February 22, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 28
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The strength of black families

Marian Wright Edelman

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 nor storm, sleet nor snow — dislodged these dead leaves from the apparently lifeless branches.

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 and 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, too, deserve praise for all we’ve accomplished.

Black people devoted to family saw us through the unspeakable assault of slavery. The 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 slave owners may have done their very best to try to destroy the families in their control, but it didn’t work.

When slave owners 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. Our mothers and grandmothers took their time braiding our hair, neatly pressing our clothes and reminding us every day that black was beautiful, even before that phrase became popular.

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, Ala., Jackson, Miss., 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 numerous threats to their stability throughout our history. Drugs, poverty, violence and unequal opportunity have battered our families mightily. 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.

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 we need to do better.

There are many 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. It 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.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund and its Action Council.

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