Monday, September 22, 2008

IT’S MILLNER—MRS. CHILES IF YOU’RE NASTY (or my kid’s teacher)


You should know that I really like my maiden name. “Millner” is an original—a cut above the standards “Miller” and “Milner,” with its extra “L” and the surprising “N.” I also happen to think “Millner,” the name my daddy gave me, cuts a really commanding presence next to the unusual but equally well-liked “Denene,” the name my mom picked up, I’m told, from some soap commercial she saw on TV while she was watching her stories. For sure, they look good together, my two names, especially on my books and magazine article by-lines—the “Millner” part serving a fitting tribute to my dad, who convinced me to become a writer in the first place.

Denene Millner. Strong, yet feminine, original, yet accessible. Loves it—so much so that when I got married, I chose to keep my maiden name (a decision that, 11 years later, still has my husband a little vexed).

Still, the maiden name this married mom of three loves so much gets kicked to the curb faster than a virgin at the prom when I walk into a PTA meeting or a teacher’s conference, you better believe it. My kids are Mari, Lila, and Mazi Chiles, and I’m Mrs. Chiles, thank you.

Don’t front—you know how it works: A black mom walking her child into school, onto the soccer fields, into the grocery store and the doctor’s office—hell, anywhere—almost always has to rush through a gauntlet of conjecture before she gets through the door good.

Look at her—she laid up there and had all them babies…

I wonder if those kids all have the same daddy...

You know she’s probably raising all of them on her own…

She can’t care anything about those kids’ education/health/well-being—too stressed trying to make ends meet…

I wonder how much of my hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going toward her grocery bills…


These things are never said to our faces. But the actions—the way black mothers get talked to, or treated, or, worse, ignored—makes it crystal that way too many folks are operating on the assumption that our children were mistakes, and are being parented by tired, broke, stressed-out moms who have no men to speak of in their lives. This is especially true when the last names are lined up and they see that the black mom’s is different from that of her children. I learned this the hard way the first day I became a mother, when a nurse at the hospital at which I gave birth to my baby girl actually verbally articulated extreme surprise when I told her the guy holding my child was my husband. “Your husband?” she asked, her neck and eyebrows forming into impossible contortions to match the astonishment in her voice. “Oh, well then let me tell you about the private rooms…” she said, as if privacy and the right to bond with your baby in peace were some kind of prized possession only married folk were entitled to. And don’t get me started about the time when I put in an application to a private school for my girls, and was immediately met with the “we don’t have any scholarships available” line, no doubt when she checked over the paperwork and saw different surnames for me and my babies.

See, their assumption was that I’m a single mom, probably scratching and just barely surviving. With little money. Barely any time. Distracted. And not worthy of the respect, time, and attention one pays to a team—a couple, a husband and wife. These are some of the worst kind of stereotypes with which any mother—single or not—could be saddled. Indeed, I have an abundance of empathy for my single mom friends, precisely because I see the evidence of different treatment—mistreatment—everyday. And let me tell you: I know we all got enough problems being mothers in America, and black to boot. The last thing we need is more mess heaped onto the pile of crap we have to overcome.

In other words, married African American moms just don’t have the luxury of co-signing the mainstream feminist manifesto that demands you reject your husband’s last name on some ol’ anti-patriarchal “you don’t belong to any man” thing. We have to use our married names to make statements of our own, and there’s nothing like matching surnames and a wedding ring to help shut down the madness at the gate. Bonus if you can actually get your husband to show up to the school functions/doctor’s appointments/social functions with you. Each sends a loud, distinct signal that the person standing in front of you won’t necessarily fit into whatever stereotypes you have of this African American mommy. That we might actually care about our kids’ education—and have the time to focus on it. That there is discipline being meted out in healthy doses at our house. That money may not necessarily be an issue for us (yeah, right). That we made the commitment to one another to raise our family—together.

Am I being insecure? Paranoid, maybe? Nope. Just being very real about the very difficult reality of being a black mom. So the next time you see me at the PTA meeting, do me a favor: Call me Mrs. Chiles.

I won’t be mad.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

She's The Boss: A Dad Gets Punked By His 4-Year-Old


As black men, we spend a significant part of our early days making testosterone-infused snap judgments about how we think we’d fare in physical encounters with other brothers. I think I could take him…Look at that little guy over there—I know I could take him…Whoa, that’s a big dude. But I could still take him—long as I had a baseball bat.

If you had walked up to me about 20 years ago and told me that two decades hence, the person in the world I’d be most frightened of would stand about three feet tall and tip the scales at 34 lbs., I would have checked your forehead for signs of fever. But there I was, more than four decades on this planet, and I could state without hesitation that the person who frightened me most went by the name of Lila Chiles and she fit exactly those height and weight measurements. Yes, as you might have guessed by now, my terrifying antagonist was my four-year-old daughter.

Before you prepare your laundry list of harsh judgments, let me establish a few things up front:

1. I love the girl more than I ever thought imaginable. My wife does too.
2. The girl is six now, and not nearly as bad. But she’s still a little scary.
3. If, as you read this, you find your tongue curling around the word “punk,” you won’t get any argument from me.
4. Yes, I am, indeed, quite a bit bigger than she.
5. No, she has never threatened me with any firearms. I don’t believe she’s threatened my wife either. If she had, I assume my wife would have told me.

When we’re out in public, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store or the Wal-Mart, watching some crazy white child tear the store apart while his mother helplessly wrings her hands, black parents like to talk a lot of smack about how thoroughly we have our kids in check. You should notice that the ones usually doing the talking had the wisdom to leave their kids at home while they shopped. Those of us whose kids are somewhere nearby are almost always silent at these moments, pretending we're busy loading our groceries onto the conveyor belt—secretly praying that our offspring, our “seeds,” as my rap friends like to call them, will not choose this particular moment to act a fool, perhaps inspired by the impressive havoc created by her white colleague over yonder. I know how much many of us brag about the damage we inflict on our kids if they deign to breathe at the wrong time, the serious beatings we dish out. But it has never escaped my notice that (1) the ones who brag the loudest usually have the worst-behaving kids, and (2) the oft-beaten kids are still messing up on the regular.

This is all to say that my wife and I had tried just about every disciplinary tool we could think of to tame the wild and free spirit that is my precious little Lila, but she remained thoroughly unbroken. Shoot, she wasn’t even bent. I had to admit to a certain amount of grudging admiration for her strength of will and an abiding curiosity about what this child will grow up to be. But first we all had to get through her childhood. Lila is six now, and not nearly as out there, but two years ago, when she entered the room, the family—me, my wife, our then-seven-year-old daughter and my then-14-year-old son—all would take a collective breath, each of us praying that her gaze settled on someone else. Her focus moved slowly around the space and, too often, it stopped at me.

“Daddy, can you throw me on the bed?” she’d ask, her eyes dancing at the hours of rough-house fun she believed she was about to have with good ol’ Dad.

Gently, I’d try to turn her in another direction. “Well, no, Lila, it’s already well past 9 and you and your sister should already be in bed. Perhaps you’d like for me to read from your favorite book?”

One of Lila’s most noteworthy characteristics was her ability to go from zero to 60 in about two or three seconds flat, like an exquisitely engineered Ferrari. In other words, with no build-up, no warning, no slow burn, the girl could—and still can—go from smiling to a full-bore scream in about the time it takes for the words “well” and “no” to pass my lips. The bedtime routine some nights could last as long as two hours as the little one attempted every trick she could think of to avoid closing her eyes. My tummy hurts. I’m scared. I have to pee. I’m thirsty. I heard something. I have to pee again (of course).

All night long.

And if the wife and I had any designs on intimacy? Like a plait-wearing, brown-skinned bloodhound, she seems able to sniff any amorous intentions in the air. Add another hour.

For many decades now, the scientific community has been engaged in a ferocious debate about the process by which we become the people that we are. They call it nature vs. nurture. Are boys born with a predilection to rough-and-tumble physical behavior or do they come to us as virtual blank slates and we make them more violent and physical by the way we parent boys? Are our personalities pre-formed in the womb, or do the parents coddle one child and ignore the next, creating a clinger and a rebel?

Well, Heaven has to be missing an angel because my nine-year-old is the sweetest thing God has ever produced—always willing to help out Mommy and Daddy, writing poems in her spare time to tell us how much she loves us, bringing home drawings from school that depict her having fun with her family, always with a bright sun shining above our heads. Did we do something special to make her that way? I really don’t think so. Or, more appropriately, did we do anything differently with her little sister? I am certain we did not.

So I don’t want to hear another word about nurture, not while I still have vivid memories of cowering in the corner, hoping my beautiful, demonic little 4-year-old daughter would think of something else to do besides come looking for me.
For the record, let me say this once more: I love her more than I ever thought imaginable.

Wait! I think I hear her coming. God help me.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Damn that Lil' Wayne--Now I Have To Live Without My Radio.


So I’m in the car on my way to Target with my daughters when I realize I pulled out without my pack of homemade kid-friendly/mom-approved CD mixes. Now, this isn’t an issue if I’m driving alone—I simply tune into talk radio (Warren Ballentine has my ear during morning errands, Michel Martin’s NPR show Tell Me More is on in the afternoon, and I smile all the way to my exercise torture… er, African dance class listening to Farai Chideya’s News & Notes in the evenings). But Mari and Lila neither understand nor appreciate the finer points of intelligent black thought on the RNC convention and the Kwame Kilpatrick fiasco (hey, they’re nine and six—have an exhaustive talk about SpongeBob, Raven-Symone, or snot, and they’re all in). So I turned on the radio. It was nine in the morning. I live only about five minutes from Target. “How bad could it be?” I asked myself as I punched in my local R&B station.

And wouldn’t you know—on comes Lil’ Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer,” with Bobby Valentino contributing a chorus of police siren noises and dirty talk about what he’s going to do to the lady cop when he gets her in the backseat of her ride. It took Lila, the 6-year-old, all of three seconds to tap into her inner Beyonce and join along: “When I get all up in ya/We can hear the angels calling us/We can see the sunrise before us/And when I’m in that thang/I’ll make that body sing/I make it say Wee Ooh Wee Ooh Wee…” she sang with much gusto and way too much glee.

When I tell you I almost crashed the ride into a ditch trying to change the station?

A rambling black-out lecture immediately followed—I think the words “inappropriate” and “mommy’s not mad, really,” and “since you’re not grown,” tumbled from my lips. But mostly, I remember the look of confusion and fear on my baby’s face. Why, I could tell she was wondering, is my mother bugging out over a song?

Here’s why: Because Lil’ Wayne with his “Lollipop” and Bobbi Valentino with his “Wee Ooh Wee Ooh Wee,” and black radio, with its devil-may-care playlists blasting in the afternoons for all of the Elmo set to hear, are k-i-l-l-i-n-g this generation’s ability to hear and appreciate good music. And frankly, I’m tired of it.

Now don’t get it twisted: I love Hip Hop and R&B. I’m a product of it in every way—sat by the stereo in my parents basement every Friday night listening to Red Alert and Mr. Magic; blasted Run DMC, LL Cool J, and Rakim from my stereo in my college dorm room; got through my year living away from home and on my own listening to A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, Mary J. Blige and Jodeci and; covered some of the greatest lyricists and singers ever as an entertainment reporter for The Daily News in New York. I’m prone to blasting Jay-Z, Nas, Lupe Fiasco, T.I., Ludacris and music by countless other artists whose lyrics are astounding.

But the babies don’t know nothing about them.

That’s grown folk music.

And I just wish that somebody who has control over what’s played on my local radio station when I’m driving the kids to school, or picking them up from swim practice, or driving them to Target would act like they know this, too. I mean, I distinctly remember as a teenager listening to legendary radio jock Frankie Crocker explain why nobody would ever hear Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” before 9 p.m. on his watch. The subject matter, he said, wasn’t for the kids to hear. I didn’t fully comprehend what the big deal was, but then, Crocker wasn’t talking to me, right? He was helping out my mom and dad, who, while at work, just didn’t—and couldn’t—control what my brother and I were listening to on the family stereo.

Sadly, there are no Frankie Crockers, it seems, on the scene today—just deejays who are quite happy to tell moms like us that they just play what the audience wants to hear and if we don’t like it, oh well.

With apologies to black radio, and at the expense of sounding like a played-out mom too old to recognize cool when I hear it, I’m just going to go on ahead and tune out when my girls are in the car, thank you. And for other moms considering the same, I’m attaching a list of kid-friendly, mother-approved R&B and Hip Hop hits both you and your kids can enjoy the next time you’re in the car, without fear (all of these can be downloaded off iTunes). If you want to add on to this list, go on ahead and do it in the comments section. Happy listening!

1. Alright, Ledisi
2. UMI Says, Mos Def
3. Mi Swing Es Tropical, Nickodemus & Quantic, featuring Tempo
4. Summertime, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince
5. Mind Control, Stephen Marley
6. Still In Love, Kirk Franklin
7. I’d Like To, Corinne Baily Rae
8. Honey, Erykah Badu
9. Let Go, Lalah Hathaway
10. Sittin’ In The Middle, Raul Midon
11. Teenage Love Affair, Alicia Keys
12. Golden, Jill Scott
13. Get By, Talib Kweli [Note: Get the “clean” version; there is some cursing on the explicit one, but it’s a great message song you’ll appreciate the kids hearing.]
14. Need U Bad, Jazmine Sullivan
15. Magic Touch, Robin Thicke
16. Ordinary, Wayne Brady

Tuesday, September 2, 2008



He’s sweet and thoughtful and says, “Yes ma’am” when I talk to him, and has challenged my 16-year-old son to enough sweaty driveway basketball duels for me to know his name and his mama’s, too, and even invite him every once in a while to sit at my table for dinner. What I didn’t know about my son’s friend, though, is that, at age 16, he was expecting to have a baby with a girl he was “messing with.” I almost choked on my smoked turkey wings when, at our dinner table, he pulled out his cell phone and showed me pictures of his little brown bundle, a boy, wrapped in scratchy hospital linens and nestled in his teenage mother’s arms, a roomful of not-so-doting family members scattered around her.

I congratulated him, of course. To be polite. But the questions came soon after. What’s your game plan? Who is this girl to you? How are you going to care for this baby? What does your mother think? What does her mother think? You do realize that the life you envisioned—college, career, getting paid—is going to be near impossible to achieve, right? Right?

I mean, I’m just sayin’.

Trust me: The word “proud” was not one that crossed our minds that night at the dinner table. But to hear the operatives of presumed Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain and his troubled sidekick, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, you would think we should break out the cigars, party hats and bubbles to celebrate yet another teenager’s crash course in parenthood. This, of course, is the key talking point we’ve heard over and over again as the GOP deals with the fall-out over the news that the 17-year-old daughter of Palin, an abstinence-touting/anti-birth control/anti-sex education “family values” conservative, is knocked-up. This, those operatives insist, is the “normal life” of most Americans—a “private family matter” that needs to be respected, rather than discussed.

Sorry—no cigars and party hats for me: My husband and I are too busy having the very serious, very necessary discussion with our three kids (yet again) about why we don’t want them bringing any babies into this house. We’re not judging—we just know the stakes. Because despite that all-too-many in the Republican party are all happy, happy, joy, joy that Bristol has a baby bump, teenage pregnancy traditionally has been something Americans have neither condoned nor supported, especially if the parent-to-be is black. Indeed, those same folks who ask us to “respect” the choices of Governor Palin’s family are usually the same ones breathing hot fire about the irresponsibility of black families whose children face similar circumstances. I’m 100 percent certain that when they see the mother of my son’s friend’s baby pushing her stroller down the street, nobody is going to look at that black teenage mom and think adoringly about the love and support she has at home. Not one is going to say, “Golly, how proud must her mother be to become a 40-something-year-old grandmother?” I assure you, too, that there won’t be any applause for the “courageous” decision her and her baby’s father made to keep their baby.

And they especially won’t consider that young black mother’s decision a “personal family issue” that need not be discussed. Nope, they’ll be all up in her womb and her Baby Phat purse, wondering how many more illegitimate babies she’s going to bring into the world; how many baby daddies she’ll have; how much in welfare and food stamps they’ll have to shell out to take care of those babies (“because you know the men who fathered them won’t,” they’ll say), and; how long will it take for her little crumbsnatchers to follow in her footsteps, littering their great American landscape with more illegitimate babies the good tax-paying folk will have to take care of. Poverty statistics will be rattled off. Crime statistics surely will be cited. And all kinds of questions about the morality of the teen parents—and most certainly their parents, too—will be in play.
In other words, that “unconditional love, support, and respect” I keep being told I should give the Palins is never, ever extended to young black mothers and their families as they negotiate raising children in an extremely contemptuous, prying society that judges them at every turn.

Oh, the irony of it all. So rich.

As much as McCain/Palin supporters want us to hush up about Bristol’s baby already, now is not the time to be quiet. There are way too many mixed signals being sent to my teenage son and my little daughters, who, one day, will all be faced with the very hard, very grown-up decision about whether to have sex. If I let them listen, unfiltered, right now, the chatter sounds a lot like this to my African American children: It’s hard to be a teen parent, but we should support them (if they’re white) because family values are important (except in the instances when black teens have sex—then we need to question their parents’ apparent inability to impart morals on their brood), raising babies at such a young age is difficult (unless you’re black; then we expect you to find a way to raise the kid without digging into my pockets—you got yourself into that mess, we shouldn’t have to pay for it) and they deserve applause for choosing life (unlike black teen moms, who should be popping birth control like candy or make an appointment at the clinic because nobody’s interested in dealing with their mistakes).

That’s why we’re having with our kids the same very real, very hard conversation about Bristol Palin that we did when my son’s friend pushed himself away from the table: We don’t want you to have sex until you’re old enough to deal with the emotional, physical, mental, and financial consequences that come with it. We assure you that if you’re still a teenager, you will not be ready. But if you think you are, we want you to protect yourself. From disease. And pregnancy. And the struggles that surely would follow should you become a black teen parent in America, where you already have to jump double the height, double the speed (with a smile) to even sit at the table and beg for crumbs from that American pie.

Would we support and love our children if they followed Bristol and my son’s friend down the same path? You betcha. But it’s up to us as good, solid parents, to be proactive about such things—to give our children the information, the family value set, and the tools they need to choose the path that works for this family. And we’ve the right to question just how our family’s values would stack up in the administration of a potential VP, who would serve a heartbeat away from the presidency with a grandbaby born to a teenager whose mother is anti-birth control and anti-sex education and whose insistence on abstinence clearly fell on deaf ears.

I’m not judging.

I’m just sayin’.
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