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The Men that Moynihan Forgot: My Father and the Women that Raised Him (Pt. 1)

Hello BWB Fam,


From the beginning of this project I was interested in seeking out men who grew up in matriarchal households, and who could speak to the experience of spending their formative years in homes where women played "duel roles" so to speak: that of both the breadwinner and the caregiver. Assumptions about the alleged backwardness of this particular social formation and its assumed degenerative effect on black male youths are still held today, and are as deep rooted in the culture as the black matriarch herself. While I personally don't subscribe to said assumptions, it is not enough to simply disagree with an idea and hope it one day disappears. Changing mindsets and shifting culture, which has always been part of the BWB mission, requires a method of intervention. Today's article is part one of my chosen method, which is the disrupting of patriarchal and anti-black myths imposed on the black single mother through the recording of lived experiences that complicate and unsettle that mythology. The following documentation is an interview with my father, who was brought up by his mother and grandmother, along with one sister and three female cousins. His aunt, though they did not live together for long, also played a significant role in his life. In this first part of our discussion, I ask him about the impact each of these women left on him, what he learned from them, how his reality contrasted with the images of the conventional family structure presented in media, and the unexpected but not unwelcome outcome of matriarchal influence in his adult life.


-CH





Courtney Hunter:

So to start, do you want to tell the readers where you’re from, when you were born, what era you came up in, and what your family looked like growing up?

Burnett Hunter:

I grew up in New York City. I was born in the South Bronx - Lincoln hospital to be precise. I was raised with my mother, my grandmother, and my aunt, and we all lived in the same house. My sister, Marguerite, was seven years older than me, and then there was Linda, who is my cousin but is more like a sister to me. And then there were my Auntie Susie’s kids: Janice, Michael, and Sandra, who later started to go by Blue. That was the family composition growing up until I guess the third or fourth grade for me. So we all grew up in the Bronx together and we were extremely poor though we didn't know it because everyone in the neighborhood was the same so there was no distinction in terms of who was well off versus who wasn't well off -- we were all in the same boat. I have fond memories of this time, because we were very close knit as a family. But there were no grown men in the house, it was just Michael and myself, and everybody else was female. In the fourth grade my Auntie Susie, and my mother decided they were going to split up and go their separate ways, and that’s when I ended up moving into Manhattan. My grandmother came with us and my cousin Linda also decided she wanted to live with us so it was me, Linda, Marguerite, with my mother and grandmother together in the Manhattan apartment. Being the only male in the house at that point was kind of interesting and I got to really appreciate what it was like to have an all female cast, if you will, and appreciate what it was to be a woman who had to support everybody in the house without a man. I will admit at that time and at the age I was when we moved that I did think about the fact that I didn't have a father. I used to wish I had one because I felt that there was a lot of pressure on my mother, number one. And also I just wanted to have someone else in the house other than you know females. But I have to say at an early age, living in that kind of family structure gave me a very different perspective on women -- it gave me a very different perspective that differed from how most guys looked at women.

CH:

How would you describe that perspective and how would you say that it differed?

BH:

Well it differed in that I didn't look at them so much as women but that just says people. I mean, yes they were of a different gender, I understood that, but I also understood that they were, you know, they were people. It didn't matter that they were female. And my experience was different from most of the boys in my neighborhood because most of my friends had fathers, so they you know they could talk about their fathers and how their fathers treated their mothers and were seeing things more from their father’s perspective. But me, I had no father so the only perspective I had was a female perspective. And so, I didn't look at her just as a female I just looked at her as a person, and in a way it was like she was a mother and a father in one individual. But I also understood that there was a vulnerability there that most of the guys I grew up with did not see. When I say vulnerability, I mean, my mother was vulnerable to, let's say boyfriends, who could mistreat her or show up only to abandon her later etc., whereas, my friends saw a different dynamic in terms of the family composition and who was running the household.

CH:

So you saw both the fullness of her humanity, but also saw that she was in a precarious position as a single mom…

BH:

Yeah -- she had double the workload and also people that didn't necessarily have good intentions for her were coming into her life.


"The array of topics we could discuss was much more extensive than what I could typically get into with males who were limited because of their upbringing -- because they were brought up with an alpha male in the home if you will. But with me, my alpha was a female and always had been. Even before my mom, my Auntie Dodo was the matriarch of the family. And after my mom, Linda became the matriarch. My family structure was always female oriented."

CH:

As a kid, did you ever take notice of, certain things she would do to decompress and take care of herself, or things she would do simply because she enjoyed them; certain hobbies or other pastimes for example?

BH:

Well, It was interesting -- she was someone that really liked to go out on Fridays and Saturdays -- those were her days. And she had a core set of friends that she hung out with, plus Mike, her cousin, who'd like to hang out and party with her. My mother was a really big partier on the weekends, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that she was a domestic for most of her adult life, which was partly due to the fact that she never got past the eighth grade and so that was as much as she could achieve given her limited educational background. So she worked very hard during the week and would want to unwind at the end of it. I also think this had a profound effect on her with respect to myself, Marguerite and Linda’s education -- more so Linda and myself as opposed to Marguerite because Marguerite had a natural intelligence and was into books and there wasn't a whole lot of prodding on my mother's part, you know, in terms of getting Marguerite to study. And with Linda, from the time she was born she wanted to be a nurse so we all knew she was going to go to college. I thought if I could get through high school and find a job in a supermarket or someplace that would work for me. All I wanted to do at that time was work and make money because I was tired of being poor. But basically my mother really insisted on all of us getting an education and a decent job.

CH:

Were you, as the sole male of the house, expected to do household chores or were you exempt?

BH:

I had to do shopping, I had to do laundry…I had to do all the things that, you know, that maybe my friends’ sisters would do but that they wouldn't because they were guys. But in my house we all just got different chores. Personally I love doing grocery shopping -- my mother taught me how to, you know, feel for fresh fruit and things of that ilk and it was always something I enjoyed doing. And helping with chores was another thing that gave me a different perspective in terms of men and women and what they are each capable of doing.

CH:

How did this kind of household dynamic color your interactions with women outside of your family?

BH:

Well for me, I feel like I gradually found out that it was far more interesting talking to females than it was talking to males. Especially back in that era because during that time males were about sex and sports. And beyond that the only other thing might have been religion. And you know I hung out with guys so obviously, I would talk about those things too, but as I got older and I started working and being more out in the world I really gravitated more toward females than I did males. The array of topics we could discuss was much more extensive than what I could typically get into with males who were limited because of their upbringing -- because they were brought up with an alpha male in the home if you will. But with me, my alpha was a female and always had been. Even before my mom, my Auntie Dodo was the matriarch of the family. And after my mom, Linda became the matriarch. My family structure was always female oriented. That was how I lived until I got drafted into the service, which was Interesting because my time in the service was the only time I really had no one but males to interact with.

CH:

What was it like suddenly transitioning into a totally male dominated environment?

BH:

There was a certain expectation in terms of how you were supposed to act. You had to be tough, you had to be macho, you had to be all those kinds of things because that was the basic element of army life: you had to be a warrior and you had to be ready to kill. I was in the army for three years at the height of the Vietnam War, back in the mid 60s. It was interesting because I was never a big proponent of guns, but as it turned out I wound up being part of the military police so I always had to carry a gun. I was scared to death of those things all right but I had to learn how to shoot a rifle. And as learn how to qualify with a 45 and I had to learn how to qualify, with a 38 revolver. It wasn't anything that I was used to. But I also think that it helped me in terms of molding my future with respect to becoming a man, and in terms of being able to go out in the world and making a life for myself. By the time I go to service I was more playboy but I still kind of liked being around women more than I did men. One of the reasons for that was that by the time I got out of the service, all the guys that I grew up with and used to hang out with were on drugs. They were shooting up heroin which was a big thing back then, and bottom line was I knew that life wasn't for me, I mean I didn't grow up that way, you know, my family was not about drugs or anything like that. They were about achievement so I moved away from them. And as I grew older and started working in the professional world, I started to have more and more female friends. And it was very interesting because some of them were married, some of them had boyfriends etc., but I could talk to them very casually. I think because of where I came from and how I was raised I was more attentive than most guys, and could understand what was going on with them because I could associate it with a lot of the things that had gone on in my family.


"...the thing about Linda was that she had to dig, get into the books, and work hard in order to get the grades she wanted. She had an aggressiveness to her whole life, even in her later years as she got ill and her legs went and stuff like that. Nothing ever prevented her from moving forward. Wherever she wanted to go, she went -- even if she was in a wheelchair, didn't matter. She was always aggressive that way and it was a major admiration point for me."

CH:

So your idea of who women could be and what they could do was greatly expanded by virtue of living in this women led household and being raised by women. I imagine your experience probably contrasted sharply with what you saw in movies or other media outlets.

BH:

I mean I took movies for what they were. And I love movies though and through; that's one of my passions, but they were movies. The reality of life was quite different from movies, obviously. But yeah, I got to experience more of that reality with women. I had an appreciation for things women go through, their inner lives and that sort of thing. But bottom line is, anybody, whether they are male or female, has to be a person first. I like getting together with whomever I think is interesting, and the women in my life have tended to be more interesting.

CH:

Let’s talk more specifically about each of the women in your family. We’ve talked before just you and I about your mother and your Auntie Susie, and how strong both their personalities were as well as the dynamic between them. We’ve also talked about your cousin Linda and the bond the two of you developed through childhood. Can you speak more on those relationships and about the impact each of them had on you?

BH:

Okay -- I should start with my mother. I probably didn't appreciate my mother as much as I should have until she was gone. And, you know, I began to understand, even though some of the things she said to me and about me were somewhat hurtful growing up… my mother didn't have a really good filter and put it to that way -- she was always invested in my future and education. That actually brings me to what I always really admired about Linda. Linda was smart and my mother wasn’t as on her case about her education as she was with me, but the thing about Linda was that she had to dig, get into the books, and work hard in order to get the grades she wanted. She had an aggressiveness to her whole life, even in her later years as she got ill and her legs went and stuff like that. Nothing ever prevented her from moving forward. Wherever she wanted to go, she went -- even if she was in a wheelchair, didn't matter. She was always aggressive that way and it was a major admiration point for me. Plus, she’s been my soul mate from the time we were young. Janice was too but that was only when we were very young, before I moved to Manhattan with my mother. And Linda was always like another mother/protector figure even when she was young. Linda’s mother, Susie, was quite different by comparison. Auntie Susie had a lot of kids, but she wasn't really a good mother. I can't admit that. But what she was, for me anyway, was a relief from my own mother. That's why I loved going out to Brooklyn and then Queens, which is where Auntie Susie settled after we all left the South Bronx. I loved being out there and at one and my mother would let me stay there during the summertime until school started again, plus I would be there for holidays and stuff like that. But whereas my mother was harsh on me, she was very loving and allowed me to be myself. She wasn't always that way with her own kids, but she was that way with me. In retrospect my mother was better for me in terms of moving me along in life and pushing me to become something as opposed to Auntie Susie who was really more about, just having fun. Because that's who she was, she was about “let's just have fun,” that kind of thing. So, I don't know that there wasn't a positive influence on me from Auntie Susie other than the fact that I felt more loved with her than I did by my own mother. That was a hard realization but back then that's just how I felt. That was really the difference between the two. But I want to return to my mother because there is another strong point about her that I didn’t realize had had an influence on me until years later.

The thing about my mother was that she refused to go on welfare. Even though as a domestic she never made a lot of money, she didn't want anything to do with public assistance. She would never accept what she considered a handout. She also wanted to stay out of the projects however she could and this was all her way of saying she wasn’t going to settle for less because she was black, or had kids, or anything like that. It was a very important lesson for me because it taught me that if you want something you need to be ambitious and you need to chase after it and it doesn’t matter if you were black or poor or whatever else. Basically I learned not to doubt my abilities and to go after what I wanted, and with this mentality came a desire to allow my work to speak for itself. That understanding of who I was came directly from my mother because my mother was the same way. So, when I went to school I had a very particular outlook in terms of what school meant to me. For me it was a means to an end and the end for me was making money because I was tired of being poor. I wanted to go into the financial districts and start working for banks and, you know, other financial institutions where you could make a lot of money, so that's where my career pursuits took place. I wanted a lifestyle that was going to be a hell of a lot different from what I grew up with whether I got married or not. And, you know, that stayed with me even up to when you were born because when they put you in my arms, before they gave you to your mother, I looked at you and I said that you would never want for anything. So from the start I had a very clear ambition and a very clear path that I was going to follow to get to where I needed to be.

CH:

So your mother was the one who instilled in you a sense of independence

BH:

Yeah, and I didn't understand until much later on in life the importance of that kind of independence and the extent to which it was my mother that taught me that.

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