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. 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.