Though her family sometimes received food stamps and occasionally had their utilities cut off, Marcie Alvis Walker’s parents led her to believe that they were an average middle-class Black family. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d achieve them. The small catch was that Walker’s dream was an elusive one for any cash-strapped and undereducated Black woman: being a New York Times–bestselling author. Now, as a published non-bestselling author, she wishes she’d had a backup plan.

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When I first got divorced, I didn’t have a job, because I was doing my best to be a good and proper Christian woman whose husband was the head of the household while she looked after his every need and cared for his castle. Small hiccup—my first husband was having none of that: no church, no traditional job, no needs, no castle.

It’s hard to convince a fine artist to give up his rakishly devil-may-care ways so his wife can stay home, darn his socks, and bear his children. I wanted to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. He wanted me to be stilettoed and have drinks with him at a bar. Believe me, I tried. He tried.

Once our first and only little bundle of joy arrived, we were a proper, family-values, Christian household for exactly one day. That’s it. That morning, he put on a suit, gave me a peck on the cheek, looked adoringly at our baby nursing at my breast, and then off he went to work. When he came home, he loosened his tie while I poured him a glass of wine, before we sat down to the lovely dinner I’d prepared, where he told me he was never going back to “that place” again.

It was the end of the end and the beginning of something worse.

I found a one-bedroom apartment, packed up my busted old word processor, my clothes, all the furniture, the pots and pans, every single sheet, blanket, and towel, all of the books, and the kid. For a final blow, I packed up my first manuscript—a romance novel about a figure skater. He was so hopeful for that manuscript. “But now,” I thought, “he’ll never know.” It ended up on a shelf in my new closet with my trusty, old, and faithful word processor as a paperweight.

As a barista at a neighborhood coffee shop by day and hostess at a fancy-pants Italian restaurant by night, I met new friends who sloughed the remaining few patches of Christian purity right off me. I learned to cuss like a line cook when everything’s been 86’d before eight o’clock on a Saturday night. I caught up on Sex and the City and learned I was a Carrie who longed to be a Samantha. I learned how to drink on the job (chardonnay looks like chamomile tea if you put it in a teacup). I worked and learned and read anything that wasn’t the Bible or a devotional, but I didn’t write a single word for two years.

When I was the brokest I’d ever been during my five years as a single mom, one of the waiters at the fancy-pants restaurant suggested I sell my eggs. “Your kid looks like they belong in a Gap commercial. Look at you! You’d get a good price for your eggs.” It was true. My kid did look like I’d peeled them from a Gap Kids catalog, and Black egg donors were rare. I called my mother to share my bright idea. “Have you lost your mind?” She screeched, “You know we have a history of our kids being sold from us.” And that was that.

In 2019, only 5 percent of books published were written by Black authors. I can’t imagine that number was much higher in the early 2000s. And, of course, Black female authors would only represent a fraction of that percentage. Yet I had a better chance of becoming a published writer than I did an egg donor. Egg donors couldn’t be over thirty-one. I was thirty-five when I became a single mom. So I was a divorced and properly sullied woman with a commercially beautiful kid, thirty-five-year-old worthless eggs, and seventy-two cents in my bank account. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that many times I wondered if my divorce had been worth it. Sure, we were broke and miserable, but at least we had each other—and I was writing.

Phyllis Schlafly, the first lady of the Christian conservative movement, knew this. In her 2011 book The Flipside of Feminism: What Conservative Women Know—and Men Can’t Say, she wrote, “If there’s one thing feminists love, it’s divorce—they consider it liberating.” She was eighty-seven at the time. She published four more books, including Who Killed the American Family? in 2014 before she died at ninety-two.

Altogether, Schlafly published twenty-seven books and a weekly syndicated newspaper column that appeared in over one hundred newspapers and on multiple websites, plus a monthly newsletter called The Phyllis Schlafly Report that’s still published today, though she’s long dead. Lest she never be forgotten, the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, hosts all of her work.

In 1972, Schlafly wrote:

In other civilizations, such as the African and the American Indian, the men strut around wearing feathers and beads and hunting and fishing (great sport for men!), while the women do all the hard, tiresome drudgery, including the tilling of the soil (if any is done), the hewing of wood, the making of fires, the carrying of water, as well as the cooking, sewing and caring for babies. This is not the American way… American husbands work hours of overtime to buy a fur piece or other finery to keep their wives in fashion, and to pay premiums on their life insurance policies to provide for her comfort when she is a widow (benefits in which he can never share).

It’s hard to be a proper conservative Christian divorced woman who doesn’t turn feminist.

Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Terry McMillan were all single moms who wrote bestselling books while they raised their kids. Combined, these Black descendants of African civilizations won a Nobel Prize, two Pulitzers, two National Book Awards, two Presidential Medals of Freedom, a Grammy, and a PEN award, and they’ve all had their works made into movies. I wonder what Schlafly would have to say about them. I mean, her husband did keep her in fashion, but she never won a major literary award or the political office she so desired, maybe even more than a fur coat.

I’ll admit that I couldn’t imagine how tiring it must’ve been for Schlafly. I was born and raised Baptist, and I know I couldn’t have found the energy to sit down and write twenty-seven books, a weekly syndicated newspaper column, and a monthly newsletter while regularly attending Sunday church services, Wednesday night Bible studies, Friday night prayers meetings, and Saturday morning choir rehearsals. But Jesus Christ! Schlafly was a stay-at-home mother-clucker who knew how to work!

In 2010, I remarried. I packed up the kid, our furniture, our cat, and our guinea pig and moved to Austin, Texas, to start our new life with my new husband. Not only did my marital status get upgraded in the Bible Belt, but my dusty old word processor got upgraded to a laptop. Not only did my writing tools get upgraded, but my brand-spanking-new husband was also an award-winning graphic designer, and that second-breakfast second husband gifted me with a beautiful logo for my latest endeavor, a blog called Black Coffee with White Friends.

When I shared this good news on my private Instagram account with my new Christian mommy friends I’d met at my kid’s new private Christian academy, one of the moms emailed me: “I’ve thought about the name of your blog, and I think I’m okay with it.” I lost my holier-than-thou persona and emailed back: “Bless your heart! I didn’t realize I was asking for your permission.”

And bless my little old soul, wouldn’t you know? Not long after that, I got a book deal with a major Christian publisher! I called my sisters with the news, and we all whooped and hollered and cried out things like: What God won’t do! Would you look at God?!? Ain’t God good?!?

But then I lost that deal because my kid came out as queer. According to my holier-than-thou contract, they couldn’t support me if I supported my kid.

It was the end of the end and the beginning of something better.

Eventually, I got a new book deal with a Christian imprint in one of the Big Five publishing houses. But it’s very hard to be a Black womanist author who absolutely loves her queer kid, goes to church, prays, and sells enough books to be a New York Times–bestselling author.

I no longer care to write about going to church or praying. Though, of course, I still want to be a New York Times–bestselling author. But these days, I bow at the temple of my laptop until I’ve written at least one thousand words. For me, this is a new kind of faith. Only God knows which words might come to something. And it’s a little like prayer—sometimes God answers, but mostly there’s only silence.

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Read past installments of If They Told Me We Were Poor.