“Do not forget about black mothers and our voice”: Deesha Philyaw in conversation with Denene Millner
Denene Millner. Where do I begin? When I first came across her work, she was in a class of writers that felt like my own special literary crew: black authors writing every day black stories for specifically black audiences. I reveled in the words. This was my first time in a long time reading strictly for entertainment. To say a “yes! Humph!” and have an occasional kissing of my teeth. They were a vital part of my youth; as important as air when I was submerged in texts that were strictly academic for what felt like forever at that point. They were also my realistic inspiration. I wanted to be a writer. I struggled with what that might look like coming from a working class Jamaican household.
Denene was the architect in more than one arena in my life. I started reading My Brown Baby well before I became a mother. She was the only woman whose words I could resonate with. I always felt like my girlfriend was letting me in on another secret when I read her words. Once I became a mother, my appreciation for her existence grew deeper still.
She is the author of 25 books, the publisher of the first children’s imprint that specializes in the stories of black children and most recently is the recipient of the 2016 Nonfiction Honor Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association for the memoir, “I Am Charlie”. She is a beacon and a blaze-trailer for the needs of black people and I am honored to have Deesha Philyaw in conversation with her for my inaugural interview in this new series.
Raising Mothers: Tell me about the day you became a mother.
Denene Millner: So it was real for me the day I saw the sonogram, the moment I saw her little heart beat in that monitor and saw that picture. Just this rush of emotion came over me because there is life inside of my body. I’m going to be responsible for this life and, you know, who authorized this? Who thought this was a good thing? This is an awesome task. Am I ready? And then I wiped my stomach and went shopping. I wanted to nest immediately, buy things, just create this space for this little human, and be the best person I can be for this little human. That is when I really felt the awesome weight of it all. And then the day she was born, just holding her in my arms and not wanting to let her go was just the most amazing feeling in the world.
RM: And this was 17 years ago?
Millner: Yep, 17 years ago.
RM: Tell me about the day or the moment when you knew you were a writer.
Millner: That was the first time I saw my article in a magazine, when I was 17 years old. I got a copy of the magazine and a check for $500. That was the first time I got paid for my work. That was my first freelance assignment and I had gotten it from attending an NABJ [National Association of Black Journalists] workshop in New York. I was volunteering and they sat me at a table with the editor-in-chief of Black Collegian magazine. We just hit it off and he [said], “You should write for the magazine.” And I said, “Really? You’re going to let write for your magazine?” And he was like, “Yeah!” And sure enough, he followed through and assigned me a story, and I got paid for it. That was the first week I got to college, so $500 felt like $5 million.
RM: Wow, and that’s a better rate than what’s typical today.
Thank you! That was some good money for a college student, the equivalent of two months’ worth of work as a security guard at the bottom of the dorm. So [I thought], oh snap, I can actually make a life doing this. It’s possible to do this. I realized this writing thing isn’t half bad; I could do this for a living.
RM: Were you going to school to study a writing-related field?
Millner: I was at Hofstra University as a communications major and a graphic design minor. And I wanted to operate the equipment. I wanted to be a producer, or a camera person, or a director. I hadn’t really considered writing very seriously. I had gone to school on a scholarship from Newsday. So, during the summers, I interned with them, and that’s when I fell in love with the idea of being a journalist. But that first check was what made me know that it was possible.
RM: And fast forward, you’ve now authored or co-authored 25 books.
Millner: I’ve written 25 so far, 24 and 25 come out in September and October.
RM: Congratulations! That’s Cookie Johnson’s memoir and Taraji P. Henson’s. Describe your dream book as a writer. It can be a book you’ve already written or a book you want to write, or plan to write.
Millner: So there are two. One is a novel about race and–I’m in the middle of writing it now so I’m going to be a little sketchy on the details–it’s about race and motherhood. Which is what i’ve been doing for the last eight years with My Brown Baby, examining the intersection of race and motherhood. So that’s one, and then the other is, I would love to do Erykah Badu’s memoir. Because I think her memoir would be just all kinds of juicy deliciousness, but not in a typical, straight narrative kind of way. Everything about her is a little quirky, funny, Southern. She has a kind of a voice that you don’t necessarily hear in memoirs, and I know I would do something that’s completely unconventional. So I know that we could do something amazing together.
RM: And I know this is like asking which of your kids is your favorite, but do you have a favorite among your books?
Millner: Right now–because it changes, regularly–right now I’m really feeling what I did with Taraji’s book, because it’s a combination of a straight narrative of her life with observations on what it means to be a black woman, a black mother, a black woman in Hollywood, the daughter of a black woman, the daughter of a black man in America. It’s not just storytelling; there’s commentary through it. So that one I’m digging. I’ve really liked each book for a different reason.
Also, I have a children’s book that’s coming out next year. My children’s book imprint’s first book is called Early Sunday Morning, a picture book that I’ve had in my head since 2003. So it’s finally coming to fruition and it’s coming to fruition because I made it come into fruition.
RM: I loved what you said on My Brown Baby when you announced the imprint, about the fact that the characters will be black kids living their lives, and we are just so hungry for those books. As a black mother, writer, and book reviewer, I’m so tired of the overabundance of books in which our kids are enslaved or otherwise oppressed, especially ones by white authors. Why can’t black kids have other experiences in books?
Millner: Thank you. I have no interest in reading that over and over and over again to my kids when they’re laying their heads down to go to sleep at night. Like, y’all don’t do that with your kids, so why should we consistently do that with ours? These children, our children, have regular lives, they do regular, average things. They think regular, average thoughts that every human being thinks when they’re that age, so why not appeal to that? What’s wrong with talking to them about those things? About what it means to lose your tooth and put it under your pillow and be afraid of the tooth fairy? Why can’t they see stories about my first ride on the school bus? Or, what it’s like to start kindergarten? These are all our experiences and they deserve to be reflected in that way in the books that [black] parents are reading to their children.
RM: Your imprint sounds like a dream come true. How did it all come about?
Millner: My husband [writer and co-author Nick Chiles] wrote a book with Agate Publishing, which is the parent distribution publishing company that now houses my imprint. The editor-in-chief of Agate Publishing [Doug Seibold] came to Atlanta and took us out to dinner. I showed up thinking, “I wonder if I should talk to Doug about starting a children’s imprint. What would he think about that?” And Doug came to the meeting thinking, “I want to talk to Denene about what she would think about leading a children’s imprint.” So we both showed up to the table with the same thought, ready to ask the same question. And so it was very, very serendipitous that it happened. It was something that we had been thinking about for about 18 months and then finally pulled the trigger.
So it really is a dream come true. I’ve always loved writing children’s books. I collect African-American children’s books. I’ve pitched a few ideas over the years, including Early Sunday Morning and was told [by other publishers], “Those books don’t make any sense. Those books aren’t realistic. I don’t really understand that. Nobody’s going to buy it. Nobody’s going to relate.” How you going to tell me nobody is going to relate to getting ready for church and singing their first church solo? Like, what are you talking about? This country is built on the backs of church and religion. Everybody who has ever gone to church can relate to getting out of bed on Sunday morning and putting on your fancy clothes and going and singing in the choir. That’s not something that’s a black thing. It’s not a white thing. It’s an American thing for people to go to church. So what the hell are you talking about?
RM: So of all your many accomplishments, we’ve only talked about a fraction of them. What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment to date?
Millner: It’s this passion and commitment to sharing our stories. And when I say “our” stories, I mean specifically black persons’ stories. This has always been a passion of mine. The moment I decided I was going to be in the media and writing, what I focused on was African-Americans. I’m a storyteller, a journalist. The color of your skin does not dictate what I can and cannot do, but what I wanted to do was to write about black folks. And that wasn’t someone pushing me toward it. That was me deciding that’s what I wanted to do. I’m 47 now, so I’ve been in this business, being paid for my work, for 30 years, always with an interest in shining a light on us.
When I was growing up, and still to some extent today, the only time I would see black people in the media is with our hands handcuffed behind our backs. Or we were bouncing a basketball. And I just felt like I had so many other interests and stories to tell. So many other interesting things that I wanted to know about the people that I revered, that I loved and who I considered my heroes. And so, it was my point of contention that I wanted to write about African-Americans, not because somebody was making me do it, or because I thought that was all I could do, but because that’s what I wanted to do.
When I got my job at the [New York] Daily News, I covered politics for three years. Then I went over to the entertainment section and wrote about black folks and entertainment for five years in the nineties because nobody else was doing it. So I worked for, at that time, the sixth largest newspaper in the industry and since then, the country. And in the media capital of the world with the New York Post, The New York Times, Newsday and the Daily News as these giants in the industry, and nobody was writing about black people.
RM: But in the ‘90s, there was so much happening in black culture…
Millner: Exactly! In terms of movies, music, Broadway, books–we didn’t know when we were in the middle of it, and we thought it would last forever, but it was like the black Renaissance. Black society was doing something in every sort of media, and so I thought, “Well, hell, y’all stupid if you not covering Jay Z?” How do you not know Jesse L. Martin is turning it out on Rent on Broadway? How have you not paid attention to what’s going on on television? How do you not write about Love Jones and Love and Basketball and all of those movies?
And so that’s what I chose to do and that just was a natural transition into Honey [magazine], where I was an editor. Then a natural transition going into parenting magazines, being in an all-white space, and constantly raising my hand and saying, “Do not forget about black mothers and our voice and what it is that we think about these issues too.” And that’s what ultimately led to me having a column, a national column, one of the only African-American women to have a national column in [Parenting], a national magazine. And then naturally into My Brown Baby.
So I would say my greatest accomplishment is loving and appreciating us with every word that I write. That is something I hope everybody remembers when I’m long gone from here, that same love for people. “She put her all, her every thought, her every word towards celebrating us.”
RM: Who inspires you as a writer, and also as a woman?
Millner: My mom had a bunch of girlfriends who I considered my aunties and all of them consistently came together to celebrate us as little girls and to show us how to be. And not in a way that was, you know…“You always must sit with your legs crossed and wear dresses.” Not how to be in that kind of way. They were fierce. They weren’t the most educated bunch. They didn’t go to college. They didn’t have college degrees. They didn’t go to fancy restaurants. They didn’t have a whole lot of money, but they poured into me. They poured into me constantly. They celebrated when I got As. Literally would have celebrations. When I got Bs, they would applaud me. They would put me up in front of the entire congregation and have me give speeches at 12 and 13 years old, so that I could learn how to be.
That was what church what about. Church was not just about going and learning about God, but learning about the world and how to fortify your place in it. We were surrounded by women and men–but I remember the women–all coming together to hold us little girls up and tell us that we could be whatever we wanted to be. We could do whatever we wanted to do, and we had the capacity in all manifestations to do what it was that we wanted to do. And I’ll never forget that. I still keep in touch with a lot of my mom’s friends. My mom passed away 14 years ago, but I still keep in touch with a lot of her friends who, to this day, will come to my Facebook page and say, “I’m so proud of you, Dede! I know you’re going to be amazing!” They’ve been telling me that for 48 years! [laughs].
So, as a woman, it would be my mom and her girlfriends who never, ever, ever tried to pull in the reins. It was always, “Here. Stand on this platform and fly. Just spread your wings and fly.” That’s a big deal.
As a writer, I would have to say this guy named Mike Hendricks, who is a white man who hired me to work at the Associated Press in Albany, New York. He always, always, always appreciated my enthusiasm and passion for what I did. And always encouraged me to push even harder. When I worked for the Associated Press, I started out as the overnight editor, so I would go there from 11 at night and work until 7 in the morning and just make sure that if anything had happened overnight, that the Associated Press in Albany had the stories waiting for folks. And then I graduated to a day editor and then when a spot opened up in the political bureau, he [told me], “We need another reporter in the political bureau and I want you to raise your hand.”
I started working with the Associated Press the day after I graduated from college and I think I might have been 21, 22 years old when Mike told me that I had what it took to be a political reporter. I raised my hand like he told me to, and he just put his hand on my back and pushed me. Like, “Do it.” You know, if he hadn’t seen that in me even when I didn’t see it myself, I don’t think I would have accomplished things that I did so early on in my career, and had that wherewithal to just say, “Hmmm, I wonder what that is over there. Let me try it.” He was the one who said, “Of course you can do it. Just go do it.”
And then the other person would be my husband. When I went to the Daily News and was working in the newsroom with these sharks, you know [laughs] I had some folks who treated me like I was nothing more than the secretary, who was there to take their messages, and who couldn’t possibly know what she was doing at age 25, covering city politics in one of the largest markets in the country, indeed the world. They just treated me like shit. And I would cry, regularly, like why am I here? Why am I doing this? And it was Nick who [said], “Yo, they just mad ‘cause they ain’t as good as you. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. So just do your work. Do your work, do your best, and your best is 8 million times better than theirs. Stop letting them steal your joy and just do your work. You’re better than them.” And it was that simple. “Okay, I am. I’m better than them, yeah!” [laughs].
So, they were the ones who encouraged me as a writer and let me know that I could do whatever I wanted to do, and I really was as good as anyone else. And that helped me to kick open doors where they would have normally been shut.
RM: So your confidence has been hard won. And you know that was the first thing I noticed the first time I heard you speak. It was at BlogHer, and the panel was about blogging and working with brands in an authentic way. And you know how on those panels, it starts with each panelist saying a few introductory words. You spoke last and you were the only black woman on the panel. Before you, each of these other women talked about the struggle to be authentic and making the brands happy and trying not to lose themselves, and you were like, “I don’t have those problems.”
Millner: I have no doubt I said that. [laughs]
RM: So tell me what motivates you.
Millner: What motivates me? Making sure that my kids can eat.
RM: Keep it real.
Millner: Keep it really real. Seriously, it’s showing my daughters that they can do what they want to do. When you’re younger, you think, I’m 25 and this is who I am and this is who I’ll always be. And that’s not necessarily the case and so what motivates me is this constant learning not just how to parent my daughters–and I say daughters because I think there’s a difference in the way that I would have parented a son, obviously, from the way that I parent my daughters–but I have a whole history of being a girl and a young woman and then a woman, and everything I’m pouring or trying to pour into my daughters is a direct result of the things that I felt that I should have had as a person, a woman of color, at their age.
But what motivates me is this idea that things are everchanging and I’m still growing and I’m still learning about who I am, and what it is I like, and what it is I want, and what it is I don’t want. And that motivates me to constantly be on this quest to find authentic happiness, to find what is real to me. I’m cool with stability but I do love how things change, how I change, and so, that’s motivating. Like what will I find if I turn left instead of right? What will I find if I try to run my own imprint instead of writing for somebody else? What would happen if I just quit my job and went to move to a little teeny town in Georgia? How could things be bad? Or how can things go great? So that’s something that motivates me: appreciating and embracing change.
RM: Do you ever feel like just chucking the deuces and just walking away from work, from parenting, from everything, from everybody? Ever have those moments?
Millner: Every damn day. I practice what people call self-care but I’m just like, “How I go about not killing a motherfucker.” [laughs] Maybe I can just cry on this porch and sit and watch the sunset today and listen to Kirk Franklin and D’Angelo and just close my eyes and everybody’s going to see me sitting here and they’re going to know not to mess with me right now. Maybe it’s me going to a museum and just seeing art and being filled by somebody else’s art. Maybe it’s me going out with my girlfriends and picking the girlfriend I’m going to go out with because this girlfriend is good for this one thing but this one is good for real-life fuckery and we’re just going to act a fool. Those are the things that really get me back on track and get me back to “Okay, I can do this again.”
RM: Do you find it hard to say “no?”
Millner: Not as much as I used to. And I think that’s a function of age and a function of maturity. I used to be the person who would say “yes” all the time because I wanted to make sure that people were comfortable, and that people liked me, and that people wanted to stick around me, or so that I could get something. [For example], I would say ‘yes’ to being the room mom because I wanted to make sure the teacher understood that I was dedicated to my kids so that my kids would be treated well. But these days, I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, I do what I want. My [oldest daughter] s always saying to her little sister: “I do what I want.” [laughs] And so I’ve adopted that mantra. And I do what I want knowing that inevitably, what I’m doing is for me, and those around me will benefit from me being happy. And so, I don’t say “yes” anymore.
I have a friend, Gretchen who calls herself my ambassador of “no” because I would always say “yes” to everything, and she’d text me, or call me on the phone, or see me at the school, and she’d pull me to the side and she’d say, “Okay, you’re going to go back over there and you’re going to tell them that you can’t bake 40 cupcakes by noon and it’s 9 o’clock. Because that’s not possible for you to do without wanting to shank somebody. So tell them, ‘no,’ you can’t do it. Or, go to the store and get ones that they made at the Kroger.” So, you’ve got to have an ambassador of “no,” for sure.
I don’t say “yes” just to please anyone anymore. There’s nothing that comes out of that except everybody else being pleased. [And because] Denene is in the moment where Denene wants to be pleasing herself, pleasing other people has to be the consequence of it, not the first thing that comes to my mind.
RM: What is the hardest part of your job?
Millner: One of the hardest parts of my job is that people don’t always know that I’m the one who wrote the celebrity memoir, because books focus on the subject and not necessarily the person who created the art. Being a celebrity memoirist is an exercise in the checking of ego, because there’s no room for me to stand up and say, “But I wrote it.” It just doesn’t work that way. It’s hard to spend six months pouring every ounce of you into this art–and I call it art, I paint with words–and provide context, sometimes in ways that don’t necessarily come easily to the subject of the book, and then step aside into the shadow and pretend I had nothing to do with it.
And I really want to write my novel, the one about parenting and race. So that’s probably the hardest part of what I do, standing around and pretending like I didn’t do something and then trying to find the energy to do my own thing.
RM: Last question: What do you tell your children about racism and what do you tell your children about freedom?
Millner: We’re constantly talking about race, class, economics, social hierarchy, and all the different things that go into race. And they see it all because [Nick and I] don’t hold anything back. So when we couldn’t get an apartment in Atlanta because we’re African-American and the real estate agents were insistent that we not rent where we really wanted to rent, we told [our kids] about it. We explained to them why we were making the choices that we were making, every step of the way. And they understood it. They understood why going to a good school and getting into AP courses would be the difference which could lead to the kind of life where they are able to provide for themselves and their children. And, you know, the line that runs through all of that, economically, socially, politically. They hear that on a constant basis.
What I’ve been talking to my daughters about of late, in terms of freedom, is something that I’m just discovering now in my 40s and I’m excited to share it with them: that they have the freedom to decide what it is that they want to do with their lives. They have the freedom to decide who they want to be around for the rest of their lives. They have the freedom to decide who they want to give their energy to and who they don’t. I’m talking to them about that kind of freedom and about personal choices and how important it is that they have they have empathy, but that empathy extends to themselves. It’s important that they do what’s right for them, what feels good to them, and to be strong in their convictions. Be concerned about their own freedom and their own lives. Yeah.
Photo credit: Erskine Issac for iVision Photos
Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Her writing on parenting, race, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Full Grown People, brevity, Dead Housekeeping, The Establishment, Catapult, ESPN’s The Undefeated, and elsewhere. Deesha’s work includes a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2016. At The Rumpus, Deesha inaugurated and curates an interview column called VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color.