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.
My parents were like that oak tree. Throughout most of our history, most 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. At the same time, we need a new call to action, because our children are facing what I and many believe is the worst crisis since slavery—and need adults’ strength and influence more than ever.
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 ancestors and to see our children as children of God.
We’ve all heard stories of the lengths many newly-freed slaves went through after Emancipation to try to be reunited with family, sometimes traveling for hundreds of miles in desperate attempts to find loved ones. 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 became 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 education and 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.
Our families have seen us through many crises, but there have also been threats to Black family stability and reports of Black family breakdown throughout our history. Drugs, poverty, violence, and unequal opportunity have battered our families mightily. But many of us who are committed to strengthening Black families believe the forces undermining Black family life are turning in a dangerous way, and many Black children are treading through treacherous new territory. A toxic cocktail of poverty, illiteracy, racial disparity, violence, out of wedlock birth, and massive incarceration is sentencing millions of children of color to dead end, powerless, and hopeless lives and threatens to undermine the past half century of racial and social progress. Those of us who see the threads of our families, neighborhoods, and social networks fraying under the burden just as our children need us most know we need to reweave the fabric of family and community that supported us and got us this far. This is why we’ve launched the second phase of the Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC).
The Black family has been the strongest defense Black children have had throughout our history, and must become so again to help lead this crusade. Our children have been nurtured and protected in the past as best as we could because of the hard work of committed and determined Black adults—and today, it’s our turn. Too many Black adults have gone AWOL and need to come home to family. We’ve already withstood powerful storms and we will withstand this new and dangerous storm by banding together as a Black community to protect all of our children. As the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” remind 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 already come this far on the way, and it is not time to stray or let our children down on our watch. Wake up and stand up for our children who are asking for and deserve our help.
To learn more about the Black Community Crusade for Children and join us, visit staging.childrensdefense.org/bccc.