The theme for Black History Month 2021 is The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity and is set every year by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History®, an organization founded in 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the famed African American historian known as the “Father of Black History.
Today, the word family means a lot more than it used to. Today, we tend to see family as no longer the nuclear man, woman and two children. The American dream. But did this American dream lead to so many American nightmares when what was being strived for was so out of reach?
But was it? Is it?
I grew up in a traditional American home, with both parents, adoring grandparents on both sides, and a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins. Yet, many of my friends did not. I never thought either was somehow out of the ordinary.
Today traditional family structures are still the norm. Just look at any television commercial. But through that same medium that tells us this is still the norm, we are now seeing what is called, nontraditional families.
Following my own divorce, I raised my two children with my former husband in a co-parenting relationship. What was important for us was to maintain that traditional structure for our children. We would both attend ballgames, choir and band concerts, PTA meetings, and meetings with teachers. We were both in attendance at the birth of our two granddaughters, and stood by our son when he married, and when he was profiled and arrested for being a young black man in America. And we were both there to fight the system that punishes young black men for simply being, to see his name cleared.
For Black America, despite all the movies made over the years to define black families as somehow dysfunctional and run by single black mothers or “Big Mama’s,” our families and the unity in our communities is how we have survived some of our darkest days in America.
I can remember movies like, Claudine starring Diahann Carroll that showcased the power and unity of the single black mother to provide a better life for her children. Yet, the media, and scholars alike have insisted that the single most devastating cause of instability in the black community is the lack of strong traditional families with a father as head of household.
Do not get me wrong, I want young black men to step up and step in when they become fathers. That is the most important thing a child can have. A strong black male influence in their life. We know that is what helps to develop strong, independent children regardless of race.
The black family adds to the fabric of life in America.
Yet, the upending of the black family in America through slavery was less than 160 years ago, segregation and Jim Crow in the South a mere 60 years ago. But, before 1960, when poverty and racism were by all accounts far worse, the black family was considerably more stable.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, most black women were married before they had children.
So, what happened?
So, what happened?
I ask that question twice because it begs understanding.
As black families begin the great migration North, more and more black men were incarcerated, often for the mere offense of jaywalking, or other ridiculous rules that only applied to black men. This incarceration took them permanently away from their families.
It was also after 1960, as more black men were finding jobs in the North and the civil-rights movement was shaping public policy and creating new civil rights legislation, that the black family began to unravel.
All of this has contributed to the misrepresentation, dis-identity, and diversity of the black family. Did the black family disintegrate due to welfare, incarceration or something not so easily defined?
I believe Maya Angelou described it best in her poem, The Black Family Pledge, whose words remind us that what was central and key to the survival of the black family, even during our most challenging times, was and is the black community.
The black community has and always will be central and key to the prosperity, wholeness, and wellness of the black family.
Today, let us take the Black Family Pledge again, as we remind ourselves, we are our brothers and sisters’ keeper.
“Therefore we pledge to bind ourselves 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.”
“And That’s A Brilliant Glimpse of Insight”