Last month, my mother turned 90 years old. I’ve been thinking a lot about her lately, not just because she is my mother or that she is nearly a century old. “Keep your eyes up high, focus on what’s right, on what’s good,” she would say. “Make truth your compass”.
My mother was a broadcast journalist who worked her way up from being a copywriter to a radio deejay, to TV news anchor — the first black female anchor on the West Coast. But mom always felt as though someone might challenge whether she was qualified for the job. In a newsroom of predominantly white men, she couldn’t help but see herself as an anomaly; a woman of color sitting beside white men who were automatically preordained to be there.
When your mother is a public figure, it’s the public that ends up getting more of her than you do.
Mom worked harder and longer hours than anyone else, as if to prove that she had earned her place. She struggled with this her entire career.
Belva Davis was born Belvagene Melton. When she was eight, her family moved from Louisiana to a tiny apartment in West Oakland. Mom was the first person in the family to graduate from high school. With no way to pay for college, she took a clerical job at the Oakland Naval Supply Depot, and then moonlighted as a stringer for Jet Magazine.
She discovered that she had a natural talent for storytelling and a knack for meticulously gathering the details to make that story compelling. At five foot one, my mother is hardly imposing, but I’ve seen grown men try to slide by her in the Halls of Justice in an effort to avoid getting nailed with a question. As she became more confident, her strategy became about listening and reading the room before trying to get that soundbite.
“Miss Belva”, as some called her, was a born diplomat. She knew that her constituents were the people in the community that most newsrooms didn’t bother to report on. Still, TV and radio executives acknowledged that they needed to speak to “other” audiences. Back then, a black reporter would often be saddled with the title of “urban affairs reporter”, which was another way of saying: “the troubles of black folks”. She became the de facto translator of black politics for a white audience.
“Miss Belva”, as some called her, was a born diplomat. She knew that her constituents were the people in the community that most news rooms didn’t bother to report on.
When your mother is a public figure, it’s the public that ends up getting more of her than you do. Watching her on TV made me lonely. Why was I watching her instead of being with her?
My identity was all too often tied to hers as the “daughter of Belva Davis”. What I didn’t know then was that, subconsciously, she was instructing me on the ways of the world and forging a path so that little black girls like me could find their way.
Mom’s careful poise was only a veneer for the grit and tenacity that pushed her to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations — even her own. It was inevitable that, as her daughter, I would need to fall in line. When I somehow didn’t meet her standards — if I acted too much like a child (even though I didn’t know how to be anything else but a child) — her dark eyes would flash at me, the whites like fire. But there would be no words. Or maybe just a quiet indictment. “Oh, I’m not sure I would wear that, dear…”
As much as I respected her, I feared her. And like many mothers and their daughters, there was that uneasiness: for her, it was the role of “mother”, which somehow made her tighten up; for me, it was how to be the daughter of this little but powerful woman who cast such a long shadow.
I remember sitting in the bathroom with her as she got ready for work, watching as she began the process of becoming television’s Belva Davis: hair brushed and teased into a proper bouffant, eyes carefully lined, a bit of rouge — but not too much. As a black woman reporting on the politics of those underrepresented populations for whom she was their voice, it was important not to draw too much attention to herself.
To be a woman of color with an opinion and conviction is complicated. We see what isn’t being said about us. We know what is implied.
I’ve thought a lot about that because in the work I do as an equity-based communications strategist for city and state agencies, I need to be able to share the concerns of my client’s stakeholders. As a black woman sitting in a boardroom with white executives, I realize now that my mother and I share many of the same experiences.
To be a woman of color with an opinion and conviction is complicated. We see what isn’t being said about us. We know what is implied when they listen, and then resume their own conversation.
In a report from McKinsey and LeanIn.org, 55% of Black women leaders say they’ve experienced “having your judgement questioned” compared with 39% of all women and 28% of all men. And perhaps the most telling: 20% of Black women leaders experienced “having someone say or imply that you’re not qualified” compared to 12% of all women.
If you’re a black woman reading this then I’m sure those numbers resonate with you. I can only imagine that my mother had plenty of people imply the same thing about her, but it wasn’t something she really talked about. Even after a 50-year career, she couldn’t stop trying to convince the world that she was legitimate even after awards and accolades were showered upon her. She forced herself to work well into her 80’s, even though she would sometimes find herself losing the thread of conversation.
“There’s still so much work to do”, she’d say.
Throughout her career, as she ping-ponged between TV stations, it wasn’t lost on my mother that wherever she went, an ambitious woman of color was a threat. She was a threat to the men who held the same job as she did. A threat to the white women who were climbing that same ladder. And time and again, there were those who had no problem reminding her of her place.
In the turbulent 1960s, a storm was brewing. Civil Rights protests, anti-War demonstrations; a powder keg waiting to be lit by an angry mob. When my mother covered the 1964 Republican Convention in San Francisco, she was heckled by a violent crowd that became increasingly volatile, hurling bottles and half-eaten hot dogs followed by the burning sting of racial slurs. On stage, presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and former vice-president Richard Nixon didn’t try to quell the crowd, rather, they goaded them further into a frenzy.
For mom, the moment was a bellwether for what was to come in American society.
“All too many white Americans refused to believe the harsh truth about race relations in their own country”, she wrote, when recollecting the incident for her book. “Too many turned a blind eye to the prejudices great and small that polluted the air African Americans had to breathe every day. Hatred was a powerful force.”
Throughout the sixties and seventies, mom saw the escalation of that hate and division towards Dr. Martin Luther King when he came to speak at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza in 1967. She was one of the few people of color covering him for the news. A year later, she quietly suffered as she reported on his assassination.
As for so many others, Dr. King had given her the conviction to believe in the good.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” As journalist and cultural moderator, mom was used by both sides in the fight for civil rights, but the way she saw it, it was how she could make the greatest impact on our community.
Still, she sometimes walked a very fine line.
I remember being a little girl sitting on the floor at the feet of Huey P. Newton, leaning against his knees, and listening to my mother explain to him why the CIA was recruiting young black men to spy on him. She was able to pass through the barriers that the Black Panther Party set up for everyone else. While she didn’t always agree with their tactics, she knew that the Panther’s mission was to shatter the systemic racism which had held her people back for generations.
These were not extraordinary people. They were ordinary people who got caught up in extraordinary circumstances, ones that transformed them and the direction of their lives. My mother could not help but get involved in politics even if that was not officially part of her job description.
Without calling herself a feminist, she lived as one, doing what she felt was right to bring context and balance to opposing ideas. The complexities of diversity, inclusion, and equity were her core, but she never broadcast them as her personal banner. She lived by them.
At this late stage in her life, I no longer feel the need to revisit the complexities of our past together. What matters is Right Now: sitting quietly on the couch with her close beside me, feeling her squeeze my hand, and understanding all that she tried to give to me. That poise and tenacity. And of course, I know how to dress like a proper lady when the task requires it. I can command the room even if I sense that some don’t think I belong there.
The woman named Belva Davis and who I just call “mom” ingrained in me how to be fearless even when I am fearful. She taught me to keep my eyes up high and make truth my compass, so that now, my daughter can also learn the fundamental importance of making fairness and social justice the essence of who we are.
And for that, I am forever grateful.