Thankfully, as this not-so-new reality begins to seep into America’s consciousness, works on black women that sidestep both the incomprehensible ghetto of women’s studies and the “Girlfriend” aisle at Barnes & Noble are finally beginning to surface. In March 2002, The Washington Monthly published Paul Offner’s analysis of the diverging fortunes of black men and women. Last month, Newsweek published a cover package on the black professional gender gap and its consequences. Eventually, all of America will have to notice that the American business district teems with black women in professional dress, however absent black men might be.
Having it All? operates as a social and cultural history of black women’s portrayals in the business world (there is much more to Aunt Jemima than you think), entertainment, and the news media. Unbeknownst to me, Claire Huxtable almost single-handedly inspired the studious segment of the hip-hop generation to believe they, too, could have–sans nanny–a husband, five kids, a lavish Brooklyn brownstone, and a law career, while always looking fabulous. Primarily, however, the work is interview-driven, which is both a strength and a weakness. Anecdotes, however telling, are neither reliable nor replicable. Sometimes, the parade of stalwart black women–from attorney to museum grande dame to White House operative to actress–is feel-goody and somewhat superficial, like a public service announcement for Black History Month. On the other hand, the individual women’s approaches to succeeding in highly competitive, “Oh great, I’m the only black person again” environments are both a revelation to the uninitiated and a cosmic props for those who pulled it off. Their anecdotes live and breathe our complicated racial and gender realities as no pile of statistics ever could. There’s a gospel song to encapsulate every moment in a black person’s life; the correct one here is Aretha Franklin’s “(My Soul Looks Back and Wonders) How I Got Over.” It makes you proud, it makes America shut up and take notice. Just like a feel-goody, superficial Black History Month PSA.
One of the few things America does tend to know about black women, successful or struggling, is that they’re often alone, a reality which permeates Having It All? Professional, academic, and financial gains are wonderful things, but they don’t give you a foot rub after a hard day in the operating room. A significant other does. That’s one reason why the title, Having It All? is a question and not a declaration of victory. Chambers perhaps takes too lightly high-achieving black women’s lack of husbands and children in her focus on exploring the daylight between black and white women’s workplace realities. She writes that “many of the 30-something and even 40-something women interviewed in this book are childless. Unlike the panicked portraits of professional women depicted in the media, the women I spoke to routinely expressed no sense of regret, no Lichtenstein-like cartoon horror of ‘Damn, I forgot to have a baby.’ Leaving aside the soupon of contempt for white women’s stereotypical neuroses, it is possible that these women were putting their best feminist feet forward to fortify both themselves and the women who will follow them–in their spinsterhood as well as their achievements. Speaking as a high-achieving black woman who married, to intergalactic surprise, at 40, solitude was the price I was willing to pay to achieve my dreams. It was not my preference. It was not easy. I was lonely. Married, to a good man, is better. Even if he can’t figure out how to get dishes into the dishwasher. (In Chambers’s defense, there is an entire chapter on black professional stay-at-home moms.)
It is crucial to divine whether black women “lack” families or “opt against” them–a choice that, to be sure, some number of women consciously make. More power to them. Having my son 22 months ago put my career into a tailspin from which it has yet to recover. For me, taking my roles as wife and mother seriously means I will never achieve all of which I am capable. But to ignore this important distinction between choosing and accepting solitude is to do black women, and the very institution of family, a disservice. Two of three black marriages end in divorce, far more than other groups; less than one- third of black women are married. The black-white marriage rate is composed primarily of black men marrying out. And, as has been widely reported, six of 10 black children are raised by their mothers alone, a situation which, barring major parental dysfunction, is a tragedy for mother, father, and children alike. When it comes to domestic arrangements, blacks are America’s perennial loss leaders. As scholar Orlando Patterson put it, African Americans are the most unpartnered and alienated people in the world; we ought to be trying to remedy that, not make ourselves feel good about it. Certainly, as Chambers notes, blacks live in a tradition of extended and created families–but not because we prefer it. That was what was required to survive in a hostile environment; our whole existence in America has been improvisational. Isn’t it time yet to write it down and figure a few key things out? Like why black men and black women can’t cooperate? Many black women are lonely and overburdened, many black men are deprived of their children’s love, and there’s nothing to be lost by saying so. Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Dole, and Margaret Thatcher all have husbands. Why don’t Condi and Oprah? Preordained lovelessness should not be the price anyone pays for success. Chambers, however, makes a point in this regard that I had not before encountered but which rang immediately true; some of these “can’t find a good man” claimants may well be gay. Homosexuality is still considered an unforgiveable perversion among many blacks, often more so for women than men. In the Southern Baptist church I grew up in, it was often stated that a daughter who was a murderer was preferable to one who was a “bull dagger.”
Disagreements aside, Chambers’s book does much to make visible the invisible lives of those black women who are not on crack or trying to move from welfare to work, the only kind of black women most of America seems to think there are. What is perhaps most bracing about Having It All? is the unapologetic voices of young, post-Movement women, the ones that all the marching was for. Take Crystal Ashby, an antitrust lawyer for a major Chicago oil company. “Her education also heightened her sense of entitlement,” writes Chambers. “From an early age Crystal remembers thinking, ‘Why not me?’ ‘I always believed that someday I could live in a house like the ones I went to school around, that I could live that lifestyle.’ But it’s also true that Ashby’s early years of attending white prep schools has given her a lifetime of training in keeping the peace. ‘The reality is a lot of my friends are white, and a lot of my friends are black,’ she says. ‘I work in an environment where my exposure is primarily white. You can either be a loner or assimilate. These are the people I spend my days with, and I like my days to be pleasant.’”
The women profiled here tend not to believe that racism, while still real, defines or limits them in any practical sense. They are free. As free of Al Sharpton and the NAACP as of whites. The marching worked. If you want to know what success looks like on a black woman, read this book.