A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. when the oral arguments for Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt were presented before the Supreme Court. I’m a clinic escort at one of the clinics that was central to the case, and after two frustrating years of political ping pong, it felt good to just stand outside the Supreme Court and rally with our people. In the midst of it all, I spotted Dr. Willie Parker nearby, at which point I fangirled hard and ran over to ask to take a selfie with him.
In the reproductive justice world, Dr. Parker has celebrity status. He’s an outspoken black abortion provider in the South, and after being featured in Dawn Porter’s documentary, Trapped — which, by the way, is on Netflix — he became an even more recognizable figure in the fight for abortion access. He’s also an outspoken Christian who applies his religious beliefs as a type of liberation theology towards reproductive justice. It’s a radically different take on what people imagine in regards to abortion clinics and religion (trust me: as a clinic escort, I see and hear the shaming, fire-and-brimstone versions of “Christianity” outside the clinic with relative frequency).
Janet Mock had a recognizable presence on social and mainstream media for a few years now. In 2011, Marie Claire published a profile of her, her first major introduction to the public as a trans woman and activist. A lot of people got to know her for the #girlslikeus hashtag on Twitter, which allows trans women to share their experiences, and she continues to speak out about the issues that trans people — especially trans women of color — face.
Redefining Realness is a memoir about coming of age as a young trans woman in Hawaii. She was the firstborn son of a couple whose relationship was doomed from the beginning; they divorced because of her father’s constant philandering. She and her little brother stayed with their mother, but that arrangement was also short-lived. Her mother was someone who always needed to be in a relationship, and with a new man and a new baby on the way, Mock is sent Oakland (and later, Texas) to live with her father and younger brother. By that time, Mock already knew she was different, but she didn’t know exactly how. Her father also knew she was different, and Mock could never seem to fit the role of firstborn son/big brother that was expected of her.
Women’s History Month giveaway: Win a copy of this book!
In 2009, as her father’s health took a turn for the worse, Raquel Cepeda realized that she might never get to know her family’s history. Her father recovered, but that seed was planted: she was determined to learn about her ancestry and parse through the painful and often contradictory aspects of her Dominican American background. Race and ethnicity can be touchy subjects for Latin@s, and as Cepeda explores, designations like “black” or “white’ can vary drastically from country to country. Rather than trace her lineage through genealogy, which can only get her so far, Cepeda turns to DNA testing to trace her ancestral roots and figure out how she became the person she is today.
As someone who is also interested in DNA testing for these purposes, I thought Bird of Paradise was fascinating. The first half of the book is more of a straightforward memoir about Cepeda’s youth. She recounts her parents’ whirlwind relationship, which starts out passionate and quickly turns abusive, especially once they move away from family in the Dominican Republic to build a life in New York. Cepeda is born in Harlem, and her youth is a series of upheavals: she’s sent back to the Dominican Republic to be raised by her grandparents. She’s soon brought back to the states to live with her mother, who is by then in a different abusive relationship. The mother and daughter never get along, and ultimately Cepeda is sent to live with her father and stepmother back in New York. Through the years, Cepeda must deal with her father’s violent mood swings. She must also deal with his rejection of their Dominican identity, something she also encounters among her classmates.
Substitute Me. Looking for a nanny who will take care of my six-month-old baby as if he were her own. Five full days a week. No cooking or cleaning required. Must love children and be prepared to show it. References required.
Six months after her baby, Oliver, is born, Kate Carter is ready to return to her high-powered at a public relations agency. She hires Zora, a thirty year old Black woman with au pair experience. Zora is great with kids, but still doesn’t quite know what to do with her life. She accepts the job, thinking it will only be a temporary position to hold her over until she finds a “real job.”
As Kate takes on major new projects at work, she starts to rely more and more on Zora to take care of everything. Kate is thrilled when Zora, who has culinary school experience, begins cooking for the family. Zora is happy to do the cooking; it dawns on her that she’d be a great personal chef, and she uses her added responsibilities as an excuse to perfect her recipes. Soon, however, Zora is doing so much for the Carter family that she does in essence become a “substitute Kate.”
The book is told from Zora’s and Kate’s alternating viewpoints. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the alternating viewpoints at first, especially the racial tension in Kate’s narrative feels a little heavy-handed at times:
“Tell me a little bit about yourself…Where are you from originally? I can’t quite place your accent.”
“Michigan,” Zora answered bluntly.
“Oh,” Kate said, blushing and feeling really White. She’d assumed Zora was from an island somewhere. Since she and Brad had moved to Brooklyn, all she’d seen and heard on the playgrounds and in the mommy groups were Black nannies with their singsongy Caribbean accents…And this Zora did look kind of exotic, with her dark skin and gold bangle bracelet. And that earring in her nose. Not to mention her Bob Marley hairstyle. But Kate couldn’t say those things out loud.
The book quickly finds its groove, though. Zora is conflicted about being a nanny for numerous reasons, and hides her job from her successful family. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the passages where she struggles with the symbolism of being a Black woman doing domestic work for a White family: