What We Talk About When We Talk About Black Unwed Mothers: A Q&A With Tanya Fields of the BLK Projek

Fields drew attention during a recent live-streamed conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, when she asked about the tearing down of Black unmarried mothers by other Black women. Rewire spoke with her about being a woman of color leader, stereotypes placed on Black unmarried mothers, and more.

Fields drew attention during a recent live-streamed conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, when she asked about the tearing down of Black unmarried mothers by other Black women. Melissa Harris-Perry

On November 8, hundreds of viewers were introduced to Tanya Fields during the Q&A portion of a live-streamed event with bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry, when Fields asked about the tearing down of Black unmarried mothers by other Black women. One of MHP’s Foot Soldiers, Fields runs the BLK Projek, a food justice initiative in the South Bronx.

Last Friday, I had the chance to talk to Fields about her organization and her experience being a woman of color leader in that field. We also discussed the stereotypes placed on Black unmarried mothers, and what’s missing in the reproductive rights movement’s conversation about barriers to access. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Rewire: Having created a number of community initiatives to, ultimately, improve your life and the life of your children, you are a leader in your South Bronx neighborhood. What has your experience been like as a woman of color leader?

Tanya Fields: In the South Bronx neighborhood, I don’t think my experience has been any more unique than any other women of color who have done work here. I mean the South Bronx is definitely a place where you see patriarchy play out. I think that if you talk to many of the amazing woman of color leaders here, like Kelli Sepulveda of The Point and Karen Washington, I think we would have very similar experiences of what it’s been like doing work in the South Bronx.

Now, being a woman of color doing food work on a national and a citywide scale has been interesting because of how all of these things overlap, and how you see them play out. Folks on the Internet have said that I’m too big or made comments about my skin color or my hairstyle (I wear my hair in locks). The good food movement is often times very much seen through a normative white lens. We’re having discussions about it now [among leaders] in the movement, and a lot of folks are much more open to having the discussion, but I am still every day pointing out to someone their privilege. 

Rewire: What about that experience surprised you?

TF: I was very surprised when [people judging me on how I look] started happening, but I should’ve been less naive. I’m a woman. And any kind of woman in any kind of public space should know she is going to be judged regardless of her ethnic background, her race, or her nationality. If you are a woman, then our patriarchal society says your looks are up for discussion.

It was surprising to me to be talking about starting a mobile market, or a veggie truck, and to hear somebody make a joke about the fact that I don’t eat enough vegetables. Or, you know, saying, “She should start eating what she’s preaching.” That was hurtful, on a human level.

Then I realized why I am doing this work. I realized that not only am I responsible for getting better access [to healthy food] for my community and communities like mine. But I’m also responsible for dispelling myths about this idea that’s been force-fed to us in this country that stick-thin equals healthy. And that if you’re a larger bodied person you could not possibly be healthy. And that Black people don’t care about health. And that poor Black people don’t care about good food.

Rewire: I really love what you said on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show last week about how your children are not your circumstance and that they’re live human beings, and if we don’t nurture them, along with all other children, we’re going to see ourselves in some deep stuff in the next 20 years. With public benefit programs being cut left and right at both state and federal levels, what “stuff” are we looking at?

TF: We’re going to be looking at more children with learning disabilities who are not performing in a way that they need to, and more economic disparity because lawmakers are making it impossible for people to be able to actually climb their way out of poverty, whether they have children or not.

This idea that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps—that’s a bunch of bullshit. I wish people would stop saying that. After you get off the phone with me, I want you to get down on the floor and try to pull yourself up by your shoelaces. I’m telling you it’s physically impossible. You cannot do it. If you try to pull yourself up by your shoelaces, or your “bootstraps,” without the aid of a chair or putting your hand on the floor, it won’t happen. So even this euphemism that we keep giving to people itself is not physically possible. Why do we think it would actually be possible for people to help themselves out of poverty without some sort of systematic changes, some legislative changes, or without institutional changes? It is the systematic barriers, institutional barriers, and legislative barriers that are keeping people in poverty!

America does not care about poor children, no matter what color they are. I’m not saying that to be controversial. I’m saying it because it’s the truth. Because you can’t say that you do, and then cut food stamps. And then poor parents have to make choices about whether they’re going to feed their kids or themselves.

Rewire: Do you have any thoughts on the idea that’s so pervasive in our culture today that Black women are responsible for their own poverty?

TF: I don’t want to get into it. And not because I think you’re being too personal. Melissa Harris-Perry said in her conversation with bell hooks that people like stories. It does not matter how many times people put up different speeches of me speaking, or show my work, there’s a significant amount of people who will continue to reduce me down to the woman who has four kids and three babies’ daddies, who is now pregnant again, and who ain’t married. They don’t give a shit about anything else I’ve done. The only trope they want to hold onto is that I am some poster child for poverty. That I am what’s wrong with Black America.

Half of this country is in poverty. Dual-parent homes, married families, all of that—they didn’t create poverty. Corporate welfare is creating poverty. And legislation is creating poverty. I didn’t create poverty.

They are comfortable in that trope because they get to have a scapegoat. And when you’re talking about a racist, sexist, patriarchal society, [that’s] just easier.

Black people are not immune to doing the same type of damage that right-wing Republicans would. We absolutely need to blame the conditions we find ourselves in as Black people on somebody. And the single Black mother is an easy one to blame it on. People have totally bought into this idea of the “welfare queen,” which was propaganda made up out of the Reagan administration.

So all I can do is exist and teach my daughters and my sons to be tremendous, and that their very existence is revolutionary. Every time that they accomplish something and they are successful, they are revolutionary. They are the legacy that [shows] Black women do not create poverty.

Rewire: So tell me about the BLK Projek and how it’s helping to address these issues in your community.

TF: The elevator pitch is that the BLK Projek is harnessing the local good food movement to create economic development opportunities for marginalized women and youth. In laymen’s terms, we really just want to get better food in our communities and make sure that those who are the most impacted are the ones who benefit from the economic opportunities that it would bring. We’re working on two big projects right now.

I’m tremendously proud of myself. After running the organization for three years, this last year we were able to raise close to $100,000 through organizational funding, an IndieGoGo campaign, and individual giving. We’ve also had a conference that was attended by over 300 people. We got them to come out to the Bronx. More than half of the audience had never been to the Bronx before, because like many folks they had some negative predispositions about what it means to live in the Bronx, or to go to the Bronx.

One of our two projects is a bus to deliver healthy foods in our community, which we turned into a clean-energy vehicle. We got a $10,000 grant to put solar panels on it. We converted the engine so that it runs on used vegetable oil, because in a community like ours sustainability is important.

My community is next to the largest food distribution center in the world. We get 16,000 diesel food trucks every day, with three major highways running through our community. And that food does not come into our community. But we do reap all of the negative impacts of having those things, including epidemic rates of asthma and high rates of childhood obesity. It was really important to us that we make sure that this vehicle be a responsible, clean-energy vehicle.

We are working with local farmers and growers in rural areas, like Corbin Hill Farm and Wholeshare, to bring food into our communities at reasonable prices. We’ll take EBT. We’re going to work on making sure we can take WIC farmer’s checks as well. And we want to create jobs through this program. Our bus driver is from this community. My program coordinator is from this community. The people that we will hire to pack the bus will be youth from the community. And then we just want to continue to grow that so that we can get to a point where we can pay living wages and make sure that people here really feel invested in the food that comes into it.

And then our second project: We are in the process of registering a city-owned lot, with GreenThumb, because we are going to work with Sustainable South Bronx and turn it into an urban farm.

That’s how we’re addressing the issue of food access in our community, by creating open, green spaces where folks can become educated, grow food, and have a relationship with the land, or just have a safe space to come into where they will not be criminalized for simply existing. That space will support the mobile market, which provides better access to folks as well as some economic development opportunities. And then from there, I kind of feel like the stratosphere is the limit. I think there are so many other things that we can do. And my hope is that I can train some young woman from the community in the next four to five years to take over the organization.

I really feel like part of my calling is also to continue to get my ass kicked because I chose to be the voice for women who feel like they don’t necessarily have a voice. There are so many tropes and stereotypes about low-income mothers, about single mothers despite their income, particularly mothers of color, particularly Black mothers. It’s hard enough being a Black woman in American society. Go ahead and have a baby and not be married, and everything that’s wrong in the world is your fault. And under these auspices—like your community looking at you with disdain—you must raise healthy, happy children, when the legislative policies and institutional structures make it difficult for you to do so. On the left and on the right, when we have conversations about single mothers, we have conversations about poor women. Lawmakers will have everybody at the table except poor women, except single mothers, as if we’re some sort of extinct species they can never get a hold of.

We are very comfortable continuing to hold up single mothers either as an abject version of poverty that deserves our charity and who is a consistent victim—and that’s not my narrative, and not the narrative of my grandmother and my aunts and folks that have raised their children to be well adjusted, happy, and successful—or making you some living-high-on-the-welfare hog, who doesn’t care, has low self-esteem, is chronically uneducated, and doesn’t know what birth control is. It is maddening.

There needs to be more spaces where folks are allowed to advocate for themselves and be seen as whole individuals, and no different from anybody else. You know, we talk about veterans, and they are deserving of our sympathy when they are not treated well because they fought for this country. When we talk about single mothers, we talk about them with the most disdain even though they are raising our children who will go on to become adults who are supposed to lead our country. And we treat them like they are deserving of nothing.

Rewire: How do you go about changing that narrative, that trope, that single story of Black women?

TF: It’s not me alone. There are lots of women. One of the first blog posts that came out after the New School event was on this blog called Beyond Baby Mamas, and the author [Stacia L. Brown] wrote a really articulate piece that talked about me, but also talked about a lot about single mothers in general. That we come in all the shapes, colors, and sizes, educational levels, experiences, and we are all complicated, multi-layered people. Us having children doesn’t stop that. There are already women who are having these conversations.

I think what really needs to happen, much like anything else in this country, there needs to be a person, a group of people, who are consistently out there with messaging and communication projects, continuing to create platforms for folks to organize around. Because it’s more than just, Oh I want to be seen as a human being. That’s the beginning of it. Being seen as a human being means then we create legislative policy that does not take food out of the mouths of children. The largest amount of food stamp recipients are children, so when you cut food stamps, you are taking food out of the mouths of babies. How do we as a country do that? It’s because we don’t see these types of children as valuable as other children.

Rewire: Around the country, states are taking away women’s access to reproductive services. This is something Black women have been facing for decades. What is missing from the conversation when the reproductive rights community talks about restrictions to access?

TF: We talk about reproductive rights, but we don’t talk about reproductive justice. Yes, women should have the right to access all of these services, but what about the fact that the very industry of gynecology was built on using Black women as guinea pigs against their will? And what about the fact that when we talk about reproductive rights and reproductive justice that many times we’re only talking about birth control and we’re only talking about abortion, but we don’t talk about the right of a woman to carry her baby to full term and to receive the types of things that she would need to have a successful birth?

Why is it that in the Black community, in an industrialized country, we are seeing high rates of infant mortality? There are whole groups of people who are not being represented, and there’s this idea that it’s just the college-age young woman who wants to be able to go to Planned Parenthood to get birth control, that she is the one who is most at risk. We have this conversation around everything that’s wrong with the Black community (i.e., me, an unmarried mother with multiple children and multiple fathers of those children), but we don’t have the conversation for the women who did not feel like they had a choice to have children, or who have found themselves in predicaments where they are having more terminations than they might be willing to be comfortable around, or the young woman who ends up pregnant because she wasn’t able to get quality access to birth control or education around her baby and reproductive organs. We’re not talking about those young women, and we’re not talking about those older women. We leave them out as usual—it’s one of the intersections of racism. We leave them out of the conversation.