Issue No. 16
Jersey City, New Jersey
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Photos: J. Quazi King
It’s a truth that few women can run away from: once you start hitting certain life milestones, the big question—When are you going to start a family?—is sure to follow.
Crystal Black-Davis had the loving marriage (she and her husband Anthony Davis just celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary, and have been together for 15 years), the successful career (she’s owner of a gourmet food marketing firm) and the years were starting to make that irreversible flip against her if she wanted to become a mother (as everyone—including her doctor—reminded her).
Pretty sure she didn’t want to have children, Black-Davis decided to share her decision with the masses in a 2010 Essence.com article titled: “I’m Not Ready For Kids.”
“My professional dreams are finally coming to fruition and I'm ecstatic,” Black-Davis, then 35, wrote. “I don't want to rush into motherhood because I'm scared to wait any longer and then wonder whether the responsibility held me back.”
“I was the poster child for waiting to have a baby,” she says now. “[For] putting your success and your career first.”
But as the saying goes, if you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.
“That article came out at the end of September, and I found out I was pregnant a month later,” Black-Davis says, laughing. “I got a three-pack [pregnancy test] and I took all three. They were all positive.
“I think I knew at that point that God saw it fit for this to happen. I never would have done it on my own,” she continues. “[My son] Elijah has been the biggest blessing to me.”
Though Elijah was a blessing Black-Davis didn’t see coming a year ago, her mother, Margaret, always knew he was on his way.
“My mom said, ‘When that magical day happens [and] you finally decide to conceive, you’re going to have a boy,’” Black-Davis recalls. “She said, ‘For your lifestyle, you’re going to need a boy—someone who you can brush his hair and go.’ She would always say that, so when I got pregnant, there was no doubt in my mind that I was having a son.”
Elijah, who at 1 moves at a clip that suggests he’ll be a track and field athlete just like his dad, relaxes in his mother’s arms as they walk around the family’s modern two-bedroom loft in a converted Jersey City warehouse. It’s a scene that was inconceivable to Black-Davis a year ago; at that point in her life, she was focused on growing her company Savvy, the gourmet food consulting business she founded in 1998. Savvy initially started as a way to continue her love of event planning and fundraising she developed as a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority in college.
Back then Black-Davis did Savvy on the side while working full-time, developing global business strategies for a software company. But when she was laid off after her company was acquired in 2006, she saw an opportunity.
“After being downsized from the technology field, everyone thought [I was] going to do technology marketing,” she says. “[But] that [didn’t] make me happy. Food makes me happy! I wondered what would happen if I devoted a fraction of the time that I put into that corporation into [my company]. And that was the birth of what Savvy is today.”
Even though her first client was Australian celebrity chef Chris Smith, growing Savvy into the global force it is today was far from easy, Black-Davis recalls.
“Anthony was in grad school full time [then], so there were some challenges. There are times he could have [said], ‘Crystal, I don’t see how we’re going to be able to sustain our lifestyle if you don’t go [back to] work,’" she says. "A lot of my projects and my income is cyclical. The second challenge was that I hadn’t worked in food. So I couldn’t really present my resume and say, ‘Look at all these amazing brands I’ve worked with.’ I had to really sell my skill set, and convince clients that my [experience] was transferrable … in the food world.”
To say growing Savvy kept her busy would be an understatement. And if that weren’t enough, Black-Davis began exploring another side of her creativity by penning “Shaken and Stirred,” a novel focusing on the professional and personal lives of a group of women in their 30s.
But in the midst of being a poster child for having it all, Black-Davis suffered an unexpected blow: her mother’s sudden breast cancer diagnosis and death.
“It was a quick sweep,” she says now. “She was diagnosed in February of ’09, and passed away in August. Blindsided all of us. She was about to turn 56.”
Losing her mother effectively ended any maternal inkling she might have had, Black-Davis says.
“I was like, 'There’s no point now,'” she says. “[My mom] would always say that she would be out here for the first three months with me and help show me the ropes. I didn’t have that [any more and] I felt like there was a void.”
Now, almost four years after losing her mother, Elijah has brought out the maternal side Black-Davis had previously told the world she didn’t have. He's also brought her closer to her mom—just one of the “many ways” her son has been a blessing, she says.
“When Elijah was a small infant, before he began to social smile, every morning, when the sun would rise ... and [it] would cast this gorgeous glow right above our staircase,” Black-Davis says, with a thoughtful smile. “And every morning Elijah would just smile and gaze at it. I [felt like he was] encountering my mom’s spirit. I felt like she wasn’t far. She was still with us, checking in on her baby every morning.”
What do you think of the oft-repeated maxim that the most important decision a woman will make is the man who she is going to marry?
I agree. I think he needs to be able to complement you. One thing that I can say is in my marriage, first and foremost, we are best friends. And that’s how it started. He complemented me, I complemented him. We didn’t have everything in common, but the things that we did not understand about each other, we respected. We’re best friends, and I enjoy my time with him, and the love is just a plus.
I know I can’t be as successful as I am if I didn’t have him in my life. He supports me. He could have easily said, “You need to find a job, do this on the side,” or “I don’t really think that you should put all your eggs in this basket.” I have an encourager, a cheerleader who expects me to swing for the fences. I couldn’t be who I am without having that [kind of] life partner.
How has being a mom changed your life?
I feel like now frivolity is not necessarily what I’m able to engage in anymore. Every moment and every minute has to have a purpose. Because I’m a mom, I want to focus on him, so there’s not a lot of idle time. I still make time for me, but I want to make sure that I’m balancing my time, and [that I’m] being a good mom to him and being able to devote the time that I have to my business.
I always think the biggest change is just making sure that I’m managing my time and making sure that every minute has purpose, even if the purpose is to rest, and to be able to indulge in a little me time. But it has to have a purpose.
How do you balance everything?
It’s time management, it really is. I know sometimes I feel like I’m being extremely anal, but on my computer calendar, everything has a block of time. And that’s the only way I can get by, because I know I can’t rely on my memory to know I need to be doing this next.
I think understanding that there has to be balance and that everything is not urgent anymore [is important]. I used to live by a rule where if it came up, then it must be done right now. Not anymore. I prioritize, I delegate, and I do things differently now because my time has to have a purpose. But I also have to make sure that I have me time, and that’s very important because if [you] didn’t, as a mom, you would literally feel like you’ve lost yourself.
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when …?
(Laughs) There’s so many! I love being a mom most when I’m watching him sleep. I know that sounds crazy, but he is my angel. Just to watch him in the most peaceful state… I mean, he is so angelic and it warms my heart. It’s that unconditional love I never knew that I could feel for someone.
[Anthony and I] go down and peek in on him. We’ll ask each other, “Are you going to peek in on Sweetie Poo?” We’ll stand over him for 10 minutes sometimes, just rubbing his back and watching him.
Fill in the blank: Being a mom is the hardest when …?
When he is entering a new stage of development, because what we thought was predictable and routine becomes chaotic again! (Laughs)
Do you have a beauty regimen that you follow?
I’m more regimented now than I was before; I just want things to be streamlined and time efficient. Makeup is very minimal; [on] special occasions I’ll do makeup, but [it’s] typically lip gloss, mascara, bronzer on my cheek, and I’m gone.
My hair is natural. I [usually] wash on Friday night, because it typically takes two days for it to really settle into [its] pattern, and [on Sunday] I want to look nice for church. I do plaits, cornrows, bantu knots at the end with a pin, and every morning I just shake that out and go. It’s so easy.
I’m a devotee to Moroccan oil. I love the smell, I love how it makes my hair feel. I don’t have the brittle ends that I used to have [and] I don’t get that shedding anymore. It’s good stuff. Just the smell alone will take you to another place!
Fill in the blank: I feel most beautiful when …?
… I’m not trying to be beautiful and my husband says that I’m beautiful. That makes me feel like despite the hard day, despite the makeup-less face, the disheveled hair, and … the mom uniform, he still finds beauty in that, and I think that’s wonderful.
Second, there are certain glimpses where I can catch myself in the mirror and I look just like my mom. It’s a split second, but if I open the medicine cabinet [and] close the mirror, [that] first glance, I’m like, “Wow, that’s my mom.” And she was beautiful, absolutely beautiful. Everyone comments to this day, “Your mom was sharp. She was regal.” And she was.
Do you have an early memory of when you realized that food was your passion?
My dad always had Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine magazines. I think it may have been a sweepstakes that he entered in, because he was getting these magazines that he would always throw away. (Laughs)
[I would] always ask him every month, “Did we get the magazines?” I would lose myself in Travel + Leisure, looking at different places I knew I wanted to travel to and experience when I grew up, and in Food & Wine, looking at all these wonderful, exquisite things that I don’t see on a daily basis.
My mom, she wasn’t a cook. (Laughs) She was someone who kind of did easy packaged foods, and most women in the 80s did that. That was like the Hamburger Helper era; I didn’t see foie gras in the house, I didn’t see Piave cheese. These are things I read about and I was like, “Wow, when I grow up, I’m going to experience that.” That really shaped my love.
I also had an uncle [who] spent a lot of time in his early twenties in Germany and picked up a lot of cooking techniques there. So when he moved back to Indianapolis, he would always be the one that would take it over the top when we had holiday dinners. Here we have greens, macaroni and cheese, and a soufflé. (Laughs) So he kind of helped to spur that as well. I just loved the whole culinary culture. It was just intriguing, and it still is to me. A lot of people have their favorite designers and their favorite artists—I have my favorite chefs.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
The fact that I’m actually in control. I love being able to look at an ad in a magazine and say, “I actually contributed to that,” or see a product on a shelf and say, “Wow, that’s mine. I helped to get them to this point.”
The majority of my clients are what I classify as legacy brands: They’ve been very successful in Europe, or India, or West Africa, and a lot of times it’s their ultimate goal to export to the U.S. Savvy’s job is to ensure that the success they’ve had over in their native country will translate over to the U.S. [It’s almost like] building a brand from scratch because it’s a completely different audience [and] a completely different set of experiences. [I’m] making sure that once it’s on the shelves, consumers know about it.
That’s very gratifying, to be able to see in the retail space where consumers are actually not only being exposed to this brand, but they’re also engaging the brand: They’re talking about it and they’re loyal. It’s very fulfilling to see that come to fruition.
Congratulations on the relaunch of “Shaken and Stirred”! Were you always a writer?
No! It’s crazy because I started journaling back in ’98, the year I met Anthony. There were a lot of milestones … I just felt like I needed to remember this, because this was a good time in my life. A couple years later, I picked up my journals, and my life story read like a book. It was the journals that helped me to build scenes and to be able to create emotion. I fictionalized my journal and created “Shaken and Stirred.”
Part of why I felt like “Shaken and Stirred” needed to be published was for some strange reason, we have lost our balance in the African-American voice. Back in the 90s, we had all these great movies like “Love Jones” and “Brown Sugar” that told our stories and balanced the “Boyz N the Hoods,” which [is] a part of our story as well, but not all [of it]. There was also a time where you had ... the Bebe Moore Campbells and Terry McMillans of the [literary] world. All these women who were upstanding women you aspired to be. There was balance. What happened?
Now all we have is “Love and Hip Hop” and “Basketball Wives.” I'm totally fine if another “Basketball Wives Chicago” comes out next year, as long as there’s something to balance that image. The moment we become one-sided, we’ve lost the management of our brand as African-Americans. We need to regain some brand management because that is not all we are.
Elijah just happens to be a huge fan of mater mea! He navigated to the site all by himself.
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on Elijah in your work?
Making sure that you live up to your claim. I have this funny saying: I always give my clients Cirque Du Soleil service. I would bend over backwards, do anything to make sure that they’re getting what they paid for. At the end of the day … all you have is your reputation.
What kind of man do you hope Elijah becomes?
Like his dad. Someone who is serious about education and [is] just a successful, well-rounded person [with] a sense of humor [and] a love of God. He’s got a great example—Anthony, as the head of the household, exemplifies all of these things. Elijah sees this, and all I can do is hope that he is just as great as his father, and if possible even better. Which is very hard to do. (Laughs)
How do you feel about raising a black son, the way the country is right now?
I feel like he is a shining example of what the country should see. He comes from a good family. Here is a little African-American boy [whose] grandmother is getting her PhD and actually marched in Selma. His grandfather has a degree in math and he was a part of the sit-ins; his dad has his MBA; and his mom’s a college graduate. He’s got a lineage [where] this is expected. This is not anything that he would even have to consider. This is his heritage.
My hope is that he’ll never live up to stereotypes. As a parent you do whatever you can to ensure that they go the way that you steer them, but I feel like he’s going to be a shining example of what we know is a good black man. We’re setting him up for success. Anthony and I always say if he fails, it’s going to be of his own choice, not because of circumstance.
Issue No. 17
Brooklyn, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Rog Walker
Just beyond the bare hallways of an industrial SoHo workspace, an eclectic group of women of all shades and sizes is gathered in a large room decorated with roses and gilded mirrors, enjoying lively conversation and colorful drinks.
Hadiiya Barbel, 33, works her way around the room, eagerly greeting each of her guests with a huge smile while snapping a stream of photos with her ever-present iPad.
All the components necessary for a fantastic evening are here: a diverse and intriguing group of women, drinks that pack just enough of a punch, and the non-stop buzz of good conversation and laughter. But after a few moments, it’s clear that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill cocktail party. There’s a woman off to the side slipping a stretchy tan hair cap over her head and eyeing a sleek black wig perched on top of a mannequin’s head. In the middle of the room, Barbel carefully adjusts the honey-gold locks she’s just placed on another woman’s head with a fine-toothed comb.
This is Crowns and Cocktails—the signature event of Hadiiya Barbel’s growing empire. Barbel founded her eponymous company (formerly known as Visionary Hair) on the idea that wearing her signature hairpieces—or Crowns as she calls them—could be a transformative experience. How? Well for one thing, crowns aren’t wigs, Barbel stresses.
“A crown is different,” she explains. “When you think about a crown, you think about fashion and fun, you think about options. [Artists like] Erykah Badu [wear them]; she puts straight ones on, she’s done an Afro one, and then she’ll show you her hair’s short. Why? Because it’s about having fun. It allows one to celebrate being a woman.
“I create transformative beauty,” Barbel continues. “It’s the healing arts for many women.”
After years of creating and styling the detachable manes of celebrities such as actress Angela Basset and singer Ashanti, the clients that Barbel is overjoyed to work with now are those who stand to benefit the most from this “healing art”: women suffering hair loss from chemotherapy, lupus, alopecia, or any number of health issues. She acts as a high priestess of self-esteem for what she calls “the new celebrity.”
“You know who she is?” she asks, barely able to contain her excitement. “[She is] the woman who loses [her] hair and [is] suffering to find [her] self-esteem again. She just found out that she has breast cancer and her hair is falling down in the shower as she’s washing her hair. But she still has to work, she still has to find a way to pull it together; she has to manage her family and she still has to believe in herself. That’s the new celebrity to me, not because what show she’s on or what gossip she’s talking about. It’s her ability to persevere."
And Barbel knows from perseverance—she is a completely self-made woman juggling not only the rigors of managing a booming brand, but of single motherhood as well. She and her former husband started their family early, when Barbel was 20, “so I [could] grow with them,” she says. First-born Nawa, 13, was followed by Ahshar, 11, and Savannah, 6.
But as Barbel was growing her family, she was also expanding the business she started as a teenager in the Bronx, when she was creating unique hairstyles for friends and neighbors in the back room of her mother’s apartment. Her meteoric rise—profiled in the New York Times last year—sent her from “neighborhood-y” salons to high-profile magazine shoots to an daytime Emmy-winning two-year stint as head stylist for radio personality turned talk show host Wendy Williams.
“It made me push very hard,” Barbel says of juggling her career and her young children. “I realized that you really can’t stop. Failure is not an option. I had to be an example for them.”
Even though she had acquired her fair share of accolades on her rise to the top, Barbel says the long hours and bicoastal living began to wreak havoc on her personal, spiritual, and family life. In 2010—with her children on the verge of failing out of their grades—she left the show to launch her line of crowns, the Hadiiya Barbel Collection.
“It was a great platform, and it was very beneficial,” Barbel now says of her time on “The Wendy Williams Show,” her younger son’s head resting on her lap. “But I became the Wendy girl, and I didn’t want to be the Wendy girl. I was more than that, and I wanted to build my brand in a way that allows me the opportunity to call the shots.”
And for Barbel, that means focusing more on the “new” celebrities in need of a crown and her unique brand of self-esteem boosting. She is moving from styling to retail, with plans to open up a crown and accessories store in the West Village in early 2013.
With no plans on slowing down anytime soon, Barbel has built a business that also acts as a life lesson for her three children.
“I want them to understand the meaning of love, [of] being self-sufficient, and independent,” she says. “[I want them] to live a life of service [and] make people smile. That’s all you have to do to be successful—put a smile on somebody’s face.”
Smiles aren’t hard to come by towards the end of her Cocktail and Crowns event. Some of the women are Barbel’s original leggy model clients, beauties looking for something to accentuate their fierceness; others wear baseball caps around their thinning hair. But as the women and their newfound crowns retire for the evening, the aura of self-confidence around all of them is the same.
“The work is no longer just styling people’s hair,” Barbel says in awe. “Now it’s about bringing women together so we can feel good. Now people are coming and I shake their hands—‘Hi, I’m Hadiiya Barbel’—and they don’t let go.”
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
The strange little things that come out of their mouths when they express themselves, and tell you things that you never knew they were paying attention to. I love the interaction, the relationship of child and parent, being able to mold them and to have the opportunity to challenge them, challenge their minds, and see their gifts.
And then I enjoy putting the kids to sleep at night. Watching children sleep? It doesn’t matter how bad they were in the daytime. The children turn into angels at nighttime. It’s so beautiful... [There are] so many things. I love it all. I love motherhood.
How would you describe your children’s personalities?
They’re all different. My oldest one—Nawa—has the entrepreneur side of me. It’s never “[Give me] money.” It’s always, “Mom, how can I work to make money?” He knows how to save money and he helps me in my business: he sets up social media accounts, he downloads certain apps to make my life easier, and he proofreads the grammar of my posts. [Kids] just do things that we weren’t doing at that age.
My little child, Ahshar, he’s an artist. Complete child after my own heart. He’s a dancer, a thinker, and he studies astrology. He’s always trying to understand how to work with people, and he has a good soul. He creates these stories for me and he calls them his movies. He’ll create these beautiful illustrations, and it tells a whole story—it’s just so awesome. He’s been in an American Airlines campaign, and he wants to get into modeling. He just asked me the other day, “Mommy—any word on that agent for me?”
And then I have the little one, Savannah. She’s a gymnast. I was kickboxing with her when I was pregnant—she came out doing like a hundred pushups daily. She would drop down in the middle of the circle, stand there, and do pushups in front of everybody. She likes the attention, she likes the spotlight. Completely tomboy, because of her brothers, but also girly—pretty much [like] me. She’s very outgoing, very smart, and she’s a leader.
You have to see the gifts in all of them and you have to encourage these gifts. That’s our job. Another name for mother is the "master chosen teacher."
What’s the best advice you’ve received about being a mom?
I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the best advice from people. I [had] children and had to find my way. It was me searching for whatever it was that made me feel good about it.
I read something, and it spoke about children in a way that was so profound. Children are our biggest teachers, and they teach us about ourselves without us teaching them. When I read this, it just stuck so much with me, because a lot of people ignore children. But they have the gifts! They tell you the truth, the things that [you’re] trying to figure out, and they have the answers. They say little things, so you have to listen and pay attention to them.
How did you transition from doing hair in your apartment in the Bronx to winning a daytime Emmy for your work on “The Wendy Williams Show”?
I started off doing hair by doing my own hair. People would stop me and say “Where did you get your hair done?” and I would say I did it. I would take pictures every week in high school of the styles that I did [on myself], and I would put it in a portfolio.
I was like 15, 16, 17, doing the neighbors’ hair. Then I started promoting myself [at] beauty supply stores. I would tell [people] that I would travel to them, or they could come to my place. After awhile, I was just doing what I knew and I knew that I could grow.
Someone told me I should work at a salon ... in the East Village. It was wonderful; I was around nothing but major artists and I was so excited! They hired me right away. I started looking at magazines and said, “Oh my God, I need to be in this.” I made the contacts who knew the contacts and then started doing magazine shoots. It was one connection after the other—when you get to an editorial, you meet the celebrities. Then you connect with the celebrities and you have to keep that going.
I met [Wendy Williams] at a Source [magazine] photo shoot. I got [a job] through my agent and I was like, “Oh my God, I get to do Wendy?” I was so afraid of it because … if she doesn’t like something, then she’ll talk about it on the radio. But the minute I walked in, I knew it was cool because I know what she likes: big, wild hair. Of course you see me, that’s what I like too, so I brought [a wig] with me to the shoot, even though they just said bring a curling iron.
Soon as I walked in, she said “Your hair looks amazing!” I said “Look what I have in my bag. How about we try that on?” And she said “OK, I’m open.” So I took it a step further and I gave [the wig] to her. But I said, “Make sure you mention me on the radio.”
I connected with her personal assistant and I was always engaging her. And then one day [Wendy] called me. She said “Hadiiya I have this new opportunity for this TV show. I’m leaving radio. I want you to be in charge of my entire look.” And so I said, “Wonderful.”
Hadiiya's family room features words of wisdom from His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
It was a very fast-paced lifestyle and I made a decision [to leave]. I saw that [my children] were all failing out of their classes, [and there were] threats of them being left behind. I told [my children] I was thinking about leaving and they were like "Yay!"
[At the time I decided to leave], I was still waiting for the results of the Emmys to come in. Once I realized that [I was nominated], the same day I told them I wasn’t coming back. I trained people so she had somebody [to take my place and left].
How did you begin the Hadiiya Barbel Collection? Did you start immediately after leaving “Wendy”?
After I left there, I realized I needed a break from all of it. I wanted to take care of me now. After [working with Star Jones on “Celebrity Apprentice”] I went to Brazil for a month. And that was when my whole life changed.
I left the children with their dad. I didn’t speak to anyone. No clients, everyone just knew that [I] needed to go. People won’t really do that because they’re afraid of all the losses—the money and the clients—and people thinking they’re crazy. [But] I just needed to do it. I needed the break. I had no more inspiration, and I realized that I was burnt out and worn down mentally and spiritually.
I was in Bahia. I was in the mountains, with the earth, sitting on the grass (Laughs): all that nature stuff that I really love [doing]. It was awesome, [but] it was really painful, because I was sad a lot and I had to find the roots of that. They worked with me out there... to begin that healing process.
When … I came back here, I took the messages I got from the meditation and brought it into my work. And one of the messages was to make my life a life of purpose, not just a life of vanity. To do something that was really helping others. I wanted to do something that was more fulfilling.
We still have the woman who just wants to [wear a fabulous crown]. But my job is to make women feel better too. Because they come to me [saying], “Oh my God, I have lupus” or “My hair is thinning” or “I’m going through chemo. Here’s my hair now—in two weeks it will all be gone.” These women want me to duplicate what they have. They’re asking me to restore them. It’s so different, it’s much more fulfilling.
[Now I’m asking] what can I do to help my fellow brother and my fellow sister? How am I serving humanity? That’s the only way you’re going to be truly fulfilled. Otherwise you’ll have everything and be empty. I say purpose. Purpose and passion. Passion with a purpose! (Laughs)
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I just started saying no. I would go through moments where I would be really extreme about it and disappear, go to another country, where you can’t even get a phone service, like Brazil. But sometimes you can’t go. Your business is flowing, and you have to be here.
I’m a person at the end of the day. When I go home, I like to have my woman time, my end-of-the-day time. After that, I literally forget that I was doing business. I have programmed my mind to shut it right off. If it didn’t happen today? Oh well, it’ll happen tomorrow. Unless it’s something really important, with a priority or a deadline, and then I’ll focus on [it]. Anything else, I don’t stress about. No emails early in the morning at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning. I used to wake up and check my phone. No one should do that. It’s the worst thing you can do to yourself. You’re robbing yourself.
That’s the biggest trick in the book: feeling guilty because you’re taking time for yourself. It’s the truth. You bought yourself clothes, and you didn’t get anything for the kids yet. So you feel bad.
[But] you come first [and the] kids come after, because if you’re not right, they’re not right. Your mind isn’t right. So you come first, and then they’ll be fine. Once the woman’s happy, her household is happy, the boss is happy, business is happy. But if I’m not happy? I’m the top of the chain, and [it] all falls down. I’m the structure, and I need to be happy.
What makes you happy?
Freedom. Freedom to be who I am and do what I want to do. But the thing that makes me most happy is sharing my light with and inspiring others.
How do you feel about the way that your crowns make people feel?
It just shifts energy. You might have natural [hair], you might have a bald head because of alopecia or chemotherapy, you might be a Jewish woman, you might be a video vixen, you might be a career woman on the go, you might not have the time [to style your own hair]. I don’t care whatever the reason is. It totally changes the persona of the person. It makes you feel like a rockstar! It makes you feel awesome. Why? Because you can do anything you want. It’s about happiness.
What do you hope your work teaches your children?
Whatever you do, put the ego aside. [I want them] to live a life of service. Never lie, cheat, and try to get over. Put your spirit into things and be happy. I believe whatever we are doing, we are doing something to contribute to the circle of life. And that’s what I want them to understand.
Issue No. 18
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Rog Walker
“Stevie Wonder, Sali. Doesn’t that sound good?”
If there was ever a 2-year-old who would love old school Stevie Wonder, it would be Salimata Diarra. Her father, G. Idrissa Diarra, is an African Reggae singer, while her mother, Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra, spent a big part of the late '90s taking some of the biggest names in Hip-Hop (think Jay-Z and Ludacris) beyond ciphers and mixed tapes.
Salimata reaches up as her mother pulls the record from its sleeve, making pleading “give-me-give-me” motions with her tiny hands. But as soon as the record needle hits wax, and the opening trumpet of Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” fills the apartment, Salimata is moving. She is tapping her feet, she is wiggling from side to side and twirling in front of her mother and an unseen dance partner—her baby sister, due in March.
Much like Salimata, Khaldun-Diarra was born loving music and performing.
“I wanted to be on Broadway when I was young,” she recalls. “My aunt (the late famed actress Clarice Taylor) played Addaperle the Good Witch in ‘The Wiz’ on Broadway, and I remember going to see her when I was an itty-bitty. I tap danced, did musical theater, and always loved music.”
While pursuing a bachelor’s in economics at Barnard College, Khaldun-Diarra found herself drawn into the school’s music scene—first as a DJ and then as music director for the school’s radio station. Khaldun Diarra soon became more and more inspired by golden age Hip-Hop, she says.
“I just saw the power and excellence of Hip-Hop. It brought all types of people together, gave voice to young people, and [created] understanding amongst them,” she says. “As an economics major, I couldn’t help but also notice the economic impact that it had on the music industry and what it was able to do for urban entrepreneurs. I began writing [all of] my papers in college on Hip-Hop. For economics, [I’d write] on the birth of independent labels; for a women’s poetry class, on female MCs.
“Hip-Hop became my life. I was living, breathing it. I was of course in the clubs,” she continues, “I was DJing it, I was putting on artist showcases at Columbia (University), I was holding unsigned MC competitions.”
So although she graduated in 1996 with an economics degree, Khaldun-Diarra decided to follow her passion—even though her first gig offered very little in the way of compensation.
“I took a job working for [subway] tokens at Loud Records,” she says, shaking her head, laughing. “After this $100,000 education, I was working for tokens. [But] eventually I got a $5/hour full-time internship at Interscope Records in the international marketing department.”
The days of working for subway tokens would soon be far behind her. She went from Interscope to Geffen Records, landing a role as The Roots tour publicist during the band’s tour for their acclaimed album, “Illadelph Halflife.” She later moved to Tommy Boy Records, working with the iconic rap group De La Soul, before landing at Island Def Jam Music Group, where she handled publicity for (not to brag) Jay-Z, Ludacris, DMX, Ja Rule, and Redman.
“It was dizzying,” Khaldun-Diarra admits now. “I’d be criss-crossing the country with these guys, then on a night off I’d run into, Jay or Damon [Dash] downtown at a party, and we’d throw up the diamond sign. They’d be so surprised to see me outside of work—we worked when everybody slept. We were entertaining the world. The beat that the world was moving to on the weekends and their off-time was our full-time life.
"To be able to take that music and get Jay-Z his first feature in The New Yorker and his first appearance on 'Saturday Night Live,' to launch Ludacris’ career and get him his first feature in his hometown newspaper, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, it’s just like, wow! It felt really good to be taking this music that I loved to the world.”
As passionate as Khaldun-Diarra was about the music she felt moved the world, the breakneck pace was soon too much for her. “I felt as if I was just on this sort of treadmill churning out press releases,” she says. “My body couldn’t physically keep up with the pace—even my doctor cautioned me to quit. It was really 24/7.”
Khaldun-Diarra left Def Jam, and took a much-needed trip to Bermuda to visit her family (her mother is from the island). But she soon returned to the hustle and started her own business, doing PR and marketing for clients—with music tie-ins of course—eventually taking a brand management position with Converse, one of her clients. When Nike absorbed Converse, Khaldun Diarra, not interested in working for “the mammoth that is Nike,” went back to her academic roots, taking a three-year hiatus to get her master's in cultural analysis at the University of Amsterdam.
If the transitions and travel are hard to keep up with, just imagine how it was for Khaldun-Diarra. Her singular focus on her career kept her moving forward. She soon found an unexpected new way to channel her passion for building and empowering talented people (and new reasons to do it, after meeting her husband in 2009 and having Salimata in 2011).
Khaldun-Diarra’s circuitous path led her back to the States and to a contract position with the National Urban League, a nonpartisan civil rights organization working towards economic empowerment for disenfranchised communities.
Now marketing director for the historic organization, she says the position offers an opportunity to combine all of her passions and talents.
“I’ve always been for the people,” she explains. “Even my work in Hip-Hop was to a certain extent propelled by wanting to help empower people, because I feel that Hip-Hop does do that for folks. So this work is definitely, for me, an extension of that sort of life mission to help make the world a better place.”
It’s a mission that’s at the front of her mind now that she’s a mother, and far from the downtown scene that made up a big portion of her life. But the tales of economic woe and social unrest Khaldun-Diarra encounters on her job—and in the hooks of her favorite rap tracks—are nowhere to be seen as Salimata shimmeys and Stevie Wonder sings, “Baby, everything’s alright, uptight, out of sight.”
Did you know that you always wanted to be a mom?
Yeah, I think I always wanted to have a family. When I was young, I was [asked] “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I knew I wanted to be happy, I knew I wanted to have a family. But I sort of lost that along the way. I got busy with my career, and didn’t find that person for a while that was going to be my partner. I didn’t have much experience with children. I never babysat, never had young cousins, was not around many babies. So all this joy that the baby’s bringing is all very new to me. It wasn’t that I was craving this child, it was craving sort of the family around [having a child]. So, yes, the partner was a very big part of that, and I wasn’t able to find this person.
I went off and I traveled and lived abroad for a while, came back, and sort of gave up on that dream. [I] was like, “My life is great. I had some wonderful experiences, great career, great friends, and if it happens, it happens.” I wasn’t like, “Okay, this is the time.”
[Then] I met my husband, downtown in SoHo, in the summer of 2009 at a friend’s birthday party. We met in July of 2009, and by April of 2010, we were married. I found out two months later that I was pregnant. So it all happened very quickly.
How did it feel? You’re still in the honeymoon phase and then you find out you’re going to be a mom!
I was 34 by that time, so I was like, “I’m married and I’m going to have a baby with the man I love.” I was very excited about it, even though I had no idea what I was in for. (Laughs) But I was excited entering this new phase in my life with my husband.
How has being a mom changed your life?
Prior to getting married and having the baby, I guess I was a bit of a—I don’t want to say party girl (laughs)—but I definitely loved the nightlife. I was a globetrotter who traveled quite a bit; I had worked in the music industry before and maintained a lot of that lifestyle even though I had transitioned into working for nonprofits before I had the baby. I was still out on the New York nightlife scene two to three nights per week.
Burning the candle at both ends with that sort of lifestyle and a corporate lifestyle simultaneously up until I got pregnant prepared me to be a mother. There’s a lot of sleepless nights right after you deliver, and sleepless nights for many months after you deliver, and maybe for the rest of my life. (Laughs) [That lifestyle] gave me the stamina to deal with being up four times a night feeding the baby and having to go into the office the next day.
It’s been a drastic change. I’m not spending my nights out hanging out with friends and dancing anymore. I’m spending them at home with my child; since I do work, the evenings are our special time together. We’re weekend warriors as well.
I think it’s changed me professionally [as well]. I’ve become much more serious. There are higher stakes in life. I find myself more productive in the office, taking my career much more seriously. I’ve always been a high-obtaining individual, worked very hard, but I think being a mother definitely has helped me as a professional as well, in terms of a seriousness that I bring to my professional life and the work that I do, in managing my time. If I’m going to be away from my baby, it’s going to be for a good reason, and I’m not going to waste any time doing it either—the hours are going to be well-spent. I think that mothers are magicians, in terms of multitasking, and also in terms of having the seriousness and the focus.
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
I’ve always been a person who likes the next thing, the new thing. And being a mother, every day there’s something new—as my child is growing with her own development, but also [with me] doing things with her. So going to the grocery store is not just going to the grocery store anymore, it’s going to the grocery with my daughter. Everything is new and exciting, and I really like that aspect.
And then her smile. She has my dimples. She’s a really happy girl, and so the joy that she just has for life brightens me and brightens my world.
You’ve had quite the career—how did you transition to the non-profit world after you left the music industry and Converse?
I knew that I still wanted to do some academic work on Hip-Hop. I’d started [writing] papers while I was in undergrad, but there was even more [for me to write] at this point in time, after working in the music industry and then for brands that used the genre to sell their products. I really saw the power and the force of the culture, and I wanted to look at the how and the why: how this music was able to become this global cultural force that was used in marketing campaigns and political campaigns and also become a voice and language of a generation the world over.
I wanted to travel, so I went to the Netherlands. I [got my] master’s in cultural analysis [at the] University of Amsterdam, and did my master’s thesis on Hip-Hop aesthetics. I lived in Holland for about three years—it was amazing. It’s my second home. Since I’ve been back [in the United States], I go back every year. I got to take my daughter to my old stomping grounds in the Netherlands and visit people who’d become family.
[After] my three-year hiatus, I came back to the United States. I got a call from a former colleague who was at the National Urban League. I didn’t know much about the Urban League, but it was interesting because I started off as an economics major and wanted to do economic development, which is the thrust of what the Urban League does. [Also] my father is an educator—he helped found and run the Harlem Children’s Zone—and my mother runs the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation, so this job really speaks to a combined legacy that my parents have given me. I am able to use my marketing and communications skills from the music industry and my work with the brands to help spread the mission and the work of the National Urban League.
So I had a three-month contract [and] they offered me a job. It’s been interesting because I started here in 2008 shortly before Obama was elected. It’s been very exciting to be at the table with all that’s happening politically and economically in this country. We do a lot of work in D.C. in lobbying the government, and also administering social programs to help people during the recession. It feels really good to be a part of the work to empower people on a daily basis, and it’s something well-worth getting out of bed for. (Laughs)
You’ve traveled so much in your life. Is travel something you’ve shared with Salimata?
We’ve gone to the Netherlands and to Burkina Faso, her father’s birthplace, [together]. She’s also been to Bermuda, where my mother and one of my brothers lives, and when she was just 3 months old, we took her to Mexico, so she has quite a few stamps on her passport. She came with me to two of [the National Urban League’s] conferences because I was breastfeeding for a while. She was in utero [at our D.C. conference], but then [she came to] Boston and New Orleans, [and] she came to our empowerment summit in Atlanta.
She’s been on the road quite a bit since she was born, and that’s something that’s really important for me—to travel and to be able to continue to travel even though I’m a mother. I think that showing her the world [and] that’s she’s a citizen of the world [and] that the world is hers is very important. That’s something I want to impart onto my children and make sure they explore and love and understand. That’s one of the most important things that I hope that I’m able to impart on my children.
How does being a mom inform your work?
You’re very in touch with the future. What type of future, what type of world are we creating for our children? [With] the educational advocacy and economic opportunity work that I do here, I feel like I’m part of the solution of making a better society and nation. It’s all very personal.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
It’s that I’m part of solutions for helping people make a better society. It’s just amazing. Especially when we [did our] economic empowerment [event] in the middle of the housing crisis—just to see the people come and line up for these events... they are so in need of help and guidance, just to talk to somebody, a counselor, to find some way out of their current problems.
The need is so great for lots of services that the Urban League provides. It’s really great to be a part of it and [to] let them know that there is help available, and that the Urban League is there, has been there, and continues to be a force in urban communities.
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on your children through your work?
I hope my daughters see a dedicated person that is able to contribute to the world in a positive way, no matter what. I hope that’s what I’ve done, even with my work in the music industry and here at the Urban League: that I’m contributing something positive to the world that we live in. I hope that I can impart that to my children: that you [have to] care about other people, and that we want to make the world a better place. [I hope] they see themselves as apart of a community that they should work to make better.
What do you think about the idea that a woman can’t have everything (a successful career, a supportive partner, and children)?
I think it’s about how success is defined. At this point, with the current state of the economy, anyone having a job is successful, right? I think that it takes balance.
My boss here is a mother, and she’s a great role model. My mother is a very successful businesswoman and has been a great role model. My mother wasn’t there when I came home from school, and while I think it’s great that some people do have mothers that were there when they came home from school, there are other ways and other things you can do to be a good mother. The most important thing is that your children know that they’re loved.
I think that it’s all about your definition of [having it] all. I think it’s definitely possible, but you definitely need help, a community, a partner... I don’t think anyone can do it alone.
Issue No. 19
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Rog Walker
A cookbook is opened to a recipe for thumbprint sugar cookies, a favorite in the Meadows family’s Harlem brownstone. Push your thumb into homemade cookie dough, drop a dollop of your favorite jam in the imprint, et voila! A sweet Sunday morning treat. Arranged on the kitchen island are all the fixings for baking: a Pyrex measuring cup with 1 cup of milk, eggs, baking powder, butter, flour, sugar, and mixing bowls.
As 46-year-old Geraldine Moriba gives her children assignments—pour the dry ingredients into the bowl, crack the eggs, bring out the blender—you get the sense that she is rarely unprepared for any task put in front of her. An executive producer for CNN’s Emmy-award winning “In America” series, there seems to be a sense of order and purpose in everything Moriba does. Warner, 16, and Nia, 12, happily oblige.
But for all the togetherness Moriba and her enviable household exudes, she is the first one to tell you that her path—from her career in journalism to becoming a mother—has been anything but planned out or without obstacles.
A self-described "accidental" journalist, Moriba's drive has taken her from her native Canada and into America's top newsrooms for more than two decades.
"Growing up I always wanted to go into a career that would help others," she says. "[I] wanted to be in an occupation where I felt like I was achieving a purpose. When I started my career as a journalist, I was convinced that I would probably [either] postpone motherhood ‘til my forties [or that I] would never be a mother."
It was a misperception borne from watching a generation of journalists before her, women subscribing to the pre-"having-it-all" mandate: you can have the children or the career, just not both.
"I was completely mistaken," Moriba admits now, looking over at her daughter, whose thick halo of black hair frames a very wise, yet playful, face.
Moriba credits a support system of family (her mother came down from Canada to help out) and her husband, anesthesiologist Warner Meadows, for helping her "make it work." Yet giving birth unwittingly put Moriba on a "mommy track" when she returned from maternity leave three months later.
"Select assignments that I originally received were no longer coming, and I was getting these stories that were called ‘family-focus pieces,’" light fare the journalist, who got her start covering the first Gulf War for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, had no interest in.
"I went to my boss and [asked] if he would kindly give me the hard news stories, that I was working on before."
Soon Moriba found herself back in her fast-paced career, turning around news magazine features in days, but now with a newborn waiting for her.
"I remember that there wasn’t enough time to despair or to fret, because I had a baby at home and a career that needed me, and my husband who needed me too," she says. "And I really treated them all with equal attention and measure. I did not hesitate to bring my son into the newsroom when I needed to, and when I had two kids, I brought both of them in
"They’ve grown up, as I did, with the image of a mother who’s working and competent, but also a mother who misses nothing in their lives," Moriba continues. "I don’t miss recitals or performances or school events, I volunteer as much as I’m allowed to at the school. I will take a day off to be present at their school. Whatever is necessary."
As Moriba and her children talk over the whir of the blender, it's hard to imagine anything separating her from her family. But an unexpected health scare did just that when Moriba was 38 years old.
She slowly pulls up her sleeve, exposing a long, smooth scar running up the entire length of her right arm, the bright red line a sharp contrast against her golden brown skin.
"I was diagnosed with a very rare cancer—a sarcoma cancer, [which] is a connective tissue cancer," Moriba explains pushing the sleeve back down. "[It] was running along the radial nerve in my right arm. I was given six months to live when I was diagnosed [in 2004].
"I had all kinds of symptoms," she continues. "including losing the function of my right hand. I went to a doctor who told me I had carpal tunnel syndrome, but the symptoms continued. A year later I went to another doctor who did a CAT scan, found a tumor, and told me it was benign and they would just remove it."
During the surgery the doctors immediately realized the tumor was likely malignant... and spreading.
"They sent it off for pathology studies, and I went back a few days later. The doctor who [told us] I had a malignant cancer sat in front of my husband and I, and wept. My husband wept too."
Moriba was given even more grim news.
"They told me [that] I needed to prepare myself for a full amputation of my arm, and even then I might not survive," Moriba recalls. "They couldn’t give me any prognosis, but they told me that very rarely does anybody get sarcoma and live beyond a year. I was told to prepare for my departure, to get all my papers in order."
But there was a glimmer of hope some 1,700 miles away: MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, which Moriba's husband and two friends had found without telling her.
"Because they knew I would say that I’m not leaving my children, [they] sent my pathology slides down there for testing, set up an appointment, and bought the plane ticket without my knowledge. I remember saying, 'If I go there and it seems like the better treatment, how can I leave my family?' And [my husband and aunt] said to me, 'If you go there, and you survive, then you’ll come back to your family. We’ll be waiting for you.'"
An even bigger support system than the one that helped Moriba return to her job after having Warner rose up and helped her family through nine months of separation, heartache, and worry. She has been living cancer free for 12 years.
“If I get bad news, I will conquer it again,” Moriba says. “I’m prepared to.”
And with that statement, you get a clearer idea of what spurs that Moriba preparedness: her unshakeable love for her family.
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
So many things. I can talk about my children all day long. I love the way that they are developing these independent opinions, and that I can see how they’re building on what they read and what they experience; how they take what we say as their parents, analyze it, and then take what they want and create their own opinions. I love their sense of discovery. It’s inspiring.
I love how they can one moment be debating something with each other, and the next moment, be in each other’s arms. I love watching the love between my children, and knowing that the way they treat each other is the way the way they’ve seen us treat them and each other. It gives me a lot of pride, and I love watching their character evolve. I love their humor. They make me laugh until I cry. And they make fun of me in a way that nobody else will because they know all of my shortcomings! (Laughs) It’s great, it’s wonderful. They’ve become not only my children, but my friends.
What parts of yourself do you see in Nia?
Nia has my energy and my curiosity and my trust. She instantly likes everybody and tries always to be kind, and the same things that make her like me sometimes—because I see myself—make me worry that they may be vulnerabilities too. I’m sensitive to those particular characteristics.
What’s it like raising a teenage girl?
The tween stage is an interesting stage. I find that the best thing I can do is be patient and listen. Nia is very thoughtful and analytical and usually has a reason for expressing concern or discomfort or raising questions. [I've found] the more that I listen, the more that I understand what she’s experiencing. What’s particularly special about Nia is that she’s expressive. She’s really good at communicating what’s on her mind and what she’s experiencing.
I know people have stereotypes of the terrible twos and the challenges of tweens, [but] I think every age is different and every child is different. We as parents just need to adjust to our children's needs and their individuality.
"My daughter’s name means 'purpose,'” Moriba says, "and we deliberately gave her that name with the hope that she would find her purpose in life."
Raising a black son in this world can sometimes be a scary proposition. Is there anything you do to try to prepare him for the outside world and the stereotypes he could face?
When he was born, one of the first things I hung in his bedroom was a photograph of his uncle and his father on [their] graduation day. It’s poster-sized, and they’re both wearing caps and gowns; it’s just this positive image of two successful black men graduating from university on the same day. And above it I hung a plaque that says “Believe.” I also hung in his bedroom a poster of Nelson Mandela, and a placard that has his grandfather’s name—he has the same name as his paternal grandfather: it says Warner Earl Meadows Jr., M.D. I also hung in his room an image of Marcus Garvey.
Over the years—[though] I know at some point, he’s going to take over his room (laughs)—I’ve continued to add positive images. I do the same thing with my daughter. The obvious goal has always been to surround them with positive role models. Because I do believe it takes a village for our sons as well as our daughters, but it’s also having constant and ongoing conversations, even when those conversations are very, very difficult.
Do you have an example—either with your son or your daughter—of having one of those difficult conversations, and how you broached them?
Warner really wanted to see the film "Django [Unchained]," and I had concerns about the depiction of black men. I also had concerns about Quentin Tarantino’s history of gratuitous violence. He’d never seen one of his films before, and I wasn’t sure that he was ready for the violence and the depiction of black men. But he’s 16 years old, and he wanted to see it. So I emailed him a few select reviews, and asked him to read the reviews, and [said] let’s discuss them before he saw the movie. We did that, and then he saw the movie with his grandfather—my father.
They walked out with very different opinions. My father felt as though it may have been one of the worst movies he’d ever seen, and found the violence physically painful to watch, and looked away. Warner wasn’t so disturbed by the violence because he felt like it was just a movie. He understood that. He was more disturbed by being in audience that was almost entirely white and listening to them laugh at different scenes. He was much more uncomfortable with the audience’s response to what he was watching on screen. He also felt like there’s nothing wrong with seeing a revenge movie [featuring] an African-American. He had a really interesting analysis of that film from a teen’s perspective.
In the end, I’m glad he saw it, but it was a really difficult conversation.
What would you say is your parenting philosophy, and how do you feel like it differs or is the same as what you experienced growing up?
My mother is my role model. (Emotional) She is definitely my measure of whether or not I’m a good parent. I grew up in a single parent household. There were four of us, and I watched my mother sacrifice time and time and time again, and do whatever it took to make sure that we were always out of harm’s way, that we had what we needed, and that we got excellent educations. I remember my mother marching into schools when she thought there was an injustice. I remember her IBM Selectric. She would type letters and fire them off to whomever she thought needed to hear her voice.
She was very present in our lives. I remember going on bike-a-thons with my mother. I remember picking blueberries and making bottled preserves with [her]. I remember her teaching us how to cook, how to sew, how to save money, and how to be a family. I remember when she dropped us off at university, she cried because she was so proud. She gave me a blanket that she knitted as my gift, so that I’d have a piece of her when I was away at school. I never really went back home, but our conversations never ended. We spoke every day when I was in university, and we speak every day now.
I want to be a fraction of the mother that my mother was to me to my own children. She really is a mother’s mother. She never smothered us. She always gave us enough room to make mistakes and to grow, and she was always there for us when we fell down. She was always ready to drop everything—and I mean everything—to be by our side. Whether it was at school when we were kids, and she came there to defend us, or when I had children, and I needed childcare help. When I went to live in Texas to get treatment for cancer, she moved into my home and helped my husband raise my little children. And they were little—my son was in 2nd grade, and my daughter was in preschool. I want to be like her.
The other thing I’d add is I really believe that we have to teach our children values. It’s not enough to provide. We have to teach them how to evaluate right from wrong, but we also have to help them be prepared for rich lives. And so for each of my children, I’ve always insisted that they learn a second language, that they play an instrument, and that they excel at a sport. Because I think that’s it’s important that they have a broader ability to speak to more people, that they have a love for the arts, and that they’re healthy.
What do you love about your job?
I tell my kids all the time that they can do whatever they want to with their lives, but they have to love what they do. And I am so fortunate to love what I do. I love storytelling, and journalists are storytellers. It doesn’t matter what the medium is, what we’re doing is telling stories. I also am really curious by nature about all sorts of things, and this occupation fosters my curiosity. It allows me to investigate things that I want to know more about. At this stage of my career, even as a producer, I’m allowed to be creative, to think about how the recipient of the story I’m giving will receive it, and to shape it creatively [and] visually.
How did you get started in journalism? Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?
No, I wanted to work for the Canadian Foreign Service. [I] had planned on taking the entrance examination and going to grad school. My mother is Jamaican, and insisted that I had a job—[she] felt like I wasn’t productive. (Laughs)
I was leading a demonstration against the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. They had an exhibit called "Into the Heart of Darkness," and that says it all. It was an exhibit about colonial missionaries in Africa, and they took excerpts of their diaries and juxtaposed them against African artifacts. So you would read these excerpts about “heathens”—really negative comments, misguided, and incorrect comments—juxtaposed against African artifacts, and there was no context. The curators did not bother to put the colonial missionary mentality into context, [and] they didn’t explain the artifacts either. It was an awful exhibition that schoolchildren were visiting.
I [along] with a lot of other Torontonians helped to organize a protest against it, and ultimately the exhibit was closed and dismantled and never sent any place else (it was scheduled to tour the United States).
During that campaign, I was in a friend’s office after hours, and I was writing press releases. I sent it off to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to a radio program called "As It Happens," a daily news program. I sent off the fax, and it came back and said “Will the person who wrote this fax please apply for the following job?” (Laughs)
That night when I got home, my mother said, "Did you look for a job today?” And I pulled out this piece of paper and said, “Tomorrow I’m applying for this.” I applied just to satisfy my mom and got the job. Then shortly thereafter, the first Gulf War broke out. I was completely hooked, and never went to grad school, never became a foreign diplomat, never took the exam. I’ve been a journalist ever since, and realized it was actually a really fitting career for me.
What would you credit your career success to?
I don’t think that any of us get ahead in life without people who create opportunities for us, who mentor us, or guide us, and I’m not so arrogant to think that I’ve had the success I’ve had because I’m just that talented. I know that my success is due to being prepared when opportunities came along, and always surrounding myself with people who valued my work and wanted me to succeed. People who were mentors, and advisors, and confidants. [That] circle of people has broadened throughout my career. They come in all races, and both genders. And for all of these people who’ve guided me, I’m grateful.
Do you feel especially passionate about race issues, since a lot of the projects you’ve done are steeped in race relations in America?
That’s partially by choice, and partially by circumstances. Inevitably, when you’re black in a newsroom, you are going to get assignments about black people. You can choose to resist, as some people do, or you can choose to embrace it, and shed a new light on a much covered topic. I’ve done both. What I will say is I consciously try to make sure that when I cover race, that I’m moving the conversation forward.
You’re a co-founder of The Grio and the “In America” series. Do you feel like these entities that you’ve worked on have moved the conversation forward?
I think that dot-com provides not just blacks, but all people with a way to engage in conversations that we couldn’t have before. It used to be a unilateral conversation where the media just presented opinions and facts, and it just went in one direction. Now it works both ways, and I think that’s a strength.
I prayed that when my children became adults, that the conversations that I had when I was young would not be the conversations they we're having; it’s heartbreaking that my children will have the same conversations about identity, about access, about entitlement, about barriers that we were having 20-30 years ago. But at the same time, I feel like my children are more informed, and the broader conversations are richer today than they were in the past, so I hope that overall, we’re moving forward.
What’s the proudest moment you’ve had as a mother?
I feel the most pride when somebody shares a story about something they did when neither my husband nor I happen to be present. That the character that they share with us and that the behavior they express when they’re with us is the same when they’re on their own at school or on the street. Those stories make me feel really proud because I realize they are consistently the good people, the good children, the good citizens that I see at home.
Issue No. 20
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: J. Quazi King
“I’m going to be deaf by the time I’m 50!” shouts Latham Thomas, 32, with a big smile. “Or kicked out because of how loudly he plays his music!”
Thomas’ 9-year-old son, Fulano Librizzi, stands behind his DJ booth in the pink living room that is the heart of Thomas’ home in Harlem. He has been DJing professionally since he was 7 years old, booking gigs for New York Fashion Week, Vogue Bambini, former President Bill Clinton, and the “Today” show, just to name a few. Both Thomas and Fulano nod their heads as he calls up a playlist so funky, so fresh, you wonder why none of the parties you go to feature music as dope as what Fulano is playing on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
Thomas lovingly adjusts the springy curls shooting from Fulano’s head as he stares intently at his Mac. To say Latham Thomas loves being a mother would be the understatement of the year—every available surface in her Harlem apartment features multiple photos of her precocious son or saved letters and notes in his slanted handwriting from over the years. It’s a love affair that makes up the core of who Thomas is, she explains.
“In becoming a mother, I was birthing my son,” Thomas says, “but he was birthing me as a mother and into a different stage of power in my life.”
It’s an empowering experience that Thomas has replicated for thousands of women as a doula and as founder of Mama Glow, a full-service maternity wellness company that is changing the way women think about pregnancy and giving birth. Her clients, whom include celebrities such as singer Alicia Keys and actress Tamera Mowry-Housley, depend on Thomas and her teachings to shepherd them through their pregnancies.
Though Thomas has provided her services for close to a decade, it seems as though she has been on the path to becoming an internationally renowned maternity guru for years, starting from her childhood in Oakland, California.
“I think that when I was young, I knew that I wanted to be a mom. I didn’t really know what that meant,” she recalls. “At the time, it was more like putting Cabbage Patch [dolls] in [my] shirt and pretending to be pregnant.”
Thomas’ concept of pregnancy changed when she was about 5 years old, as her mother and two aunts found out they were all pregnant at the same time.
“[Once] we were all hanging out [and] two [of the] babies—my sister and my cousin—were both having a total ruckus in the belly. We were like, ‘Oh my God! People are moving inside their bodies!’ It was our first time seeing that. Then we placed our hands upon the belly, and I remember feeling this like…” Here she pauses and sighs before continuing.
“I told my mom it was almost like a rainbow moved through me. It was this incredible experience.”
Years later, at 23, Thomas was ready to embark on the same journey she had watched as a child after discovering she was pregnant. Though her background was in environmental science (she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in 2002), nutrition and wellness were of a huge interest to Thomas. (She had grown up planting and picking her own food in her family’s backyard and cooked healthy meals for her friends in her dorm.) Thomas remembers wondering how she could incorporate those healthy living tenets into her pregnancy.
“When you’re pregnant, you’re very open and you’re vulnerable. You’re thrust into this space of wanting to do everything to protect and support the healthy growth of your baby,” Thomas says. “I wanted to know everything possible, [and] I also wanted it in a way that was holistic and felt really good to me, that was honoring my beliefs and honoring what I wanted to experience.
“I looked at a phone book [for an OB/GYN]—I know it’s a total relic now,” she continues, laughing. “I was picking them based on the ads, based on if they paid for a picture ad versus a written ad. I called around in October and they [would say], ‘Okay, we can see you in March of 2003,’ and I’m supposed to have the baby in July!
“I was just trying to figure out how is it that [in] New York City, you can get a bagel delivered at like two in the morning and go out for Italian at four in the morning, but when it comes to having the holistic resources for the most important process [in your life], there’s [nothing]. No resources, no handholding, no information. There’s not really a middle ground. You’re [either] hippy-dippy, kumbaya birthing on a farm barefoot [and] popping out babies in a squat, or you’re [getting] a planned C-section in a hospital. I knew that something was just not right.”
Through her own research—a mix of “self-experimentation, going through resources, speaking with practitioners, and vetting products and services”—Thomas was able to create the birth experience she wanted.
“[It] was really powerful and beautiful,” she recalls. “I felt that I could do anything. I was connected—the ancestors were in the room with me.”
In that moment, everything clicked for Thomas. “I knew I had to help moms,” she says. “I really wanted to speak to the women who wanted to embrace yoga, be organic, and live a more green lifestyle, but still [be] very urbane.”
When Fulano was 2, Thomas enrolled at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and launched maternity health company Tender Shoots Wellness in 2005, which was rebranded as Mama Glow in 2011. Through Thomas’ hard work, word of mouth, and a supportive network, Mama Glow has grown into a movement: Thomas’ book “Mama Glow” was published in November 2012, debuting on Amazon at number 1 and now performing well in England; there is an annual Mama Glow Film Festival, which screens movies that shed light on the state of pregnancy and maternal health all around the world; and more women are learning about her work through her appearances on the reality television program “Tia & Tamera.”
However, without Fulano, none of it would have been possible, Thomas says.
“I have him to thank for everything that I do,” Thomas says. “If it weren’t for the birth, and the timing of the birth, who knows how the path would have unfolded?”
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
I always reflect and look at the fact that this little person who came out of me is huge now. He’s nine, he’s a DJ and plays saxophone, and he’s into his little things and has his own personality. You think that one day you’ll be used to that, but I’m still not used to him. I love that children change and evolve so much in their development that you can never be used to them. There’s always something fresh that a child brings—[sometimes] he’ll do something with his own sort of quirkiness that I never would have thought to do in that particular way. I love the little commentary and the way that their minds work.
(Laughs) You know, it’s the best. The bonding is just so incredible; you carried this person, they come here, [and] you fall in love. It’s like a major crush, [but] for forever. Every day he does something that touches my life, and there’s no better gift than that. So I can’t think of just one thing that I love, but I think that’s one thing that I definitely marvel at.
How would you describe your son’s personality?
He’s an extrovert, but he has introvert qualities; he’s a Cancer, so he can be in his shell. He’s very observant [and] can focus very well. He dreams a lot [and] is a big leader. [He] thinks like an adult, so I’d say he’s precocious.
He has a certain type of patience, a certain persistence, I should say. Like he’ll ask for something, and then you’ll say no, and then he’ll figure out another way to ask for it. He just doesn’t understand the word “no,” it’s not in his vocabulary.
He believes in justice—he definitely fights for things if something doesn’t seem right. He won’t stand for it. He tells me he’s the lawyer at school, so he defends his friends if something goes wrong. He’s always the mediator, the person who will describe what happened as a sort of non-judgmental source. And he’s very sensitive—he can walk into a room and he can tell somebody was crying in there, which is also a benefit, because being a boy and being so sensitive is not celebrated in our culture. I try to keep him in touch with that because I think it’s part of his gift to look after people through intuition.
When you think of holistic health, it’s not something that seems to be very big in the black community. Why do you think that is?
I’ve been meeting people along the way who are doing tremendous work, but I think that [in] the profiling of what is considered healthy, you don’t ever see people who look like us. You always see Nordic-looking people, and that’s [considered] the ideal look for health. It’s really interesting because black women [specifically] are the ones who are affected the most by ovarian cancer, breast cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. We are the ones who are suffering the most, but we are the ones who don’t have someone who’s speaking directly to us.
There’s this interesting protectiveness of our culture in regards to food, because everything seems really appropriated. Our food is now being celebrated as cuisine, but before it was just like peasant food. Now we are so protective of cooking things a certain [unhealthy] way that makes it taste good. But at the same time, [these are] foods we were eating when we were building this country. It was like 17 hours a day working in the sun in Virginia—you could eat collard greens and ham because you needed the fat, you needed the protein to survive. Now we’re eating foods that lack the nutrients that they had back then. We are eating tons of processed foods and our lifestyles are totally sedentary in comparison. It’s almost like we [don’t] even remember that we used to cure and heal ourselves with our foods.
What sparked your “aha moment” to start Mama Glow?
I was writing the book “Mama Glow,” and I was sitting with a client and a girlfriend of mine. We were talking, and she was telling me about this doctor’s appointment she went to, and the fear that he instilled in her. I [said] “I wish there was a way you could inform and empower women through media.” My friends [said] “Why don’t you just do that?” And I was like, “I guess I could.”
So 20 days and 20 sponsors later, we launched the first annual Mama Glow Film Festival at WellNEST, this beautiful space in the Hampton, with Christy Turlington, Selita Ebanks, and all these wonderful amazing guests and press.
When I went to dinner after the event, there were some guys [who] came up to me and said “Listen, I just gotta to tell you, my mind was blown open today. The things that are happening to women in hospitals...” and just went on and on and on. I’m sitting at this dinner table with Rachel Ash and Haley Binn, the co-founders of Mama Glow Film Festival; we just looked at each other like this is exactly what it’s about. It’s not about preaching to the choir, it’s about bringing people in who have nothing to do with or have no knowledge of [these issues] and igniting a light inside of them they can carry forward.
Then Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein wanted us to do the East Coast premiere of (the documentary) “The Business of Being Born,” but we had already done the Mama Glow Film Festival. So we decided to do the Mama Glow Salon Series, which we launched in April 2012; [it] was incredible and well attended as well.
With all the things that you’re doing, how do you achieve work-life balance?
I feel like work-life balance is a myth. (Laughs) There is a perceived balance, but there is never stillness; we are always in motion. [But] yoga definitely helps me; it’s been such a gift to have that. And then to [also] have the support of my son’s grandfather, which is basically like having a wife—he’s so helpful. I’m really lucky to have him.
I [also] set boundaries. On weekdays, I don’t really have conversations at night with my friends because I want to go to bed early [and] I want to spend time with my son. On the weekends, I reserve that time to really dive in and hang out. Certain nights during the week, I’ll do some things for myself. I might go out at night once a week or something, but I don’t stay out late. And I get a massage—that’s a big thing for me too. I just think that you [have to] put an endpoint to where you begin and where you end so people know [what] they can’t continue to ask of you—[then] they know that there’s a certain point where you’re going to say no. But if you never say no, then people just continue to ask you for things and constantly deplete [you].
I believe that “No” is a complete sentence. If you say “no,” you’re also saying “yes” to yourself. You’re saying “yes” to other things if you saying no to things that drain you. “Yes” to things that inspire you. That’s kind of how I try to navigate so that I stay energized. Because when I do things that I don’t like to, I’m not happy. And that takes away so much of your energy.
What are your thoughts on dating as a single mom?
It’s important to carve the time for personal dating, because you can get in a rut and forget how to date. It’s very important in a woman’s life to connect and to remember [that] not only is she a mother, but [she’s] also a very powerful, sensual being [who] has to express that.
I think when you’re a single mom it’s so easy to get caught up in your day-to-day, like, “OK, let’s hustle. Let’s get the kids to school…” You could easily forego your romantic life and even your time with your friends. I think it’s so important to romance yourself, to make time for yourself. Get a sitter so you can take a bath and relax, and get a massage, and do things that make you feel really radiant.
And do things with your girlfriends that you would do with a partner if you don’t have one yet. [Just] treating yourself the way you would want to be treated in a relationship to develop that awareness and keep those muscles working. Because when a person comes, [and you’re] like, “I can do it all! I don’t need anything! I’m superwoman!” they don’t know how to serve you. You want to be able to be in a space of “I’m ready to be held. I’m ready to be received and I’m also ready to receive what someone is trying to do for [me] as a partner.”
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on your son with your work?
Just [the importance of] hard work, and an appreciation for women and the power that they have and what they can do.
He already kind of sees it. I don’t hide anything from him, so he learned about menstrual blood very early and understands that. He understands the moon cycle very well already, and he also understands birth. He actually asked me last night for some facts. He says, “I’m writing facts for school, so Mom, can you tell me something interesting about your uterus?” (Laughs) It was so funny that he was asking that. So I told him a fun fact: “Well, the uterus can expand up to 500 times its normal size to hold a baby,” and he said, “Oh my God, Mom, that’s so cool!” And we had this whole dialogue. He just by proxy learns so much, because he hears me talking about [my work], so he understands in a certain way that many young boys don’t.
Even grown men!
Exactly! He doesn’t think anything’s weird or gross. He’s just like, “Oh, yeah, maybe she’s bleeding.” I really hope that as he grows, he’ll be able to be sensitive towards women and really understand that we’re totally different, but we need to be honored for who we are.
I know I’ve already [affected] his work ethic, because he’s such a hard worker. He’s a DJ and he’s very into working and making his own money, because he likes to spend his own money. But I definitely hope that will be something that he continues as he grows up.
Our one-on-one with DJ Fulano Librizzi
What’s your favorite genre of music?
I like classic music, which is from the 1900s. I’m not really into pop, unless it’s Michael Jackson or those classic artists that made pop. I just like—well you know—songs that are jazzy and have saxophone. I like soul songs, Hip-Hop. Not all Hip-Hop. I don’t like Bruno Mars, I don’t like Justin Bieber, I don’t like Carly Rae Jepsen. I like James Brown, Tina Marie, Aretha Franklin, Anita Ward, Run DMC, stuff like that.
What do you love about DJing?
It’s very fun that you’re able to please a crowd, and get to play music, and get to learn about new music and old music. You get to learn the equipment. You get to do a lot of things because you’re a DJ!
What’s been your favorite gig so far?
When I deejayed for the New York Knicks versus Miami Heat! That was cool!
What’s your favorite song right now?
I don’t have a favorite song, but a song I’ve been listening to a lot is called “All the Way to Heaven” by Doug E. Fresh. I just like the beatboxing part it has in it.
Is DJing something you want to do full time when you’re a grown up?
When I grow up, I want to have a lot of jobs like my grandfather. My grandfather had about like 10 jobs. Well, because it was the 1900s, he grew up poor. He had lots of job. And then eventually he moved to New York—he had enough money—and then he became an art dealer, and that’s his job now.
It’s not that I want to have a lot of jobs. It’s just [I have] lots of things that I dream of. Like I want to become a professional basketball player, I want to be in the NBA. I wanna be a professional DJ. I wanna be all these things. I want to be a hotelier, I wanna be a restaurant owner, I wanna be a zoo owner, I wanna be a snake breeder, a marine life breeder... there’s a lot of things I want.
LASHANN DEARCY HALL
Issue No. 21
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Nneka Salmon
“Mommy? What are we going to do today?”
Jayden Hall asks her mother, lawyer LaShann DeArcy Hall, some variation of this question every weekend morning. The 5-year-old keeps a tight schedule that rivals some adults, dashing from her kindergarten class at Chapin School on the Upper East Side to dance lessons, swim classes, and play dates around the city.
No stranger to a packed schedule herself, DeArcy Hall relishes in being able to say, “Today, we’re just going to relax.”
One can hardly tell who is more excited to play a game of charades, Jayden or her mother. Save for the sound of her husband, venture capitalist Courtney Hall, watching TV upstairs, it’s a relatively quiet Saturday afternoon for the family.
Of counsel at Morrison Foerster, one of New York City’s most respected law firms, relaxation isn’t something DeArcy Hall gets to do a whole lot of, she admits. There are the untold hours spent working on commercial and civil litigation trials, acting primarily as the defense lawyer a number of Fortune 500 companies want in their corner for antitrust, bankruptcy, and class action cases. Last fall she was appointed as a commissioner for the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics, adding to her role as a commissioner of the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, to which she was appointed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And somehow DeArcy Hall also fits in pro bono work, as well as championing diversity in the legal world.
“At the end of the day, it’s stressful, we work long hours, but I am doing what I love to do,” DeArcy Hall says. “I get to have a career that is the career I would choose for myself, and it’s not just one that I’m doing because I have to.”
DeArcy Hall says she wants to become a partner at Morrison Foerster, an especially rarefied position for black women who only made up 1.84 percent of law firm partners in 2008, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit focused on the opportunities afforded women in business.
Surprisingly enough it’s a world she wasn’t quite sure she wanted to be a part of when she came to that inevitable college graduate crossroad: What do I want to do with the rest of my life? Her other option may surprise you.
“I was going to be one of two things,” DeArcy Hall says. “Either a professional dancer or a lawyer. And I did both.”
The first in her family to go to college, DeArcy Hall considered going straight to law school after graduating from Antioch University in 1992, “but quite frankly, really couldn’t get my sh*t together,” she admits now, “which also means I just wasn’t ready.”
She moved to Washington D.C. after college and worked on Capitol Hill for former New York Congressman Floyd Flake, before moving to New York City to pursue a professional dance career on a Broadway scholarship. But being a professional dancer just didn’t jibe well with what DeArcy Hall wanted in her life.
“Dancing has always been my passion, so it fills me up—it just takes you someplace. To this day, [though] I don’t do it very often, there’s this joy I get when I dance,” DeArcy Hall says. “But there’s also this part of me that is intellectually curious, and dancing didn’t satisfy that part of me. I am also a person who doesn’t do well with ‘the struggle.’ I need to know that I can pay the bills. I had to make choices that really weren’t helpful if I was trying to be a serious dancer, because I wanted to make sure I was making the right choice in terms of paying my bills. So it became a really difficult existence for me.”
While trying to decide if a life at the barre was for her, DeArcy Hall visited one of her friends in the military who was stationed in Korea. What was supposed to be a two-week visit became a six-month stay.
“I realized I wasn’t really happy pursuing my dance career, because if I was, I would have been right back in New York dancing,” she says now. “But instead I stayed in Korea for a while,” teaching English to get by.
When she returned to New York, DeArcy Hall’s life was effectively in shambles. “I lost my dance scholarship, I was on the verge of defaulting on my student loans, my personal life was a hot mess, and I [thought], ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’
“My girlfriend said to me, jokingly, ‘Why don’t you join the military?’ So the next day, I signed up for the Air Force,” she says, laughing, “and went to basic training in Texas. [I] went through tech school in Mississippi, and then got stationed at the Office of Special Investigations on Boeing Air Force Base in Washington, D.C.”
Two years into her four-year commitment with the Air Force, it became clear to DeArcy Hall that she wanted to go to law school, and not just any law school—it was Howard University or bust. After getting a recommendation and making her case to the Air Force’s top brass, DeArcy Hall left the service early and started at Howard Law in the fall of 1997.
“You want to motivate someone to do what they want to do?” DeArcy Hall says laughing. “Have them do something that they know is not what they want to do.”
Since taking that circuitous path to law, DeArcy Hall has been on a straight line to success—working her way up at high-ranking firms Cravath, Swain, and Moore and then Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher before leaving in 2008 to work for Morrison Foerster, a move that promoted her to of counsel from senior associate shortly after arriving.
“[I’ve found] myself at a really good place professionally. I love this firm that I’m at now—it satisfies me, I feel supported by it, it is what I was looking for, and it’s also what I think I deserve,” DeArcy Hall says.
How has being a mom changed your life?
Her presence in my life fills a void that I did not know existed. I was not a woman who knew for all my life that I wanted to have kids. There are people who from the time they’re little girls know that; in their twenties, they’re longing for it. I wasn’t really that person.
When I met my husband, I knew I wanted to raise children with him, and in the context of my relationship with my husband, the notion of being a mom was born. But it wasn’t until she came that I realized, wow, maybe there was this thing that I didn’t know that I wanted, in terms of completeness. Having her in my life has made me adjust my priorities. My child comes first, but sometimes adjusting my priorities makes me even more driven to do what I want to do for her. I am her role model, and so I think the greatest gift any mom can give their children—especially black moms—is the belief that they have options and they can be and do whatever it is that they choose. The only way you can really impart that into your child is if you live that.
Why didn’t you think about having kids until you met your husband?
My mom ... was a young mom. My sister and I are nine and a half months apart, and she had [us] when she was just 18 years old. Having grown up with a single, young mother, as wonderful of a job as she did, I don’t think I allowed my mind to contemplate [having kids] until it looked different. Parenting for me was something I wanted to do with a partner. We never know what life holds for us—people get divorced. But [being a mother was] certainly not something that I would even contemplate until that part of my life allowed for it.
What’s the hardest thing about being a mom?
From the day that Jayden was born, every day, I am always a little scared. I never had that before, [and] I’m not certain when this will ever stop.
I lived my life as if I were invincible—a lot of things that I did were ill-advised. (Laughs) But now I pray more regularly, I pray more deeply, and [my prayers] center around my child largely. The only prayer that I even have for myself at this point is that I am around and healthy long enough to see my daughter marry someone I love. (Laughs) And then I’ll know that she’s okay. That’s the only part of parenting that I really don’t like. The rest of it—even when you want to pull your hair out—it’s part of the ride.
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when ...?
I love being a mom most when I am a fly on the wall and I’m watching Jayden laugh and be happy. You can just tell when she is exuding happiness. I love being a mom most when Jayden takes my face in her hands and gives me a kiss, or hugs me at night.
I could watch my daughter all day long. I mean, look, she drives me insane, don’t get me wrong; she’s a kid and I’m an adult—that’s part of it. But I dig her, I like this little girl. I think that she is an awesome kid. She’s so empathetic, she’s so concerned about other people—she just has a good heart. I love being a mom most when my husband gives me a kiss, and she says almost every time, “Happily ever after.” (Laughs)
How would you describe Jayden’s personality?
She is immensely creative; she is happiest when she is singing or trying to learn the choreography to some musical theater of some sort (currently it’s Annie). She loves opera, which is interesting. She can be shy at first; she’s a kid who wants to take it all in, and then when she figures out the lay of the land, she just jumps in with both feet. She is going to be the one to try and get everyone in the room to settle down and relax. My girlfriend tells me all the time that when her daughter gets worked up and Jayden’s over there for a play date, my daughter will often say, “Just relax, Marin, just relax!”
She’s a fairly even-keeled kid. She is immensely happy—her teachers at school say she is always smiling, always laughing. And that is probably my greatest joy, to be able to know that I am raising a child who is in her core two things: happy and she knows she’s loved. Matter of fact, when you tell her “I love you,” [she’ll say], “I knooooow that!” How lucky that you can [say], “I know that, enough”?
What has been one of the harder issues you’ve had to address with raising Jayden?
We made the choice that until a particular time and when we knew it was right, all the baby dolls that we had in the house would be brown. It was very important to us—my child’s a minority in a lot of places and it’s not going to be in her house.
When she was four and a half, she wanted this accessory to the Loving Family set. We had gotten her the black version, but the accessory only came in the white doll. I agonized in the store if this was the right time, and I ultimately decided, yes, we’ll get it for her. She ended up having this collection that had the [black] Loving Family, and then she had this additional mom that was a white woman and her little daughter. I noticed that Jayden had substituted black mommy for the white mommy in the family proper, and I asked, “Jayden, what happened to the other mommy?” She revealed that she liked the color of the white mommy’s skin.
I talked [to her] about how beautiful brown skin is, and [how] we’re all brown, [but] it was clear that wasn’t resonating with her. She was clear that she [thought] the brown people [were] pretty too, but she said, “I just like this one.” In that moment I decided that I couldn’t leave it at that because it was too important to me, but my efforts to deal with this from a logical, rational way weren’t working. So finally I said, “You know, Jayden, I appreciate that, but I have to tell you, it hurts Mommy’s feelings because I look like the other mommy.”
You don’t know in any given moment whether the choices you make are the right ones, you can only take a leap of faith. She looked at me, and then later she came back and said, “Mommy, are your feelings still hurt?” And I said, “No, Mommy’s okay, I don’t want you to feel bad.” But then she made a choice later, “white mommy” was never “white mommy” again. “White mommy” became the neighborhood [mommy].
Now Jayden is actually in a really different place about skin tones. She’d asked me if I would vote for President Obama; she didn’t want me to vote for Romney. (Laughs) She [said], “Mommy, can you vote for Obama?” And later my husband asked, “Well, why do you want Mommy to vote for President Obama?” Truthfully [I] think it’s because she’s very familia—we’ve been to the White House tour and Easter Egg Hunts—but one of the things she said is, “I really like the color of his skin.” Having had a child a year ago who commented at least in one instance that she’s favored white skin over black skin, it was affirming for me that the way I handled that situation with my child was right for us.
You’re a huge champion for diversity in the legal world. How has your race affected your career path?
I was going to say I have not experienced any overt racism, [but] I have experienced it in my career. As a general matter, do I believe that people have viewed me as a capable and competent lawyer? Absolutely. I’ve never gone to work and felt that anyone thought I wasn’t capable because I was black or a woman. I don’t think that that has been an issue. It’s [more] about the fact that in order to succeed in this profession, people have to take a vested interest in your career.
What I mean by succeed, I don’t mean being an excellent lawyer, learning how to do it—that’s a different kind of success. [I mean] being able to partner, for example, or being promoted to an of-counsel position. People have to decide, I believe, that they want you to succeed, because there are a lot of really smart, talented lawyers out there. And not every really smart, talented lawyer is going to have professional success at any given firm. At some point, someone has to make a decision that they want that to happen for you.
So then the question becomes what is it that people use to make a determination of whether or not they want that for you? And I think we would all be naïve to say that people don’t often gravitate towards people who are familiar in some way. We all do it, so that’s not necessarily racism, but it certainly means that if I am the single black female in a group of 100 lawyers … you would be naïve to think that it doesn’t somehow play out where perhaps you don’t have as easy of an ability to develop those kinds of relationships.
I think that I have had every opportunity to prove my abilities throughout my career. But what I don’t believe I had up until recently was the relationship with one or more influential people who could make a decision that they want to help me navigate these waters. You can’t do it on your own. Someone has to decide that they’re going to help you navigate it. I think that people of color are not the benefactors of those relationships at the same levels [as] our white counterparts.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
The truth? There’s the substantively gratifying part, where I get to be creative and I learn something new regularly. That’s why I like doing litigation, because it’s challenging and I like to be challenged, I like to be tested, and I like to have an opportunity to win. (Laughs) But personally, there’s another part that I find gratifying. It’s that, notwithstanding the fact that we have made tremendous advances in terms of the makeup of law firms, I am still in some respects not always the one who’s expected at the table, and I like that I have a seat at the table. It’s an important table.
Having gone to Howard, undoubtedly there [was] this discussion where people would say, “Oh, people who are going to law firms, you’re selling out,” and I say to myself and to them, “There are people who fought really hard so that opportunities for me to work in places like this exist. Some of us have an obligation to take our seat at the table and fight the next part of that.”
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on Jayden through your work?
The notion that she can be and do anything she wants, that there are no limitations except for those that she places on herself, and that she is as capable as anyone. I am the product of teenage mom, a black single teenage mom. I’m not, by a lot of folks’ definitions, supposed to be here, doing what I do. I want her to see it doesn’t work that way, you define yourself.
I also want her to understand about working hard. I believe that it’s important to have some sense of entitlement. You need to feel like it’s your rightful place to be [where you want to be]. But you also have to understand that hard work is important, and it’s gratifying, and the most important things you get in life, you’re going to get because you worked really hard for them.
How do you balance it all?
(Laughs) I think I balance it all by not having any real balance. My work/life balance is a work/life imbalance. I have an exceptionally supportive partner in all of it, which I think is huge, and it’s huge from a practical standpoint in that we parent together. During the week, for example, the mornings are mine. I get Jayden up, I get her dressed. We leave as a family, and we take her to school together as a family. But because of my hours, Monday through Friday, I don’t participate in nighttime. He feeds her dinner, and he puts her to bed. If I did not have a spouse who was willing to do that, I couldn’t do what I do.
Beyond the practical part of it is that he is all in, in terms of really wanting me to have the success that I want to have. My husband [is] like my professional coach. He’s the guy who kind of helps me navigate this as well. He wants me to have this. It’s hard to do what I do and be a mom, and not experience guilt. It’s impossible. He doesn’t add to that. It’s not that it doesn’t exist for me because of him, but he certainly doesn’t add to that. And he quite easily could.
Issue No. 22
Shoreham, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Sadé Clacken Joseph
A needle hits wax, and with a pop and crackle, the soothing voice of everyone’s favorite silly old bear comes through loud and clear. Henry, 1, sits on his knees and rocks slightly, transfixed by the spinning vintage record his mother, Lindsey Caldwell, has put on a just-right sized portable record player directly in front of him.
As the voice actor of Winnie the Pooh tells the story of the Three Little Pigs, Henry’s right hand reaches out for the record. He firmly moves it back and forth, and familiar scratching sounds cut into “I’ll blow your house down” and the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”
“You scratching?” Caldwell asks her expressive son, with a laugh. He nods in three quick successions. It must run in the family—Caldwell is a professional DJ herself. Music is never far from her Town & Country-perfect home tucked away in woodsy Shoreham, Long Island, whether it’s classic Hip-Hop playing from her laptop or on the TV from the popular children’s show “Yo Gabba Gabba” (Henry’s favorite).
For the last two years, Caldwell and her husband Myles—an entrepreneur who manages his family’s two thriving restaurants in Long Island—have made a home in the picturesque village. But now the family is packing up the house, Henry, and their pitbull mix Keisha to move to Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood.
“I need to get back into the city so I can start working again,” Caldwell explains. “Our lives are so different because of Henry. More often than not, it’s for the better, but there are certain things where it’s never going to be the same again.”
One of those things has been Caldwell’s career as a DJ.
“That’s the hardest part, trying to balance career and being a mom when my career isn’t where I want it to be yet,” she says. “What I wanted it to be before Henry, and what it can be now are two different things, and that’s something I’m still trying to figure [out].”
Caldwell, or DJ Lindsey as she is known to countless revelers, put her name on New York’s crowded cultural map in the early 2000s with her monthly residency at APT, a club in the Meatpacking District. Negroclash—a night celebrating “African-American innovation in electronic music”—became a must-go-to dance / be-seen party. In the mid 2000s she was a senior associate editor for the FADER magazine, and was beginning to position herself to become a bigger name.
“I was looking to maximize the amount of money and the amount of time I worked,” Caldwell recalls. “I wanted to up my profile as a DJ and not be this under the surface club DJ. [I wanted to] be more of a bigger name. I knew well enough to know I couldn’t just play one genre of music underground and be successful, and so I knew I needed to meet people in the industry and I needed to do more high-profile gigs.”
Caldwell tried her hand in producing her own music and singing, and was a touring DJ alongside her husband, jumping between Colorado and Arizona for around seven months. At the height of her career, motherhood was something Caldwell couldn’t even begin to fathom, she says.
“For a long time I [thought], ‘I do not want kids, I do not like kids. I don’t think I am cut out to be a mom. I’m too selfish, I’m too immature,’” she says with a laugh. “[But] love is a hell of a drug because I met my husband and then at a certain point we were both like, ‘Let’s have a baby.’”
While Henry’s birth in 2011 didn’t bring her career to a screeching halt—she still plays a few gigs here and there, though ones that don’t end at 4 in the morning, she explains—Caldwell says she's conflicted about what her idea of success can look like now that she’s a mother.
A snapshot of Caldwell and her husband, Myles.
“There was no way for me to really understand until I had to give up my independence completely,” she said. “Working in nightlife especially, once he came, everything had to change. Because I was still DJing, I had to cancel a gig from the hospital. I was acting like I was superwoman; I was booking gigs all the way up to a week before he was due.”
Though Caldwell describes the first three months with Henry as being “in the trenches,” the pair have their routine down pat. While Myles works long hours at his restaurants, Caldwell and Henry laugh together, play music, and hang out all day long. After devoting a year to near full-time mothering, Caldwell is ready to take on the next stage of her career.
“It’s so hard. I feel like for my personality, and what I want to do with my life professionally, it’s been a challenge,” Caldwell admits. “But then I wake up in the morning and he’s there, and none of that matters whatsoever. It’s an afterthought. It’s how can I make [DJing] something that allows for me to give him the best life possible. As opposed to before, it was ‘How can I be the best DJ there is? I’m better than that DJ. Why am I not doing x, y, and z?’
“Now it’s okay,” she continues. “[Now it’s] ‘I want this and this and this for Henry so how can I make this money for [him]?’ Everything’s so different now.
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when...?
I’m biased but I think my child is the most fun, the most charismatic, the most funny, the cutest child on Earth. Period. Ever. In the history of children.
I rarely leave Henry with anyone, we are always together. When he’s with the babysitter [and] I come home, he can barely even walk, [but] he runs to me [at] the door. He yells and gives me a big hug. That’s the best feeling. That he reciprocates the love that I feel for him.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
I’m probably a little overprotective; I just have seen a lot of kids take the wrong route. While I’m here with him every day, before I start to get busy doing other things and he gets older, I just want to give him the best foundation possible without being too overbearing.
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri. [Henry’s] middle name is Jason, after my cousin. Jason was raised in my house like [he was] my brother—we were about the same age. When we all moved to Arizona from St. Louis, he got wrapped up in selling drugs and he was killed. When kids have idle time and the parents are working, it’s hard to keep tabs on what they’re doing. I don’t want it to sound like I’m judging anybody in my family on their parenting—I’ve seen what can happen regardless of the parenting—[but] I don’t want that to happen to my child.
What’s a typical day like with you and Henry?
It’s kind of freeform, it’s not like a structured day where I’m sitting over him and teaching him the alphabet. But I definitely want there to constantly be as much love and as much culture as possible. We listen to music, we play instruments, as well as learn colors and the alphabet. His aunt is a drummer so she bought him a baby drum and his maracas, [and] he has a little xylophone. We have a little baby turntable, so we listen [and] do storytime [on the record player]. I bought a bunch of records that I had when I was kid off of eBay, so we do story time [with those] records. He [also] has a little baby keyboard.
What was the best advice your mother, or the mothers in your life, gave you?
This came before I got pregnant and I was caught up in this career stuff. I was [saying], “I’m not where I want to be, I don’t know if I’ll be able to provide if I get pregnant now.” My mom just kept telling me, “You’re never going to be ready. If you feel like this is what you want to do, then just do it, and everything else will fall into place. You will make a way, just like you make a way for yourself. It’s not easy, but if it’s what you want to do, then just do it.”
It gave me the extra bit of confidence to just go ahead and do it, and I’m so glad that I did. I just think about my life before Henry, and it was so wack. It was good, it was cool. I just partied a lot. (Laughs) And now I get to experience everything all over again. Like, I bought kumquats. There’s no other reason to buy kumquats except to get to see Henry try kumquats for the first time. I’m getting to start all over again because of him, which is awesome.
How would you describe Henry’s personality?
He’s hilarious. He’s so fun. I feel like he’s super excited to be here! (Laughs) When he wakes up in the morning, he barks at us because he’s all about animal sounds. (Laughs) He stands up in his crib and he either goes “Hey, hey!” to wake us up, or he barks—“Woof, woof!” (Laughs) When you come [into his room] and get him, everything he says now [ends with] a question mark. He just wants to be in everything. He doesn’t want to sit still or be contained in any area, he wants to explore and understand how everything works, tastes, [and] smells.
We have a dog [named Keisha] and because we’re on a bit of land, there’s raccoons, and tons and tons of deer in the yard, and the neighbor’s dog will sometimes come over here because there’s no fencing. So the dog will hear something, and she’ll run to the window and stalk whatever animal is in the yard. Henry and Keisha [will] stand side by side in that window. Henry barks, Keisha barks, the whole house is crazy!
How did you get your start as a DJ?
I moved to Atlanta in the late ‘90s, and I started a magazine with a couple of friends [called Frank]. It started out just being about Atlanta—there was so much happening at the time. Everybody was performing in Atlanta quite a bit; the whole Dungeon Family, Goodie Mob, TLC, India.Arie, [Outkast, and more] would come and perform a lot, and then there were tons of raves. It was just really rich. There was so much happening. So we wanted to chronicle what was happening just below the surface.
There was this DJ [who] was living in the complex where we were working on the magazine. And I was like, “Man, I really want to DJ.” My parents always listened to music when I was younger, and they had a huge collection of records at the time. I had already started buying records because I was just interested, and he [said], “You should just do it.”
He sold me his old turntables, but they were just torn up. The pitch adjust was all out of wack, and if you go on one end or the other, it would get all warbly. I bought a cheap mixer off eBay, and stole a bunch of records from my parents. My parents live in Alpharetta, Georgia and they drove all the way to East Atlanta where I was living just to take back a bunch of records! (Laughs) They were like, “Nuh uh, you better give me my Carole King album back!” Before I got my turntables fixed, [a friend, DJ Rashida,] had turntables at her house, and she and I would practice at her apartment. I was just practicing and practicing and collecting records.
I stopped working on Frank [and] moved to New York, because I wanted to work at a magazine. I found a different job that wasn’t a magazine [but] paid for my relocation to New York. In the meantime, [I] started getting gigs here and there.
Do you have an example of one of your first gigs and how you felt when you were DJing?
Oh my God, yes. I remember vividly my first gig because it was not cool. (Laughs) There was this club in New York called Fun, and [one night a friend] said “You could either open or play at the very end of the night.” I don’t think he knew or understood that I would play drum and bass. So I get there and it was not a drum and bass party, but I was like,”That’s alright. I’m going to play my drum and bass, and people are going to be into it, watch!”
No. No. That’s not what happened. It was terrible. I cleared the room.
But maybe that’s why a lot of DJs who have been DJing for a while get so angry at new DJs who buy Serato or they buy Traktor, which is like an interface that mixes records for you. Because people like us who spent the money and time practicing and learning about music and having experiences like I just described to you.
I paid so many dues before I ever got a gig where people actually appreciated the music that I played. I was just a scrub; people didn’t want to hear what I was playing nor did they care who I was. A lot of time passed between the beginning and the beginning of where it started to get good, to where I got to a point where people were coming to hear music because I was playing it.
What was special about Negroclash? What made you decide to start the party?
At the time, mainly in Williamsburg, [Brooklyn], there was a scene around Electroclash. People were making music that sounded like a more modern version of the ‘80s. They had this big Electroclash festival [at Webster Hall] and me and Duane Harriott—this other guy that did Negroclash with me—and DJ Language, were all bitching about Electroclash, like what in the world is going on? Because some of the biggest pop stars [in the 80s] were African-American. Some of the biggest songs in the ‘80s that were electronic were African-American.
So we were like, “We need a little Negroclash in Electroclash. We have to do a party.” So we talked to the people at APT, and they were down. What started off as a reaction to Electroclash, we decided to make more about African-American innovation in electronic music. You would hear [everything] from pop stuff, like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, to Chicago house, Detroit techno, [and] ‘80s hip hop. And our guests were all of the different artists [who] produced that type of music. We had Kurtis Mantronik, Afrika Bambaataa, [and] Fab Five Freddy—he came and riff about what was happening in the ‘80s when a certain song would come on.
It was like a big house party. This was all of the music I kind of grew up listening to. I felt like this is it, this is my thing. At the time I was playing more Broken Beat artists like Jazzanova and 4hero, [but] then I just slowly started to bring out all those records I stole from my parents: old Janet Jackson albums, Cameo, The Police, Parliament, Madonna, Jacksons, Curtis Mayfield, Full Force... That was the kind of vibe that I transitioned into.
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
I guess it’s two part. I enjoy discovering good, new music. I feel like as far as my taste is concerned, it doesn’t come around as often anymore. I really enjoy playing classics and I like when someone comes up to me and is freaking out because I’m playing some song that they haven’t heard in years that they absolutely loved and they just forgot. I enjoy digging up those songs, or songs that somebody’s mom used to play all the time. I love mom music. I like Stephanie Mills, I love Teddy Pendergrass. (Laughs)
What kind of man do you hope Henry becomes?
My husband and I have the same philosophy about this: We just want him to be a good person in general. We’re just trying to instill morals in him, so regardless if it’s a situation with a different race [or] a different sex, he treats everybody with the same regard.
I got a lot of that when I was younger. My parents didn’t have much money, and they couldn't afford to send me to private school, so they sent me to Catholic school. I’m not the most religious person you’ll ever meet, but I will say that what I did learn from going to Catholic school was just basic morals and how to be a decent human being. I definitely want to give him that foundation.
My husband and I [are] both setting a good example for him; he’ll definitely strive to be like my husband and treat women the way he would want people to treat me, and also [from] seeing the way I fight for equality, or as level a playing ground as I can scratch my way to getting.
Issue No. 23
New York City, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Rog Walker
It doesn’t take much searching of Judia Black’s home to discover where her true passions lie.
There’s a wall lined with row after row of wine, bottles of reds and whites just waiting to be uncorked and served in any one of the many large wine glasses sitting patiently on a nearby shelf. And then there’s the bookshelves in her well-appointed kitchen stacked with cookbooks and sommelier guides that are definitely not just there for decoration.
Black’s love of food and wine goes way back. “I was the one in the dorm who would cook and share food with friends,” the 49-year-old explains. “That was part of the culture I grew up with in the South in Atlanta. My family in Kansas City were caterers. So it's definitely in my genes—it's in my roots—to be a foodie.”
It’s her business, too—Black founded enJoie, a food and wine lifestyle media company, in 2008. In five years, Black has made a name for herself hosting corporate events for companies like Goldman Sachs, curating big spenders’ wine cellars, and promoting smaller vintners such as House of Mandela, the wine line recently launched by former South African president Nelson Mandela’s family.
But prior to being chief executive officer of her own company, Black was a different kind of CEO: “the CEO of my home,” she says. After working in business for years—“I actually worked in almost every area of corporate America that you could be in,” she says with a laugh—her view of the world changed completely in 1998 when she became a mother for the first time. (Black is now the mother of two daughters—Danielle, 14, and Nicole, 10—who could easily be New York’s answer to Malia and Sasha Obama.)
“Once I had my first child, I thought I would have been the mom that went back to work,” Black says now, “but there was something that just happened with me. I had never felt that kind of love in my life, and it was because this little person—this being—was so dependent on me for every single need.”
It was hard for her to imagine leaving her baby daughter alone with a stranger to go to the doctor for an appointment, much less for a full work day, Black recalls.
At the time “I was in between jobs, so I did not have a maternity leave situation to go back to,” she explains. “I did not feel the [financial] pressure to go right back to work, even though I was trying to do a little bit of consulting to keep my foot in the door; I didn't want to lose all the momentum and time I had spent trying to get my career started. Time went by and I [stayed] home longer than I initially expected. I never went back to the corporate world after I had my first child.”
There were other, more graver, reasons for Black’s absence from the work force: she suffered two traumatic miscarriages before the birth of her second daughter, Nicole. One occurred when she was eight-months pregnant. Having what her doctor called an “incompetent cervix,” she went into preterm labor and lost her son after 10 agony-filled days in the hospital.
“I had [taken] my first birth for granted because it was so easy, and then the second one was so darn complicated,” she says. “I came home [and] had breasts full of milk and no baby. [But] I just feel like you can’t second guess things like that because it was part of the plan for my life. I still have two healthy daughters now, and they’re smart and beautiful. I feel very blessed.”
Black threw herself into managing the day-to-day operations of her home and her daughters’ school lives, before she found herself wanting to get back to work.
“Over time I did get lonely,” she admits now. “I did want more interaction outside of the home and to talk about things other than the PTA or what's going on with your children.
“[Also], I have to say, it was really hurtful sometimes when I would go to social events with my [former] husband or even by myself,” she continues with a laugh. “You sit at a table with people and the first thing they ask you is ‘What do you do?’ They're [sometimes] going to be really patronizing and say, ‘Oh yeah, being a mom is one of the most important jobs in the world.’ I did feel like sometimes people would shut down and sort of write me off as not being that interesting.”
A longtime fan of vineyard tours and wine tastings, Black decided to pursue her foodie interests; in 2001 Black took classes at the American Sommelier Association and became a certified sommelier.
“I had friends who were coming to me, asking me for advice on what wines they should get,” she recalls. “If they're having a party, what they should pair with this or that, if they were buying a gift for somebody, what should they get? I thought, ‘This is a business opportunity.’”
She founded enJoie that fall and hasn’t looked back since. Thanks to word of mouth and friends in high places enlisting her services, Black has three corporate clients and scores of private clients who rely on her knowledge of wine and marketing.
“It’s been a long path,” she says, “[but] I can literally see [the] business getting traction. I think it was really the right path for me.”
True to the name of her company, Black is truly enjoying her life.
What do you think of the idea that a woman can’t have “it all”: a successful career, family life, and children?
I think no one can have everything, but I do think it’s all about timing: There’s a time and place for all of it. My mother had her family earlier, and she has more time for pursuing other things now; I had my family later, and I had more time to be somewhat selfish earlier. I think if you decide to have children, you’re not going to have it all at the same time.
If you are really committed to having all of those things, you can have them, as long as [you’re] committed to fighting for it. And you have to be willing to think about when it’s possible, and when it’s not. Or just accept that timing may make certain things appropriate at a certain time.
How would you describe your parenting philosophy?
[It] has always kind of been like the proverb “Give them a fish, they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish, and they’ll eat for a lifetime.” From the time my children were really young, I’ve never been the overprotective, coddling parent; I’ve always wanted to empower my daughters to really know their abilities and their strengths. I want to raise them to be resilient [and] strong. [I want them to] know that I’m there for them, but that they can do it without me.
I also wanted to teach them to be compassionate people. I think compassion’s really important—we all need people and no person’s an island.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
I always assumed I would be a mother. I was raised in a pretty traditional home; it was a logical step somewhere along the way. I think I even wrote in a high school some kind of plan in a scrapbook: I wanted to pursue my career—at the time I wanted to be an engineer—and then I wanted to start having children when I was 25 or 26. Well, I didn't have my first child until I was 35 and I was still not sure if it was the right time. (Laughs)
It really just happened. I got married at 30 and basically it was going to the doctor [at 35] and hearing all the statistics about the odds of miscarriages and birth defects. It was really a harsh reality. [I thought], "If I really want to do this, this is probably the time to start thinking about it."
How would you describe your daughters’ personalities?
My older daughter is gregarious, confident, charming, and responsible. And creative. My younger daughter is loyal, sensitive... She’s actually very humourous, she has a great sense of humor.
What do Danielle and Nicole like to do?
[Danielle] is very athletic, but then she also likes art. She’s a great visual artist—the art that she brings home has been really spectacular.
She’s social, she likes people, and she’s a leader. [Her teachers] always told me that from the beginning, even when she was in Gymboree class. They said she would get people to follow her, not because she was bossy, [but] because she was confident. She knows how to engage other people in a way where they feel good about themselves.
My younger daughter is a little more private. She has a smaller group of friends and she’s very loyal to [them]. She’s very creative. She’s an amazing performer from a theatrical and dramatic standpoint, [and] she’s also, I think, a great writer.
She’s very imaginative. She lives in her own world a lot more, she’s a little more of a loner than my other daughter. I can even remember when she was a toddler, how she could play alone. She would be in her room with her dolls. Nicole only liked to play with certain kids; she didn’t like to have a range of playdates like my other daughter. She just has a really vivid imagination. It comes out in her writing too.
You have your B.A. in math, an MBA, and you’ve had your fair share of corporate careers. How did these experiences inform your decision to go into more of a lifestyle-focused career?
I think it was really not the education that influenced me to go in that direction, it was more the passion. I started off doing more numbers-oriented work because of my math degree, [then] I did some work on Wall Street and in finance, [but] I’m passionate about people and food and socializing. I just wanted to do something more meaningful.
It was not so much that the math and business influenced my [new] career, but the fact that I felt like I wanted to apply those skills in a more meaningful way, and do something that was a little more me.
I did a lot of soul-searching, because I was not happy in every job that I ever had, and the ones that I was happiest in were more people-related and more creative. So advertising, marketing, [and events] really became more of [my] focus and [my] passion.
I think having gone through different careers and different traumatic events in my life... you realize all the material things and the status of impressing people is not so important. That we really have to get to the heart of who we are, try to embrace that and try to be happy in life. And the heart of who I am is a person who wants to entertain and teach.
How did enJoie begin?
Because of how old I was, I was at a later stage in my career; I was [a] mature, seasoned employee, but I didn’t stay in one place for a long time. I didn’t have a track record of “She’s got 10 years of experience in x, she can come in and hit the ground running.” Some people look at that as a negative. It was hard [to find a job].
In 2008, I started taking my second class through the American Sommelier Association. I had said no to an offer from the last corporate job I interviewed for, primarily because my younger daughter was only 3 years old at the time and the job would have required a significant amount of travel. But by the time my younger daughter was 5 years old, I said to myself, "It's really time now, I have to do something. She's getting ready to go to kindergarten, and I just can not volunteer for another school auction." (Laughs) I was just done with the volunteering thing. The economy was starting to change too -- both of my daughters were getting ready to be full-time in the New York private schools system, which ain’t cheap!
It became apparent to me that it was really time to start my own opportunity and figure out how to make some financial contributions to the family. I [thought], this is worth a shot. The worst case scenario, it doesn’t work and we’re in the same place, but I think I can make it work.
I got my first client through [a] school auction, where I was fundraising co-chair the year before. I [offered] a wine tasting event in the auction, and the person who bid on it was the founder of Ciao Bella Gelato, [an all-natural, award-winning gelato company based in New York]. I did [the event] for him and his wife, and they were happy about it. I gained the confidence to keep doing it more and more. I used the school and the place where I had been working before as platforms to get out there in a more entrepreneurial way.
Is there a particular memory or family member that you credit for your love of food and entertaining?
It was just a big part of my Southern background. My mother’s mother did it in one way, that was much more traditional. We would go down to her house almost every Sunday for meals after church. She was the old school; she would make the meal early in the morning, so that it would be ready when everyone came home from church. She grew up basically on a sharecropping farm, picked cotton and all that kind of stuff, and it’s basically that slavery model, where Sunday was kind of like the day that everybody had off and they were free to socialize with one another.
Then on my father’s side of the family, his mother was more from the Creole descent in Louisiana and Alabama. They did it in slightly different ways. My mother’s family is Baptist, they didn’t believe in alcohol; my father’s side partied a little more. My father’s mother would make gumbo [and] a lot of the traditional Creole dishes, but then my father’s father was a good cook too, and he would do more traditional Southern food, [like] okra, succotash. So everybody in my family was an influence. [There were] different types of food, but it was always good food.
What perspective or example do you want to impart on your daughters through your work?
I definitely want to show them that it’s okay to have balance in your life and not to be all one stereotype. You don’t have to be the total homemaker, but it’s okay to take pride that you make a good meal, or [know how to] entertain or throw a good party. It’s okay to really want to make money and have a profession and a world outside of your family.
I just want them to understand the importance of being. We’re all humans here on this earth together. [I want them to understand] the importance of being a part of a community, and not just looking for what you can get from it. That’s really what helped me in getting through the tough times in my life. I moved around a lot in my career and had to start over again. Some people find it difficult to move to new places and to start over and embrace change and new beginnings. I think that it’s inevitable that that’s going to happen at some point in life. If you have a community, it’s a lot easier.
Issue No. 24
Brooklyn, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Sadé Clacken Joseph
While most women have jewelry boxes for their accessories, Lorraine Natasha West has an entire shrine to her collection of earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Beaded necklaces are draped around a stone Buddha’s neck; Bakelite, metal, and wooden bangles are stacked precariously, one on top of the other; her leather and feather earrings sit next to a huge cloudy crystal. And each one has a story.
“This one over here with Africa on it is my mother’s...” West begins, lightly touching a wooden beaded necklace hanging from a wall with reverence.
Nestled along the vintage jewelry, and those snagged from her mom over the years, are West’s own pieces from her lines, Lorraine West Collection and Tasha West Jewelry. She’s made jewelry for more than a decade, first in the late ‘90s as a self-taught jewelry lover and Fashion Institute of Technology illustration student and later as an established designer.
Her pieces range from the elemental, geometric, and minimalist—thin-gauged metal cuffs shaped into zodiac signs—to the colorful and extravagant. It’s an aesthetic that has won her many fans, including musicians such as newest client, Ladybug Mecca, along with longtime supporters Common, Raphael Saadiq, Questlove, and Erykah Badu. (Those hammered gold feather cuffs Ms. Badu rocks in Janelle Monaé’s newest video “Q.U.E.E.N.”? All West.)
Another fan of her work is her 2-year-old son Solomon West Boyd, or Solly as he’s adorably referred to in the Bed-Stuy apartment she shares with her life partner, musician Solomon Boyd (who is also known by his stage name, Suede Jenkins). Racing around his mother’s legs, Solly wears a simple metal bracelet West made for him before he was born next to a black wristband on his tiny wrist.
“I don’t take it for granted,” West says, her voice—despite being a native New Yorker—carrying all the laid-back cool of a California surfer. “I don’t separate from a performer [or] a stay-at-home mom; they’re [of] the same importance [to me]. I want everybody to feel really special wearing their piece. You could choose anybody else, and you come to me? That’s an honor.”
West’s humble nature may be rooted in her steady rise to becoming a recognized name in the industry. Though she went to FIT for illustration, “something came over [her]” in her junior year in 1996 through 1997, she explains. “I had a love for jewelry [and I’d] just go to the store and get some pliers, wire, and some beads and just play around,” West says.
She made wire finger and dreadlock rings that she carried around in a velvet vintage box, “showing customers I thought had a funky style,” at the juice bar she worked at during college—she sold a piece to her first customer while on the job.
“Once somebody bought it, it was over,” West recalls. “I [thought], ‘I want to sell my work.’ It was so exciting to have interest.”
After graduation, West kept a steady stream of jobs while still working on her collections. She regularly attended a ‘90s poetry reading/music event called Sunday Tea Party in Brooklyn; it was there that she first met Boyd, her life partner, and later Erykah Badu in 1997. West gave Badu an ink drawing she had done of her and a connection was made.
“My first celebrity client, Andre 3000, commissioned a pair of thick black leather cuffs with white bone embedded down the middle,” West recalls. “Erykah saw the leather cuff, and she said, ‘I want a pair for myself.’ That’s how our creative relationship started in 1999. We’ve been working together ever since.”
West became a rising name in jewelry design, receiving her fair share of media attention all through celebrity word of mouth, she says. That same leather cuff that caught Erykah’s attention led to a line that debuted for Patricia Field N.Y.C., the famed costume designer’s boutique. During a two-year stint as a jewelry department manager at Anthropolgie, several of her pieces were picked up by the retailer for its high-end line from 2009 to 2010 (blink, and you would’ve missed them—they regularly sold out). She even returned to her first love, illustration, and worked with client Common on three children’s books for Scholastic and Atlas Books in the mid- to late 2000s.
But her life and career took an unexpected turn when she found out she was pregnant with Solly in 2010. (Though West and her partner had known each other for years, they had just been together for three months when they learned the news.)
“My life just changed in a drastic way in such a short amount of time. It accelerated—no one had time to even grasp it. [When] I got pregnant, I had to readjust my priorities” to meet the demands of being an artist and a mother, she explains.
“[Solly]’s only 2 years old [and] he’s in day care three days a week,” she says. “Those [are] three days of cramming to get the orders done, to experiment with new things, to keep the house in order... I want to do it all as well as I can. Sometimes, some things fall through the cracks, but I definitely feel more confident having a child than I ever did [before], which is amazing.”
It’s a confidence that West finds herself calling upon as she begins to expand her brand beyond custom jobs and celebrities. She’s on Instagram building a strong new fan base and sharing new designs for her fall collection, creating custom wedding bands for clients, and promoting her new spring/summer collection on Etsy.
“I know that I’m growing so much, and it’s such a great feeling,” West says with a huge smile. “I want to see myself be the ultimate success that I can be.”
Did you always know you wanted to be a mom?
Before I was pregnant, the thought of having a child was overwhelming. I would hang out with other friends [who] had children, whether they were married or single, [and] I never wanted to be in their shoes. I just felt like, “Man, that’s awesome if you choose that. I’m not ready for that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready for that.”
I was just scared. Maybe I just didn’t feel confident in the unknown. [But] when [my life partner] Solomon and I got together, I felt confident. I just felt he was the one [to start a family with].
What’s the hardest thing about being a mom?
The hardest thing about being a mom, for me, has been to maintain my own identity and taking care of myself. I had a client [say], “Where’s Solomon?” Her daughter [told her] he was at his grandmother’s, and she said, “Aw, I wish you would have told me, I wouldn’t have even come!” (Laughs) I don’t take it personally—we're friends and joke around a lot—but [sometimes] people just see your child, they don’t see you. You have to make them see you by you seeing you.
I've put my family and business obligations first, but as of late I've been utilizing more time to fill up Lorraine’s cup. I went out the other night [and] I did my hair—I gave it super extra attention. Every person who knew me said “Oh my God, what did you do to your hair? It looks so amazing!”
Taking care of myself is working wonders on my drive and energy level.
What does Solly like to do for fun?
He’s so colorful—[he’s] the life of the party. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s so happy and energized. He’ll go into the living room to play with his toys. He loves to draw, paint, and write in his sketch book. He loves colors and shapes and numbers; his alphabet is one of his his favorite things to recite.
How do you balance doing your work and taking care of Solomon?
It’s all about time management. I know the days [when I think], “Oh, wow, I managed my time so well today,” and I know the days that I didn’t. It’s just creating a system for myself and committing to this time to this particular task for the business, [and] committing to this particular task that I have to take care of for Solomon and the family.
I have a partner and we live together in harmony, but we’re adults: We can take care of certain things on our own, or there are certain things we just naturally take care of for each other. But for a [child], it’s mandatory that we have to get him ready for the day. He has to eat breakfast and get bathed, he has to get his clothes on. Or if he’s not going to school, [I have to think about] what are the things we’re going to do with him to keep him stimulated? These are the things that take precedence. It’s a balancing act!
On the days that he’s with me, sometimes I may not get anything done during the day; I may have to burn the midnight oil and work at night or get up early in the morning before Solly wakes up [to get work done]. When his dad comes home, I’ll go sit at my table—it’s like an unspoken thing. Solomon will say, “Mommy, Mommy,” and Sol will say, “It’s daddy time, let’s go do our thing. Mommy’s working.” Dad will take over. Or if Dad wants to work on his craft after he comes home from work, there’s a rule that he can go and do his music.
I’m getting a little better with asking for help; sometimes he goes for an extra day of childcare so I can get more work done. But for the most part, he sees me work a lot.
I allow Solly to get involved when he shows an interest in me working on pieces. He likes to hammer, and sometimes I let him help me. He’s using his brain, he’s watching me build things, and fire things, and who knows what that is going to spark in him later?
[Sometimes] I can feel when maybe it’s not a good time to work, when Solly really needs my attention. It’s a lot of feeling, and just paying attention to his needs. Sometimes he comes and he’s just doing his thing; he starts drawing and I can work. Then we work together, which is really cool. He’s doing his thing, and then he comes over and wants to work with me, and I let him have his moment, and he goes back, and I may have to stop what I’m doing. It’s a lot of stop and go, but I just have to do it right now.
You are a completely self-taught jewelry designer. How did you teach yourself how to make jewelry?
I just did. Whatever I thought of, whatever I wanted to do, I would just go get the supplies to execute my ideas. I had a couple of books to reference, but for the most part, I [just] tried things. I need to try things out on my own to learn. I learn even by looking at great masters’ work, or classical jewelry. It’s a really interesting craft. I’ll have an idea, and think, “What are the basic fundamentals to make this happen? What can I do to make it work for the design I have in mind?”
West's anvil, which she and Solly use to hammer out metal bracelets and earrings.
What do you enjoy most about working with your celebrity clients?
It’s magic! Every few years Badu will place an order with a theme in mind for her tour performances, music videos or lifestyle. I’ve been really honored to be a part of that process, to be apart of the story the artist wants to tell to accompany their message in the music. She’s prolific, legendary, and for somebody to see that in me, that’s incredible.
What she and many other people have seen in me, I see in myself now. [Now] it doesn’t even matter what anybody else sees, I’m into what I’m doing to the point where I have unwavering confidence in my craft. I feel great about what I’m creating.
How has your design aesthetic changed now that you’re a mom?
I had a client [ask me], “Why don’t you do those crazy things you used to do?” I’ll still do those things, but I am becoming more streamlined, so my perspective of what I’m looking at is simplifying too.
As a designer, your designs speak of who you are—you can’t run from it. I am who I am, and my work is going to speak of where I’m at in my life.
Some of West's illustration work.
How has being a mother affected the way you manage your business?
As a mother, you have to patient when you have your own passion: You are working to raise a child and to cultivate [a] passion that’s only going to give back to your child. In the past, I was impatient. If I had moments of doubt or [felt] uninspired, I would allow that to take over, and I don’t anymore. I have to stay busy, so even if nobody’s calling, I have to keep creating, I have to keep coming up with things.
How do you intend to build your brand now that you’re a mom?
Well, to build my brand is to continue to build strong systems and to build on the success of my Etsy shop. I'm formulating new structures for how I deal with customer requests, orders, customer issues, billing, taxes, etcetera. [I need] to stay inspired and educate myself more on new techniques and new production processes.
What kind of man do you hope Solomon becomes?
I want him to be in love with who he is, be sure of himself, be open to hear what people have to say, but not let it sway him, negative or positive. To be able to take constructive criticism and learn from his mistakes, to observe himself in his relationships and whatever work he does. I want him to be an A student. (Laughs) I want him to be an artist and express himself through whatever medium he chooses.
I want him to have gratitude for all of his blessings, [to be able to] express his feelings, wants and needs clearly. I want him to contribute to the healing and betterment of humanity, [and] to inspire himself and inspire others to be great. He sure does inspire me!
Issue No. 25
Brooklyn, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Nneka Salmon
Although he barely clears his mother’s knees, 2-year-old Mosiah has the same view as 6’8 New York Knick Carmelo Anthony right now. Mosiah looks down at the shock of sea-foam blue in stylist Khalilah Beavers' hair as she kneels to adjust his outfit. She makes sure the sleeves of his plaid button down are rolled up just so and that his drawstring cargo pants fit snugly before they start their day.
It’s a calm Saturday afternoon in the Bed-Stuy townhouse she shares with her husband, art gallery owner Richard Beavers and their blended family (Mosiah has four step-siblings ranging in age from 9 to 21). But the outfit needs one last touch—a pair of bright orange socks with a grinning monsters’ face on them. By Mosiah’s pleased laugh, you can see Beavers' styling aesthetic works for men both big and small.
“I think the most important thing is for your clients to feel comfortable,” the 31-year-old explained. “No matter what you’re picking out, you always have to remember what their personality is like [and] what they don’t like. I love to play with color too; I try my best to incorporate [it] into my clients’ wardrobes.”
Clients, men’s fashion fans, her husband and her son all approve. Beavers has been a part of the overall game-stepping of today’s professional athlete. After the National Basketball Association required players to follow a strict business casual dress code in 2005, players are having more fun with fashion on and off the court, appearing in the front rows of Fashion Week’s men’s shows and in the pages of style magazines. Beavers' work with Anthony was recently heralded in an article in the New York Times: “Anthony Gets Fashion Assist From Brooklyn Stylist.”
Along with outfitting Carmelo Anthony, arguably one of the most watched men in basketball, Beavers' client list also includes NBA players J.R. Smith of the New York Knicks and Boston Celtic Brandon Bass, as well as hockey player Brad Richards of the New York Rangers. These are men who feel as comfortable in hipster frames and Prada as they do in their Nikes and practice sweats, all thanks to her discerning eye.
For Beavers, her enviable clients and accolades are the fought-for perks of a career long in paying dues and learning lessons. The Baltimore native moved to New York in 2002 to pursue her love of fashion, first as a sales associate at Express and later at Tommy Hilfiger. Wanting to get more experience with styling, she began asking stylists if they needed an assistant. She worked the typical New York creative class triumvirate—restaurant hostess, server, and retail associate—until one of those stylists eventually did need an assistant in 2006.
“I think she saw that I was truly committed and very serious about a career in styling,” Beavers recalls of the woman who would soon become her mentor.
Styling and assisting quickly became all-consuming as she learned the ropes. “I didn’t get to see family; I didn’t get to go to graduations, baby showers, anything,” Beavers says now. “But it was all worth it, because at the end of the day, look what it made me become.”
Beavers steadily built up her own client base through “networking, word of mouth, and just being really good at [my] job,” she explains. “I feel like that’s a testimony to what’s to be done: If you’re great at your job, people come because people see what you’re doing.” She landed her first client, San Francisco 49er Donte Whitner, all on her own, and hasn’t looked back since.
Now more than seven years into her styling career, Beavers is ready for something new. She recently opened a boutique, Shirley + Alice by K. Webb Kollects Vintage (434 Marcus Garvey Boulevard, Brooklyn, NY), a few blocks away from her husband’s House of Art Gallery.
Named after her stylish grandmothers who helped sparked her love of fashion and jewelry, the store is an expansion of the Khalilah Beavers brand she could only imagine years earlier.
“I really wanted to open a store,” after years of thrifting, she explained. “[The idea] didn’t really come back around again until I was pregnant with Mosiah. I wanted to do something else. I knew that I wouldn’t be working as much, especially after having him. Last year I started looking for a storefront; [in early 2013] we found a space, and it was perfect.”
“Perfect” would be an easy enough adjective to apply to Beavers' life (recently married to a man whose devotion to their blended family is steadfast and clear) and her career, with a new store and more styling work on the horizon.
But Beavers admits she’s not driven by a quest for perfection—only by what feels right for her and her family.
“I’m not the type of person who really plans,” she says about opening her store now rather than later in her career. “Sometimes it’s to my benefit, and sometimes it’s not... Sometimes I get told that I move a little too fast, but there’s no perfect time to do anything. From starting a family to planning a business, there’s no perfect time to do anything. I just feel like if you feel it, you gotta do it."
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
One of the things that stands out for me is when I come home—just seeing his face and seeing how much he loves and misses me. Getting the joy and love from your child, and knowing that you had a part in making this special life and that they depend on you [is great].
Along with your son, you have four stepchildren whom you’re very involved with raising. How did you and your husband handle blending your families?
At the end of the day they’re all brothers and sisters, so blending the family came pretty naturally for us. We make sure that the kids know what’s going on, and that respect and love has to be given across the board. That’s pretty much it. We all are family, and we all are here for each other.
What does Mosiah’s name mean?
He’s named after Marcus Garvey, and it means “the chosen one.”
That’s a big name to live up to.
Yes, it is extremely big. But he is already living up to it.
He’s just amazing. I mean, he turned two in November [and] he really is a smart kid. He’s having conversations, he loves documentaries, he knows who the President is, he knows who Harry Belafonte is... He likes cartoons, but he would prefer to watch things that we watch. He loves sports; he thinks that he can play basketball already, soccer, everything. And he’s two. [I often think], “How old are you again?” (Laughs)
Fill in the blank: Being a mom is the hardest when ...?
Your child doesn’t want to cooperate. (Laughs) It’s a little frustrating at times, but you just have to remember that he’s a child, and he just doesn’t know. He knows to a certain degree, but he just wants what he wants in that moment, so you just have to work with him and work through it. Sometimes it may be not feeding into [a tantrum] much because it will pass; sometimes there’s something much deeper than that—[maybe] they want your attention—so you have to hug them, and give them...what they want.
So what’s a typical day like with you and Mosiah?
He goes to a Montessori school, so typically we wake up in the morning [though] we run into a little bit of a problem in the morning getting him up. He doesn’t like to wake up; I [thought] we would experience that a little later, but it’s happening now. (Laughs)
We have a ritual at this point: [I] make him lunch for school, we eat breakfast, we watch cartoons in the morning or we talk about what he’s going to do at school or sing a song in the morning before he goes to school.
[My husband and I] pick him up around 5:30, and sometimes we go to Richard’s art gallery—Mosiah really loves it. [Then] we go home and do homework [with] his sister, she’s 12.
I cook dinner, he runs around the house, and then after we eat dinner, we start to prepare for bedtime. Take a bath, go upstairs—we read a book sometimes—and then we have to turn off all the lights for him to go to sleep.
What is your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
I don’t know if we have a particular parenting philosophy. Our lives are not the typical 9-to-5. He owns an art gallery [and] we’re entrepreneurs, so we have to improvise on just about everything: From the time we all get to spend together, to dinnertime, to bedtime—that’s one of the reasons why we had Mosiah go to Montessori school. We want to let them know that you don’t have to stick to the schedule that the world says you have to be in. There’s so many things that you can do in life.
I think that’s one of the things that we try to let our children know—that you don’t have to stick to the schedule, that you can do just about anything that you want to do. We want our children to look at us as examples, because we’re doing this not only for ourselves, but to leave a legacy for [them] as well.
We have a lot going on, [so] we like to spend time together. And when we do, we really cherish it. Even if it’s something just like making sure we eat dinner or taking the kids to school together, we know that we need to spend the time with the kids, because it can be gone. I wouldn’t call it necessarily a philosophy, but those are the things we live by, trying to be the best parents as possible.
What does being a mother mean to you?
[Being a mother] is something that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I look at some [of] the industry people who have come before me—and sometimes they never get to have children. I’m so grateful that I’ve had this opportunity [to become a mother] and that I still get to do the things that I want to do, as far as working.
What were your early days as a stylist like? Did you have any big obstacles to overcome during your rise from assistant to working with stars like Carmelo Anthony?
You’re almost in shock that you’re out there on your own with these celebrities. It seems like it just happens overnight. There’s so much to deal with, especially with finances involved. If you've never been taught beforehand, It’s so hard to know how to manage this influx of money that’s coming in all of a sudden. That’s one of the things that I’ve had to learn, to be just a bit more responsible. Initially I think that you run into some bumps. For me, I had a problem with scheduling—I was always scrambling to get things done. So I made a conscious effort to complete tasks ahead of time [and] not to wait until the last minute.
As far as styling is concerned, it’s learning what you can bring to the table, learning how you are different, and setting yourself apart from the other stylists that [are] out there. That was one of the biggest things for me—it’s like everyone is trying to get into the sports industry now because they see the sports figures are now just as popular as a model or working with a musician. It’s just finding your niche, finding out what is important and what to focus on, and making sure that your client’s needs are met more than anything else.
How do you juggle your style work and your store, while also being a mom and a stepmom as well?
It’s so funny, because I tried so hard to find a balance in it. And I think that as much as you do try to find a balance, at some point, something gets neglected.
For me, especially this year, I made a conscious decision to create more of a stable environment for my family by completely cutting work off after a certain time. What I don't get done today can wait until tomorrow. Otherwise I’m always going to be working, and I don’t want that anymore. That’s how I’ve been able to find a great balance. That time at home is very important, so that’s what we’ve been doing.
My husband and I work together to make sure that if one of us has an engagement or have to work late, at least one of us will be with the kids [so] they’re not with the babysitter. That’s what’s most important: Working together to make sure the household is running effectively, and that [our] time is spent together.
FATHER'S DAY SPECIAL
Issue No. 26
Something we've heard time and time again from fans of mater mea is "Where are the dads?" While pater mea isn't in our immediate future, we wanted to acknowledge this equally important role with a special photo shoot in a park in Fort Greene, Brooklyn last Father's Day weekend.
One by one, dads streamed in on that warm summer's afternoon— some pushing strollers, others holding their children's hands—and spoke with mater mea about their experiences as fathers. And though each father had different stories to share, their understanding of what it means to be a dad was singular, as was their obvious love for their children.
What follows is a touching collection of photos and musings on being a dad —those men whose praises we can't sing enough.
xoxo, mater mea
Visuals: J. Quazi King
DWINE KNOTT, 39
father of Gregory, 4, and Donovon, 19 months
quality assurance manager for Saks.com, married for five years
What’s the best part about being a dad?
It’s amazing just watching them grow. You get a real sense of the passage of time. That element is pretty amazing to experience.
Did you always know you wanted to be a dad?
Not always. I think when I got to be an adult, I knew from there on that fatherhood was something that I wanted to experience.
Why was that?
It’s just something I felt. I grew up in a two-parent household. Me and my father always had an interesting relationship, but I always treasured [it]. I always felt like I wanted that for myself.
What part of yourself do you see in Gregory and Donovan so far?
Personality wise Gregory’s probably the most like me. Kind of quiet. When he meets new people, he kinds of holds off a little bit. We’re definitely similar in that way. Donovan, he’s a little more extroverted, not afraid of anything. Gregory looks most like my wife—he has her eyes and everything. But personality wise, he’s most like me. Donovan I think people would say the other way around.
AMIYR BARCLIFT, 37
father of Benjamin, 6 months
school teacher, married for three years
How did you feel when you found out you were going to be a dad?
I was pretty surprised, I was a little bit shocked, and I was very happy. I also realized from that point forward my life was going to be completely different.
In what way?
In that I have to always have somebody else in my mind. I always have to think about the future of someone else—a young person, not just my wife and myself. Now I have to consider the development, the growth, and the path of somebody else’s life, and how to guide them in the best way that I can.
What kinds of conversations did you and your wife have before you had your son in terms of how you would raise him?
We had a few conversations and the dialogue is a continuing [one]. We want the child to be raised well, we want his values to be intact, [and] we want him to have integrity. Because I work with children, and I know what it’s like to be around children who I don’t feel have been raised very well, that’s something that we both can agree [on].
We also want him to have a cultural basis of [an] Afrocentric point of view, but also be aware that he lives in America—just to have a point of view that’s grounded from his family and from his community.
MARIO LAZZARONI, 40
father of Neema, 4, and (not pictured) Wathira, 5 months
Vice President, Corporate Strategy, The Estée Lauder Companies Inc., married for five years
How did you feel when you found out you were going to be a dad?
I was actually really fine. In fact, I am the one who suggested to have a pregnancy test. For some reason I thought that we [he and wife, artist Wangechi Mutu] were pregnant.
When that happened, which was after nine months [of knowing] each other, for me it [was] just a natural progression of the fact that we are going to be together. We got married two months later after we found out, and again a year later on the same day, because then we had time to organize the proper celebration [and] get folks in from Italy and Kenya and everywhere else in the world.
What’s your favorite thing about being a dad?
My favorite thing about being a dad is there’s a degree of relevance in the things you do that wasn’t there before. Which of course is enjoyable most of the time, [but] sometimes it’s a little bit constraining—you think that you really are never free again, because there are two girls that depend on you all the time.
(Squeals) Oh, you had another girl?
(Laughs) Yes, Wathira [named after Wangechi’s grandmother]. She’s fantastic. Neema loves her; they will really be best friends.
What I really enjoy is the fact that your everyday actions become more meaningful because they are not just for yourself, but for someone [else]. That you’re part of a larger picture, which of course is what terrifies people about having kids. But what you then realize very quickly is now there’s a piece of you that is not staying inside of you—it’s even more enjoyable.
I always say, the way Neema laughs is the way I know I cannot laugh anymore because I can’t be as free as she. But I don’t mind. When she laughs I’m happy or even happier than when I laugh.
SOLOMON BOYD (AKA SUEDE JENKINS), 41
father of Solomon (Solly) West Boyd, 2
musician, in a partnership with past mater mea mom, Lorraine West, for 3.5 years
What’s your favorite thing about being a dad?
Feeling like I could chalk my own path because my dad wasn’t around. So whatever I’m doing I’m creating as I go. This gives me an opportunity to do whatever I think is positive and just do it on my own without following my dad’s examples.
What of yourself do you see in Solly?
Whatever he does, he’s tremendously focused. He’ll get stuck on something for a long time, but he’s really open to [move on to] something else too. He’s like a jack of all trades.
What’s been your proudest moment as a dad?
This guy keeps doing stuff all the time! But being that I practice Buddhism, I think being able to take him to chant with me [has been my proudest moment]. He’s into what I’m doing. He gives me that [quiet] time ‘cause I know his patience is running thin in a place like that. He’s wired [and] for a 2 year old, that’s a lot. I’m really proud that he’s able to share that with me and [that] he understands [it’s] an important thing.
MICHAEL BARCLAY, 33
father of Michael, III, 9, Maysa, 7, and Mali, 5 months
marketing consultant, married for 9 years
You have three kids in New York. How do you manage it?
It’s funny—I never thought we would stay once we had kids here. Neither one of us are from New York. But culturally it’s great for them. We love the fact that we can just go right across to Manhattan to the museums. The hardest part is this the cost of living and the space, [but] other than that its great.
They’re exposed to quite a few things. My son [was on] Sesame Street, my daughter has an aunt who works in the fashion industry, so she gets to go to check out Fashion Week and things like that. It’s cool for them and it’s great seeing it as someone who grew up in a very small area in North Carolina with aspirations to do certain things that just weren’t available. Having that available for them is pretty cool.
What’s been your proudest moment as a dad?
The first time I saw my son on the ultrasound. You know, [I] didn’t know how that would affect me and it really did. Seeing that firsthand on the ultrasound had to be the proudest because your life changes from then and it’s never been the same ever since
What kind of people do you hope your children become?
Happy. There aren't many people in this world that are truly happy with their lives and the choices they've made along the way. I want the kids to look forward to each new day and enjoy life.
ANTHONY DAVIS, 39
father of Elijah, 1.5
senior marketing manager at Pfizer, married to past mater mea mom Crystal Black Davis for 10 years
Your wife shared with us that she wasn’t sure she wanted to have children before Elijah was born. How did you feel about having kids?
I always knew it would happen sometime. We had a plan in mind and then, boom, it happened earlier than we anticipated. But it was cool. You just realize there’s not a perfect time... Everything’s not always going to be the way you plan it. But it turned out to be a good time.
How have you changed since you’ve become a dad?
I would say all of my decisions now go through an Elijah filter. To say, you know, is this the best thing for Elijah? Whereas before it may be “Is this the thing that I want to do for my future?” or “Is this important to me or to Crystal?”, now the deciding factor is what’s the best thing for him.
[Being a dad has also] just made me more thoughtful of things, because it makes me kind of realize how much my own parents must have loved me. I think I appreciate that a lot more now that I understand how much I love him.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever received about being a dad?
The best advice I've heard about being a dad is to listen. I interpret this as taking time out to stop and listen to what my son may be thinking, feeling, or trying to express and listening with a heart of love [and] understanding, [while] appreciating his perspective. And most importantly, listening to Mom because she always knows best!
FRANK GUIALDO, 40
father of Tesla, 2, and Baron, 4 months
floral designer and owner of men's apparel brand, SlyArt Vs. Robot City, in a partnership for 3.5 years
How did you feel when you found out you were going to be a dad?
I was super excited. I never really saw myself as a dad or being one. I knew that if that time happened I would definitely step up to the plate and be a responsible adult because that is what I received from my mom.
I grew up with my mom [as] a single parent. They broke up when I was like 5. My mom had me and five other children. It was kind of like a Brady Bunch, so I grew up knowing that feeling [of] being part of a unit. I knew that is what I would give to my kids.
What’s been the difference between having a son and a daughter?
I guess the affection. My girl is just amazing to me. You know, men always say “I want a son, I want a son” but then you get a girl. And you’re just like, “Wow. I got a girl!” She’s so precious.
It’s that feeling of love that’s a little bit different. It’s the same [kind of] love to a boy, but a girl it’s more affectionate because you kiss them and hug them differently.
What’s been your proudest moment as a dad so far?
Watching my children grow and seeing new things that I didn’t know about, like calling me daddy as soon as I walk in the door. Really, just [being called] “daddy.” It’s just like “Yeah.” (Smiles)
PETER STAUBS, 27
father of River Mae, 2
videographer, married for two years
Can you tell us the story behind River’s name?
My wife [stylist] LaTonya was just thinking of names and she told me that she liked the name River a lot for a boy or a girl. I said, “Well that sounds pretty cool, but maybe we’ll think about some other names and maybe I’ll have some ideas.” But by the end of the day I [thought], "That was a really good name. I like that, I like it a lot."
What parts of yourself do you see in your daughter?
My wife and I are equally present. She has my smile, my goofy faces, maybe her eyes. She’s goofy like me, and then her mom is sassy and she’s sassy like that. My hair is kind of curly and my wife has natural black hair so it’s like of a combination of that. I wish I had her hair—it’s really cool, very curly.
What’s the hardest thing about being a dad?
When she gets hurt, that’s hard. And doing the right thing for her when she’s not in the mood to do it. But it hasn’t been that hard.
Issue No. 27
New Rochelle, New York
Words: Yasmin Boayke
Visuals: Rog Walker
“Let’s use your grandmother’s silver,” Inga Watkins says, as she opens a long wooden box, polished to shine just like the flatware inside. “She always loves it when we use her silver.”
Watkins’ 12-year-old daughter Brea examines a fork handle. “It looks like a peacock feather!” she says, running her finger along the handle’s fluted ridges.
The pair pull spoons and forks and knives out of the box, getting the dinner table ready for a family meal said grandmother will be attending later that evening. Brea sets a place for each member of her family—including her father, Samuel, and older siblings Brooke (23) and Samuel Jr. (21). She positions the silverware just so, working left to right: salad fork and dinner fork on the left of the dinner plate, dessert fork at 12:00, and the knife and the soup spoon on the right.
Watkins beams with the pride of a mother who sees her lessons are sticking. Creator of Modelquette, a company devoted to teaching proper etiquette and modeling techniques, Watkins’ “lifelong love” of the two were sparked by her own mother, Alzatta Joseph.
When she was 6, Joseph brought Watkins to a photographer to create a modeling portfolio and took her to castings. Though her childhood modeling career was short, she was hooked, Watkins says.
“I remember saying, ‘Oh, okay, so if I was a model, I would do this’ and ‘If I was a model, I would hold my glass like this,’ practicing the poses I saw in books and magazines,” she recalls with a laugh.
“[My mother] was really strict about her girls carrying themselves like young ladies. She would not beat it over our heads, but [she] made sure we set the table for dinner, sat up straight, [took] ballet lessons, that type of thing."
Watkins would soon get the chance to display her graces to a larger audience. While attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the Wood Tobe-Coburn School in New York City, Watkins landed some of her first modeling gigs as an adult through her fashion school connections. After graduation she modeled abroad in Europe, walking the runways of Greece, Paris, and Italy, just to name a few.
But the fashion world she had always imagined as a little girl was far more demanding as a grown-up.
“I think going in, I did not fully realize the intensity of it,” Watkins says now. “It was easy to get burnt out. But I loved, loved, loved it.”
Watkins took a break from modeling after marrying her attorney husband Samuel in 1989; they moved from New York to DC shortly after their wedding, and the pair decided to start their family immediately. In 1990 the Watkins welcomed their firstborn, Brooke. Becoming a mother for the first time, while incredible, was also incredibly stressful, Watkins recalls.
Foreground: A photo of a young Watkins during her modeling career and with her husband, Samuel.
Background: Her daughter, Brooke, who works in PR in Chicago and her son, Samuel Jr., graduating from Howard University.
“Every moment was about her,” she says. “I remember people laughing at me because if her rattle or pacifier fell on the floor, I would sterilize it [immediately]. I don’t feel like I carved out time for myself.”
By the time Samuel Jr. joined the family, Watkins says, she began to let go a little, and Brea’s birth in 2000 found Watkins in a completely different state of mind.
“I look back at [Brooke’s] arrival and my third’s arrival, and I was just so much more ready, so much more comfortable [with Brea]. I think that with experience and maturity it makes things easier for the next time you experience [motherhood].”
The shifts Watkins made in her parenting approach made it easier for her to transition from being a full-time stay-at-home mom into meeting her lifelong dream: running her own company centered around etiquette. It wouldn’t be her first time teaching others about social graces—for a year after college, Watkins taught a group of young women about etiquette out of her family’s home. She also taught briefly at The Barbizon School of Modeling in New York City.
While Watkins had mulled over the idea of starting her own business for years, it wasn’t until a conversation she had over dinner with several girlfriends that she was spurred to action.
“One of my friends said ‘I really feel like I’m wasting my college degree. I want to do something. I want to start a business,’” Watkins remembers. “I looked at her and said, ‘Me too.’”
In 2006, Modelquette was born and Watkins began to devote every minute of her free time towards realizing her dream. Despite her initial drive and enthusiasm, Watkins was quickly plagued with uncertainty about Modelquette’s viability in a world that often sees etiquette as difficult to learn or outdated.
“It was a scary proposition,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘What if nobody cares about this business? What if nobody comes when you offer these workshops?’
“I think a lot of people have misconceptions about [etiquette],” she continues. “They think, ‘Oh gosh, this is going to be boring. Some old woman’s going to come and hit me in the knuckles with a ruler!’ But [etiquette is about] important life skills that our society seems to have walked away from in large part. So I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it anyway.’”
Watkins spent months working through the night and while her children were at school to perfect lesson plans she created from scratch. Stress and fatigue weren’t uncommon during Modelquette’s planning stages, but Watkins stood by her “just do it anyway” motto and soon welcomed seven students into her very first etiquette program.
“My first workshop was so awesome—I really knew it was my calling,” Watkins says.
That positive energy spread rapidly throughout her community, and soon her workshops grew to include church groups, youth organizations, local schools, and corporations. Now, a half-decade, a book and close to 900 students later, Watkins is glad she took that leap. Watkins has received multiple awards and thank you notes for her work, but one of the biggest honors she’s received hit a little closer to home.
“Brea was 5 when I started the company,” she says. “The age to begin my program then was 6. There was a group of little girls she knew [who were] in the program, so when she was older, she [asked], ‘Can I be in your program too?’
“Her group along with the teenaged girls had this awesome fashion show at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. It was just fabulous. And she says, ‘Thank you for letting me be in the show.’ It just meant so much to me that she wanted to be involved.”
How has being a mother changed your life?
I think being a mom just opens you up to sharing with somebody else. If ever you have to put someone before yourself, you’re going to put your children [first]. These kids mean everything to me. It’s just given me the capacity to see this other level of myself. If I have to say how it changed my life in one way, it’s that I feel I have grown as a person in my capacity to be selfless.
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when ...?
I love being a mom most when I see them accomplish one of their dreams. They have so many. [When] they’ve achieved a goal or met a milestone, I think I’m happier for them than they are in seeing it come to fruition.
What’s your parenting philosophy and how do you execute it?
I think my philosophy is I want my children to have a voice, but I also want them to be respectful and know that there are boundaries. It’s a delicate balance, but I feel that I’ve been good about not being their friend—because I’m not their friend—but being a parent that they can come to and talk to [and] joke around with. I don’t want to only be unapproachable and strict [so that] they feel they can’t be close to me.
It was important for us to start early when teaching them boundaries and the importance of respecting your parents and elders in the community. It’s important to my husband and I to be open and available. [Yet] if you asked them between both parents who’s the disciplinarian, they would say me, hands down. But I look at them now and I’m just thankful for what we did, [and] for who they are.
What was the best advice your mom or the moms in your life have given you about raising kids?
The best advice my mom gave me about raising kids was [something] she said to me when Brooke, my oldest, was a toddler. She came over to watch her because we were going out, and Brooke started to cry and reach for me.
I’m starting to cry, ready to stay home, [and] my mom said, “Go. Make sure you make time for you and your husband to go out, because when your children are teenagers, and they want to go with their friends, they’re going to go. They’re not going to be thinking about staying home with you. So go.” And I always think about that whenever I’m getting dressed to go out without the kids. I’m like, Good advice, Mom.” Because you do need to still have a fulfilled life outside of your children.
How would you describe your kids’ personalities?
I think my oldest is very passionate about life. She feels everything deeply, and she’s very, very loving. She loves to talk, and is a social butterfly. Samuel Jr. is very low-key—I would call him smooth. [He’s] easy-going level-headed, and thoughtful. He has a great sense of humor which I love and which only family and close friends get to see.
Brea is level-headed, very sweet, kind, caring, thoughtful, honest, and very bright. She loves to help others in any capacity that she can if she sees that someone is in need. It is amazing to watch this joy she has in being of service to others, which we first noticed when she was a tiny little thing; she was always rushing to someone’s aid and took such pride in being helpful. She also has a great sense of humor. She loves to cook and bakes the best homemade bread. At 12 she has maturity in that she’s responsible, but there is no mistaking her sweetness.
How did you become an etiquette expert?
I became one by studying, [practicing, and] observing. Sometimes you really have to see what works and what doesn’t. I also think listening to people [helped]; so many people are annoyed by the same type of things, or are experiencing the same type of rude behavior. That might be an avenue [for me] to say, “Well, let me research [the proper way to handle that].
And [also] reading a lot of the older etiquette books: Judith Martin, Miss Manners, Emily Post, Letitia Baldridge... Those are the older doyennes of the era, but I think what was inspirational to me was knowing that there were African-American [etiquette experts]. I remember going back to the [etiquette] book my sister brought home. It was from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I loved the book; there were chapters on everything [and] the women looked so gorgeous. [But] I remember looking at it [and] saying, “Why are there no African-American women in this book?”
[When I began Modelquette] I found that there was another woman back in 1902, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, [who] started a school in North Carolina. It was an academy that taught etiquette and social graces, and it was a really famous and popular school for black woman. So this is not necessarily new in our culture.
What kind of people do you hope your children become when they grow up?
I don’t want them to get scared at a no [or] a bump in the road; I really want each of them to give their all when they have a goal. I want them to always be thoughtful of other people, and I want them to achieve [the kind of] success where they’re in a position to be a blessing to other people. That would the ultimate success: to be able to be in a position to give back.
Your etiquette coaching began with young women, which is a demographic you continue to return to even as your client base has expanded to boys and adults. Why is that?
I think our society has gotten so casual in everything, not only in our attire and our appearance, but in the way we interact with each other. It was not so long ago you had grandmothers and mothers giving you home training. Somewhere along the way, we lost that as a society.
A lot of young ladies suffer [from] low self-esteem because they don’t have an inner sense of who they are. So where are they going to get this sense? They’re going to go to the media, they’re going to go to friends, and they’re never going to get it that way. They need to feel good about themselves, and they’re not going to feel good about themselves if they don’t feel comfortable in their skin.
If I could be a part of shaping some young ladies and helping them feel good about themselves, to carry themselves with pride [and] dignity, I think that then I can feel good that I’m leaving a legacy. And I’m not only talking about African-American girls, because I have students of all ethnicities. Just young ladies in general—that’s my soft spot. I just hope that I can be a part of helping them in some way to be awesome, dynamic, strong, successful, independent, confident women.
Issue No. 28
Bronx, New York
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: J. Quazi King
“In East Africa everything was always pole-pole,” Timberly Whitfield says, repeatedly pushing her hands away from her in slow, sweeping motions. “It means ‘slow down.’ That’s something I remember to this day whenever I’m stressed out.”
The Swahili phrase is an oft-cited refrain for the media personality turned stay-at-home mom, who is currently ramping up plans to re-enter the workforce. The former host of “New Morning with Timberly Whitfield,” a weekday program on Hallmark Channel that ended in 2007, Whitfield decided to focus on rearing Raina and Gabriel in between jobs. Still, she is obviously more comfortable on the move.
Whitfield’s weekly agenda includes auditioning for television roles, co-writing a scripted drama series with her husband Robert Allen, and searching for a more permanent place of worship—a synagogue in her Riverdale, New York community—for her family.
Establishing roots in just one place is still a relatively new concept for Whitfield. Her home bases have included Kansas City, Missouri, until age six, Tanzania for grade school and Nigeria as a teenager, and Clark Atlanta and Columbia Universities as a young adult. And as the deeply spiritual daughter of two “oddball missionaries” and wife to a retired Jewish police officer, Whitfield counts the United Methodist Church and the yet-to-be-chosen synagogue among her religious homes.
“One of the things you notice right away when you have children is spontaneity,” Whitfield says. “You have to learn to live in the moment. I used to have everything planned down to the second, then that goes out of the window. It can be scary for someone with my personality.”
Before landing her gig with Hallmark Channel, Whitfield spent more than seven years in the programming department at A&E. It was a dream position with responsibilities that entailed watching movies and reading scripts for potential network acquisitions. Whitfield recounts her duties buying packages of movies from studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount, and coordinating with the legal department on budgetary matters. She still considers it to be a great experience.
“I rose through the ranks and got promoted at a time when there weren’t a lot of minorities in television programming” she says. “I was always conscious of the diversity of our audience and would try to select programming that reflected that. It was a position I loved.”
Still, Whitfield wasn’t quite living her dream of being in front of the camera. She didn’t miss the “ambulance chasing” days of journalism school, but missed meeting and interviewing people about their lives. After confiding as much to a coworker who later asked to see her grad school news reel, Whitfield was asked to become a part-time correspondent for the A&E program “Breakfast with the Arts.” There she interviewed celebrities such as Spike Lee and Oprah Winfrey (“My ‘shero,’” Whitfield says excitedly), which led to hosting a kids show on The History Channel.
The spate of opportunities prompted Whitfield to take a leap of a faith and leave her job at A&E, but the transition wasn’t an easy one.
“There was a period where I was unemployed, and I had never been unemployed before,” she says. “There are so many aspects of unemployment that are hard, and one I think other people can relate to is what happens to your ego. You run into people you know who ask what you’re doing, and you’re like, ‘Well, nothing right now…’ or you feel like you have to make it up, or explain it. I suddenly became aware of what people thought of me and [of] what I was doing or not doing. I didn’t like that.”
Though more than a year of joblessness took an emotional toll on Whitfield, she eventually made up for it with a jam-packed schedule in 2002 when she was offered the host position on “New Morning”—and learned she was pregnant with her first child.
“They told me, ‘We want you for the job,’ and I had to say, ‘Well, there’s something you should know…’” says Whitfield.
The show’s producers were not only unbothered by their host’s pregnancy (it jived with their theme of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things”), they hoped to give viewers the full scope of her experience as a first-time mother. Whitfield filmed a video journal of her pregnancy that aired on national television in installments. One producer even suggested that the birth, a natural one, be recorded. The new mother declined and took five weeks of maternity leave before returning to the set.
“My daughter’s birth was so easy and so smooth,” Whitfield notes, attributing an extremely brief two and a half hours of labor to her active, healthful lifestyle cultivated by her parents. “I always ate well and worked out so nothing changed. I continued taking jazz dancing classes up until the week I gave birth.”
More than seven years later the arrival of her son (another natural birth) took four hours longer, but this time Whitfield had time to spare. “New Morning” ended after a six-season run and she had yet to find a new project. This time she looked at her time off as a gift—the perfect opportunity to raise her kids firsthand—and jumped into the task of spending time with them, on their terms.
“As adults, we become so caught up in everything, and more limited, and more focused,” she says. “I’m always in a rush to get somewhere but my kid’s not in a rush. Even though it’s not a long walk, he loves walking to school and will literally stop to smell the roses. And I let him do it!” She laughs. “How sweet is that?”
(Pictured at left: Raina, Timberly, and Gabriel playing one of their favorite games, Cranium Hullabaloo.)
Another thing Whitfield has learned from her kids? The art of being self-congratulatory. Now at an age where he recognizes doing small tasks well (or is just in a good mood), Gabriel often claps for himself and gives himself props. His mother takes that as a sign to pat herself on the back every now and then, and continue to work toward her goal of getting back in front of the camera. In fact, Whitfield recently landed a part playing a news anchor in the pilot of a new CBS drama, “The Ordained,” starring Sam Neill, Hope Davis, and Audra McDonald.
She also stays in the game by independently crafting scripted and non-scripted television series with her partners. Some of their projects are based on her own life and experiences growing up in Africa. Her long game: eventually hosting her own show focused on spirituality and understanding among different people, ideally on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.
“What I loved about ‘New Morning’ was meeting so many unique and different people in such diverse fields and learning from them,” Whitfield says. “It was a two-way street and that was really gratifying. I’d come home from work after interviewing all these amazing people, and that feeling carried over into being a mom. They were both highs; I want to get back to that again.”
How do you balance your life as a stay-at-home mom who is transitioning back into the workforce?
I hesitate to use the word “balance” because in some ways when a mom hears “balance” she thinks of “perfection”—and I don’t know if that’s ever possible.
Someone once used the metaphor of a juggling act, and I think that’s perfect. When you juggle, you have to concentrate on the ball that’s up in the air. Throughout your day your kids may be the ball in the air so you focus on them. Maybe later on in the same day something at your job requires your attention, so you shift your focus to that. Life is always in motion so I don’t know if people ever achieve complete balance or reach a perfectly harmonious destination. I think the only time there is absolute equilibrium is when you’re dead. (Laughs)
If people want to use the word “balance,” I think it’s more about being content with your health, your career, your finances, and your relationships with your partner, your kids, and your friends. Do I always have all of those areas covered? No—but I keep juggling.
How would you describe your parenting philosophy?
My husband and I tell our kids: “Believe in yourself and don’t follow the herd.” He comes from a different perspective—a white, Jewish guy from Brooklyn with seven siblings has different experiences than a black girl growing up in Africa with one younger brother does—but we pretty much have the same message, and I think that’s the key.
Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
Always. I was fortunate to have beautiful, kind, and loving parents who made raising my brother and me look easy. They were incredible role models and I definitely learned a lot from them, but I didn’t rush it. I knew that once I had kids my life would slow down. So even before I married my husband I took the time to travel around the world and live my life. I got the chance to learn about other cultures and other people. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough to do the same.
What’s been your biggest challenge as a mother?
As a New York mom, schools. Before I was even pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, I’d hear about New York moms going insane over school stuff. They would [say], “When you have kids, oh my God, you have to know before they’re born what school they’re going to go to, and they have to pass all these tests.” I thought, “What tests does a 3-year-old have to take? Is this real?” There was all this fear about schools from other moms in NYC about how you’ve got to push to get your kids in before they’re even born. I had a moment where I turned to my husband and said, “I’m not going to go through any of that. I don’t know how, but that’s not me and I’m not going to go through any of that.”
I really believe that what you speak and what you say and put out into the universe comes back to you. That was something I put out into the universe, and how it manifested is that we ended up moving from Manhattan to the Bronx, to Riverdale. When we had Raina, I [thought], “We have to start looking at schools...” We had already decided to raise our kids Jewish and there was a lovely Jewish school literally walking distance away. We went to visit it and talked to the principal and he was like, “You’re in.” I was wowed. It happened and I didn’t have to do all that madness.
What went into the decision to raise your children in the Jewish faith?
I grew up in the United Methodist Church and my parents were missionaries, but at the same time my parents were very spiritual. They were into things like yoga and meditation. They brought those influences into their missionary work and how they talked to people, and they never proselytized. My parents weren’t trying to convert tribal religions to Christianity; they were lay missionaries. My dad was there for agricultural development, and my mom’s work changed depending on what was needed in the area.
So I definitely grew up more spiritual and, it would be fair to say, more secular. I spent a summer living in an ashram in upstate New York, and we went to India and spent a month in an ashram; my brother actually stayed for a whole semester.
What is it like for you raising mixed-race kids in an interfaith environment?
At this point it just comes naturally. It’s more obvious when people ask me questions because then I have to think about it. Even so, there were times when we first started looking at schools [for Raina that I thought about it]. The very nature of a Jewish school means there are going to be more white people present, so I had some concern about that. My daughter’s missing out, I thought, on a diverse education in terms of the people she’s with and the people there won’t look like her mom.
But I try to do as much as I can. My family is mostly down south, so I bring my kids down there and my relatives come up here, so my children can connect to my side of the family and keep that going.
That’s an interesting idea: “Not being around people who look like your mother.”
It’s funny. Believe it or not, even though I grew up in Africa I ended up having more of a white, American education because I attended a Christian boarding school. So when I was old enough my mom said, “We would prefer it if you went to a black school [for college]. We will pay for it—and you can go anywhere you want for your master’s degree.” So that’s what I did.
She believed I needed to have that experience, and I think it was a great one. I started out at a Southern university in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before transferring to Clark Atlanta. I took classes at Spelman and Morehouse and visited all the schools in the area; being in Atlanta was fabulous.
I haven’t thought that far ahead for my daughter—she’s only in fifth grade now—but maybe that’s something I would suggest to her as a biracial child: to go to a black school and have that experience.
You talk a lot about your mom. She sounds amazing.
Yeah, she is. She’s a yoga teacher and became certified at 62 or something, and she’s 70 this year. She can put her leg behind her head. I can’t even do it. Growing up she made home cooked meals and everything from scratch. Fresh bread, pizza dough, tofu, all of her sweets and desserts—from scratch. We’ve been vegetarians for a long time—I’m vegan now—and she would make almond milk from scratch even back then.
I still don’t think I’m as good as my mom. I tell her all the time, “You are like the best mom, so I’ll never be as good as you!” and she [says], “Well, first of all, you have such a different environment and world than we had.” Technology and everything—they didn’t have to deal with that. It’s just a totally different generation and lifestyle. A lot of things I have to deal with, they didn’t have to deal with. So she reminds me of that just to make me feel better.
What lessons has she imparted?
She always imparts great advice. She’s the one who told me to focus on my career instead of having more kids right now. And growing up she would always say, “Always be honest and truthful. If you’re always honest and truthful, then you’ll never have to remember what you said.” As I got older I really got that.
Another thing she would always tell us is to count our blessings, particularly when things are not going our way. That’s the time when you really have to step up and find all the good things.
Fill in the blank: “Being a mom is hardest when …”
My kids are sick. Seeing your children hurt or suffering is the hardest thing for a mom to feel or experience. You just want to take it from them onto yourself.
“I love being a mom most when …”
I’m snuggling with the kids. When I pick my son up from daycare [and] he runs to me at full speed, I just love being a mom. It’s the best when they’re excited to see you, to know someone can love you that much.
What perspective or example do you want to impart on your children through your work?
My son is a little young, but my daughter has seen me working, not working, and pursuing work. I think she’s getting that life changes. She sees my ups and downs and, hopefully, that I am moving through this period gracefully. I’d like her to see my perseverance and determination and belief in myself.
Issue No. 29
Brooklyn, New York
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: J. Quazi King
The familiar strains of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” start up from Na’im Smith’s iPod. Not one to miss his cue, Na’im rushes to the center of his living room, ready to give his audience the show of a lifetime. Fedora cocked and dress pants hitched up high, he moves across the floor, humming along as he pops and spins just like his idol.
Takiema Bunche-Smith laughs as she watches her little ham dance in his special Michael Jackson outfit. Though he most resembles his father, David, Na’im is his mother’s son. The two are constantly moving (combined they probably have enough energy to power two New York City blocks), are incredibly inquisitive, and are prone to spouting off random facts.
“He was a firefighter on Halloween for two years,” Bunche-Smith says. “The second year we gave out firefighter fact cards instead of candy. Did you know that there’s 500 gallons of water in a fire truck?
Teaching at the Upper West Side school definitely gave Bunche-Smith some culture shock—children were treated as equals in ways that sometimes went a bit too far in Bunche-Smith’s opinion—but she credits her time there for teaching her an invaluable lesson.
“That was when I started to understand different ways of teaching and learning,” she says now of the progressive, child-centered and social studies based education there. “I was there for two years, and I [thought], ‘Okay, I’m ready to go to the hood and take some of this stuff to black and brown kids.’”
Every moment is a teachable moment in the Bunche-Smith household: When Na’im noticed a new bird call outside their apartment window, the family started planning a field trip to the Prospect Park Audubon Center in Brooklyn to determine what type of bird it was. It makes sense given Bunche-Smith’s decades-long career as an educator—she’s currently the director of curriculum and instruction at the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, a non-profit organization that brings private-school quality preschool education to children living in some of New York’s neediest communities.
“Education chose me,” Bunche-Smith says now. “There’s no other way to describe it. I’ve always loved children. I knew that I wanted to work with children in some way, shape, or form.”
Bunche-Smith received her bachelor’s in psychology from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and then got her master’s in early childhood education at the Bank Street College in New York City. She worked as an assistant teacher for 3 and 4 year olds at a school affiliated with the college.
Given Bunche-Smith’s love of children, there was never a question that she and her husband were going to start a family of their own. In 2003, the pair were thrilled to find out that they were pregnant with a baby boy. Each passing week brought more and more excitement for baby Nazir’s arrival.
“I had my baby shower when I was 34 weeks,” Bunche-Smith says. The photos from the day show her with a huge smile, her stomach round underneath a long-sleeved white shirt.
“[At] 37 weeks I started feeling strange for a few days,” she recalls. “I had a midwife appointment and I called and said, ‘I don’t feel right. Something feels weird.’ I asked to come in earlier, and when I went in she couldn’t find the heartbeat. So she said, ‘I’m going to send you over to the hospital for a sonogram, maybe the baby just moved in a weird position.’ I went there and they couldn’t find the heartbeat. I was 37 weeks, 2 days pregnant... They knew that he had died, so I had to give birth to him [on that day, December 2, 2003].”
She stops for a moment, blinking back tears. “My path to motherhood was a much-wanted pregnancy, a much-prepared-for child, and [then] three weeks before he was due, he died.
“I definitely cry because it’s a very difficult thing that lives with you for the rest of your life,” she continues. “It’s the only kind of death [where you] experience life and then death inside of you. What you have is your hopes and your dreams and your sense of your child’s spirit. And so to have that go, and not have a chance to explore it... To have to give birth and have no baby, and to [be] postpartum... There are not any words for that.”
Bunche-Smith was “very fragile” after Nazir’s death, she says. She found support in her family, and also in a number of support groups for women who also experienced late-term losses. While many mothers in her groups were ready to try to have another baby “immediately,” Bunche-Smith said it took 13 months of “very deep grief work” after losing Nazir for her to try again.
“Over time I just realized that I wanted to be a mother to a living child so badly that I was willing to take the risk of this happening again,” she says. “When the thought of not having another child was more terrifying to me than trying to get pregnant and potentially losing another pregnancy, I knew I was ready to try again.”
In January 2005, Bunche-Smith learned she was pregnant with Na’im. Seven years later, her love for both of her sons has only deepened.
“Nazir...was a part of our family. More than anything, I think [he] shaped the kind of mother that I am,” Bunche-Smith says.
“People always tell moms ‘Cherish every moment, and pay attention to the small things, because the moment you look up, they’re going to be taller than you...’ Nobody ever has to tell me that. Even when I’m upset [with Na’im] and we’re fussing and things aren’t going the way I want, there’s a part of me that’s like, ‘This is such a gift to me, to mother you and to have this experience and to have my house be a wreck right now.’ There’s always a small piece of me that says, ‘Thank God. Thank you for being here, thank you for giving me this experience.’”
Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Do you mind sharing how you felt when you first saw Nazir?
He was beautiful, and he looked like a sleeping angel. He looked like a combination of me and my husband, and I remember his feet. I told my husband, “Thank God he got my feet.” We laugh-cried. Like, we’re so happy to see our baby, we love you, we’ve been waiting for you, and, Oh my God, open your eyes. How can this be reality? It was literally alternating [between] smiles [and] sobs. Bittersweet doesn’t even begin to cover it.
(Bunche-Smith describes the day she and David lost Nazir in a very moving blog post.)
Did you ever find out what caused the complications in your first pregnancy?
[About] 70 percent of stillbirths are unexplained, so I think we just put it into that category. I did have some health problems when I went in for the induction. My blood pressure was dangerously high so I had preeclampsia, which can be fatal to both mom and baby. So they [thought it may have been] the preeclampsia.”
When I got pregnant the second time in 2005, I became obsessed with reading medical literature [on] stillbirth and pregnancy. Sometimes I would get strong intuitive feelings about whether or not some of the things I was reading related to me. I came across something about blood clotting disorder, so I went to my midwife and I [said], “I need you to test me.”
In all the testing that I had after the stillbirth, that was the one thing that I hadn’t been tested for. And ding ding ding, it came up. I have a genetic mutation. One of my genes causes my blood to over clot. When you’re in pregnancy, your blood tends to clot more, but I have a gene that makes my blood clot even more, which prevents nutrients from getting to the baby. [It’s] also what predisposed me to not having proper blood flow, which [led to] the preeclampsia. [After that discovery] I was co-managed between the midwife and a perinatologist. I was able to deliver [Na’im] safely, also with an induction, because with the monitoring it came up that at 37 weeks, my blood started looking pretty wonky again.
How did you feel when Na’im was born?
The depths of my sorrow for losing Nazir were completely paralleled by the heights of my joy [for having Na’im]. It was the exact opposite, but it was also coupled with grief again. [I thought], “Remember what happened last time and what you lost? Look how amazing this is. You could have had it twice.”
But the joy when I was able to just focus on him being here was incredible. I still remember that feeling of trying to nurse. It was so hard, [but] I was like, “I don’t even care. We’re going to work it out. You’re here. Oh my God, you pooped, yay! You’re alive!” You don’t get to parent a child that’s died in the same way, but I was more confident in knowing that I parent Nazir through telling his story, and just being who I am as a mom and supporting other moms.
What do you love most about being a mom?
Oh God, I can’t pick one thing! I will say that as an educator, I’ve really enjoyed having this child in my own home. To see the information that I’ve had in my head for a long time and implemented with other people’s children come to life in my own child has been really rewarding and really humbling. (Laughs) The rewards have been amazing, but then on the other hand, he does sh*t that I’m like, “I’ve never seen this before, this doesn’t match with anything that I’ve seen or any book that I’ve read.”
What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
I’m trying very hard to implement a private, high-quality preschool experience for children in the projects. We have really high standards—academic and otherwise—[and] we have a very rich program for children that is based in social studies, science, the arts, and hands-on learning.
In one of our centers, they’ve started composting with worms indoors; we have garden boxes [and] so many rich experiences for children. The centers are housed in the projects, and many of the children live in the projects, or within the surrounding neighborhoods, and don’t have access to so much. I’m so excited that they get to have these experiences with us, and to grow as much as they do when they’re with us, because I know a lot of children don’t get that. [Some] daycares sort of ignore the kids; our kids are getting academics, but they’re doing it through play.
It’s so great that you’re creating these kinds of experiences for your students!
I [am] so interested in what we are doing with children during the day. How are we helping them to understand and be critical of their communities and our world? [Some schools think] we need to get them to memorize things, [but do] you want them to just press the buttons on a cash register when they grow up? Let’s think about that.
When you’re 17 and you’ve been listening to people tell you what to do and how to do it your whole life, and [you] don’t know how to make decisions, you’re limited in so many ways. I want our children to be able to say [something] beyond “I want to be a rapper or basketball player.” What about an artist, an engineer, a pilot, a teacher? I really think that education is a political act.
"Education as a political act." Can you explain what you mean by that?
If you help a child to look at the world critically, you have lit a fire and [given them] an approach and a disposition towards learning—the possibilities are endless.
When I was teaching first grade at this public school in Williamsburg, there were lots of Puerto Rican and Hasidic children living side by side, but they never interacted more than just superficially. There was a boys’ Yeshiva (a Jewish school) attached to [our] playground. Some of [the Hasidic children] started coming up to the fence and yelling out curses at our children, spitting, finding pieces of paper to throw... They were the same age [as our kids].
The kids one by one would say, “Ms. Bunche, the Jewish kids are yelling curses!” [They] were getting really upset about it. I remember the second or third day it happened, we went back to class, we sat down, and we had a meeting. I said, “Kids, we have a problem going on. Who wants to share?”
Everybody said, “He said this to me, and he stuck out his tongue, and he said an S-word!” And I said, “Well, what should we do?” I encouraged them to write and draw their feelings about what happened, and went over to the Yeshiva [with] their letters.
Do you know the next day that principal ran over to the classroom? [He said], “I’m so sorry, I can’t believe this. They will never do that again.” He left and the kids started cheering! They were [saying], “We did it! They’re not going to bother us anymore!” I said, “Well, it sounds like we need to tell our friends what just happened, and what they can do if they have a problem, because your words are really powerful.” They went around to all the classes, even the fifth grade, and [said], “If you have a problem, you can write a letter and then somebody can help you!”
For me, that kind of illustrates this idea. I could have just yelled at the boys who were taunting my students, [but] that wouldn’t have taught them or my students anything at all. [I got] my students to express their feelings and have them validated by adults around them. I [told them], “You’re 6 and 7, but look how powerful you can be. Your pictures and words had this principal come running over. He really wanted to respond!” That’s powerful and empowering.
How does your career as an educator inform the way you parent Na’im?
My parenting philosophy is completely in line with my education philosophy. I believe that all children are incredible people with a wide range of emotions and interests. They deserve the respect of adults and other children around them and to be supported as they explore [and] as they create. So that’s my parenting philosophy for Na’im: that he’s a worthy human being. He’s going to be angry, he’s going to be sad, he’s going to be jealous. My job is to give voice to that for him, to name it for him, and to help him think about [what that means].
OUR "WHERE ARE THEY NOW?" SPECIAL
Issue No. 30
Words: Zahara Hill and Kathryn Vandervalk
Whether establishing a business from their dorm room or serving an executive position at a global company, there is something that unites every mater mea mother: They all serve as reminders to the potential within all of us.
Since we launched in May 2012, we’ve been able to peer into the lives of some of the most captivating mothers of color out there as they juggle the demands of parenting and career. They inspire us all—from young women just joining the working world, to established mothers figuring out how to combine personal fulfillment and career.
As they have left such an impression upon us, for our 30th issue we wanted to catch up with some of the women we have profiled in the past to laud their latest accomplishments as well as their remarkable character that helped lead them to where they are today. While it comes as no surprise that they are continuing to make great strides in their careers and as mothers, we remain blown away by these women's stories.
xo, mater mea
UPDATE FROM JUDIA BLACK, CEO OF ENJOIE
“I think that no one can have everything,” Judia Black said when asked the ever-present “Can women have it all?” question. “But I do think it’s all about timing: There’s a time and place for all of it.”
Catching up with Black today, it seems like now is a great time for her as a mother, as well as CEO and founder of enJoie, a food and wine media company she founded in 2008 after years of being a stay-at-home mom to daughters Danielle and Nicole. “I think they’re proud to see [the] business take off and be a part of it,“ Black says now of her daughters.
enJoie’s success is evident in the company’s most recent win: collaborating with Heritage Link Brands and the family of former South African President, Nelson Mandela, in distribution of their wine brand, House of Mandela. Black worked with the family to put on an African-themed event inspired by Mandela in her Hamptons' home this summer.
Photo credit: Rog Walker
Black was thrilled at the opportunity—it reminded her of what she loves about being in business for herself, she says. “I always like to be able to help other people, to teach people about things they may not have known before, and to help other people achieve their goals while I’m achieving mine,” Black says now. “I love it when we can come together and find that we’re better as a team then we are apart.”
After collaborating with Heritage Link Brands and the Mandela family, Black says she’s now found her niche. “I really want to focus more on South African wines,” she says. "I’m really excited about the opportunity to be involved. My passion is wine and food, but [it’s] also my heritage. [I like being able to] bring those two together.”
What was the event for House of Mandela wines like?
We did a wine tasting event featuring South African wine and food at my home in the Hamptons. There were also other female African-American entrepreneurs there selling hand-made jewelry and skin-care products inspired by African heritage and culture.
I felt like it was a good way to showcase African-American women and Africa in a way that people have not traditionally thought of—you know, [as a] totally upscale kind of luxury experience rather than this uncivilized jungle. We had really good attendance and donated a portion of proceeds from the event to the House of Mandela Family Foundation.
What exciting events or opportunities are coming down the pipeline for you?
In October I’m going to be co-leading a seminar on South African wine [at The Food Network New York City Wine and Food Festival]. The Food Network does this wine and food festival every year in different locations; the one in New York is probably the biggest. A lot of the celebrities, chefs, and personalities from The Food Network come and do different seminars, tastings, and events.
Do you have any current goals in regards to motherhood or your career?
Just to keep striving to be the best that I can be and being able to incorporate my children into the things I do. [Also] making sure everything that I do is something I can hold up to them as an example, as a positive effort that’s worthwhile and meaningful.
UPDATE FROM RHONDA ROSS, PERFORMER
Rhonda Ross can maneuver herself around different worlds -- from her job as president of her own real estate brokerage to her musical and acting performances. It’s a skill Ross hopes to pass on to her son, Raif, who—at the age of 3—could speak four (yes, four) different languages. “I love the idea of him walking the world—Beijing, Paris, Madrid—and he doesn’t need a translator, he can walk that soil,” Ross said a year ago. “But he can also walk Harlem and 125th Street and know how to speak that language.”
Now 4 years old, Ross continues to make sure her son can fit in seamlessly, all over the world. “[The languages] have all really developed. He is fluent in each of the four,” Ross says. “He’s been going to [a Chinese language school] this past year, and he’ll go again this coming year. I’ve been really fortunate to find activities that we would do anyway in different languages. So ski school in French, soccer team in Spanish, Chinese day camp, the swim teachers have also been Spanish-speaking. It’s been great because we’ve been able to keep him going with activities that any 4 year old would love to do and try, so he can do languages without giving up any activity.
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
Much like her son, Ross is flourishing as well. While a year ago she was focused on her real estate brokerage, she is now delving back into her true passion: music. “[The transition back to music] was just really starting this time last year, but now I’ve been performing much more often,” she explains. “I have a lot of performances in the next month around the country. I’m working in different genres now; I used to be more jazz, but now I’m trying out neo-folk and R&B elements.”
With a budding music career (she is working on her first solo album in 10 years and just performed in front of 18,000 people at The Hollywood Bowl) and a multilingual son, Ross certainly has a lot on her plate. She admits that it is a balancing act, conceding, “I’m very blessed. My husband is a big help and I do have childcare help. Otherwise, some days are better than others. I try to keep my priorities straight. My husband and son, their well-being and happiness, are more important than [my] career. Then everything else falls into place.”
Now that Raif is fluent in all four languages, are you going to add another?
I will eventually. I’m heavily leaning towards Arabic. I think it’s an extremely useful language. Hindi comes up for me too. I do feel like I’m choosing languages that are broad in [regards to] how many people speak them. It’s really important to me that he be deeply fluent in all four first though, to be able to have in-depth conversations on a myriad of subjects.
Your son sounds brilliant!
I think all children are capable of this. I think we don’t give them enough credit. Children are born programmed not only to learn, but to learn language specifically. They are, from minute one, trying to communicate with the world around them, and they will figure out how to say [what they need to communicate] in any language that will get the job done. I do think that my son is bright, and I’m happy that he loves [language learning], but I do think children are born brilliant.
The last time we spoke with you, you had a strong religious faith. Has anything changed in that respect?
I remain amazed by how much being aligned with God helps [in everyday life]. I always get wonderful reminders that God’s spirit is always there to help and guide us. If we open ourselves to it and listen, things go much more smoothly.
Every now and then I have an opportunity where I can really see that. I just performed as the opening act for my mother’s show at The Hollywood Bowl. There were so many things that could have gone wrong, and they almost did. It was such an amazing thing to see God’s hand at work among the members of my team. It’s a good feeling to know that when you’re open and aligned with God’s spirit, it can aid in so many ways.
How did the show at The Hollywood Bowl go?
I was very pleased with my performance, thrilled with my band. They were local musicians that I had met just days before. They stepped to the table, and we were like family from the minute we met. I performed three of my original songs. Some people thought that I should sing songs that everybody knew, but I wanted to give them my words. I had never been to The Hollywood Bowl before; even though it had 18,000 people, it felt so intimate. My brother [Evan Ross] was also one of the opening acts. It felt like a family affair.
UPDATE FROM LATHAM THOMAS, FOUNDER OF MAMA GLOW
Not a year has passed since we first spoke with maternal wellness guru Latham Thomas, yet she and her DJ son, Fulano Librizzi, continue to impress us, one delivery and one turntable at a time.
Thomas’ summer has been very busy with deliveries as a result of conceptions that occurred during Hurricane Sandy, the storm that struck the Northeastern coast last October. “We had five babies in one week and they’re still coming,” Thomas says. “We’re delivering a lot of little ones, which is really exciting!”
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
Along with deliveries, Thomas is shepherding her brand, Mama Glow, through new opportunities.
“We are now getting ready to launch some exciting new programming [in the fall],” she explains. “[We’re going to have] some really great events and partnerships with powerful organizations of maternal health; we’re looking to continue to expand all the awareness around global maternal health, specifically around the reproductive period for women and [children's well-being]. We’re also working on some really unique programs for television [and] launching a self-care line.”
Thomas isn’t the only one in the family making promising career moves. Although Fulano is only 10 (he recently celebrated his birthday as lavishly as any young DJ would), he is also staying busy with work: he will soon be headed to Los Angeles to DJ events for Old Navy and recently launched his own website, Fulano's World.
What would you say has been your greatest accomplishment since we last spoke with you?
I would say these little babies that we deliver. I just love that we have so many more in the mix and [that] the moms [are becoming] stronger, wiser, more powerful. I bow to them. And my son turning 10; he has a decade of loving, supporting, and growing with him. So those are my two [accomplishments].
If mater mea were to reach out to you again in 10 years what kind of news would you hope to have for us?
I’d like to say [Mama Glow is] an entity [with global impact] that’s helping change the face of health, beauty, and lifestyle for women. I hope that we can commit in a positive way to the moms that come to be served by us. I hope I can also talk about whatever my son is up to at that point. He has some big dreams. I hope the ones he shares are ones he’ll be able to elaborate upon in 10 years when he’s 20.
What keeps you motivated?
God keeps me motivated. I think it’s my vision and passion. Every day I wake up because my goal in life is to be of service. So when I know I’m doing [something] that [makes me] feel fulfilled and I know that’s what I’m supposed to be doing, that really drives me. [It] gives me the umph, the pep in my step, the energy to do all that I do. Especially when I feel like I can’t get it done because there’s so much of it to do.
UPDATE FROM LORRAINE WEST, JEWELRY DESIGNER
Having world-renowned neo-soul artist Erykah Badu reach out to you to help style her before each tour just might be the mark of success. But jewelry designer Lorraine West isn’t one to rest on her laurels.
Word is spreading about West’s jewelry collection and consequently helping her business prosper. “It’s been a successful summer selling my Balance Between Spring/Summer 2013 Collection via Etsy and word-of-mouth client referrals,” she says. “I just completed production of a stunning engagement ring commission. [I also] just began the production of two more engagement rings this week.”
Photo credit: Sadé Clacken Joseph
With a steady stream of celebrity clientele, you would never think she sold her first jewelry piece to a customer while working at a juice bar. West’s attributes some of her new celebrity clientele to her Instagram account, which she uses religiously to promote her jewelry. “I'll be designing new pieces for Somi as well as Alice Smith before the year is out,” West says.
“Both beautiful song birds are happy clients from years past and lately admirers of my new work via Instagram. [Singer] Rahsaan Patterson and I connected via Instagram and introduced ourselves through email last month. We look forward to meeting each other in person, kicking it, and discussing designing him some special pieces.”
West with her partner Solomon Boyd and their son Solly.
It’s not only West’s business life that has been flourishing since we last spoke with her. “My life is becoming more in balance,” she says. ”I'm managing my time better between the responsibilities of taking care of myself; my home; relationships with my life partner, my son, my friends; creativity; and my business. I'm feeling less overwhelmed and more in control of my life.”
Have there been any other new business undertakings or projects?
Yes, I'm working on re-launching my website in January 2014. It's a huge project for me. It's going to be a total re-branding. I have a couple secret projects underway: collaborations!
If mater mea were to reach out to you again in 10 years, what kind of news would you hope to have for us?
My family and I are happy, healthy and well-traveled across the globe. I'm a Council of Fashion Designers of America member and [an] award-winning designer. I'm a millionaire from my booming jewelry business. [You’d be able to] come for a tour of my store in New York City [with a] showroom, studio/production offices and a school [where] I teach jewelry design.
An engagement ring created by West. You can see more of her work on her Instagram account.
What's new with your son these days?
[He] is doing fantastic. He's healthy and happy. He's been consistent with his ambitious practice of the alphabet, counting, shape searching, and creating his art work. He's very active, loves running, jumping, playing soccer and basketball. He's communicating his needs and wants to improve his verbal skills. It melts my heart to hear Solomon say to me, "Mommy, you’re the best ever," or "I love you, Mommy.”
What really sparks your creativity and keeps you motivated?
Being alive and having all of my faculties working in harmony motivates me. [Also knowing that I] have my family and knowing that I'm building a strong foundation for my son’s future. [My desire to] become the best self and artist I can be [constantly keeps me going], as well as knowing there is so much more for me to accomplish, see, and do. My experiences are my greatest teacher and always shine light on my creative process.
UPDATE FROM TRENESA STANFORD-DANUSER, ESTÉE LAUDER VP
At a recent dinner party, Estée Lauder executive Trenesa Stanford-Danuser found herself sharing a hard-earned piece of advice with a CEO and soon-to-be mother.
“I leaned over to her and said, ‘You really will see things differently once you’ve had a child… The lens that you look at your career once you’ve had children or jobs that take you away from them [is] pretty significant.’”
Stanford-Danuser speaks from experience. Her job as VP of global communications and strategic alliances for Estée Lauder’s Origins skin care and Ojon hair products often requires long hours (and sometimes days) away from her children, Dylan and Romon, and her husband Chris Danuser.
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
“I’m happy with the choices that I’ve made and that I do make choices when it comes to my career,” Stanford-Danuser says, “but I’m also pretty dedicated to making it up to them when travel takes me away.”
Her children are starting to do some traveling of their own—her daughter, Dylan, recently returned from summer camp in upstate New York, while Romon attended a science and yoga camp in Brooklyn.
How did you feel about Dylan and Romon going to camp this summer?
[Dylan] didn’t let missing mom and dad get in the way of her having a great experience and making new friends. When we asked her on the road trip back home if she ever got homesick, she sheepishly looked at us and said no. So we’re kind of expecting her to be the kid that will move out of the house after college.”
[As for Romon], I don’t think science camp would be my idea of fun, but for my son absolutely. He loves to do the experiments. He’s totally into the planets, he’s really quite clever.
Every parent wants to think that their kids really miss them and they want to be with them. But for me, to feel like I’m raising a really independent kid who can go away from home for a couple of weeks and feel confident there and thrive there, that’s a pretty proud moment as a mom.
What goals are you working toward in your career and as a mother?
I’m always interested in learning new things. I’m very interested in bringing new skill sets to the industry in the category I do. I certainly feel like from a career perspective it’s always a very smart thing to raise your value by learning more, [and] bringing more experience from a different perspective into the work that you’re doing.
As far as my children, I really hope that I can continue to balance my life as best I can. There is no perfect formula for it. There are times when maybe you feel like you’re not getting it right.
Is there anything else that you’d like to update us on?
You never asked about the husband. (Laughs)
Oh, we're sorry! How is your husband?
(Laughs) I wouldn’t be able to do the things I’m doing as far as my career without a great partner, so I certainly don’t want to leave him out.
UPDATE FROM VERONICA VALENTINE, ASST. BUYER AT CIRCA
Having a child at 24 was not originally a part of aspiring jewelry buyer Veronica Valentine’s plan. But becoming a mother gave Valentine a strength she said she didn’t expect.
“I think that it pushed me through this time where a lot of people are trying to find themselves,” she said. “[Your 20s are] difficult and you do get lost. I think that being a mother definitely has helped me push through that. It's helped me find myself through the fog a little faster.”
These days, her daughter, Mila, continues to be a guide for her—an especially sassy one at that. “A few days ago she told me to get myself together. She said it in the way that I would have said it, ‘You need to just get yourself together!’” Valentine recounts amidst shrieks of delight from Mila. “I don’t want to laugh because I don’t want to encourage her sassiness, but obviously she gets it from me. If she’s having a fit, we tell her to get herself together. One day that I seemed frustrated, she told me [that I should].”
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
In terms of work, Valentine is no less driven than she was a year ago. Still at heritage jeweler CIRCA, she is now taking classes to become a gemologist (someone qualified to identify and evaluate gems) in order to further her career. She was initially hesitant to enroll. “I think that taking the steps to further my education in my career was a difficult decision for me to come to,” she says now. “I’ll obviously make more money, but it was difficult to take away my time every Saturday. In the end it will be beneficial for both of us; it will of course benefit her if I’m doing better [for] myself.”
Even with this added responsibility, Valentine still makes sure she and Mila spend quality time together; in fact, she’s carving clay animals as she speaks. Everyday after work, Valentine sets aside an hour just for doing activities with Mila. “She wanted to make clay animals and flowers and bananas and things for them to eat," Valentine explains. "That’s what she asked to do. The little bit of time I have when I get home, I try to make that time about us doing something together.”
How is Mila doing?
She’s 3 now, and she’ll be going to preschool in the fall. She’s very sassy, mature for her age—she has sort of an older soul. She has her own sense of self, likes to pick out her own clothes, and [to] be independent. A miss know-it-all. She’s a smaller, more gorgeous version of myself. (Mila shrieks with delight.)
How has your role changed as a parent in the last year?
I’m seeing now that my role as a parent is being someone that [Mila] looks up to, someone she can model herself after. I don’t think I came to that realization until she got further in her development in terms of her character.
Have there been any new, exciting undertakings at work?
We’ve partnered with the Horticultural Society and that adds a level of interest for me, because eating healthy and being holistic interests me. It’s interesting to be involved with and to go to events where I’m learning more about horticulture. It’s inspired Mila and I to plant some seeds.
Fast forward to 10 years from now. Where do you hope to see yourself?
Mila would be 13! She’d be on track for high school and I’d hope she would have good grades; I’m sure she will. I see myself still with the same company and working as a director, hopefully with my own branch somewhere else in New York or some place close by. I’d love to train other young, new buyers. I hope to be remarried, and I really want a little boy! (Laughs)
UPDATE FROM KAMARA THOMAS, MUSICIAN
When we last spoke with bass-shredding vocalist Kamara Thomas, her band, Earl Greyhound, was on hiatus. But the break didn’t slow down Thomas’ life. She and her husband, musician Gordan Hartin, had just welcomed their daughter, Cherokee Moon, into their home. She was also still rocking out with her band, Kamara Thomas and the Ghost Gamblers, then completing and promoting her successful first solo album, Earth Hero. The new presence in Thomas’ life even inspired her to start writing a song about her daughter.
“I want to draw power down for her so that when she hears her song, she can engage with the mythology around [it] and engage these powers for herself,” Thomas said a year ago. Now, the Cherokee Moon song is almost finished. “She’s grown up so strong and fierce, talking tons, just everything is kind of blossoming,” Thomas says proudly.
Photo Credit: J. Quazi King
A year later, the entire family seems to be blossoming, thanks to a major change in their lives. “We moved down to [Durham], North Carolina at the end of April, and that was a great move for the family and for her,” Thomas shares. “She’s gotten to be outside a lot more. We have a back porch and a place for her to ride her bicycle; she’s been sort of exploding with new stuff.”
So has her mother: Just because Thomas moved to North Carolina, doesn’t mean the era of Earl Greyhound and Kamara and the Ghost Gamblers is over. While Earl Greyhound is still on hiatus, band member Matt Whyte has family ties in North Carolina, so Thomas and Whyte plan on playing in shows together. As a band, they have a couple projects coming up as well. While much has changed in Thomas’ life, one aspect is certain—no matter her location, Thomas will revel in what she loves: her family and her artistic self-expression.
Are you happy with your move to North Carolina?
I totally love it. Everyone feels a little freer, [and] we just feel more expansive down here. Plus, there’s tons of work to do in terms of racial equality, and there’s crazy political stuff happening down here with voting and abortion rights. I like that about being here—it’s a place that’s calling for people who want to make it better.
Is there a strong artistic presence in Durham? Will you continue your art there?
There’s a really great arts scene down here. It’s very supportive. I am currently working on “Bulgaria,” a “psych-folk musical.” I was able to finish the script as soon as I got down here. I’m also trying to get my new band together; it’s been slowly but surely coming along.
A “psych-folk musical” sounds unique! We know that you’re very passionate about music. Has it been difficult to write a play script?
The psych-folk musical has helped me little-by-little re-engage as a playwright. I [studied] theatre in college, then I veered off the theatrical path for music and songwriting. There’s a company called Durham Family Theatre that I might become involved with. They want to do multiracial and multi-generational theatre, and in the South that means a lot to have that become their focus. I’ve been helping with a lot of that recently. We might put up my musical as a part of that in the coming year.
What has been the biggest challenge about the move?
I’ve been trying to keep my head on straight, stay patient, and just love my family. The first year or two with your child is a magical time, and now as we’re settling down to everyday life it’s hard to go on that rollercoaster. Sometimes you have to say, “Today, I am not at my best.” But you have another chance the next day to improve your mood or increase your presence in the moment. That’s my new challenge: trying to stay present in the moment, immersing myself in the things I’m passionate about.
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
UPDATE FROM NASOZI KAKEMBO, HOME DECOR DESIGNER
In her quest to follow her passions while supporting herself and her 3-year-old son, Rafayonda, Nasozi Kakembo found herself balancing motherhood, a full-time job in social justice, and her budding home décor line, Origins Style by Nasozi. “It would be next to impossible without my collective family,” Kakembo said of her 24/7 juggling act. “It’s literally a village effort.”
These days Kakembo takes both her son and her work with her. After quitting her social justice job to focus on her batik and wax prints home goods line, Kakembo can decide how she wants to spend her time and where she wants home base to be. “I’m a big believer that you get out what you put in, and now I can devote much more time to Origins,” Kakembo says. “I’ve been much busier, but in a very self-gratifying way. I’ve always loved to travel, so I’ve found ways to incorporate it into my work.”
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
While being her own boss can be stressful at times, Kakembo loves being able to travel on her own accord, combing each destination’s market for fabrics and home decor. If all goes according to plan, she will be working from Brazil this winter (she has a secret hope that Rafayonda will learn Portuguese).
“I’m a firm believer in learning through experience and immersing oneself in other cultures to gain a better understanding of how the world works,” she explains. “I want him to get a bigger experience than just Bed-Stuy. While it’s a very multicultural neighborhood, it’s still Brooklyn. Different types of traveling give you a different perspective.”
A self-proclaimed “wanderer,” Kakembo now intends to fully immerse herself in the world beyond New York City—all with her son by her side.
Now that you’re working full-time on Origins instead of your social justice job, do you intend to continue doing any philanthropic work?
I was not impressed by the models of philanthropy and development that I came across [in my field]. I’m taking a step back. I don’t want to enter [back into the social justice field] formally, but I want to see what other models I can explore or innovate in economic empowerment and cultural development through the use of my own business.
Where are you interested in trying out these models?
Uganda. [It’s easier] for me because I have family, connections, [and] cultural relations [there]. It gives me incentive, inspiration, and loyalty towards that place; I have a personal interest in working with the people there. I have a genuine commitment to developing some way to work closely with the artisans there. I intend to build up that network instead of the more traditional means of foreign aid.
How is Rafayonda, “your little comedian,” doing?
He is a lot of fun! He still makes me crack up. He’s still a comedian, but now he’s beginning to understand that he’s funny. We have inside jokes, which is really hilarious. He’s very athletic, and I’m looking to get him enrolled in some kind of kung fu and physical activity after school. He really likes being part of something, being on a team, taking directions from someone who’s not me. (Laughs) He’s also into dinosaurs. It’s at the center of his world right now; he’s learning all the dinosaur names.
UPDATE FROM MENGLY HERNANDEZ, STYLIST
Constantly creating, textile designer and wardrobe stylist Mengly Hernandez was full of projects when we spoke with her last. But she had a very good reason for keeping so busy; besides pursuing her own creativity, she was also acting as a role model for her son, Ousmane. “I want him to create,” she says now. “It keeps you going, it keeps you happy. It develops you. I wish for him to always use that as a tool in his life to become a better person.”
As her son gets older, her responsibilities as a mother are changing, and she’s focusing on different mediums of art, Hernandez says. “I’ve been working on trying to get my textiles [Linea Germania] into retail stores. I just finished an e-commerce site and it’s dedicated to all my textiles,” she explains. “I used to hand-print everything on cotton, but just recently I began to have them digitally printed. I’m in a phase right now where I just want to experiment.”
Photo credit: J. Quazi King
While Hernandez is developing her work, her son is engrossed in his high-school experience. He’ll be 15 in November and is going into his sophomore year. “I feel very blessed, I can’t say it enough, that I have a very responsible kid,” Hernandez says. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but he’s responsible. He’s caring. He’s a lot more independent and self-sufficient, and because he’s so responsible, I don’t have to break my head worrying about what he’s doing. It gives me more opportunities to focus on what I need to focus on without that element of stress.”
Hernandez, looking forward to the future, says proudly, “You know when you feel like your life is going the direction you’ve foreseen? Things are developing organically, and there’s no better feeling.”
A year ago, you spoke of the importance of staying balanced. With all the new projects in your life, is it hard to manage everything?
It can get challenging when you think of all the different things you have to take care of, especially when you’re pushing your own business. I still practice yoga. Something that’s been added to my routine that’s been very instrumental in added peace of mind is meditation. It keeps me as centered as I can possibly be.
Other than your line of textiles, are you working on any other artistic projects?
I’ve been working on a really interesting project with Tobias Hutzler. It’s a conceptual project that has to do with textiles and fibers, using the body and the textile fibers as sculptures. I am so thrilled with this project. It’s the perfect marriage for me, of both worlds that I’m in: styling and conceptual art, as well as fiber art. It’s been ideal. We’re looking to have a small book published in a fashion or art magazine. I’ve also joined a collective called Creative Collective Col-lab, a group of multimedia artists.
How is your career as a stylist going?
I still work in advertising, but I would love to start moving towards projects more in the vein of conceptual art. It’s more about being creative, coming up with projects from scratch—you don’t have the commercial element. You’re going to the drawing board and planning everything from the concept to the final touches.
Issue No. 31
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: Bee Walker
Speculative fiction writer Ibi Zoboi (pronounced e-bee za-boy) has a life that closely echoes the radical and personal transformations seen in her favorite genre: She changed her name in college; had an intense, whirlwind courtship with painter Joseph Zoboi; became a mother of three children before she was 30 years old; and has garnered a number of accolades for her writing, which melds folklore, mythology, and fantasy.
While Zoboi often uses the word “magical” to describe important moments and milestones, serendipity is only part of her story.
From left to right: Bahati (8), Abadai (10), Zoboi, and Zuberi (6).
Zoboi was born Pascale Philantrope, the eldest daughter of a Haitian single mother who immigrated to New York in the 1980s. Now 36, Zoboi says that growing up in New York was illuminating, but not always easy. Inside her community, some transplants’ views on respectability (think starched, white dresses and all-white schools) made it difficult to fit in.
“There was a group of Haitians that didn’t want to associate with poverty, whether that meant wearing certain kinds of clothes or leaving your hair all nappy,” she recalls. “[So] I understand my mother better now. She left one country and was paying for Catholic school, and there I was looking like a peasant” in flowing, patterned skirts and an afro.
After high school, Zoboi enrolled in Hofstra University on Long Island and initially traveled along what she calls the “traditional, straight-and-narrow” route for black women at the time—she even considered pledging a historically black sorority. However, after attending her first spoken word event, Zoboi decided to transfer to Hunter College after her sophomore year. She’d heard the campus housed an organization focused on black women of the African diaspora called Daughters of Africa. The idea of sisterhood appealed to Zoboi’s changing aesthetic, which was less ‘90s R&B and hip-hop (“weaves and nails,” she says playfully) and more neo-soul.
“Being around other highly-literate, black college folks really motivated me,” Zoboi says. “All of a sudden I was frequenting poetry places and watching people walk up to mics to express themselves. Looking back, I realize I was always that kind of person; I just never saw an example of it because I went to a predominantly white high school. There was no way to see the range of black teenage expression.”
Still, changing a look is not the same thing as changing a mentality. Zoboi began reading canonical black authors like Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni. She explored the works of African-American playwrights and learned the history of the Black Arts Movement, and integrated those ideas into her evolving look. “I understood that there’s a reason I’m attracted to certain patterns and color combinations, and how I put myself together,” she says. “It comes from ancestral memory. I started with what I wore and how I wore my hair, but I began to see it as a political statement -- like I was being defiant.” Her mother’s reaction?
“I still don’t think she gets it,” the writer says, especially of her name change. “She thinks I’m dealing with some psychological trauma that she blames herself for, but it doesn’t come from pain at all.”
In fact, Zoboi’s self-baptism appears to have come from a sense of hope and excitement that continues to motivate her. The name “Ibi,” Yoruba for “rebirth,” may seem entirely divorced from Zoboi’s francophone Caribbean roots, but it actually pays homage to Easter, the holiday she was named after. Creatively, Zoboi believed she was tapping into a tradition that other writers have pursued, from the aforementioned Shange (Paulette Williams), to Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), to Dr. Marimba Ani (born Dona Richards).
Zoboi initially adopted the pseudonym when writing pieces that seemed too controversial to be connected to her everyday work, but as she continued to write and perform her own poetry, Ibi seemed an apt, permanent name. Small poems became long poems, long poems became short stories, short stories became novels, and the “weirdness” of the spoken word movement where people wrote about the universe and planets infected her writing, leading her to the world of speculative fiction.
After graduating from college, Zoboi briefly held a position as a news editor at a local Queens newspaper, but quickly realized the corporate world wasn’t for her. She later attended the six-week Clarion West science-fiction program in 2001 and met her hero, science-fiction writer Octavia Butler.
Zoboi was engaged to her husband at the time and, somewhat paradoxically, the closer she came to working on her art full-time, the more quickly family life unfolded. The two married that year, had their first child, Abadai, in 2002, their second daughter, Bahati, in 2004, and a son, Zuberi, three years later. “After that,” Zoboi says, “my writing slowed down."
“I think I’d be lollygagging without children, but I would definitely be more prolific if I only had one,” she explains. “But I don’t regret it. Right now, I’m in a place where I have more gumption because I’m determined. I feel like I’ve gained wisdom and my writing is stronger—I just have to sit down and do it."
Zoboi works in her home office or dining room, which is outfitted with shelves of fantasy novels, historical texts, and Joseph’s large-scale paintings. For a more structured setting, she attended the weeklong VONA (Voices of Our Nation) workshop at the University of California at Berkeley, and later enrolled in a low-residency MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. With three children and a household to help run, finding time to stay on top of her deadlines can be difficult. But Zoboi cites Joseph’s “tremendous” help as a mitigating factor for her load, and her status as a black woman writer as a motivating one.
“A conversation is happening about the lack of black authors in children’s books,” she says. “There’s a boom in Young Adult fiction right now, but I’m one of only two black women in my program out of 100 people. Publishing is probably nothing compared to whatever hoops you have to jump through to secure something like academic tenure, but it’s especially difficult when you’re a black mother. There are a lot of doors slamming in your face.”
While other women might go into self-publishing, Zoboi chooses to bang on as many doors as possible. Since enrolling in the MFA program, she finished her first novel and is currently polishing it, and other stories, in workshop. For Zoboi, writing imaginative tales from a black perspective isn’t just about achieving a personal dream; it’s about amplifying her children’s sense of wonder.
“My work is one more story with a little brown girl who has superpowers. I don’t see much of that on shelves, so I have to give it a chance,” Zoboi says. “I really believe in the power of storytelling and the oral tradition. Mythology grounds us as people, and I want black children to see themselves as part of positive folktales where they can be vulnerable, but empowered. I need my children to see the world as a magical place.”
How has being a mother changed your life?
I didn’t really have much of a life before my children. I got married at 23 and had my first child at 25, so I became a mom early. I was only a [childfree] adult for a few years; some of my friends didn’t have their first child until their thirties. I’m in a small group with other Brooklyn moms; two women who are both 10 years older than me talk about dating so-and-so. I don’t regret it, but that’s how I know being a homebody is really my personality.
What was being a new mother like?
Most people don’t know how hard those first few weeks are for a new mother. Eventually, you make it through, but I know a lot of mothers who say those were some tough months. It was really, really hard because [we had] virtually no help. Because my husband is so [present], his family would come and play with the baby and think everything was fine, but Joseph was tired, too. I think what happens when you’re a married couple is people see a helpful husband and think you have it made. But he’s still a dude. He gets sick of the dishes and will be like, ‘I’m going for a walk!’ The hardest thing was not having a community of women coming to help.
I [also] had a home birth for all three children, so I didn’t get [those] two days in the hospital where you just chill and everybody else takes care of everything. In the past, I had taken ownership of my health—I changed my hair, was vegan, and juiced. A home birth would be taking ultimate ownership of my body. [We] didn’t even consider a hospital, but my mother was like, “Are you crazy! We came all the way from Haiti for this?!” (Laughs) She was scared, but after the third child, I saw that she kind of had a new respect for me.
What do you enjoy most about being a mom?
I like the fact that there are stages. You may not feel confident during your children’s infancy, but you may be the best mom during their teenage years. When they’re under 5 they’re cute, but I’m not one to get down on the floor and play. I like to dress my kids up, and take them out to the park, and watch them from afar. But I’m enjoying my oldest now that she’s a pre-teen. She’s not the same person that she was at 5; I can start cultivating a little activist and have conversations with her about the world.
What would you say are some of the big lessons you’ve learned from the women in your life?
I’m seeing what it’s like for older women who did things they thought they were supposed to be doing, and then look back [at their lives]. My husband is an only child and wasn’t raised by his mother, and my mother was an immigrant and had to work all the time. Both of our mothers are currently in their 60s and want to spend time with their grandchildren, but they missed that with their children and don’t always know how to interact with kids. It’s why I only work part-time and do my art. I want to be there to pick my kids up after school. I want to know who they are so I don’t look at them [one day] and go, “Who are you?”
“They’re little brown girls; I won’t do anything to crush their spirits because the world will do that for them.”
Fill in the blank: I love being a mom most when…?
When I can really be in the moment and gaze at my kids. When our schedules are so packed it’s hard to step back and take a look at them and enjoy them. Sometimes we go to the beach at 10 a.m. and decide to leave whenever we leave, maybe 6 or 7 p.m. I can just watch them play and be alive, and there’s no “I have to be at work” or “I’ve got this deadline.” That’s why I sometimes decide not to put them in summer camp: So we can have long, lazy summer days.
Being a mom is the hardest when…?
There are limits on my time. Winter is about getting the kids to school on time, picking them up on time, and getting dinner on time. I don’t get to enjoy them [as much] because of all of our schedules.
What is your parenting style compared to your husband’s, and how do you execute it?
I’m an authority figure in the house and I use a lot of logic. “If I have to clean up your room that means you can’t go out today because I’m busy cleaning.” I don’t like “Do this because I said so” logic—but my husband might think differently. I’m an authority figure in the house, but I’m [also] very free spirited.
Sometimes, when it’s messy, it’s messy, and if nobody has time to cook we’ll get takeout. Joseph is stern, but very playful. He’s an art teacher so he gets very creative with them. For example, he has a whistle song for each of them. I call the kids by their names when I need them, but he has a different melody for each of them and they come when they hear theirs.
How would you describe your children’s personalities?
My kids are poets and singers and dancers. They take creativity very seriously. Zuberi, my youngest, is 6 but very witty and can talk circles around you. He is just a boy’s boy; Joseph is his best friend. Bahati is 8 years old. She’s a little fireball and always has somebody calling her on the phone -- and she can really sing. Abadai, my oldest, recently did a lyrical dance to a Rihanna song, but I never saw her practice. She’s 10 and I thought, “Whatever happens, happens; it’s not Star Search.”
She picked out her little cut-off shorts and sparkly shirt, and blew us away. The way I grew up, my mother would have been like, “No. That’s inappropriate,” but she wasn’t exposing anything. I need to be able to have happy daughters. They’re little brown girls; I won’t do anything to crush their spirits because the world will do that for them. So, if they want to dance to Rihanna? Sure. You realize as a parent that sometimes there’s not so much you have to do. Kids see you as a model for themselves, but they come with their own purpose.
What kind of people do you hope your children become?
Really grounded. I want them to have balance in the world. I wouldn’t want my daughters to straighten their hair, but I’ll be okay if they’re not super Afrocentric because I didn’t have that upbringing, either. They have a strong foundation to navigate whatever careers they want to navigate. If they want to go into the corporate world, they can do that. If they want to be artists, I want them to be able to support [themselves], but also take it up several notches and be really innovative. Don’t just be a regular R&B singer—push your art forward. What’s something different that they can say? My purpose is the help them find balance in everything that they do.
Issue No. 32
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Hannan Saleh
Hannan Saleh’s home practically ripples with frenetic, artistic energy. It may have something to do with all the artists under one roof—Saleh is a photographer whose work has appeared in Vibe, Trace, Essence, and a number of other print and online fashion magazines; her husband, scenic artist Calvin Batts.
But something tells us it has a little more to do with the three other residents in their Philadelphia home: their sons, Tesfay (11), Ayo (7), and Idris (5) Saleh-Batts.
From left to right: Idris Saleh-Batts, Hannan Saleh, and Ayo and Tesfay Saleh-Batts.
“It’s a little tough” being the only woman in the house, Saleh says with a laugh. “There’s a lot of whining happening. But for the most part, they love and care about each other. Tesfay likes to be the good kid at school, but at home he’s very competitive with his brothers. Ayo’s like Mr. Congeniality. He’s just the cutie pie that everybody knows at school. Idris is a little bit more of an introvert, and he’s the one who likes to dance all the time. He wants to be a pop singer!”
Idris isn’t the only one in the family with big plans. Saleh, who may be best known for her fashion spreads and street style shots in Essence and Essence.com, is starting to consider where she wants to take her career to next. The family plans on moving to New York City in the coming months as there isn’t much work for Saleh and her husband in Philly; the couple both take turns traveling to New York for assignments—Fashion Week for her, building movie sets for him.
“I’m working on redoing my book, my website, and redefining my vision,” Saleh says animatedly. “I want to see my work not just in black magazines, [but] all across the board. I want to see my work alongside a lot of other working professionals, not just women of color. I would love to work for W [Magazine] or something like that. I just want to be one of the top fashion photographers, along with all [the other] high rollers.”
Saleh has been working towards those goals for years, after a series of serendipitous events brought her behind a camera for the first time more than a decade ago. Saleh was bitten by the photography bug early, thanks to a trip to Yemen, her parents’ homeland, when she was 8 years old, she says.
“I just remember mental pictures I took of these different memories that I had” from there, Saleh recalls. “I didn’t really realize until later that’s how I remembered everything.”
Though she took pictures here and there growing up, she transformed her photographic memory into a love of painting that she explored in high school.
“I used to paint fashion editorials, Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi book covers... When I graduated, my sister suggested that I go to college for painting, so I went to the Art Institute [of Philadelphia] in ‘95. I took photography instead of painting [because] they don’t really have a painting program."
Living in Philly during the late ‘90s, Saleh found herself a member of a ragtag group of talented artists, musicians and free thinkers who’d gather in cafes and houses around the city for jam sessions. The Roots—long before they became one of America’s favorite late-night bands—just so happened to be a part of that group, too.
“I was friends with Nou, one of the members from their crew,” Saleh remembers now. “We used to just go every week to go hang out with them, and we would take pictures while [they] were jamming."
Those spur-of-the-moment shots led to Saleh taking photos of The Roots and other musicians in the crew to shooting an album cover for Philly-based R&B duo Kindred the Family Soul. Saleh was quickly becoming a professional photographer by trade (“I was always shooting,” she says) but not necessarily by paycheck; she worked as a bartender at a “funky soul café” to make ends meet for four years. But the job did more than help put a roof over her head—it was there that she rekindled a relationship with the man who would years later become her husband.
“I kind of knew that he’d be the perfect partner for me, and the perfect father for my kids,” Saleh says.
Though Saleh was certain she had found the right man, she was adamant about one thing before they got serious—that the relationship would not derail her career.
“When I met my husband (Calvin) I told him that photography was my thing, and if he ever got in the way [of] it, it wouldn’t ever work out,” Saleh recalls. “I told him that because I wasn’t dating guys, I was very serious about what I did, and if we were going to get in a serious relationship, I had to let him know.”
Calvin didn’t bat an eye.
“He [was] really into it,” she says with a smile. “He loves it.”
That drive and sure-footedness has led Saleh from one career success to the next. In 2000 she won the Emerging Artist Award for Arts and Culture from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, a nonprofit organization devoted to the empowerment of black women. Never stopping, her work eventually caught the attention of Essence in 2009. Originally hired to shoot street style for the magazine in Philadelphia, she’s recently become the magazine’s main street style photographer and regularly shoots its fashion spreads wherever they need her.
“It’s so exciting to see my stuff in the mag,” she says. “I love seeing it!”
Now ready to see where her camera will take her next, Saleh is even more certain that this is the work she was meant to do.
Like with any job, “there’s good things and there’s bad things,” Saleh admits. “But I’d rather be able to provide for my kids doing something that I love than having a job that I hate and being miserable and mean to my kids because I’m mad about my life and the way it turned [out]. You have to listen to yourself.”
How has being a mom changed your life?
You’re dealing with a lot more responsibility, and the relationship with you and your partner just changes 1000 degrees. (Laughs) It’s really up to you to make sure everything is going to be okay for the little one, and most of the time you’re going to take more responsibility than the dad, of course. And for me, running my own business... It was very challenging trying to figure it out [while] being emotionally stable for your little ones and taking care of them.
One of the things that I did which saved me was I had met some other women who had kids around my children’s age and we hung out almost every day. [We] let the kids play and just kind of built this bond. It was really nice. We were all entrepreneurs, and we had kids, so we just kind of hung out. We had our little dinner parties once a week and did our playdates. That really saved me. If it wasn’t for that, I would have lost it, because it’s just a complete lifestyle change.
What are your sons’ full names?
Tesfay Joshua, Ayo Elijah, and Idris Emanuel Saleh-Batts.
Can you tell us the story behind your sons’ names?
My parents are from Yemen and my grandmother is Ethiopian, so I really wanted to give them names with some meaning, because my name means compassion. Tesfay is an Ethiopian name, and it means hope. My mother-in-law wanted them to have a Biblical middle name, so that’s why they all have those middle names.
Ayo means joy or happiness, and Idris means righteousness.They all have African origins. Ayo is Nigerian, I think Yoruba. That’s my favorite name, if you ever meet somebody named Ayo, they’re like the coolest people ever.
Do your kids understand what you do? How do they respond to your work?
They know about the magazines and stuff like that, but I don’t know if they really do yet. I’m planning on training my 11 year old and taking him out shooting with me in the summer when he’s on summer vacation. I don’t want to push photography on all of them, but my oldest son, I think, would like it and he has always showed interest [in it]. I’m going to give him my manual camera and have him start shooting some and see if he likes it.
So what’s a typical day like juggling your three sons and then your work?
It’s a little tough. When they’re going to school, I have a few hours to get the work that I need done. So I try to map out my schedule along with other things like getting groceries and things like that. I’m on the computer a lot, doing research, or editing photo shoots, or sending my stuff out to my clients.
Then I pick them up and I still have a lot of work to do. I was looking at my schedule once and I really only give my company not even like 20 hours a week. When they’re in school, that’s when I can say that I [do work for] my company. But sometimes I have to run other errands during that time, so [I’m] always trying to figure it out. When they come home from school, sometimes they’ll jump on the games, so I can sneak upstairs and get a couple more hours, do a little more work. But I try to set it down when they come home.
Is it hard for you to separate your work from being back on mom duty?
Yeah, when my husband’s home, I try to sneak upstairs and just spend the day upstairs, working on my computer and doing different things. And they’ll be like, “You don’t hang out with the family enough, all you do is work!” So it’s tough.
I kind of feel like if I had an office away from home, then I could just leave [and] say, “Look, [these] are my hours that I work.” It would be better, but of course that would be a little expensive for me to have an office, and then to have somebody watch them when I’m working.
We love how upfront you were with your then-boyfriend, now husband about your commitment to your work. How did you navigate that?
Yeah, when I met him, I was coming out of college, and I just really wanted to be a photographer, I wanted to do photography, and I was working towards that. When I first started dating my husband, I showed him my work and he loved it. I said, “You know, this is what I’m trying to do.” And even after we had the babies and stuff—and now when we’re trying to move to Brooklyn—I've told him that.
He knew when we first hooked up that I was very serious about my career, and it was [clear] I’m never going to let it go just because I had kids. You have to be honest; I feel like there’s a lot of sacrifices that you make when you’re in a partnership, and that’s not going to be one of them. If anything, it’ll make you guys stronger and happier, and what a good role model [you’ll be] to your children.
What inspires your work?
I love to show how powerful and elegant women are. And I love fashion. I feel like fashion is superficial to some, but it’s really in our background and our culture. Our families come from these places [where] they are so used to adorning themselves: wearing these regal fabrics, looking really beautiful, and putting kohl on their eyes... We come from that kind of a background and lifestyle, it’s in our blood.
It sounds like you have an anthropological eye about your work.
Yeah, my goal is eventually to travel [and shoot] in different places. I have this series called Royal Antiquities, and it’s about women: defining our regal background and really stepping into it. I really want to continue shooting it, but I want to do it in places across the globe. just have them really kind of resonate, because that’s where the women were, and that’s where they lived, and that’s where they breathed and that’s where they were.
Have you had to deal with any kind of difficulty breaking into more mainstream editorial work because of your race and background?
Maybe or maybe not, I’m not sure. I can always say it’s because of my name, or whatever, my name is very Middle Eastern, [but] I feel like those barriers are in our heads. I mean, they are there, but we can break through them, because really, ultimately, talent speaks [for itself]. There are a lot of professionals, and you don’t know what they look like, but they’re shooting for those magazines.
When you’re in the creative industry, your work speaks for itself and it really doesn’t matter what you look like or where you come from. I feel like we create those barriers, and that’s one of those things that holds us down, and we really need to break through our own prisons and our own shackles.
What perspective or example do you hope to impart upon your sons through your work?
I want to show them that it does take a lot of work when you’re doing your own thing, but it’s worth it. You [just] have to really believe in it; you have to really believe that it’s going to come through, and that you’re going to be rewarded. All these successful people all started with an idea, and being an entrepreneur is never overnight. Even people like Steve Jobs started from the bottom, and look at their empires now.
What kind of men do you hope your sons become?
I want them to be really confident in themselves, respect women, treat their ladies right, and just be fair and honest and hardworking. Those are the biggest things. I haven’t really thought about it, I can’t imagine them being there yet. (Laughs) Right now we’re dealing with the stages that they’re in. But I really want them to fulfill their destiny, whatever it is. To find their calling and do what they were meant to do. I just want them to be happy.
Issue No. 34
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Brian Kelly
With a C-suite job that often whisks her away from her home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to places as far flung as China, Candace Matthews knows just how important it is to find moments for herself and her family: her husband, Bruce, and their three adoptive children, Sydney, Simone, and Seth.
Nothing soothes her more like baking them a delicious apple pie, a talent she learned from her late mother.
“She taught me that baking is really all about love,” Matthews says, smiling. “You bake and put all of yourself into what you’re doing.”
Giving 100% is a concept that Matthews has embodied for as long as she can remember. The youngest of 18 equally driven children, “I always just wanted to achieve,” she says now. “My parents always said, ‘Whatever you do, be the best at it.’” Sixteen of the 18 children attended college; five received masters’ degrees and two earned doctorates.
“Growing up, it wasn’t a matter of if I would go to college; it was which college I would attend,” Matthews recalls.
After getting her Bachelors of Science in metallurgical engineering and administrative and management science from Carnegie Mellon, Matthews received her MBA at Stanford University in 1985, beginning what would become a long and storied path as one of the business world’s most prolific executives.
Following business school, Matthews joined General Mills as an assistant product manager at 26. (Fun fact: Matthews was essential in creating the strategy that brought Chicago Bull Michael Jordan to your box of Wheaties.) She was recruited by Ann Fudge, who later became CEO of marketing company Young & Rubicam. Fudge, a woman of color herself, became a much-needed mentor and friend as Matthews began navigating the often tricky waters of the corporate world.
“As much as we don’t want to think about glass ceilings, the ceilings are real and exist nearly everywhere,” Matthews says. “The key is not to be afraid to blaze trails and break through the glass ceiling. The one thing I have learned is that politics do exist in organizations. You don’t have to be political and play the game, but you must be aware of it. It can be challenging if you don’t have someone to help you understand the game and navigate through it.”
Matthews left General Mills after three years, and then went on become marketing director of Cover Girl Cosmetics, launching the brand’s first line for women of color. Over the course of 16 years, Matthews advanced her way up the corporate ladder, jumping from one plum position to the next, including a move to Atlanta for a vice-president role at Coca-Cola.
“As my career was progressing, I realized that particularly for African-Americans you sometimes have to change companies to advance more quickly,” Matthews explains.
Yet upon turning 40 in 1999, there were two accomplishments Matthews was beginning to think she’d never experience: marriage and motherhood.
“I had resolved myself to the single life. But apparently God had other plans,” Matthews says. “A week after my 40th birthday, honestly when I absolutely least expected it, I met the man who would become my husband—Bruce Matthews. We were married four months later. ”
Given the difficulties associated with later-in-life pregnancies, Bruce and Matthews tried to conceive right away. But Matthews soon discovered she suffered from uterine fibroids, a condition where noncancerous growths develop on the uterus. She was shocked to learn that her condition would significantly decrease her ability to get pregnant.
“It was devastating because that’s the last thing that I would have ever thought,” Matthews says. “Not only was my mother prolific but my siblings are quite… Put it this way, no one ever had issues conceiving, except me. At the moment, it felt unfair.”
After three failed rounds of intrauterine insemination, the Matthews began exploring adoption to have the family they always wanted. In January 2001 the couple applied for a fast-track adoption course, turning a typically 10-week class into two 10-hour long ones.
“At the end of the second class, they told us that a set of twins had come up and our adoption agency wanted to submit our application as possible parents. A total of 23 families applied, and we were selected. We were ecstatic.”
When Bruce and Matthews first met their 3-year-old twins, they weighed only 26 pounds, had a limited vocabulary and had been diagnosed as “failure to thrive.” They named the girls Sydney Janae and Simone Jacara Matthews, keeping their birth names as their middle names, and gave them the love, nurturing and support they had missed during the first three years of their lives.
There was soon another new development that would change the young family’s lives. That same year Matthews was offered the role of president of the SoftSheen-Carson division of L’Oreal, an offer that would mean uprooting the family from Atlanta to Chicago, and then ultimately Connecticut, closer to L’Oreal USA’s headquarters in New York.
At the time “my husband ran his own coffee shop in Marietta, Georgia,” Matthews recalls. “He said to me, ‘Is this what you went to business school for?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He said, ‘Fine, I will give it up, and follow you because somebody needs to be with the girls.’ He’s been a stay-at-home dad for 12 years, and I could not do what I do if he weren’t.”
With that decision made, the Matthews made the move to Chicago. When they settled in Connecticut three years later, the family grew with the addition of Seth Davon, a child they fostered at 19 months and eventually adopted when he was 5 years old.
As president of SoftSheen-Carson, Matthews was a force to be reckoned with: she increased the brand’s profitability fourfold and raised awareness of the hair and beauty line dramatically. Her professional profile was on the rise as well, with her leadership earning her coverage on the pages of a number of lifestyle and business publications as well as a number of awards. But for all the achievements and recognition she experienced in that role, Matthews realized that her dream job wasn’t ultimately the best for her and her family.
“I was commuting an hour and a half in each direction, and sacrificing my family,” Matthews says. “My girls were early in their education, struggling in school, and I couldn’t be home early enough to help them with homework. The culture of the company wasn’t such that they supported family life, so leaving to go meet with their teachers wasn’t really possible. The last straw was on September 28 of 2007, when my husband suffered a mild heart attack. I realized that this pace and lifestyle was not for us. I was giving up too much of my family for a job and the tradeoffs were too great.”