When I told my mother I would be talking to the mayor, she said, “I know she goes by Vi, but make sure you address her as Mayor Lyles. Be respectful.”
A few hours later, I dialed Mayor Lyles’ number.
“This is Vi!” she answered.
There I was, stuck between the respectful Southern formalities my mother recommended and a warm invitation to a familiar nickname. I attempted to strike a balance.
“Hi Mayor Vi, thanks much for taking my call.”
This began a series of conversations with Mayor Vi and her daughter Aisha Alexander-Young, conversations that in many ways told the timeless story of boomers and millennials, mothers and daughters, and also, the future of Charlotte.
A few months ago, Aisha’s feisty tweet about Kanye West’s controversial surprise concert at my alma mater, Howard University, appeared on my Twitter timeline. I shared it with a few fellow Howard grads in amusement, and one replied, “You know that’s your mayor’s daughter right?”
I thought, Mayor Consensus-Building, Reach-Across-the-Aisle Lyles is the mother of this firecracker?
I scrolled through Aisha’s tweets and noticed that she attended Hampton, another historically black college and one of Howard’s rivals. And she has quite a lot to say about politics, race, philanthropy, and motherhood that I heartily agreed with.
She is the 36-year-old married mother to an adorable 3-year-old; I am the 34-year-old married mother to a delightful 18-month-old boy. We both have busy middle-aged mothers who dote on their grandchildren when they aren’t leading the city or in my mother’s case, leading the church as First Lady.
And like many daughters, we often go left when our mothers go right.
In the day of a flippant “Ok Boomer” and rants against lazy millennials, I was interested in how the moderate mayor navigates one of her most personal and intimate relationships — that with her activist daughter. Vi, the 67-year-old mayor known for her pragmatic approach, was recently reelected with more than three quarters of the vote. The Democrat played a pivotal role in securing Charlotte as host of the Republican National Convention in 2020.
Despite her considerable approval, the mayor has faced criticism from activists, Democrats, council members, and citizens for her support of the bid.
Among the most vocal: her daughter.
In the days before city council voted to formally welcome the RNC in July 2018, Aisha released a statement to say she disagreed with her mother. The mayor shared it and said, “Trust me when I say, there’s no feedback about the RNC that I don’t hear from my daughter every single day. She can disagree with me completely yet still seek understanding. I’m proud she’s mine.”
“I think of myself as a revolutionary,” Aisha, one of Vi’s four children, tells me. She helped to start the nonprofit Dream Defenders, an organization that “demands freedom from poverty, prisons, police, war, violence, and environmental destruction,” and her current full-time gig is Senior Director for Strategy and Equity at the DC-based Meyer Foundation. She has dedicated her life to advocacy, activism, and equity.
If Vi can be counted on for handshakes from people of different political backgrounds, Aisha can be counted on to organize raised fists to the sky in peaceful protests.
“Aisha and I look at it through different ways,” Vi says. “The misogyny and the xenophobia that (Trump) has expressed so calmly … to her, that is completely unacceptable. And I completely understand. It is hard for anyone to listen to.”
She clears her throat.
“At the same time, our city will be on the national and international stage. After the three or four days are done, we’ll all breathe and keep moving forward. One of the goals is to get people to see that we need to have good-paying jobs for people. We need both entrepreneurial and corporate jobs to exist in the city.”
My maternal family is from a rural neighborhood in Upstate South Carolina called Little Africa, made up of several families descended from slavery. After my parents’ divorce, my mother returned home to Little Africa and I spent countless hours with my grandmother who lived a few houses down.
While growing up in that community, I learned about the civil rights movement and asked my grandmother if she’d marched on Washington. She told me she hadn’t time, what with raising 11 children. Childless, pre-teen me couldn’t understand how she’d chosen something as boring as raising kids when she could have been a part of history.
A few years later, I submitted a spicy letter to the local newspaper, explaining why I believed the Confederate flag then flying at the South Carolina State House needed to be taken down. Surprisingly, the paper published it, and I remember my mother’s cautious praise. A few days later, I learned that her boss had pulled her aside and told her in a tone that she couldn’t determine: “Your daughter is really stirring up trouble, isn’t she?”
I imagine Vi and Aisha can relate.
In her chilling dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood writes “No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well.”
I thought of this when my mother disapproved of me nursing my son at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
My mother and I regularly disagree on parenting decisions. She spanked. I vowed never to do so. I breastfed (a privilege largely afforded to me via a lengthy maternity leave and a space in my office to pump) while she returned to work in the military a few short weeks after birthing me and my siblings, making formula the best option for her.
My mother and I still disagree about where breastfeeding should take place, but on other issues, she often shifts her perspective closer to mine. She recently called to say, “Now that I’m thinking about it; I really don’t think spanking is the best way to teach your children consequences. You’re right.” (One might argue this revelation had a lot to do with the softness that comes with being a grandparent, but I’ll take the win.)
Vi, too, has come around with Aisha. She recalls a story several years ago, when 17-year-old Aisha came home with a hair style her mother didn’t approve of. Vi confronted the stylist.
In retrospect, she realizes it really wasn’t a big deal. Today, she often apologizes to her daughter.
“My mother is a good mayor because she comes from a place and time where compromise is valued and necessary for survival and as a means to success,” Aisha says. “I’m not that pragmatic. (Her) compromises have put me in a place of privilege where I can be less compromising. My generation’s job is to tell our parents that more is possible … and I can do that because of what my ancestors and what she did.”
I know what Aisha means. The response to my letter to the editor didn’t bother me in the way it did my own mother. She was a single woman raising three children, dependent on her job to take care of us, and she knew that for black people, impassioned and controversial words and actions often carried consequences we couldn’t afford. My grandmother knew this even more deeply, and so does Vi Lyles. It’s why my mother’s candidate of choice is the moderate “electable” Joe Biden, while myself and Aisha enthusiastically support the progressive campaign of the candidate behind “big, structural change.”
My mother and grandmother found their own way to thrive. My grandparents quietly acquired land over time, ran their small business, raised their children, and ensured their kids had opportunities they hadn’t had. My mother picked up the torch, constantly reminding us to respect our teachers and authority and the importance of a secure career with benefits (“Why don’t you minor in theater and major in biology instead? People will always be sick and we’ll always need doctors.”)
My mother isn’t wrong and neither is Aisha’s. The practical, moderate approach does often yield results – we are that fruit. My grandmother passed on a considerable sum to each of her 11 children; my mother’s three children are all productive members of society.
Vi’s approach made her the first mayor of Charlotte elected twice since 2011. (When she first took office in 2017, she became Charlotte’s first black female mayor.)
Yet even when Aisha explains how she’s different from her mother, I hear her mother’s influence. Empathy and respect for a different viewpoint when you sharply disagree are the values that the mayor hopes Charlotte can embody.
“I know that people will make money (during the convention),” Vi says. “I know that hopefully people will peacefully protest. I know it is one of the most divisive times. I also believe our city has values and that we can do this respectfully, showcase that we are a diverse city. We aren’t trying to run into anything. I believe that by standing where we are, you can have disagreement and still be respectful of each other. I hope that’s what people will see, and I hope that is how citizens will approach the conversation.”
My family of three just celebrated our first Christmas in Charlotte, and in our year here we’ve seen that it is less melting pot and more spicy gumbo with flavors that both compete and complement each other. We met friendly neighbors in SouthPark weeks before the notorious SouthPark Susan drunkenly unleashed a racist rant on her black neighbors.
This past Thanksgiving, we flew to Los Angeles to visit my husband’s family. I spent quite a bit of time convincing cousins, aunts, and uncles that Charlotte was not only livable, it was quite enjoyable — even with the occasional cold spell. Their belief that Charlotte is home to both racists and sweet tea isn’t unfounded, but it is a narrow view that doesn’t speak to our overall experience.
As we discussed the virtues of Charlotte, even in the face of many challenges such as affordable housing and gentrification (also challenges Los Angeles struggles with), I wondered what the mayor discussed at her holiday table. There must’ve been fireworks, right?
I asked Vi about that, and she laughed: “You assume my family cares that I’m the mayor!”
She went on to say that they talked about each other and the food.
“One thing Aisha and I have in common is she doesn’t give in,” the mayor said. “When she believes in something, she stands for it. She’ll debate and reconsider and think it through. … This is why we don’t talk about the convention so much. We both have strong feelings about it but we both love family.”
Fair enough. Of course, the solution to Charlotte’s issues is not to simply avoid them. One step might be to take a note from Vi and Aisha, to focus less on where we can’t resolve the conflict and focus on our shared values and what we respect about each other.
“When I was a mom and they were young, I could barely get through a day. It seems to me that mothers of your generation have to juggle so much more,” Vi told me. “When I talk to her and I hear about how much she has to work at home and the speeches she has to give. You have to be so much more poised and aware. You have to look like it was smooth as ice.”
Vi is just as comfortable beaming about her daughter’s professional work as she is sharing all of the details Aisha attended to for her daughter’s 3rd birthday party, including treats in the shape of a number three. “She must have spent hours after a full workday.”
As a working mother to a toddler, I heard my own mother talking when listening to Vi gush about Aisha’s ability to manage it all. A few weeks earlier, for no reason at all, my mom called to tell me, “In the past couple years, you had a baby, moved across the country, bought a house, changed jobs, and you haven’t missed a beat. I’m really proud of you.”
In true feminist and millennial fashion, I tend to be pretty proud of myself. But there is no approval like a mother’s approval.
I will likely forget much of the useful advice my mother shared, but I will not forget how she made me feel in that moment. I made a point to make sure I told Aisha how proud her mother was of her.
When Vi speaks about her daughter or her three granddaughters, her voice is rich with love and you may momentarily forget that she is a politician.
“The things we disagree on and how we disagree seem big in the moment. But what is most important is dependability,” Vi says. “With my first child, when I went into labor, everyone showed up. But for Aisha, just my mom came. When Aisha had appendicitis and her husband was abroad for work, I came straight away. Those are the moments you remember, the moments that matter.
“You have to show up.”
Three years ago, when Aisha went into labor with her daughter, she was about 10 days ahead of her due date and Vi was out of town. As soon as Aisha called, Vi whirled into motion, and as she puts it, “I juggled flight schedules and told people ‘My daughter’s in labor! Can you get me there?'” She was on a plane within hours. She raced to the hospital and knocked on the door, not wanting to barge in.
“Come on in!” Aisha yelled mid-labor. Then a city councilwoman, Vi opened the door just as her granddaughter was crowning.
She showed up.
I didn’t know what to expect of Charlotte when we moved here last winter. I couldn’t have predicted that shoppers would stop at Home Goods to help me fit a bookcase into the back of my too small trunk. I couldn’t predict that our child’s caregiver would offer to babysit free of charge after I was laid off. I couldn’t predict that our new neighbors would stop by with trinkets when they saw a toddler moving in next door.
But Charlotteans showed up.
And when leaving my West Coast neighborhood, where I was represented by Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Senator Harris, I couldn’t have predicted that I’d move three thousand miles across the country last winter to a radically different city and yet again be represented by a woman who looked like me.
Charlotte doesn’t have it all figured out, but the more we show up, the more we are able to value and respect our differences — and the more we are able to honor the previous generation’s investment in us, even if that means using the voice they gave us to march in the opposite direction — the better.