KUAE KELCH MATTOX
Issue No. 50
Montclair, New Jersey
Words: AdeOla Fadumiye
Visuals: Jennifer Currell
Kuae Kelch Mattox has a solid sense of direction and a strong grounding that’s refreshing to encounter. It has served her well as a journalist; a mother of three: Teddi (17), Cole (15), and Evan (11); and as the national president of Mocha Moms, Inc., a national, nonprofit support organization for mothers of color. Mattox has been full of purpose since she was a child growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Back then she was certain of two things: She wanted to be a journalist and she wanted to be a mother.
“I had the benefit of two wonderful parents [and] I grew up in a household as one of three kids,” Mattox says. “Singing, writing, drama, and poetry were celebrated in our home, [as well as] being a parent and having children.”
Mattox’s love for writing took her to the classrooms of Howard University where she earned a degree in print journalism in 1987. After graduation she worked as a reporter, first as an education reporter with the Miami Herald and then as a producer-in-training for The Oprah Winfrey Show. “For a young journalist who was just starting out,” Mattox says, “it blew me away.”
As someone who had “the grand notion of being a Pulitzer Prize winner,” working in television was an unexpected path. “I had no plans to work in television until I received the opportunity with The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she explains, “but it jump started my broadcast journalism career. I learned quite a lot. I worked long hours, worked with different producers, and also brought Oprah her coffee and her water with lemon. Some of it was humbling, but I saw it as an opportunity to take another path.”
In 1990, she moved from Chicago to New York City with her fiancé Ted Mattox, founder of Black Forest Multimedia, a multimedia production company. (The couple met in 1986 and married in 1991.) Mattox moved forward in her broadcast career, working for several networks and shows including ABC News before landing a position as an associate producer at Dateline NBC, where she stayed for five years.
Though Mattox’s professional and personal life were hitting new highs—it was while she was at NBC that she and her husband found out they were pregnant with their daughter, Teddi Noel—she would soon face a major tragedy that would affect the course of her life.
“My mom passed away on December 13, 1997 when my firstborn was 9 months old,” Mattox says. “It was a devastating blow for me and for my family. It was completely unexpected; my mother was 60 years old [and] had a number of medical complications. [She] eventually passed away from pneumonia.
“I made a decision that was contrary to what people [expected],“ she continues. “I knew I wanted to spend more time with my children. We can be here one moment and we can be gone the next.”
Two years later, during her maternity leave with her son Cole, Mattox and her husband discovered they could survive on just one salary. “The fire I used to have as a journalist was also fading,” she says. “It was becoming more and more important to me to be a mother and to focus on my children, and not as important to be a journalist chasing the next story. I began to think maybe this is my window to take some time out from my career to focus on my children and to strengthen them.”
However Mattox’s decision was met with eyebrow raises from friends and family. ”This was an uncommon choice in the African-American culture,” she says now. “Our mothers and grandmothers worked. It was not a choice in our community. The path to economic empowerment and success has always been through work. But my thinking was, ‘My career will always be there, but my children will not always be young.’”
Mattox left her job at NBC, and her family moved from New York City to Montclair, New Jersey, a 12-mile journey out of the city. And while the family settled in to their new home, it wasn’t easy for Mattox to go from working mom in the city to suburban stay-at-home mom. “I don't think I realized what I was getting into,” she says now. “I was excited to stay home, but I had no idea I was essentially stripping myself of [an] identity that had been a huge part of me.
“For many years, I was Kuae the journalist, I was Kuae who worked at NBC, and I was Kuae who worked at The Oprah Winfrey Show,” she continues. “This was very important to me, but I did not understand how important it was until I took it away. There was a part of me that missed being [the] high-profile journalist and [having] intelligent conversations with people at NBC News, but there was also a deeper sense that this was where I needed to be. This was where my children needed me to be. It was an honor to know that my husband could pay the bills [so I could] have the opportunity to focus on my children.”
As Mattox went about town on her daily routine, she saw other mothers of color at the supermarket, at Barnes and Noble, and at the Little Gym. “I would wonder if they were going through the same things I was going through,” she recalls. “I realized being a stay-at-home mom can be lonely. I wanted to talk to other moms and ask them questions like, ‘[Am] I the only one whose child was not sleeping through the night?’”
Her quest for community led Mattox to Mocha Moms, Inc., a national nonprofit organization that supports mothers of color who have modified their employment in order to spend more time with their families. The national nonprofit didn’t have a chapter in her area, so Mattox founded the Essex County chapter in New Jersey in 2002.
“We had 10 members when we started—all the women I had met as I ran errands around town,” she recalls. “We met once a month, and it was profound to hear their stories. This was a new frontier for so many of us, but we understood the importance of sticking together.” Mattox held a number of positions within Mocha Moms before becoming its national president in 2010.
Now that her youngest child is middle-school aged, staying home for her children doesn’t have the same urgency. All of Mattox’s children are accomplished athletes and students with a schedule that have them running in and out the house for school, lacrosse tournaments, and plans with friends.
Mattox has taken the opportunity to get back into the workforce, “to get back to the work I know and love,” she explains. “My experience has made me a better journalist. I bring to the table life experience that will net more stories, more contacts, and also a depth to writing that I never had before.”
Along with her duties as the president of Mocha Moms, she’s now a full-time news editor for 72point, the PR division of SWNS, the United Kingdom’s largest independent news agency, which has an office in New York. “I have never worked in PR before 72point, but I am learning quite a bit,” she says. “There is something very exciting about uncharted territory and learning new things.”
The same could be said about motherhood and raising children. Interrupting her career for more than 10 years was worth the opportunity to stay home with them, she says. “I have three wonderful kids with kind hearts, and I do think I see the fruits of our efforts in the young adults they are becoming.
“It’s been a fabulous journey,” she continues. “In giving birth to my children, I gave birth to me. I gave birth to a person I did not know existed.”
Read on for our one-on-one conversation with Mocha Moms’ president Kuae Kelch Mattox.
Issue No. 51
San Francisco, California
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Visuals: Sarah Hebenstreit of Modern Kids Co.
Many people are trying to increase the visibility of minorities in tech and Silicon Valley. And Angela Benton, 33, is one of the leaders who has been beating the drum the loudest and for the longest.
Some may know her from her late-aughts blog Black Web 2.0 (now called B20), which was one of the few, if not only, outlets covering black tech newsmakers; others may be familiar with her startup accelerator program NewME, which has helped minority entrepreneurs raise almost $17 million in funding. Along with managing these two companies, the mother of three daughters—Ava (7), Kaiya (13), and Asha (17)—is regularly featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and CNN discussing diversity, startup culture, and the future of entrepreneurship.
But ask Benton to pick an accomplishment she’s most proud of, and the entrepreneur pauses. “Everything has been great,” she allows, “and I feel like we still have a lot of work to do. I just feel like I’m in the middle. I’m not at the end yet. Everything up to this point hasn’t been expected at all, you know?”
As a woman who found out she was pregnant with her first child at 15, Benton’s success flies against most people’s expectations. But the same steadfastness that guides her in her businesses also led her to where she is today.
Benton had her daughter Asha a month after she turned 16 (she graduated high school early, thanks in part to a daycare program at her school). A creative at heart, Benton got her BFA in visual communications from American Intercontinental University, and then went on to get an MFA in graphic design at Savannah College of Art and Design.
These years were full of personal milestones, too: Her middle daughter Kaiya was born when she was 19, she got married when she was 20, and had her youngest daughter Ava when she was 24. Though the marriage ended in divorce when she was 26, “I [have] a lot of peace about a lot of the decisions I was making at that time,” she says now. “That was really young to get married.”
Ever the hardworker, Benton was also freelancing and doing free web design work for companies to build her portfolio. Her experience led to a job in LendingTree.com’s creative group, where she worked on everything from marketing to product development to web design. It was here that Benton got firsthand experience with the issues that inform her work today.
“Something was wrong on the back end” of the site, Benton recalls. “[And this guy] questioned the front end of my work in this massive email [to] a lot of people. I’m like, Why would he automatically come to me, like I did something wrong? Of course—[I’m] the only black person, the only black [woman], at all. That was just kind of disheartening.”
Benton looked online to see if anyone was discussing the industry issues she was beginning to experience, but came up short. So she did what many entrepreneurs-in-the-making do: She created something of her own.
Black Web 2.0 launched in 2007 with little fanfare, but quickly attracted a respectable number of readers who came to depend on Benton’s writeups of African-American media properties, tech, and digital strategy news.
“The site got a lot of traction,” Benton says. “I got a lot of emails from folks saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I was thinking about doing something like this. This is so needed.’"
Shortly after starting Black Web 2.0, Benton and her friend and fellow entrepreneur Markus Robinson realized something else was needed—“a solution to why you don’t see more African Americans as success stories in the technology industry,” she says. In 2010 Black Web 2.0 put on summit in Washington, D.C. to discuss this gap; it was there that tech entrepreneur Don Charleston made a suggestion that led Benton to her next venture: an accelerator program for minorities. In the startup world, accelerator programs offer entrepreneurs seed capital, office space, educational programming, and access to investors and mentors in exchange for company equity. Many of the world’s most well-known companies—most notably Airbnb and Dropbox—found their footing in accelerators.
“I remember [saying], ‘That’s a really good idea,’ but thinking, That sounds like a lot of work,” Benton says, laughing.
But she came back to the idea a few months later, and started pitching it to her connections at companies like Google and Facebook, who were early supporters of what would become the NewME Accelerator.
“At first I had no idea what people were going to say,” she says. “I definitely felt like we were going to get snubbed. I felt like people were going to think it was racist. But … when we explained what we were trying do, [people] were like, ‘Oh yeah, count me in.’”
Her first cohort of 13 companies started in June 2011 (eight of which were profiled in a CNN documentary) out of a rented home in San Francisco. Both Benton and the startup founders learned a lot that first go round.
“I didn’t have a business plan,” Benton admits. “It was so scrappy. We were just kind of going with the flow at first. But after [the CNN documentary aired], I got a lot of questions, so I had to really figure out what the business model would be for it. I had to do a lot of soul-searching for about a year.
“I talked to a lot of different people and I got a lot of different advice,” she continues. “[But] the advice was for what was already in existence. It just didn’t sit right [with me], so I had to figure out what I wanted it to be.”
Now, almost four years later, Benton has a pretty good idea of what NewME is: It helps minority entrepreneurs sidestep one of the biggest barriers to entry in the tech industry.
“The technology industry can be [like] high school in a sense,” Benton explains, “meaning if you aren’t vouched for by somebody else who has credibility, it’s kind of hard to get in the door.” NewME provides that stamp of approval with its multi-service platform. There’s the 12-week residential program for early-stage companies; an elite version of the program for startups that are further along; a virtual accelerator, which allows the company to work with more than 150 people around the world; intensive, targeted programming; and private coaching.
With more than $17 million raised, and plans to expand NewME internationally, Benton has more than established her place as patron saint of minority entrepreneurs. It’s a position she’s now comfortable with occupying.
“I never expected it to happen to begin with,” she says. “So the fact that it’s even happening, it’s like a dream.”
You became a mom at such a young age. What were your thoughts when you first learned you were going to be a mom at 15?
I really felt like I had to make a decision. I wasn’t scared, per se; I think I had accepted it. Of course, people will try to change your decision—”Oh, you’re so young,” “Oh, your life is going to be so hard”—and really try to convince you to get an abortion. Even though I was 15, I really followed my intuition, and my intuition was telling me that that’s not the way that I should go. So I just kind of followed that.
Was there anything about your own childhood that made you more trusting of your own intuition? We would imagine that’s such a hard thing to hear—so many people telling you to do one thing.
It was a hard thing to hear, but it also really made me more determined, honestly. It just made me feel like I had something to prove. It’s not even what people say, it’s almost how they say it to you. It’s a lot of pity, and I didn’t feel like I needed to be pitied. It’s not to say I was excited about it; I knew that my life was going to change. But I was also at peace with the decision.
How has being a mom changed your life?
Being a mom really defines my life, and it’s because I had kids so young. My whole adult life has always been shaped around kids. For most women, they’ll have a career and all this other stuff ahead of time and they’ll have to adjust to having kids. For me, it’s the opposite.
You can spend a lot of time [thinking] what would my life be like if I didn’t have a child when I was so young. I really can’t say that I know what it would be like. I don’t know if I would have ended up any better than I am now. I think the whole situation was actually a great blessing. It just taught me a lot about myself and it me a lot about hard work.
How would you describe your daughters’ personalities?
My oldest one [Asha] is very, very creative. She’s just naturally talented. She just does all kinds of stuff and it’s all really good.
My middle one [Kaiya] is very intellectual and she has a dry sense of humor. She’s very witty, very, very naturally smart. [She] is quiet. If it’s me and her in the house alone, I’ll feel like I’m in the house by myself. She reads books, she plays video games.
[Ava], my youngest one, is very sweet and very loving. I’ll get home from and she’ll wander into my room, [ask] “How was your day?”, and she’ll rub my back. My oldest and my youngest are very, very girly. They want to talk about nail color and makeup and music and dance.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mom?
Definitely work-life balance. It’s less stressful if you try not to plan as much—when I plan too much, that’s what actually stresses me out more than anything. [With] our age difference, [my oldest daughter and I are] close but sometimes because we’re so close in age, she crosses the line. I have to basically check her, like, “I’m still your mom.” So that’s hard.
What was really hard—and actually, this continues to be hard—is dealing with the schools as a young mom. A lot of times, if you’re young, they’ll assume that you don’t know as much as you know about the curriculum or just the process at a certain grade level. So a lot of times, I’ll just have to be very direct with the teacher.
That’s a really good point, that people would assume so much and carry that into the way they treat you, and in turn, the way they treat your kids.
Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting, now that we’re in California, how the school systems are here versus the East Coast. Not a lot of moms work in the neighborhood that I’m in. So when I travel a lot, my kids’ teachers notice. Especially my youngest one, because she’s still in elementary school.
I’ll go to parent-teacher conferences and I mean, it’s that same kind of tone of pity, almost. “I know it must be hard that you travel a lot.” And I’m like, “I have this under control. You don’t have to worry about how hard it is for me.” Or she’ll say certain stuff like, “Okay, well, in third grade this is what we do,” and I’m like, “I’ve been through third grade twice before.”
What kind of support system do you have in place? How do you keep everything going?
Well, a good nanny will help. I don't have a nanny every day of the week. I mainly use her for when I travel. I normally will drop them off in the morning, then she’ll come and pick them up and stay overnight. And she’s great. She’s from East Africa, so any time I come back, my youngest’s hair is braided [and] I don’t have to worry about doing her hair. (Laughs)
What perspective or example do you hope to impart on your daughters through your work?
I really hope that they’re not stuck in a job and are like, “What am I doing here?” I hope that they can find their passion and be able to work on that. That it’s fun, and it’s like you’re not working every day.
What kind of women do you hope your daughters become?
I hope they become strong women, but more than anything, I want them to be women who are comfortable being themselves and in their own skin, whatever that might be.
JESSICA HUIE, MBE
Issue No. 52
Words: Satya Nelms
Visuals: Bessie Akuba
Jessica Huie, MBE has achieved some pretty incredible feats as an entirely self-made woman.
She’s the founder of the award-winning Jessica Huie Public Relations (JHPR) agency and the Color blind cards greeting card company, and a doting mum to Jensen, 3, and Monet, 16. Huie has graced the pages of a number of British magazines and newspapers, and has even caught the Queen’s attention: In the summer of 2014, she was awarded the Member of the Order of the British Empire honor at Buckingham Palace for her services to entrepreneurship and positive influence on her community.
Even with managing celebrity clients for one business, and being nationally recognized for the other, the 34-year-old entrepreneur remains incredibly centered and down to earth. Her ability to stay humble in the face of so much success is a result of some hard and unexpected lessons she learned at a young age.
“When I was a child,” Huie says, “I thought I would get married when I was 27 and have a baby when I was 30. I had it all planned out. Of course, life does not go according to plan a lot of the time.
“I was 17 when I became a mum,” she continues. “I found my teenage years emotionally challenging. I was a smart girl, but I had this desire for independence before I was really ready for it. Becoming a mum gave me a purpose, but it was seen as a disaster by my family, my peers, and society. I think I was fueled for a long time by wanting to prove people wrong.”
Although she was incredibly driven and determined to carve out a life for herself and her daughter Monet, the early days of motherhood were exhausting.
“Parenting without maturity was the hardest part,” Huie says now. “When you don’t have maturity or life experience on your side, it’s particularly difficult. Having to fumble through and learn some really basic life skills while mothering, and also trying to manage this burning ambition, alongside a desire to really be a very present mother... I mean I’ve managed, but it was challenging.”
Despite knowing that she wanted to forge a life for herself and her daughter, Huie was not entirely sure how she would accomplish that. This uncertainty led to feelings of hopelessness until a midwife came to her home one day shortly after Monet was born.
“She suggested I go back to college.” Huie recalls. “She was the first person to suggest this was even an option for me. It was a life-changing conversation as those first steps back to college became steps toward possibility—not because I was going to leave with qualifications, but because of the mindset shift working towards a goal caused in me. My self esteem began to return. Suddenly I had a reason [to exist] beyond just being mum. I had a sense of purpose, which I believe is essential to us as human beings. My family supported me fully when they realized I was intent on achieving for myself and my baby girl.”
Huie worked a few part-time jobs to support herself and her daughter while she went to school, and it was at one of those jobs that she got her big break. While working as a hairdresser, Huie made such an impression on the woman whose hair she was washing that the woman offered her a job. The generous client turned out to be Connie Filippello, a major publicist in London who has worked with a number of superstar clients. Working with Filippello was her introduction into the media world, and the opportunity of a lifetime for Huie.
After graduating with a degree in journalism, Huie went on to work at a variety of major media corporations from the BBC to Pride Magazine. But it was always her dream to return to public relations.
“PR is very much a central part of media,” she explains. “I wanted to equip myself with as much work experience as possible in order to ensure career success. Failure was not an option for me as I was sole provider to my daughter.”
She began working with PR agency Max Clifford Associates (MCA) in 2004, which boasted a client roster that included some of the world’s biggest celebrities, such as former American Idol judge Simon Cowell. But Huie always knew that she wanted to create something of her own. Her ambition, coupled with the desire for a more flexible schedule as a mother, made the prospect of starting her own business a matter of when, rather than if.
While she was still working for MCA, Huie experienced a stroke of inspiration that would lead her to her first company. She was looking for a card to cheer Monet up—her daughter was having a hard time embracing her curly hair. But when she looked in the greeting card aisle, she couldn’t find any cards featuring people of color.
“The market in the UK was completely devoid of anything representative of the society that we live in,” she says now. “I realized that the same way that I, as a mom, felt bad that I couldn’t get my daughter a card with a brown-skinned princess on it, I knew there were other moms in the same situation.”
That realization spawned Color blind cards, a multiracial greeting card and gift company Huie founded in 2006—the first company of its kind in the UK. Within six months Color blind Cards were stocked in 100 branches of UK chainstore Clinton Cards, numerous independents, Moonpig.com, and she had secured distribution in the United States, Barbados, South Africa, and Bermuda.
“Now that I have a son I feel even more passionate about Color blind cards’ mission,” she says. “On a very fundamental level, I think that it is important that our kids see themselves represented in the most basic forms—whether it’s a toy or a card—so that they become confident and they know that they’re enough just as they are.”
Huie had Color blind cards up and running within 6 months of first conceiving the idea, and just one year after starting Color blind cards, Huie felt ready to leave MCA to start her own PR agency so she could have more control over the clients she represented.
“There are some incredible people out there doing amazing things,” she says, “and I think it’s important to tell those stories. It’s both for their benefit, and for our benefit as the audience. Hopefully the next generation hears about them and feels inspired to start their own journey.”
Huie is proud and humbled by all of the acknowledgement, support, and positive feedback she has received for both of her businesses. “That’s what’s beautiful about life,” she says. “If you’re able to take an idea and run with it, you never know exactly how it’s going to evolve. I’ve made so many mistakes, because I didn’t have any business acumen, but that’s part of the beauty of it: you get there somehow, just like motherhood!”
Running two businesses is no easy feat with one child, but four years after starting Color blind cards, and just three years after leaving MCA, Huie had Jensen.
“There was a huge gap between my children's births and I felt like a first-time mum in many ways as I got to grips with those early days of motherhood all over—only this time with so much more responsibility to juggle.” Huie explains. “That said, I also had more in the way of resources which certainly helped.”
Even though running two businesses keeps her busy, Huie tries to set aside a “Mummy Day” for her and Jensen each week. On those days they swim, or go to the theatre, or find another activity that the two of them can enjoy together.
As for Monet, “I’m at the point where I’m trying to encourage her to leave time for me,” she says, a familiar refrain for any mother of a teenager. “She seems less and less interested in hanging out with her mum.”
She encourages her daughter to forge her independence, but she still makes sure that even as both of their schedules become more busy, they always make time for one another. As much passion as Huie has for her career ventures, of all her jobs, motherhood is by far the most rewarding.
“There’s this love, this overwhelming love that just blows you away. Every day is different. They surprise you constantly. Being a mom keeps me grounded. It keeps perspective in my life. I enjoy that. I enjoy the wonder of it all.”
Issue No. 53
Words: Satya Nelms
Visuals: Adachi Pimentel
A recent study found that black children are seen as older and less innocent than their white peers. This causes them to lose the rights that come along with being a child: the right to make mistakes, the right to be given the benefit of the doubt, and the right to compassion and leniency.
Psychologist and photographer Elmeka Henderson is all too familiar with these facts. It’s why she helped create For Emmett et al, a photo project that garnered national attention from media outlets like CNN.
“It’s a project dedicated to rehumanizing the Black child,” Henderson explains. “With everything that’s been going on with Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice, myself and my friend Nikki Porcher were just insanely moved by the [negative] portrayal of these kids in the media. I have never wept that way [from] reading something the way I did reading about those boys. Especially with Tamir Rice. He was 12. These were kids! They were somebody’s baby. So, we launched this project. We flood the site with photos of children just being children.”
Changing the narrative around Black children is especially important to Henderson, whose son Chris towers over the average 8 year old. “I have one of those children who looks older than they are,” Henderson says.
Chris’ interactions with law enforcement have already been influenced by the recent rash of police brutality. “We were traveling and we happened to be in Penn Station. My son had to use the bathroom, so I pointed him in the right direction,” Henderson recalls. “I watched him not see it and wander around for bit, before I finally walked up to him and asked him what he was doing. He said he couldn’t find it, and I asked him why he didn’t just ask the cop who was standing nearby. Then he just kinda looked at me. I knew exactly what he meant, and that just broke my heart.”
Henderson had already been thinking about a domestic move to San Francisco, but the Tamir Rice case, along with the changes Henderson noticed in her son, ended up being the “tipping point” that drove her to pursue living abroad.
“I always wanted to move abroad, I just had to figure out how,” Henderson says. (She and Chris were already avid travelers, having adventures in South Africa, China, and Botswana to name a few.)
“I took trips earlier this year to Dubai and India, and prior to those trips I always felt like living out of the country—especially living out of the country with my son—was unattainable. But, while I was traveling, I met a woman who works for General Mills and lives in Mumbai with her two children. Meeting [them] solidified for me that I could do this.
“When I got back,” she continues, “I just put it out into the universe, said this is what I want to do, and it all just took off.”
Henderson’s impressive resume led to a number of interviews, and eventually a job offer in Qatar. “I would have been the head of special ed policy in Doha, Qatar, developing The Center for Special Needs,” Henderson explains. “Everything was going smoothly until we started talking about my contract. They kept wanting to know about Chris’ father and I told them, ‘There is no father.’”
Chris’ birth story is a dramatic one. Henderson found out she had been accepted at a graduate school in Philadelphia as she was finishing up her undergraduate education in Arkansas. In the midst of gearing up for the huge move, she got more life-changing news: She was pregnant.
“The first person I called was my mother, [I was] just bawling.” Henderson says now. “She said it was ok, and told me I’d be fine. The first thing I was thinking was, I just applied to grad school. What am I going to do? But it all worked out; I had my son during the program, and had to take a year off because I had had a Cesarean. That recovery was not fun. I wish I could say we planned it and it was beautiful, but it was completely traumatic.”
Part of that trauma came when Henderson was about six months into her pregnancy and realized that she would be parenting alone, as her relationship with Chris’ father took a turn for the worse.
“I think the kicker was [when] one day he said, ‘I think you love the baby more than me,’ and I looked at him and said, ‘Duh.’ Then the relationship started to go down a violent path. I just thought, Nope, we’re not gonna do that, and we parted ways.”
Henderson encountered her fair share of rough patches as a single mom and graduate student.
“My parents live in Kansas, and I would have to send him to my mother sometimes during finals,” Henderson explains. “That was the hardest thing, to be away from him for like three weeks. He was 9 or 10 months the first time. I went through my master’s and then I had to go through my certification as an educational specialist, so that was three more years. It took me five years to graduate so that I could practice psychology. I think that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
When she made it to her graduation, she finally allowed herself to feel what had been building up over the last five years.
“I broke down,” she recalls now, “Sitting there, I just started reflecting on everything. There’s this crazy picture; the photographer got me bawling just as I was getting hooded. It was hilarious—I had the ugly cry [face] and everything. That is my most amazing accomplishment to date, to be raising a child—an infant actually—and graduate.”
Since then Henderson has raised her son on her own while working as an independently contracted psychologist for charter schools in Philadelphia. But the human resources department in Qatar didn’t fully appreciate her accomplishments.
“They just kept saying there has to be a father,” she says. “I didn’t hear anything from them for about a week. The director of the program went back and spoke to HR again, but they ended up telling me they had to rescind my offer because Qatari policy prevents them from hiring single parents.
“That knocked me back for a few weeks,” she admits. “I didn’t really want to put myself out there anymore, because I was afraid someone would ask about Chris’ father. But after a little while, and with some encouragement from friends, I got back into it.”
Henderson soon received a job offer to work as a special needs coordinator and special education teacher in Cambodia, but ultimately decided to take a position as a psychologist at a girls’ Catholic international school in Tokyo, Japan. (Chris will attend the institution’s brother school in the upcoming school year.) But even though they’re both excited for the move, Henderson’s already thinking about their next destination.
“I don’t think we’ll be here long-term. I’ve been traveling in Africa a lot lately and I think that’s where I want to settle. A lot of the schools I applied to in Africa told me they loved my resume, except for the fact that I didn’t have any international experience. So my goal is to work in Tokyo for maybe two years, and then transfer to some place in Africa—Zanzibar, Zimbabwe, or Botswana in particular.”
Wherever the Hendersons go, one thing is certain: They’ll have each other—and a few enviable stamps in their passports.
(If you'd like to keep up with Elmeka and Chris' adventures abroad, you can follow their journey on Elmeka's blog Adventures in Raising a Vagabond.)
How does your son feel about moving abroad?
He’s more excited about moving to Tokyo than he was about moving to San Francisco. He fought me tooth and nail every time I brought up San Francisco. He would say, “I don’t want to go. All my friends are here. I don’t know how I’m going to keep in touch with them.” But then when I shifted the focus to moving abroad, he was like, “Oh, that’s cool.” I asked him why he didn’t put up a little bit more of a fight about moving abroad, and he said “Cuz I get to use my passport.” I think he just feels like this is one big vacation.
How have your family and friends reacted to your plans to move abroad?
They’re terrified that I’m moving abroad because “anything can happen.” I had to be very clear with my family than anything can happen here, [too]. I told them that I honestly feel safer when I’m out of the country.
How do you think moving to Tokyo will change your relationship with your son?
When I thought we were moving to Cambodia, I was looking forward to living simply with him. This won't be the case in Tokyo. [It’s] still possible, but it's challenging when the school requires him to have an iPad.
I hope that we will learn how to rely on one another better. It's just us and has been us forever, but we've always had friends and family. We won't initially in Tokyo, so I hope we are able to focus on our relationship for a bit and strengthen that during this transition. With all the craziness with the move, he's had to be more independent while I was working more hours and he was at school [and] in before- and after-school care. I hope that we're able to re-establish our connection and build on it without all the stress we had here.
How do you feel about your son getting a chance to be a child now that you’re moving to Japan?
I think that we'll be able to find some distance [from] the violence against people of color that is happening in the States while in Japan. We will definitely be a minority, that's no question, but our differences are more appreciated there. From those I've spoken with who live there, there is definitely some uncomfortable curiosity or even some form of discrimination happening to those of color, but a foreigner is a foreigner to them and there aren't really acts of violence happening there. I think this move will give Chris some space to relax a bit and enjoy being a kid, learn a new language, and travel.
I think raising a Black son in Japan will come with some of the same struggles as raising him in America, with relation to finding images in mass media that look like him. I think we will be able to connect with expats and children from several countries outside of the U.S. and Japan who will continue to expose him to other cultures, which I feel also helps him grow a sense of self. In all our travels, he finds himself in every country by connecting in some way. I hope he continues this in Japan.
What advice would you offer another mom who’s considering moving abroad with her child?
First, abandon what you think it means, or how you think it has to be. I thought living abroad would mean a certain thing—I had this idea in my head of what it would look like—and it’s completely not that. So first do that and second, stop listening to other people. Follow your gut. If you feel like it’s a good fit for you to move or travel, just do it. Definitely have a little bit of a plan, but go for it, and do what’s best for you and your family. I would also say it’s never too late to have the life you always wanted.
How do you juggle being a present mom with your careers?
I really suck at it sometimes. I’m always going and I’m always doing stuff; there are a lot of late nights and early mornings. Sometimes it takes him actually saying, “I feel like I haven’t been spending a lot of time with you.” When he actually voices that, then I know I need to stop, and I do.
We like going on adventures, as he calls them. Every Sunday we have “Sonday,” where we do stuff or we cook something [or] we have a lazy Sunday where we’re just kinda sitting in the house in our underwear. I’m trying to maintain some kind of consistency with him. I do notice behavioral changes in him when he doesn’t have that time. Sometimes I feel like I’m failing, but I do make a point [to] acknowledge and change it when he voices it.
What is your parenting philosophy?
I just really want to raise a thinking child. I want him to challenge things that don’t make sense, even if I tell it to him. I want him to be open to new foods, new cultures, new experiences. We have this thing called a “courtesy bite.” We use it for everything. Anything you’re gonna try, take two courtesy bites—so that’s two lessons, or two months of it, or literally two bites of it, so you can say, “Ok, I’m going to make an informed decision about this thing [and] not be immediately turned off by the idea of it.”
We have a lot of conversations. A lot of people crack up when they hear us talk. I always make everything a learning experience. I was that annoying mom in the store, pushing her toddler around saying, “Oh, that’s yellow!” or “You see those bananas! What letter does banana start with?” One of those moms people give the side eye to. But I never wanted to speak baby talk to him. He’s a budding adult, he’s insanely intelligent, and I never wanted to insult that. So we talk a lot about everything. I challenge him. I ask him, “Well, why do you like that? Do you only like that because your friend likes it?” I don’t want him to jump on bandwagons. I want him [to be] thinking about things and challenging them.
How would you describe your son’s personality?
He is a rumbling ball of energy. He cannot sit still, even for things he loves doing. He’s always moving. He’s always talking. He’s always eating. He’s always singing or playing or making kung fu noises. He’s always doing something.
He is also this incredibly loving and generous kid. He gives the best hugs, and seems to know exactly when to give them. He’s just a very genuine kid. He loves people and he loves talking to people. He’s an insanely loveable kid.
What kind of person do you hope he becomes?
I hope he becomes an even more developed person than he is right now. He is awesome, and I hope he maintains that. There’s so much negative stuff that changes people, and I hope he hangs on to the essence of who he is. I understand he’s going to change—he’s going to grow and he’s going to have different interests—but I just really work on maintaining that essence, and [helping him be] that kid who just sees awesome things all the time. He is Mr. Silver Lining. I just want him to hold onto that and not become this glass half-empty kind of kid.
Read more about Elmeka's experience in Japan, The One Thing I Wasn't Prepared For When I Moved To Japan
Issue No. 54
Brooklyn, New York
Words: Judith Ohikuare
Visuals: J. Quazi King
Everyone in Jodie Patterson’s home has places to go, things to do, and people to see. Though her family spends their weekends in a house in Pennsylvania equipped with limited Internet access, plenty of outdoor space, and many bottles of wine for the adults, weekdays are all about the daily grind. Everyone’s up at 6:30 and out of the house by 8. After-school activities and sports run from 3:30 to 6, and dinner and free time start shortly after. By 8:30, the family’s youngest members have meditated and are on their way to sleep.
“Pretty much like clockwork,” Patterson says of their busy schedules.
(Clockwise: Jodie Patterson and Penel, Cassius, and Othello Ghartey.)
Anyone familiar with Patterson—an entrepreneur and co-founder of the Oprah-approved e-commerce beauty site Doobop, wife to education and technology entrepreneur Joseph Ghartey, and mother of Nain Gill (a 22 year old the family informally adopted when he was 19), Georgia Becker (16), and Cassius (9), Penel (7), and Othello (6) Ghartey—would marvel at how she gets so much done in the 24 hours the rest of us have. Chalk it up to practice: Patterson has always had a packed schedule driven by her passions and family.
After graduating from Spelman College, she worked in book publishing as a junior editor for two years before deciding that a career in music seemed more appealing. “My coworkers were great and very, very smart,” she says now, “but I didn’t really have a social life that mixed with my professional life.”
Patterson entered the field of music management, working with a number of artists including Tricky, Meshell Ndegeocello, Jewel, and D’Angelo before they were household names. She eventually expanded her reach from supporting artists on the management side to providing a space for them to perform. She launched New York City nightclub and arts venue Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater with her first husband in 1998—all while she was pregnant with her first child, Georgia.
“It was an interesting time because I was starting the rather large family that I have now in a club environment that’s not necessarily family-oriented,” Patterson says. “Even though I had all this [desire] to be a mom, when I found out that it was going to happen, I had all these reasons why I shouldn’t be. Oh, I have a job, so I shouldn’t be a mom. Oh, I live in a five-story walk-up, so I can’t have a baby.
“Then I realized that many of those things could be changed,” she continues. “I moved out of the walk-up and into a building with an elevator. Having a job was a good thing, not a bad thing. I was about to psych myself out because I was so nervous, but I got past that.”
She also got over the hurdle of working in the less-than-childproof club world by starting her first business, a PR agency called Jodie Becker Media. Launching her own business gave Patterson the flexibility to work from home and the power to choose her own clients.
Patterson spent three years running the firm before accepting a position at Vibe magazine as its director of fashion in sales. However, sensing that her real strengths were in public relations, she left Vibe after a year to lead the PR team for fashion designer Zac Posen. It was as glamorous as it was grueling—she was in charge of creating the front-row seating arrangements for Fashion Week, dressing celebrities in Zac Posen pieces, and traveling with the designer himself, working weekends and late nights. Pregnant with her son Cassius, Patterson left the company after her doctor told her to go on bed rest.
But even while she was on bed rest, Patterson stayed productive. She even found inspiration for her next big venture.
While resting at home one day, she watched a documentary on the business of Black haircare that focused on Madame C.J. Walker. “I liked how she took her own needs and desires and made them into a business that [serviced] her own community,” Patterson says.
Inspired by Walker’s insight and drive, Patterson and her sister-in-law Kiara Ellozy started their own store and beauty line, Georgia by Jodie Patterson, in 2007. What the pair lacked in experience, they made up for with passion. The Manhattan brick-and-mortar store had an immediate cult following among lovers of high-end beauty products, including their own line of natural skincare and haircare products. People from all over the world—some from as far away as Japan—were flocking to the store.
Georgia’s instant success faltered when the 2008 financial crisis hit consumers and businesses.
“Everyone around me advised me to close because the economy and shopping habits had changed, so all of the predictions we had made for the store weren’t [possible] anymore,” Patterson says. “It was very hard to grow the business and everything was coming out of pocket.”
After four years of being in business—and giving birth to her last two children Penel and Othello—Patterson and Ellozy decided to close Georgia in 2011. But the experience helped Patterson set the stage for her next move in the beauty industry: launching Doobop, an e-commerce site selling upmarket, handpicked items that cater to Black, Latina, and Asian women.
“I was scared to close and didn't think I could do well in a digital space,” she says now. “It was intimidating when I was conceiving it. But in reality it's very similar to brick and mortar: You have to get personal with customers. You have to use conversation, a.k.a. content, to engage people. You have to care about the details and hand-choose your product.”
By the time 2013 rolled around, Patterson had five children and she was ready to share Doobop, her newest baby, with the world. When the company debuted in November 2013, it received the ultimate coup right from the jump: the Oprah touch.
“She loved one of the products we were selling—a body butter from a little-known Italian brand called Comfort Zone. She ordered multiple boxes of it and put it in all of her homes,” Patterson says. “We launched with that in O, the Oprah Magazine and sales were phenomenal. We’ve been featured in the magazine multiple times since then; my shampoo was in a recent holiday issue as one of Oprah’s Favorite Things.”
In founding Doobop, Patterson seems to have found the career that makes the most sense for her, her interests, and her family—largely because she’s having meatier conversations about beauty than “this red lipstick is fierce.”
“My career is definitely rooted in beauty, but for me that means really talking about the business around identity,” she explains. “Beauty is often presented as very surface level and the ideals of beauty have been very cookie-cutter. I’m always concerned that my kids understand that what I do is not about vanity and is more about identity. Yes, all these lotions and potions are great because they reflect a feeling that we’re having, but the feeling comes first: Who am I? What do I feel like and what do I have to say? You start with the inside—then mirror that with a product and all its accouterments.”
“Starting with the inside” is also a piece of advice Patterson has found herself calling on as a mother. Her son Penel was born Penelope; he came out as transgender to his mother when he was 2, she says. “Trying to understand Penel’s identity has taken our family on a tempestuous journey,” Patterson wrote last year in Essence magazine, “but it has also brought us closer together.”
“I did not know anybody who was transgender that I knew of,” Patterson says now. “I had never had a conversation around being transgender, and I didn’t even know what the definition of the word was before Penelope. It was an eye-opening experience and a lot of it in the beginning— still even now—involves us observing and letting Penelope lead us, which is strange. As a parent you think you’re going to pave the way for your kids, but that’s not always true.”
Patterson has brought her take-charge attitude to raising a transgender child. Along with sharing educational information with her family, friends, and Penel’s school community, she also serves on the board of an organization called Community of Unity that runs after-school programs for hundreds of at-risk teens in the New York City area. Doobop is one of the organization’s business partners and donates $1 from every sale to the organization. Patterson and her family are also involved with PFLAG, an advocacy-based organization that supports LGBT individuals, families, and allies.
“If it weren’t for the fact that people die over this, if it weren’t for the fact that human rights are at stake, I would probably keep it private,” Patterson says of her decision to speak openly about Penel. “I don’t have a blueprint; this is just what I’m doing right now. If it changes and I no longer think that being public is benefiting us or other families, then I won’t be that anymore. But for now, I’m taking a public role because this is a public conversation.”
Patterson has added advocate to her many responsibilities, which include expanding the Georgia line with new retail partners and seeking new investors in the brown beauty space who can work to make Doobop profitable. As for her family, Patterson says she hopes to continue providing for her kids and to be fully present without getting “caught in the black hole of adulthood.” It’s all part of the constant evolution that is Jodie Patterson’s life.
“I would never go backward in time, only forward,” she says. “I feel really comfortable and confident in my career right now, and the things I like about my body are relevant to where I am. Working on oneself is a ‘forever’ kind of job. Now, I’m looking at myself more from a bird’s eye perspective—more at my aura and less at how perky my boobs are—and at 45, I feel prettier, sexier, and smarter than ever.”
How has being a mom changed your life?
With each kid, I’ve become a better person. Children are like your mirror, so you can’t get away with ignoring your flaws for too long. They will show you exactly where your mistakes are and it’s important to really stop and listen when they do. My kids have gotten me to a point where I actively work on things, if only to avoid embarrassment! I don’t want to be that old-fashioned parent that’s neurotic and set in her ways. I try to be great in my life if only to be great in their eyes.
What do you love about having such a big family?
They have five different personalities so it’s comedy all the time. We haven’t really raised our children to be the most convenient kids. They’re kind of unruly and they’re a bit rude and mouthy sometimes, but our goal is to raise them to be independent thinkers. We don’t want to cover anything up or push anything down. In the process, you get chatty kids and some backtalk, but when we’re all home together it’s like theater. If I have a bad [day] but my kids are around me, nothing seems that bad anymore.
How would you describe your children’s personalities?
Penel wants to be a rock star so he’s constantly playing air guitar and writing lyrics. [Cassius] set a goal to be more scientific in 2015, so he does experiments; he dissected a cow eyeball a few months ago and made volcanoes with crystals in the house.
Our youngest [Othello] is always out to find something naughty to do; he likes to prank people all the time.
My daughter [Georgia] is a newfound feminist, so she always challenges our ideas on gender and equality. And our oldest [Nain] is his own hype-man. He believes that the sky is the limit and that he is the next biggest anything. Each one of them has their own way and I love having all that energy around me. I learn from them and look to each of them for a bit of the goodness that they have.
(A drawing of Georgia Becker taped up in Patterson's office.)
What is the best advice your mother, or the mother figures in your life, have given you?
A couple of years ago, my mom said, “The more yeses you say to your children, the better, so find a way to say yes.” I don’t think she meant “yes” like, Yes, you can have more money and television and gadgets, but “yes” as a euphemism for being open and happy in life, whereas “no” would be a euphemism for being negative and closed. I try to think of that as creating moments where I can say “yes” a lot in our home. Of course, I fall short all the time because I always want to say “no” to gadgets, “no” to staying up late, and “no” to running through my house, but the ideal life is to have a home where they can be engaged. I try to use that as a guiding philosophy.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced being a mother?
Being in the moment. My personality is that I’m constantly running a marathon. I’m constantly moving when I’m at work and when I’m at home, I’m always cleaning, organizing, or creating. Stopping to actually sit and touch and talk and just be still with people is a battle that I don’t always win… And of course, paying tuition for a bunch of kids is always a challenge!
Your son Penel coming out as transgender was probably very challenging as well. What was that like for you as a mom not having that blueprint and learning how to support him?
Penelope very clearly said, “Mommy, everybody thinks I’m a girl and I’m not.” At the time I said, “Well, however you feel is fine,” but then Penelope replied, “I don’t feel like a boy. I am a boy.”
Those words were really powerful and, in the beginning, really scary. Your mind goes to the worst-case scenario, and there are so many-worst case scenarios when it comes to being transgender. Suicide rates are very high for transgender children, gender bullying takes place, and there are laws that don’t make life very easy for transgender kids. You think, Who’s going to love my kid the way I do? Who’s going to understand him the way I do? Who’s going to try to out him and hurt him? Those are the first things we thought about, but when you get past that and just try to be active—and you get some definitions and are around other people who are experiencing it—you understand that it’s just another aspect of life. Ultimately, being transgender is just one thing that describes a person. Brown hair. Five-foot-seven. Transgender. Gay. These are just descriptors.
Right now things aren’t very difficult. I checked in with him one morning a few months ago and I asked him, “How is it being a transgender kid?” I use the word around him a lot so it’s not a big deal. He was like, “I don’t know mom, I guess it’s fine.” So I said, “How do you feel about your body? Very good or not so good?” And he said, “Very good.” That’s a big thing because there were several years when he hated his body. Today, he’s not consumed with being transgender.
I think we’re in a stage where everyone at home understands, all of his friends and the school administration understand, and his after-school programs understand. All the places where he functions are good with it. In my mind I like to think that we’ve lost not one friend along this journey. It may not be true, but that’s how it feels. The next steps are puberty, hormones, and high school, which are very daunting aspects for me.
What advice would you give to other parents who are learning things about their children that feel difficult to deal with?
Be quiet. Listen. Be in the moment. Everything good comes from the inside of each of us. All you have to do is look out for the signs; kids give them to us all the time. Encourage them to be authentic.
Also, decisions are not irreversible. If a child says, “I am identifying as a boy,” many parents are scared to make that a reality because what if the person changes their mind? Then, okay, they changed their mind! You flow with the child wherever they are. The best thing about our identities is that they are fluid and we can change them if they change. How I see myself today might be totally different [from] how I see myself when I’m 50, and that’s my choice. I would tell parents not to be nervous about being engaged with their child at where they are [any] given moment because each moment is unique and there’s room for change and interpretation.
[And] read a lot. There are books on pretty much everything and parents can learn more about the things they don’t know anything about. Go outside of your communities and find smaller communities that tell you something about your kid’s [situation], whether it’s mental illness or musical genius or gender variance or scientific excellence or feminism. Find science groups, theater groups, gender groups, mental illness groups, feminist groups—whatever those unique things that you see in your children [are]. Take them on with pride so that you own it and it’s not so overwhelming. Nurture the things you get nervous about the same way you’d nurture something you’re typically proud of. It should be embraced with the same kind of love and care.
What kind of people do you hope your children become?
My biggest goal is that each of my children lives a life that is unique to their journey. I don’t know if there’s a destination that you reach by the time you’re 40, for example, but I want them to be explorers. I want them to nurture their intellect and to be smart and engaged. I want them to love and be loved, and to be happy—not necessarily experiencing happiness as their only emotion, but as their dominant one.
Issue No. 55
Words: Dara Mathis
Visuals: Tim Redman
While the rest of the world is sleeping, Denene Millner is probably writing. Most nights find her bathed in the glow of her computer screen, working on her site MyBrownBaby.
“After I finish being a wife, after I finish being a mother—cooking dinner, cleaning the kitchen, doing the laundry, and all of that stuff—I want to [lie] down and go to sleep,” Millner, 46, admits. “[But there’s] one more thing: I have to write a blog post.“
Her fans appreciate her dedication. Since its launch in 2008, MyBrownBaby has become a community for thousands of parents interested in reading Millner and her writers’ takes on raising children of color—which means little rest for the mother of three.
“If I could just take an hour or take a nap, and not think about words for just one second of the day, I would be so grateful for that,” Millner says good-naturedly. “But that’s not the life of writers, at all, ever.” Especially for one as prolific as Millner: Her writing career includes stints reporting for the Associated Press and The New York Daily News, serving as features editor at Parenting magazine and the now-defunct Honey. In June the accomplished journalist published her 23rd book since she made her debut as an author in 1997: legendary singer-songwriter Charlie Wilson’s memoir.
“Talking to Charlie Wilson and getting to tell his story about going [from] the highest of the highs [to] the lowest of the lows and being able to stand tall and testify about it is a blessing to me,” Millner says.
Her skillful storytelling has made her a go-to writer for books by celebrities such as Holly Robinson Peete, NeNe Leakes, and Steve Harvey. A few of her books have leaped onto the screen: Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and Straight Talk, No Chaser, The New York Times bestselling books she co-wrote with Harvey, were later adapted into two movies.
Another book she co-authored with friends Mitzi Miller and Angela Burt-Murray aired earlier this year as a Lifetime TV original movie With This Ring, starring Regina Hall, Jill Scott, and Eve.
Her books and accomplishments notwithstanding, one only needs to take a look around the Millner home to see her other great pride and joy: her children. The wall adjacent to her staircase is adorned with art featuring black children. Some of the colorful pieces were drawn by her own children, and others are originals from folk or fine artists.
“I’m infatuated by those pictures because I think there’s nothing more beautiful than brown children who are happy, living out loud, and enjoying childhood,” Millner explains.
Millner isn’t the only writer in her family. Her husband, Nick Chiles, is also a journalist with whom she has written several books. “We [understand] each other as writers,” she explains. “He knows that if I’m on deadline, I’m not just playing on the computer—I’m actually doing work.”
That work has come with some difficult choices for Millner and her family. In 2005 she decided to leave her position as an editor at Parenting in New York and move to the Atlanta metropolitan area. Her daughters Mari (16) and Lila (13), whom she affectionately calls her “girlpies,” were just tots then; her stepson Mazi (22) was in the 8th grade. (Though he lived with his mother at the time, Mazi joined Millner and Chiles when he entered high school.)
“[When] we were in New York, the nanny was raising both of my girls. I had great women looking after my children while I was at the office,” she says.
But with that came the many slights any working mom can relate to. Millner ticks off a list: “Dropping off my little one at kindergarten and leaving [my baby] in somebody else’s arms, slaving in someone’s office for [up to] 10 hours, fighting traffic to get back home, only to see them bathing and in their pajamas and on their way to bed when I walked through the door—[that] was not the business for me.
“We moved to Snellville, [Georgia] and my friends [asked], ‘What the hell is a Snellville?’” Millner continues. “A Snellville is a place where I can go have some peace and raise my babies. The goal was to be a good mother to my daughters, to have the time to be a good mother to my daughters.”
The family settled in Snellville when they first moved down South, but relocated to Atlanta three years ago.
The move hasn’t always been full of Southern hospitality for Millner, who grew up in Long Island, New York. To her surprise, she found her family wasn’t welcomed in certain parts of the city. (“We had some really nasty experiences trying to rent here in Atlanta,” she says.)
Finding steady work in Atlanta would have proven equally difficult without the networks Millner had created during her time in the magazine industry. She tapped her contacts in New York for freelancing gigs and landed a column in Parenting magazine called “Ask Denene,” where she answered parenting queries for seven years.
“That made me one of the only African-American columnists at a mainstream magazine in the country,” Millner says. “[I’m] proud of that!
“Working at Parenting wasn’t just about me getting a job that paid well, or learning how to raise my own human beings by doing this work—it was also [getting in there] so there’s a voice for Black moms represented,” she continues. “That wasn’t always easy. Though I had learned how to mold every story to this ideal that they had, the ideal wasn’t me. I’m being told what the ideal is and I [think], ‘But that’s not everybody’s ideal. And there are some things that apply to Black mothers that you’re completely missing because a) you’re not a black mom and b) you’re not really paying attention to our issues.’”
Seeing the gap in Parenting’s coverage and following her passion for Black children and parenthood led her to start MyBrownBaby in October 2008. Millner noticed few communities online for Black mothers to find affirming books for their children. She decided on the name MyBrownBaby because, she says, “it’s about my brown babies and brown could encompass all different cultures and colors.”
But Millner had another, more personal reason for the “Brown” in MyBrownBaby: promoting self-love among Black girls, women and, most importantly, in herself.
“I grew up at a time when being a dark-skinned girl was not hot, when having a booty and hips was not hot, when having kinky hair was not hot, [and] when being the smart black girl got you accused of trying to act white,” she says.
She realized she had to change her self-perception in order to raise her daughters to love themselves. “My self-esteem about beauty was so low,” Millner reflects. “It took me until I had my daughters to see that I couldn’t look at myself in that way anymore.
“Their skin, their hair, their bodies, which are beautiful and strong—those are the things that I get to focus on as their mother. All of the things that I was ashamed of as a kid, they’re beautiful on them. And they’re beautiful on me. God knew what He was doing when He gave me Black girls.”
As important as Black representation is in online spaces, Millner also understands that Black moms sometimes just want to be moms who talk about potty training or bullying.
She explains, “One of the reasons why I started MyBrownBaby is because we’re so ignored in the regular narrative of what it means to be parents in America. [I] just felt like there was a need for a space where parents, [Black] moms especially, could come and commiserate and talk about raising human beings,” she says.
Today MyBrownBaby is one of the most popular African-American parenting sites online. Millner often features her own brown babies on the blog, allowing Mari and Lila to write stories—Lila even has her own video series called “Totally Lila.” (“Yes, she totally pulled an Issa Rae on me,” Millner wrote in a blog post announcing the show.)
For Millner MyBrownBaby is more than a “mommy blog.” It’s a “destination” and a “waystation” for women of color to be able to love themselves and their children in the best way possible. “It has become this place of refuge, not just for other mothers, but also for me,” she says.
How did you get into writing books for such high-profile celebrities?
My agent has relationships with editors who worked with celebrities and when they’re looking for someone to write for them, they reach out to agents to see who would be a good fit. My agent is gangsta and she pairs me up with decent projects that work out for me. So that’s how that worked.
My first ghostwriting job came after I moved to Atlanta. I worked with an editor on this one ghostwriting job. She liked what I did so she invited me to do another. That was the Holly Robinson Peete book My Brother Charlie.
Roy Johnson of Savoy magazine asked me to do a piece on Steve Harvey for Men’s Fitness. Then a couple months later an editor I worked with pitched a book to Steve Harvey based on his “Strawberry Letter” segments. She wanted the person to be local so he could be interviewed face-to-face. She called me and asked me if I would be interested and I said yes. That was my first humongous collaboration. I did his first two books. Then I worked with Nene Leakes, who I met when I did a story for Essence about domestic violence.
What do you love most about motherhood?
My kids are goofy as hell! They’re funny! Nothing makes me happier than waking up late on a Saturday morning. My kids come in and they just start dancing and laughing and tickling my feet, sticking their finger in their dad’s ears, and laying down in the bed with us, laughing and giggling, and having a good time. That is what memories are made of.
I like to think that our memories are something that they’ll carry forward when they have their own kids. The ability to sit down at a table and have dinner with each other every night, to go to a football game, to have fun and share a funnel cake and get the powder all over ourselves and laugh about it. That’s what life is made of: enjoying each other’s company.
That’s what I love most about motherhood: Enjoying the humanness of our family, creating a space for two amazing human beings I helped create, leading them on this journey toward womanhood, and arming them with all the things they need to make a good life.
Nothing makes me more pumped than trying to figure out ways that I can do that for them, because I love them. I would stop breathing air this next second if it meant my daughters would be spared or that they would have a good life. That’s [another] part of motherhood that I love: The idea that you could love someone so big, so wide, so deeply—it’s just astounding to me. It really is.
What has having a blended family taught you?
Family is family, regardless of what blood is in the veins. I’m adopted. I’m really clear that one doesn’t need to carry someone’s blood in their veins to love them unconditionally and to want the best for them. So having [my stepson] Mazi here is just a part of a continuing dialogue that I’ve had with myself since the moment I found out I was adopted. I found out when I was 12; [I was] snooping through my parents’ paperwork and came across the adoption papers. I never told my parents that I knew until the night that we buried my mom; I was well in my 30s and had two babies.
So having Mazi is a continuation of [my] understanding that the blood running through the veins is important, but it’s not anywhere near as important as the heart. I love Mazi unconditionally because he is my son. My stepson is a pretty amazing kid. I’ve known him since he was 1. And watching him grow into this incredible young man has been such an experience for me. And I’m grateful to have him in my life and in this family.
What’s the most difficult part of being a working mom?
[Motherhood] has gotten easier for me because I work from home, so I get to call the shots on how much work I’m going to do. That’s a blessing. The hard part about that is I’m a mom who works from home: I “eat what I kill” so work never ends. Some months there’s a whole lot of feast, but there’s even more famine when it comes to getting paid for what you do.
[I] think that’s probably the hardest thing, but it’s something that I chose. Sitting in someone’s office was taking away my ability to spend time with my daughters in the way that I wanted to spend it with them, but the flip side to that is, I gotta figure out ways to pay the tuition. So seven days a week working is pretty much my MO. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not trying to figure out how I’m going to make some money up in this piece. (Laughs)
The good thing is that my daughters are older now and they understand pretty much how this works. That mommy and daddy have to do work in order to make money. And because we work from home, it means that we can’t really watch this movie right now or we can’t take you to this place right now because we have to sit and do this interview or write this article, or go to this place and do reporting. They get it, but that’s probably the hardest part.
How would you describe who you are as a mother?
If there’s any mission that I’ve ever had as a mother, it’s to raise some girls who can leave this house and be proud of themselves—not just for being brilliant, but for being beautiful. I got two badass girls. For me, raising a badass Black girl means having her understand that she is enough. And that’s what I focused on with my girls, understanding that you are enough, you are beautiful. Don’t let anybody tell you that your kinky hair is wrong or that your bubble booty that you got from your mom is a bad thing. If anything I can say about the kind of mother that I am, I hope that that’s what my girls will be able to say that I provided for them.
Issue No. 54
Words: Ariel C. Williams
Visuals: Erika Layne Salazar
Pastor and theology scholar Theresa S. Thames, 35, isn’t your typical mother, and as such, doesn’t have a typical name. Instead of momma, mommy, or mom, her 12-year-old son Delmost White calls her “TT Mommie,” a bittersweet name borne from a family tragedy.
“My sister [Portia] was eight years older than me when she died,” Thames explains. “He’s the only baby in my immediate family who was born after me. Growing up he called me ‘Pretty Auntie,’ because that’s what I told him my name was. So when my sister died of cryptococcal meningitis, it became [TT Mommie]. I am his TiTi, but I’m also his mom.”
Becoming the mother of a grief-stricken child and providing a better future for him is, in some ways, an extension of her life-long duty to serve her community and an unconscious nod back to her own experience growing up in the South. Life on the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi wasn’t always great for Thames as a young girl; she was raised by her grandmother and their church community because of her mother’s drug addiction.
“When my mom was too high to show up for things or when we didn’t have money for bills, my church and my community supported me,” Thames says now. “The community raised me. The church gave me a place and affirmed my gift for public speaking [and] education [when I was] very young.” (Thames and her mother, who has now been clean for over 20 years, have since developed a mutually loving and supportive relationship.)
Those early affirmations may explain why Thames was always different from other kids. At 14, while other girls were nurturing obsessions with their looks, popularity, and boys, Thames was declaring her desire to become a pastor. It was an unheard of dream for that time and place, but one she wouldn’t let go of after feeling called to service.
However there weren’t many women pastors Thames could look up to, so she shifted gears and decided to study biology. She was accepted into Howard University in Washington, D.C. on a biochemistry scholarship, but quickly realized that she didn’t want to become a scientist, and switched her major to human communications studies. Yet her teenage dreams of ministering were inescapable; despite not knowing what being a woman minister would look like, Thames went to Duke Divinity School after graduating from Howard to study religion with an emphasis in Hebrew and Old Testament Bible. She also discovered a woman-positive form of theology that she hadn’t experienced in her childhood church back in Mississippi.
Thames began to define what it meant to her to be a Black woman and a pastor: She co-developed the divinity school’s gender studies program, headed the women’s center, and served as a chaplain at Duke University Hospital for a year. She was developing her own brand of theology, one that’s centered on honesty and authenticity.
“Honest about my own story, about my own struggles… [I’m] just being very real with people because that’s what people want,” she explains. “They don’t want a pie-in-the-sky theology; they want [something] tangible. In my ministry and in my life, it’s about me being transparent and authentic. Being transparent keeps me honest, it keeps me real, and it keeps me humble because, 'There by the Grace of God go I.'”
She was also preparing to build a life with a man she met her sophomore year at Howard University. The two dated on and off during grad school, but eventually decided to stay together. In June 2007, Thames moved back to D.C. to make history as one of the first black women pastors at Foundry United Methodist Church. Two months later she and her husband were married, and focused on furthering their respective careers.
And in fact, over the course of her eight-year tenure at Foundry, her prodigious professional accomplishments soared. But, Thames says now, the dynamic her success created would ultimately lead to the undoing of her marriage.
“I was winning and successful, but we were failing and uncoupling,” Thames admits now. In February 2011 they began the divorce process, and by May they were officially separated.
Three months later, she received the news of her sister’s untimely death and her orphaned nephew. Thames made the decision to bring Delmost from Mississippi to D.C. to live with her. (Delmost’s father was unable to take him in.)
“It was not a difficult decision for me to take him,” Thames says now, “but I had no idea how I would make life work as a single parent literally 1,000 miles away from my family. However, him remaining in Mississippi was not an option. I wanted him to have a full and healthy life, a life that would expose him to the world. I had no doubt that he would be loved and cared for in Mississippi by our family, but I also knew that their care of him would be limited.”
Though Thames doesn’t regret becoming TT Mommie, uprooting Delmost also meant making major changes in her life as well; she took six weeks of adoption leave from work to try and learn what life would look like for them as a new mom and son.
“Honestly, when he first came, I don’t know who cried more: me or him,” she says. “He was sad and depressed; I was sad and overwhelmed. I was in the middle of a messy divorce and grieving, raising this child, and trying to do my job.”
To keep sane, Thames leaned on her church and friends for support. “I built the village and family that I needed,” she says now. “Those first few months were hard. There were a lot of tears from the both of us. He desperately missed being close to family, especially my mother, and I was overwhelmed with parenthood. I had to find a school, a pediatrician, and a barber. I had my first breakdown in the school uniform store because I had no idea how to buy pants for a boy.”
It was an incredibly emotional time for the new family, one that would only get harder: in April 2013, almost a year after their divorce was finalized, Thames got a phone call from her best friend while waiting at the pediatrician’s office. Her ex-husband was found dead. Ten months later, she learned of her father’s death.
“There was just this layer of grief and sadness,” she says. “Navigating that grief, in the midst of the everyday demands of life took a lot of time, yet no real journey is ever swift.”
Despite the great losses both Delmost and Thames have experienced, the pair have soldiered on together. They’ve found their groove as mother and son, and their days aren’t as teary as their first few months together were. Delmost has settled into his new home and Thames has continued on the path she set for herself when she was 14: in July she became the senior pastor at Cheverly United Methodist Church in Cheverly, Maryland and she’s in the midst of a doctorate program in leadership excellence at Wesley Theological Seminary.
“It now doesn’t feel as awkward,” Thames says of her role as a single, working mom. “This [past] July will be three years that he’s been with me. He’ll be 13 this year. This relationship is growing and flourishing, [and] yes, I’m TT Mommie.”
HOW HAVE YOU GROWN IN THE LAST THREE YEARS OF BEING A PARENT?
[I] make room for a lot of mistakes. [I] don’t hold so tight to plans because plans change. [I] realize that this too shall pass: figuring out childcare, homework tantrums. Someone told me this saying: “The days are long, but the years are short.”
WHAT WAS THE TRANSITION LIKE FOR BOTH YOU AND DELMOST?
He had to get use to a scheduled and structured life. This included attending meetings with me, having a bedtime, and the atrocity of not having a television in his room. Also, I do not cook Southern down-home food, so he had to get use to my “healthy” cooking. I had to make many personal, professional, and financial sacrifices. I’m so thankful that I have colleagues that supported me as a single parent by babysitting, allowing my child to attend meetings, conferences, and being at the office after-school.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE DELMOST’S PERSONALITY?
Delmost is such a dynamic and mature young man. After the initial transition angsts, he completely opened his heart and mind to being here. I can take him to any function, event, fancy dinner and he knows how to act and charm the crowd. When I have speaking engagements, he travels with me. He has experienced travel, culture, diversity, and community engagement in ways that have made him a compassionate and socially aware young man. He is now indeed a city kid, full of hope and great ambitions. I am so proud of him and thankful that he is in my life. I often say that I needed him as much as he needed me, maybe even more.
IN THE THREE YEARS THAT YOU’VE BEEN A MOM, HAVE YOU DEVELOPED A PARENTING PHILOSOPHY?
Yes! (Laughs) My number one parenting philosophy is that it's a growth process: he’s growing and I’m growing. My whole thing is to always remember that he is a person and that he is developing and learning. My philosophy is that it’s a continuous growth process, and to be kind to myself and to be kind to him.
I don’t play: I’m a disciplined parent, but I don’t spank, I don’t whip, I don’t scream. I don’t make threats; I make promises. He got in trouble at school and we were [supposed to go] on vacation to Jamaica. He just kept getting into trouble at school, so he didn’t go; I went by myself.
The other thing is he’s not the center of my life. I want him to know that he’s a huge part of my life, but he’s not my life. I have to take care of myself so that he can take care of himself. I want him to also have a rich life in that I’m not the center of his life, either.
FILL IN THIS BLANK: I LOVE BEING A MOM THE MOST WHEN...?
When I see my child connect the dots for himself. You can teach a lesson, teach a lesson, teach a lesson, but then when you see or hear them doing it themselves, living it out themselves, and see that it has connected... That’s been the gift to me because I didn’t raise him; he was with someone else for nine years. So to incorporate him into a very, very different life than [what] he lived in Mississippi—to see him embracing and becoming his own self, but echoing some of the things he’s learned while he’s been here with me—that feels good. I love watching him become himself.
ON THE FLIP SIDE: BEING A MOM IS THE HARDEST WHEN...?
… [I’m] making the career sacrifices. I’m now [at] the age and place in my life and career trajectory where a lot is required of me. Do you make this decision for your career and how does that impact your child? All of those things just get hard.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE THINKING ABOUT ADOPTION OR TO SOMEONE WHO’S RECENTLY ADOPTED, BUT FEELS LIKE THEY’RE IN OVER THEIR HEAD?
Build a community. Build a village. Your village doesn't have to look like you. Your village doesn't have to live in your neighborhood. Your village doesn't have to be in your state. You tell the universe what you need and open your heart to it.
I am a headstrong Type-A woman so I can do it all, honey: make the bread, bake it, and [bring home] the bacon! Getting a kid, I knew nothing. It was important to me to realize that you don’t need to know how to do everything. Pride is a killer! You can't operate in pride. You can't operate in fear. It goes back to self-care: Say what you need.
YOU’VE TALKED ABOUT THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-CARE FOR KEEPING YOU SANE. WHAT IS YOUR VERSION OF SELF-CARE?
The three things that are most important to me are prayer, true friends, and self-care. Over the last year and a half, I’ve lost more than 200 pounds. I was just stuffing all of these emotions that I was feeling with food: Divorce is hard, marriage is hard, you pour yourself into your career, and then all of the grief that I was dealing with, too? One day, I just decided that I needed to be alive for [Delmost], but that I also needed to be alive for me. Every single day, I work out.
[Self-care is about] being kind to myself, giving myself time out, and asking for what I need, which is hard. I had to take off the Super Woman cape that I thought I needed to wear to show that I was competent. So self-care for me is making time for rest, making time for fitness, making time for prayer, and talking to my therapist. The most important one is asking for what I need—whether that’s a pay raise, a favor, [or] asking someone to get out of your life.
WHAT PERSPECTIVE DO YOU HOPE TO IMPART ON YOUR SON THROUGH YOUR WORK? WHAT DO YOU WANT HIM TO TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR CAREER?
[The] biggest thing that I want him to take away is that integrity matters and relationships matter. What I mean by that is my church is open and affirming: it’s multiracial, multicultural, and [has] people of different socioeconomic [backgrounds]—every single person matters regardless of race or sexual orientation, from the richest person to the person who has nothing. Each and every person matters. Integrity matters, and I want him to be a man of integrity.
It’s so easy for pastors to be glorified in churches, [but] then they’re horrible people in private. I never want him to be able to say that I was this horrible person behind closed doors. Who I am in my public life is who I am in my private life; that’s the type of integrity that matters to me, that I want to model for him.
WHAT’S THE MOST GRATIFYING PART OF YOUR JOB?
I think the most gratifying and the most “holy shit” moments of my job is that God’s calling me to do this! I think, Are you for real? Am I being punked?
In the holiest of moments—when I’m standing there officiating a wedding or holding someone’s baby or praying with someone as they take their final breaths or placing ashes on someone’s forehead—as beautifully human and flawed as I am, God still uses me.
I grew up in the projects, my mom was once on drugs, I was raised by my grandmother. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve failed a few times… I’ve made it because God has used me in this way. God keeps using me and I want to do what I need to do to do that. God does God’s part and I have to show up and do Theresa’s part.
Kuae Kelch Mattox
Issue No. 50
MONTCLAIR, NEW JERSEY
Kuae Kelch Mattox left her high-profile media position at NBC in New York City for the suburbs of New Jersey to raise her three children, Teddi (17), Cole (15), and Evan (11), along with her husband. But, she tells mater mea, after more than 10 years of being out of the rat race, she's ready to bring the lessons she’s learned back into the workforce.
Issue No. 51
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA
Angela Benton is one of the more well-known names in the ongoing struggle to bring more diversity to Silicon Valley's tech and startup worlds. She's helped minority entrepreneurs raise more than $17 million through her ventures, a fact that becomes all the more impressive when you consider that at 15, she was pregnant and facing a lot of judgment for deciding to keep her daughter. Benton tells mater mea why she has always followed her gut when it comes to parenting and entrepreneurship.
Jessica Huie, MBE
Issue No. 52
Jessica Huie, MBE has founded two businesses—a PR firm and Color blind cards, the UK’s first multiethnic greeting card company—that have garnered a lot of attention and support. (Even the Queen of England is a fan!) Yet the 34-year-old entrepreneur and mom of two remains incredibly centered and down to earth. Her ability to stay humble is a result of some hard and unexpected lessons she learned at a young age. Huie tells mater mea how she found the strength and maturity to realize her potential after an emotionally taxing early pregnancy.
Issue No. 53
While we imagine many people have been troubled by the rising number of Black people slain by police officers, it's safe to say that few are as anxious about the loss of life as Black mothers.
Psychologist and photographer Elmeka Henderson's fears for her young son Chris—and her desire for experiences beyond their hometown of Philly—led her to decide on a life abroad in Tokyo. Henderson tells mater mea how the family of two landed in Japan and what it means to raise a carefree Black boy abroad.
Issue No. 54
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK
Many beauty aficionados are focused on turning back the clock or staying frozen in time, but Jodie Patterson, 45, is all about celebrating evolution and change.
Patterson, the founder of Doobop, a brand that has become one of Oprah’s Favorite Things and mother of five children, ages 6 to 22, spoke with mater mea about what drives her: creating a new definition of beauty, supporting her family, and championing a cause that hits close to home: transgender rights.
Issue No. 55
Denene Millner is a textbook example of what can happen when opportunity meets hustle: The journalist, author, and founder of Black parenting website MyBrownBaby has worked her way from newspapers to magazines and even the big- and small-screens after a few of her co-written books got turned into movies (hello, Think Like A Man!)
But there's no textbook on how to actually make working motherhood, well, work. Millner talks to mater mea about the sacrifices she's made to stay on her grind while raising two confident daughters.
Issue No. 56
Motherhood was instantaneous and unexpected for pastor and theologian Theresa S. Thames; when her sister passed away in November 2011 on Thames’ 32nd birthday, she decided to raise her nephew as her own. But while she was adjusting to her new life as “TT Mommie,” an affectionately given nickname to describe her new role, Thames was hit again and again with two more tragedies.
She tells mater mea how she found her way as a grieving and newly single working mom.