7th January 2013 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
“To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must set our hearts right.”
“A family is a place where minds come in contact with one another. If these minds love one another the home will be as beautiful as a flower garden. But if these minds get out of harmony with one another it is like a storm that plays havoc with the garden.”
Monday, January 21, marks the day set aside this year for the nation to pay tribute to one of America’s most compassionate drum majors for justice. Oftentimes, when we think about keeping the dream of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alive, we reflect on the struggle to rid this nation of bigotry, inequity and discrimination. And rightfully so.
But there’s another hurdle that’s preventing many American families from realizing King’s dream of a just society in which every human being has the opportunity to reach her or his full potential: The disconnection and disintegration of American families.
Long before they’re old enough to think about college or their futures, far too many children are slipping into the darkness and despair that claim youth who are socially and emotionally disconnected from their families and communities. Young people whose families fail to give them what they need to flourish often turn to the streets and their peers for validation, acceptance and camaraderie.
Such a splintering of many families threatens to erode the foundation of African America, something the trans-Atlantic slave trade, bondage in America, Reconstruction, Black Codes, poverty, lynchings and white terrorist campaigns have been unable to do.
The thing is, Black folks know what it means to struggle in the land of milk and honey. Most of us know what it means to have to strategize and sacrifice to make ends meet. Many families of color continue to find themselves in a seemingly never-ending battle with poverty and adversity. We also know what it means to grow up in nontraditional (read non-nuclear), extended families.
But the poverty that most threatens our very survival in this land is a poverty of the spirit, not the pocketbook. It is a poverty that eats away at our ability to hope, to dream, to love and to do whatever it takes to ensure brighter days for those who come after us. It wasn’t always this way.
I would surmise that one of the reasons Black folks were able to accomplish more with less in the dark days between 1865 and 1965 was because our families were strong and dynamic, and ready, willing and able to do whatever was necessary for our children to survive and prosper.
Our forebears didn’t waste a lot of time presenting young people with frivolous material possessions that do little to challenge their minds or ennoble their spirits. Because we were purposely and systematically kept in the dark for several centuries in America, we fully understood the value of an education. While some today challenge partnerships between churches and schools, these were the twin pillars that lifted countless Africans in America out of lives of peonage and dependence on de facto masters.
Oftentimes, houses of worship doubled as educational institutions on weekdays. Self-knowledge was revered in both churches and learning centers.
Belief in the Creator required that we learn to believe in ourselves and our ability to accomplish whatever we set our sights on. And faith without works was definitely dead. The last thing a people who were just beginning to smell the faintest scent of freedom needed was a dead faith. So we pressed on, knowing that the Creator would make a way for us to liberate ourselves.
Even though the Black Codes and groups like the White Citizens Council reminded Africans of our”place” in American society, our forebears managed to get an education, run successful businesses and establish their own towns.
Long before there were Pell Grants or a United Negro College Fund, communities of color banded together to raise funds to educate young people. Folks seemed to know that we needed to do whatever was necessary to enlighten, uplift and empower ourselves.
We rolled up our sleeves and built schools, planted crops to feed hungry students and welcomed students we had never met into our hearts and homes. We took up extra collections to pay for books and other items needed by teachers and students in the pursuit of knowledge. We even took in complete strangers who would not have been able to get an education without finding a place to live closer to these early schools.
Not only did we understand that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, but we also lived by a principle embraced by the Xhosa, Zulu and other peoples of southern Africa: ubuntu. The elders sum up ubuntu, which acknowledges and celebrates the interdependence and connectedness of humans, this way: “A human being is a human being through the otherness of other human beings.”
These surrogate families apparently saw no difference between the young people related to them by blood and those who Mother Necessity brought into their lives. Students sometimes repaid their surrogate families by doing chores and sharing what they learned in the classrooms with their new kinfolks.
The stories of famed educators, activists and philanthropists like George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington and Mary McCleod Bethune are literally overflowing with stories about selfless acts from people who lived in neighboring communities of historically Black colleges and universities, about people who were wholly dedicated to uplifting the race by any means necessary. It was almost like these communities told these young people, “If you don’t have a family, we’ll create one for you.”
Circumstances, laws and attacks by white supremacists reminded people of color daily that all we could depend on were those who found themselves in the same predicament as us.
All one has to do is listen to the stories of the elders to learn how families of color shielded children from many of the harsh realities of life below the Mason-Dixie line during the Jim Crow era. Loving parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles taught little ones what lines they could not cross in their dealings with the larger society. Examples of this tradition of educating children to survive the venomous wrath of Jim Crow can be found in the underappreciated film Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored.
Although discrimination and bigotry managed to seep into the lives of young people, segregation served as a buffer between children of color and rabid racists, a barrier that allowed Black children to learn and grow despite the incredible odds they faced daily.
That was then and this is now.
In 2013 we find ourselves struggling to convince young people — and some grown folks — that education is important and that it is the responsibility of the next generation as members of the community to learn everything they can about their history and the struggle of those who came before them.
There are, of course, exceptions but not enough to sustain the dramatic turnaround needed in African America. We need to find innovative ways to motivate, challenge and inspire young people of color.
We must begin, however, by doing a better job of raising them.
Some of us would like to believe that it’s just low-income families that are struggling. Conversely, there are many examples of middle-class, college-educated families that are every bit as fractured, if not more, than poor- and working-class families.
Some so-called experts would blame the disintegration of families solely on the rapid growth in the number of female-headed households. But history teaches us that white mob violence, the criminal justice system and lynchings have turned many Black two-parent families into single-parent households in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many still found a way to grow and prosper.
That has apparently changed as evidenced by the growing number of young people in African America who give up on themselves and their futures while still in grade school. Having been let down by their families, churches, schools and communities, many youth throw up their hands in frustration and anger.
The good news is that those of us whose biological families leave much to be desired can create new, extended families that give us what we need to survive and prosper. That means finding mentors and authority figures that young people can trust and believe in.
When it comes down to it, family is everything.
Without strong families, our young people don’t stand a chance. With them, nothing can hold them back.
Families are the basic building blocks that forge healthy, productive communities that ascribe to life-affirming values and principles.
It is the family that gives each of us his or her foundation in life. Families give us a sense of who we are and our place in the world. Through interactions with family, we invariably learn to love, trust, hope and believe.
It’s important to remember that families needn’t be perfect to be useful and effective. They just need to be places of refuge, places where individuals can return daily to receive love, support and encouragement. Places where we can let down our guard and feel completely safe.
I would venture to say that most of the people who have greatly impacted African America in positive ways come from families that encouraged them to dream and love and be all they could conceivably be. We’re going to need more of these families in the 21st century if we’re going to get back on track. I think that’s a dream the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would support with a hearty “Amen.”
Some 150 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Africans in America need to re-learn a lesson that our ancestors seemed to know instinctively: I am because we are and all we have is us.
I leave you with the insightful words of a poem by Mama Maya Angelou titled “The Black Family Pledge”:
Because we have forgotten our ancestors,/ our children can no longer give us honor./ Because we have lost the path our ancestors cleared,/ kneeling in perilous undergrowth, our children cannot find their way./Because we have banished the God of our ancestors,/our children cannot pray./Because the old wails of our ancestors have faded/beyond our hearing, our children cannot hear us crying./Because we have abandoned our wisdom of mothering and fathering,/ our befuddled children give birth to children they neither want nor understand./Because we have forgotten how t love,/ the adversary is within our gates, and holds us up in the mirror of the world,/ shouting, “Regard the loveless.”/Therefore, we pledge to bind ourselves again to one another./To embrace our lowliest,/To keep company with our loneliest,/To educate our illiterate,/To feed our starving,/To clothe our ragged./To do all good things, knowing that we are more than keepers of our brothers and sisters./We are our brothers and sisters./In honor of those who toiled and implored God with golden tongues,/ and in gratitude to the same God who brought us out of hopeless desolation,/We make this pledge.
This article was originally published in the January 7, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper