As a 12-year-old growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Anthonia Akitunde scoured magazines like Cosmo Girl, Teen Vogue, or Seventeen for stories that reflected her struggles and triumphs as a Black teenager. She devoured adolescent classics like Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew mysteries even though the characters were typically all white. Yearning to see and read about role models in popular media that looked like her, Anthonia sent letters to Ebony and Essence, pitching them to create a teenage platform for their publications and make her editor-in-chief. Looking back, Anthonia feels like she was deeply impacted by the lack of representation in popular media.
"I was made fun of for being dark-skinned. I felt like I wasn't attractive. I felt ugly all the time as a kid. It wasn't until I went to college that I realized I had internalized a lot of racism and colorism. I kept thinking who I was wasn't good enough because I never saw representations reflected back at me," she told me during our chat at the Astor Row Cafe in Harlem.
After high school, Anthonia graduated from University of Chicago. Then, drawn by her love of storytelling, she went on to obtain her Master's at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. After grad school, she moved to New York City and wrote for The New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune.com, and The Root.
Still, even as an adult, Anthonia found very little representation of professional women of color in mainstream media. When Deborah Choi, founder emeritus of mater mea, asked Anthonia to partner with her on a new site that would celebrate Black motherhood, she knew it was kismet even though she wasn't a mom (yet). Finally, she'd have the platform to fill a void in mainstream media's representation and celebration of Black women. On Mother's Day of 2012, mater mea was born.
Photo credit: Bridget Collins
Since then, Anthonia's mission has been to uplift the narratives of Black women at the intersection of motherhood and career. "So there was like the Reagan era bullshit of calling Black moms 'welfare queens' and then there's Michelle Obama and Oprah. And there's only one Oprah or Michelle Obama so for the rest of us it's like...'Cool, where do I fall into that spectrum?' I thought there was a lack of realistic conversations about what it means to be a Black working woman. I wanted to have visuals to show Black women in spaces they say we don't exist, which is in happy homes with beautiful families and with good careers," Anthonia explained.
Back in 2012, Anthonia found that it was a little harder to find Black women who were expressly saying that they were moms on top of their profession. Even five years ago, if you were open about being a mother, some people would assume that you were too busy to balance a career (otherwise known as classic sexism). Anthonia said that for some women she profiled, it was the first time for them to talk about their motherhood journeys. These inspirational women were used to talking about their careers and those successes, but not so much about being a mom. Also, for a long time, people weren't asking Black women what they thought of being a mom because they would project a particular narrative on them (otherwise known as racism).
"Even within the community too, I always tell people I have a website about Black motherhood and they will say 'Oh, so you're only focusing on single moms?' When I mentioned that I was talking about Black motherhood, they assumed that it was all single women. People of color and white people alike made assumptions on Black motherhood--I wanted to upend that."
The women mater mea profiles are diverse professionally and personally — from artists and doulas to CEOs and lawyers; they've featured married moms, single moms, young moms, lesbian moms, and adoptive moms. Mater mea has even gorgeously profiled our beloved model Latham Thomas—maternity lifestyle maven, wellness & birth coach/doula, and yogini who is blazing the movement for maternal wellness.
"I think what makes me most excited is being entrusted with these stories. People know that I won't do anything untoward to their story. I'll give it the respect that it deserves and make sure it's as honest to their experience as possible while also being in a position to use storytelling as a way for people to not feel so alone."
A few months ago, Anthonia launched mater mea's advice column named "It Takes A Village". It was inspired from an email she received that moved her to tears. Even before that emotionally heavy email, Anthonia had a new vision: ensuring that mater mea served as a go-to resource for moms of color that come from all socio-economic backgrounds (or as she beautifully and aptly puts it "Lifting As We Climb").
The woman who emailed Anthonia for help was a 25-year-old single mom living with a 2.5 year old daughter in LA. The mom was renting a bedroom from a woman who constantly judged her parenting. "Why does your daughter cry so much?" the landlord would often ask the young mom. In her note, the young mom also shared that she works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but leaves her house around 6 a.m. because getting on and off the bus to drop her daughter off at daycare can take about 1 hour, 45 minutes to 2 hours a day to travel there and back.
Photo credit: CreateHER Stock via mater mea
After Anthonia responded to the young mom through It Takes Villages with practical and immediate advice and resources (like building a community, taking care of herself, applying for grants, and affordable childcare options), the young single mom wrote her saying that because of mater mea, she was able to find reduced childcare. Not only that, she found a more supportive community. Upon reading the It Takes A Village column, a friend of the young mother—who follows mater mea—offered her a new place to live. "If I just help one mom...it makes what I do worth it," Anthonia says. But, it's evident that mater mea resonates with many who have been searching for representation and advice.
Even though Anthonia isn't a mom yet (yes, she plans on having babies & says her baby fever is on the rise!), through founding mater mea, she's been immersed in everything from struggles with infertility and devastating miscarriages, to the joys (and pains) of breastfeeding, along with the many beautiful ways Black women take on motherhood. Through telling the stories of working mothers of color, Anthonia's respect for her own mom has grown deeper. She can now understand the amount of choreography that her mom had to do in order to raise 3 kids and work in a nursing home all day.
Photo courtesy of Anthonia Akitunde
"The best advice my mom has ever given me is that whatever is supposed to be mine will be mine. She used to say that a lot whenever the topic of my dating life came up, but I've also taken that to cover work opportunities and experiences as well. She also tells me to speak what I want into the universe; she's a big proponent of positive thinking, something I wish I had inherited more of!"
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Posted: Wed, Jul 31, 2019