As I watched a replay of Kevin Durant’s moving speech as he accepted the Most Valuable Player Award for the NBA, I was struck by the tremendous hardships that Durant’s family experienced when he was a child.
After expressing tearful and heartfelt appreciation for his current teammates and other NBA players, Durant went on to thank his family for their love, support, and encouragement. Durant’s generosity of spirit and humility were palpable in his remarks and his speech has been described as one of the best NBA MVP speeches in history.
At the end of the speech, Durant described his youth, as the child of a single African-American mother who raised two sons. He said, “The odds were against us. … Everybody said we weren’t supposed to be here.”
Durant also reminisced about one of the happiest memories from his childhood. After relocating several times, he, his mother and brother moved into an apartment that they could finally call home. Durant said: “No bed, no furniture, we all just sat in the living room and just hugged each other. We thought we made it.” He also spoke of his mother’s sacrifices saying: “When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You’re the real MVP.”
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Media commentators hailed Durant’s speech as an early Mother’s Day gift for his mother and, in many ways, it was. However, while, on the surface, this speech may seem to be about the experiences of one African-American family, it speaks volumes about the untold stories of thousands, and even millions, of families in this country that are female-headed, particularly those headed by African-American women and other women of color.
Rather than being emotionally moved by Durant’s powerful words, I was alarmed by the structural inequalities that force many mothers to raise their children in precarious circumstances and without necessary economic and social supports.
Kevin Durant was born the same year that I graduated from high school, so I could have been in a similar situation as his mother had I become a parent at that time. I was also raised by a single mother and can remember the tremendous sacrifices she made to raise me, although she was a schoolteacher with a graduate degree. When I think about the difficulties that low-income and female-headed families face today, I am reminded that many of the government-sponsored programs and policies that existed during the 1990s, when Durant was a child, have since been dismantled due to welfare reform and more recent policies of slashing food stamps and unemployment benefits and dismantling public housing.
One of the greatest gifts we can give to mothers across this country is a more just and equitable society; one in which they are not forced to live in apartments without furniture and do not have to choose between feeding themselves or their children. Critical policy issues such as raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing access to affordable housing, and paying women an equal wage can help ensure that the young Kevin Durants of the world have mothers who are able to raise their children with the necessary social and economic supports to succeed in life, on and off the court.
Kia Caldwell lives in Durham and teaches in the African, African American & Diaspora Studies Department at UNC-Chapel Hill.