The distinguished theologian Howard Thurman once described an oak tree in his childhood yard with leaves that each autumn turned yellow and died but stayed on the branches all winter. Nothing—neither wind, storm, sleet, nor snow—dislodged these dead leaves from the apparently lifeless branches. Dr. Thurman came to understand that the business of the oak tree during the long winter was to hold on to the dead leaves before turning them loose in spring so that new buds—the growing edge—could begin to unfold. At winter’s end, what wind, storm, sleet, or snow could not force off passed quietly away to become the tree’s nourishment.
Throughout most of our history, Black families have been like that oak tree. Despite enormous assaults and pressures, Black parents and elders remained determined to hold on and persevere long enough to prepare the next generation and give them a better life. During Black History Month, many Americans take time to remember the achievements of amazing Black individuals. But Black families deserve their own praise for all we’ve accomplished.
Black people devoted to family saw us through the unspeakable assault of slavery. Beloved historian John Hope Franklin and others have reminded us that traditional myths about slavery destroying Black families are a lie: the slavery system and individual slaveowners may have done their very best to try to destroy the families in their control, but it didn’t work. When slaveowners tried to mate us for childbearing, we made our own systems of traditional marriages and commitments. When they tried to treat parents and children as nothing more than disposable and interchangeable property, we learned to honor and revere our mothers, fathers, and our ancestors and to see our children as children of God. We all know stories of the lengths newly-freed slaves went through after Emancipation to try to be reunited with one another sometimes traveling for hundreds of miles in desperate attempts to find loved ones.
From slavery on, our people always fought to preserve our nuclear families. At the same time, we also learned to create other networks of extended family and near-family that laid the foundation for strong Black communities and nurturing Black children. Families saw us through Reconstruction and did their best to shield and protect children during the dark days of Jim Crow, mob rule, and lynchings. Throughout segregation, many Black families and communities reminded children they had dignity and worth. Long before the phrase was popular, our mothers and grandmothers took their time braiding our hair, neatly pressing our clothes, and reminding us every day that Black was beautiful. During the Civil Rights Movement, many Black families fought together every step of the way. Many parents participated in the struggle for an end to segregated schools and facilities because they knew they wanted a better world for their children. In Birmingham, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi and across the South, Black children marched and were attacked right alongside and often without their parents.
Black families have seen us through many crises, and there have been threats to their stability and rumors of Black family breakdown throughout our history. Drugs, poverty, violence, and unequal opportunity have battered our families mightily. Many who are committed to strengthening Black families feel that now the forces undermining Black family life are turning in a dangerous way with so many Black children treading through treacherous new territory. Those of us who see the threads of our families and neighborhoods and social networks fraying know we need to reweave the fabric of family and community that has supported us and brought us this far.
The Black family has been preserved through history because of the hard work of committed and determined Black adults. We Black adults today need to break our silence about the pervasive breakdown of moral, family, and community values, place our children first again in our lives, and model the behavior we want our children to learn. Before we can pull up the moral weeds of violence, materialism, and greed in our society that are strangling so many of our children, we must pull up the moral weeds in our own backyards. So many children are confused about what is right and wrong because so many adults talk right and do wrong in our personal, professional, and public lives. I urge every parent and adult to conduct a personal audit to determine whether we are contributing to the crisis our children face today or to the solutions they urgently need. If we are not a part of the solution, we are a part of the problem and need to do better.
There are many external and internal forces at work threatening our children: low expectations by adults inside and outside the family; too few positive role models; incessant images of violence; excessive materialism and greed; and too few basic supports like good education and health care. The Black family has been the strongest defense Black children have had throughout our history and must become so again. We’ve already withstood powerful storms. As “Lift Every Voice and Sing” reminds us, we’ve come over a way that with tears has been watered. We’ve treaded our path through the blood of the slaughtered. We’ve come this far on the way, and it is not time to stray or let our children down on our watch. Let’s stand up together this year and show our children how much we care.