I was once asked to do a Workshop on ‘The Brokenness of Black Family Life’. The given emphasis was based upon a look at the loss of value systems at work in the homes as well as the generational and intergenerational failures of interrelationship systems among Africans born in America.
At that time my initial sight was taken to the fact that ‘brokenness is the NORM’ —by design; and that every Black Family that emerges whole IS the exception. I am reminded then as now, that as a people, we are “Up From Slavery” where at the very heart, the foundation is a system that stripped bare all language and culture and freedom; yes that word that we are in Celebration of these two month; now June, with Juneteenth and July… Independence. Stripped bare of the senses of morality and justice and temperance.
This ‘Up From Slavery’ brings us in this quest for “Knowledge is Biblical. Education is not” (me), to Booker T. Washington who from my earliest memory of reading his Autobiography to which he uses this as it’s Title, has never left my psyche… as a measure for ‘all things American —culture, language and yes, Freedom. He begins by talking about himself as “A Slave Among Slaves”:
“I WAS born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia. I am not quite sure of the exact place or exact date of my birth… As nearly as I have been able to learn, I was born near a cross-roads post-office called Hale’s Ford, and the year was 1858 or 1859, I do not know the month or the day.” “My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate and discouraging surroundings… in a typical log cabin, about fourteen by sixteen feet square. In this cabin I lived with my mother and a brother and sister till after the Civil War, when we were all declared free.”
“Of my ancestry I know almost nothing. In the slave quarters.. I heard whispered conversations… of the tortures the slaves, including, no doubt, my ancestors on my mother’s side, suffered in the middle passage of the slave ship while being conveyed from Africa to America. I have been unsuccessful in securing any information that would throw any accurate light upon the history of my family beyond my mother. She, I remember, had a half-brother and a half-sister. In the days of slavery not very much attention was given to family history and family records —that is, black family records.” “Of my father I know even less than of my mother. I do not even know his name. I have heard reports to the effect that he was a white man who lived on one of the near-by plantations. Whoever he was, I never heard of his taking the least interest in me or providing in any way for my rearing.”
“My mother, of course, had little time in which to give attention to the training of her children during the day. She snatched a few moments for our care in the early morning before her work began, and at night after the day’s work was done. One of my earliest recollections is that of my mother cooking a chicken late at night, and awakening her children for the purpose of feeding them. How or where she got it I do not know, I presume, however, it was pro-cured from our owner’s farm. Some people may call this theft. If such a thing were to happen now, I should condemn it as theft myself. But taking place at the time it did, and for the reason that it did, no one could ever make me believe that my mother was guilty of thieving. She was simply a victim of the system of slavery. I cannot remember having slept in a bed until after our family was declared free by the Emancipation Proclamation. Three children— John, my older brother, Amanda, my sister, and myself— had a pallet on the dirt floor, or, to be more correct, we slept in and on a bundle of filthy rags laid upon the dirt floor.”
“I was asked not long ago to tell something about the sports and pastimes that I engaged in during my youth. Until that question was asked it had never occurred to me that there was no period of my life that was devoted to play. From the time that I can remember anything, almost every day of my life has been occupied in some kind of labour;” “I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression upon me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.”
Who could have ever in wildest imagination, listen to 150 year old living description of Black Family Life and find Truth that has… not changed! Remind me again in what is now 2023 —60 days of Celebration of Freedom; ‘what are we celebrating?’
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