-income mothers, about single mothers despite their income, particularly mothers of color, particularly Black mothers. It’s hard enough being a Black woman in American society. Go ahead and have a baby and not be married, and everything that’s wrong in the world is your fault. And under these auspices—like your community looking at you with disdain—you must raise healthy, happy children, when the legislative policies and institutional structures make it difficult for you to do so. On the left and on the right, when we have conversations about single mothers, we have conversations about poor women. Lawmakers will have everybody at the table except poor women, except single mothers, as if we’re some sort of extinct species they can never get a hold of.

We are very comfortable continuing to hold up single mothers either as an abject version of poverty that deserves our charity and who is a consistent victim—and that’s not my narrative, and not the narrative of my grandmother and my aunts and folks that have raised their children to be well adjusted, happy, and successful—or making you some living-high-on-the-welfare hog, who doesn’t care, has low self-esteem, is chronically uneducated, and doesn’t know what birth control is. It is maddening.

There needs to be more spaces where folks are allowed to advocate for themselves and be seen as whole individuals, and no different from anybody else. You know, we talk about veterans, and they are deserving of our sympathy when they are not treated well because they fought for this country. When we talk about single mothers, we talk about them with the most disdain even though they are raising our children who will go on to become adults who are supposed to lead our country. And we treat them like they are deserving of nothing.

Rewire: How do you go about changing that narrative, that trope, that single story of Black women?

TF: It’s not me alone. There are lots of women. One of the first blog posts that came out after the New School event was on this blog called Beyond Baby Mamas, and the author [Stacia L. Brown] wrote a really articulate piece that talked about me, but also talked about a lot about single mothers in general. That we come in all the shapes, colors, and sizes, educational levels, experiences, and we are all complicated, multi-layered people. Us having children doesn’t stop that. There are already women who are having these conversations.

I think what really needs to happen, much like anything else in this country, there needs to be a person, a group of people, who are consistently out there with messaging and communication projects, continuing to create platforms for folks to organize around. Because it’s more than just, Oh I want to be seen as a human being. That’s the beginning of it. Being seen as a human being means then we create legislative policy that does not take food out of the mouths of children. The largest amount of food stamp recipients are children, so when you cut food stamps, you are taking food out of the mouths of babies. How do we as a country do that? It’s because we don’t see these types of children as valuable as other children.

Rewire: Around the country, states are taking away women’s access to reproductive services. This is something Black women have been facing for decades. What is missing from the conversation when the reproductive rights community talks about restrictions to access?

TF: We talk about reproductive rights, but we don’t talk about reproductive justice. Yes, women should have the right to access all of these services, but what about the fact that the very industry of gynecology was built on using Black women as guinea pigs against their will? And what about the fact that when we talk about reproductive rights and reproductive justice that many times we’re only talking about birth control and we’re only talking about abortion, but we don’t talk about the right of a woman to carry her baby to full term and to receive the types of things that she would need to have a successful birth?

Why is it that in the Black community, in an industrialized country, we are seeing high rates of infant mortality? There are whole groups of people who are not being represented, and there’s this idea that it’s just the college-age young woman who wants to be able to go to Planned Parenthood to get birth control, that she is the one who is most at risk. We have this conversation around everything that’s wrong with the Black community (i.e., me, an unmarried mother with multiple children and multiple fathers of those children), but we don’t have the conversation for the women who did not feel like they had a choice to have children, or who have found themselves in predicaments where they are having more terminations than they might be willing to be comfortable around, or the young woman who ends up pregnant because she wasn’t able to get quality access to birth control or education around her baby and reproductive organs. We’re not talking about those young women, and we’re not talking about those older women. We leave them out as usual—it’s one of the intersections of racism. We leave them out of the conversation.

Commentary Sexuality

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday Must Become an Annual Observance

Raquel Willis

As long as trans people—many of them Black trans women—continue to be murdered, there will be a need to commemorate their lives, work to prevent more deaths, and uplift Black trans activism.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

This week marks one year since Black transgender activists in the United States organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday. Held on Tuesday, August 25, the national day of action publicized Black trans experiences and memorialized 18 trans women, predominantly trans women of color, who had been murdered by this time last year.

In conjunction with the Black Lives Matter network, the effort built upon an earlier Trans Liberation Tuesday observance created by Bay Area organizations TGI Justice Project and Taja’s Coalition to recognize the fatal stabbing of 36-year-old trans Latina woman Taja DeJesus in February 2015.

Black Trans Liberation Tuesday should become an annual observance because transphobic violence and discrimination aren’t going to dissipate with one-off occurrences. I propose that Black Trans Liberation Tuesday fall on the fourth Tuesday of August to coincide with the first observance and also the August 24 birthday of the late Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson.

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There is a continuing need to pay specific attention to Black transgender issues, and the larger Black community must be pushed to stand in solidarity with us. Last year, Black trans activists, the Black Lives Matter network, and GetEQUAL collaborated on a blueprint of what collective support looks like, discussions that led to Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“Patrisse Cullors [a co-founder of Black Lives Matter] had been in talks on ways to support Black trans women who had been organizing around various murders,” said Black Lives Matter Organizing Coordinator Elle Hearns of Washington, D.C. “At that time, Black trans folks had been experiencing erasure from the movement and a lack of support from cis people that we’d been in solidarity with who hadn’t reciprocated that support.”

This erasure speaks to a long history of Black LGBTQ activism going underrecognized in both the civil rights and early LGBTQ liberation movements. Many civil rights leaders bought into the idea that influential Black gay activist Bayard Rustin was unfit to be a leader simply because he had relationships with men, though he organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Johnson, who is often credited with kicking off the 1969 Stonewall riots with other trans and gender-nonconforming people of color, fought tirelessly for LGBTQ rights. She and other trans activists of color lived in poverty and danger (Johnson was found dead under suspicious circumstances in July 1992), while the white mainstream gay elite were able to demand acceptance from society. Just last year, Stonewall, a movie chronicling the riots, was released with a whitewashed retelling that centered a white, cisgender gay male protagonist.

The Black Lives Matter network has made an intentional effort to avoid the pitfalls of those earlier movements.

“Our movement has been intersectional in ways that help all people gain liberation whether they see it or not. It became a major element of the network vision and how it was seeing itself in the Black liberation movement,” Hearns said. “There was no way to discuss police brutality without discussing structural violence affecting Black lives, in general”—and that includes Black trans lives.

Despite a greater mainstream visibility for LGBTQ issues in general, Black LGBTQ issues have not taken the forefront in Black freedom struggles. When a Black cisgender heterosexual man is killed, his name trends on social media feeds and is in the headlines, but Black trans women don’t see the same importance placed on their lives.

According to a 2015 report by the Anti-Violence Project, a group dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ and HIV-affected community violence, trans women of color account for 54 percent of all anti-LGBTQ homicides. Despite increased awareness, with at least 20 transgender people murdered since the beginning of this year, it seems things haven’t really changed at all since Black Trans Liberation Tuesday.

“There are many issues at hand when talking about Black trans issues, particularly in the South. There’s a lack of infrastructure and support in the nonprofit sector, but also within health care and other systems. Staffs at LGBTQ organizations are underfunded when it comes to explicitly reaching the trans community,” said Micky Bradford, the Atlanta-based regional organizer for TLC@SONG. “The space between towns can harbor isolation from each other, making it more difficult to build up community organizing, coalitions, and culture.”

The marginalization that Black trans people face comes from both the broader society and the Black community. Fighting white supremacy is a full-time job, and some activists within the Black Lives Matter movement see homophobia and transphobia as muddying the fight for Black liberation.

“I think we have a very special relationship with gender and gender violence to all Black people,” said Aaryn Lang, a New York City-based Black trans activist. “There’s a special type of trauma that Black people inflict on Black trans people because of how strict the box of gender and space of gender expression has been to move in for Black people. In the future of the movement, I see more people trusting that trans folks have a vision that’s as diverse as blackness is.”

But even within that diversity, Black trans people are often overlooked in movement spaces due to anti-Blackness in mainstream LGBTQ circles and transphobia in Black circles. Further, many Black trans people aren’t in the position to put energy into movement work because they are simply trying to survive and find basic resources. This can create a disconnect between various sections of the Black trans community.

Janetta Johnson, executive director of TGI Justice Project in San Francisco, thinks the solution is twofold: increased Black trans involvement and leadership in activism spaces, and more facilitated conversations between Black cis and trans people.

“I think a certain part of the transgender community kind of blocks all of this stuff out. We are saying we need you to come through this process and see how we can create strength in numbers. We need to bring in other trans people not involved in the movement,” she said. “We need to create a space where we can share views and strategies and experiences.”

Those conversations must be an ongoing process until the killings of Black trans women like Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee Whigham, and Skye Mockabee stop.

“As we commemorate this year, we remember who and why we organized Black Trans Liberation Tuesday last year. It’s important we realize that Black trans lives are still being affected in ways that everyday people don’t realize,” Hearns said. “We must understand why movements exist and why people take extreme action to continuously interrupt the system that will gladly forget them.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Tim Kaine Outlines Plan to ‘Make Housing Fair’

Ally Boguhn

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It's part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA). “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Donald Trump made some controversial changes to his campaign staff this week, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) noted his commitment to better housing policies.

Trump Hires Controversial Conservative Media Figure

Republican presidential nominee Trump made two notable additions to his campaign staff this week, hiring Breitbart News’ Stephen Bannon as CEO and GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway as campaign manager.

“I have known Steve and Kellyanne both for many years. They are extremely capable, highly qualified people who love to win and know how to win,” said Trump in a Wednesday statement announcing the hires. “I believe we’re adding some of the best talents in politics, with the experience and expertise needed to defeat Hillary Clinton in November and continue to share my message and vision to Make America Great Again.”

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Both have been criticized as being divisive figures.

Conway, for example, previously advised then-client Todd Akin to wait out the backlash after his notorious “legitimate rape” comments, comparing the controversy to “the Waco with David Koresh situation where they’re trying to smoke him out with the SWAT teams.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Conway is also “often cited by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim organizations such as the think tank Center for Security Policy and NumbersUSA.”

Under Bannon’s leadership, “mainstream conservative website” Breitbart.com changed “into a cesspool of the alt-right,” suggested the publication’s former editor at large, Ben Shapiro, in a piece for the Washington Post‘s PostEverything. “It’s a movement shot through with racism and anti-Semitism.”

Speaking with ABC News this week, Kurt Bardella, who also previously worked with Bannon at Breitbart, alleged that Bannon had exhibited “nationalism and hatred for immigrants, people coming into this country to try to get a better life for themselves” during editorial calls.

“If anyone sat there and listened to that call, you’d think that you were attending a white supremacist rally,” said Bardella.

Trump’s new hire drew heated criticism from the Clinton campaign in a Wednesday press call. “The Breitbart organization has been known to defend white supremacists,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. After pointing to an analysis from the SPLC linking Breitbart to the extremist alt-right movement, Mook listed a number of other controversial positions pushed by the site.

“Breitbart has compared the work of Planned Parenthood to the Holocaust. They’ve also repeatedly used anti-LGBT slurs in their coverage. And finally, like Trump himself, Breitbart and Bannon have frequently trafficked in all sorts of deranged conspiracy theories from touting that President Obama was not born in America to claiming that the Obama Administration was ‘importing more hating Muslims.’”

“It’s clear that [Trump’s] divisive, erratic, and dangerous rhetoric simply represents who he really is,” continued Mook.

Kaine Outlines Plan to “Make Housing Fair”

Clinton’s vice presidential nominee Kaine wrote an essay for CNN late last week explaining how the Clinton-Kaine ticket can “make housing fair” in the United States.

“A house is more than just a place to sleep. It’s part of the foundation on which a family can build a life,” wrote Kaine. “Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.”

Kaine shared the story of Lorraine, a young Black woman who had experienced housing discrimination, whom Kaine had represented pro bono just after completing law school.

“This is one issue that shows the essential role government can play in creating a fairer society. Sen. Ed Brooke, an African-American Republican from Massachusetts, and Sen. Walter Mondale, a white Democrat from Minnesota, came together to draft the Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination in the housing market,” noted Kaine, pointing to the 1968 law.

“Today, more action is still needed. That’s why Hillary Clinton and I have a bold, progressive plan to fight housing inequities across Americaespecially in communities that have been left out or left behind,” Kaine continued.

The Virginia senator outlined some of the key related components of Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda,” including an initiative to offer $10,000 in down payment assistance to new homebuyers that earn less than the median income in a given area, and plans to “bolster resources to enforce Fair Housing laws and fight housing discrimination in all its forms.”

The need for fair and affordable housing is a pressing issue for people throughout the country.

“It is estimated that each year more than four million acts of [housing] discrimination occur in the rental market alone,” found a 2015 analysis by the National Fair Housing Alliance.

No county in the United States has enough affordable housing to accommodate the needs of those with low incomes, according to a 2015 report released by the Urban Institute. “Since 2000, rents have risen while the number of renters who need low-priced housing has increased,” explained the report. “Nationwide, only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households with incomes at or below 30 percent of the area median income.”

What Else We’re Reading

CBS News’ Will Rahn penned a primer explaining Trump campaign CEO Bannon’s relationship to the alt-right.

White supremacists and the alt-right “rejoice[d]” after Trump hired Bannon, reported Betsy Woodruff and Gideon Resnick for the Daily Beast.

Clinton published an essay in Teen Vogue this week encouraging young people to fight for what they care about, learn from those with whom they disagree, and get out the vote.

“In calling for ‘extreme vetting’ of foreigners entering the United States, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested a return to a 1950s-era immigration standard—since abandoned—that barred entry to people based on their political beliefs,” explained USA Today.

Trump wants to cut a visa program “his own companies have used … to bring in hundreds of foreign workers, including fashion models for his modeling agency who need exhibit no special skills,” according to a report by the New York Times.

A Koch-backed group “has unleashed an aggressive campaign to kill a ballot measure in South Dakota that would require Koch-affiliated groups and others like them to reveal their donors’ identities.”

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