Father is Coming
The clock is on the stroke of six,
The father’s work is done,
Sweep up the hearth and tend the fire,
And put the kettle on. . . . . .
As Americans, we are what we perceive ourselves to be. It is an often used cliché that life imitates art. The American social vision as represented in our literature is unique in its perception of the family in that it has represented the family to be a model of the greater society at large. A noted historian, John Demos, contributes in his book
Past, Present and Personal
, coverage of an entire span of American history of “family history”; to be sure, much was written in colonial or pre-modern times about the family but not on a scholarly level. Also, the eighteenth century American literature as witnessed by
by Hannah Foster places the woman in a less than important role.
The vision has been further complicated by the growth of television since World War II. The family, second only to the “western” has been the central focus of television programming. Until recently, television has fostered the myth of the “mainstream white American family” witness
Father Knows Best
Ozzie and Harriet
as examples. This being the media perception while at the same time Lorraine Hansberry offered the vision of “A Raisin in the Sun.” This story centers on a Black family in the ghetto and the brilliance of a son who in spite of their stamina and how hard they tried, they still fail because of the institutional racism they face in society of the time. Hansberry posits two obstacles to success of the Black Family:
external pressures caused by the institutionalized racism;
sense of defeat which Black men have as a result of racism throughout the ages (ie: impact of slavery)
We see that the Black man in this story, although trying to rise above the obstacles, feels defeated, thus the myth of the strong matriarchal Black society take hold. Many families have different strengthened “roles” within but we must note that in American family life, the immigrant influence and the Black experience has contributed uniquely to cultural and familial variance.
In “Father Knows Best” (T.V. series circa 1960) the male role figure is the central force behind every show. It is he alone who rights every wrong and smooths over problems. Mother is an appendage to the family setting. She is happy to be in her one family home with the picket fence, perhaps baking an apple pie or two. Similarly, the theme in “Ozzie and Harriet” is a stylized image that is completely nonthreatening in its predictability. One of the upbeat additions to “Ozzie and Harriet” is the introduction of adolescence: the two sons, who although representatively speaking are the “all American boys” tend to pose some adolescent problems within the tranquil Nelson household. This is, of course, an over simplification of the show but it holds true of that type of television image of that era. The entire sphere of adolescence has been studied as a branch of social science unto itself and of course, in relation to family history. We have, for example, the work of the sociologist James Coleman and the educator Edgar Z. Feidenberg whose book
The Vanishing Adolescent
, published in the early 1960’s when society was discovering the teenage presence. Our own life time offers a different view of adolescence and its integral position within the family structure.
The most interesting statement of these television shows however, is that in spite of their support of the traditional, and in spite of their refusal to challenge the imagination, it was nevertheless the mother who was endowed with the actual wisdom and strongest contribution to resolving the difficult problems of life. As T.V. pointed out, when Dad had really fouled things up, mom invariably came to his rescue. This “happy ending” revolved around the traditional nuclear family and mom and dad were married to each other.
A Raisin in the Sun
the vision is reversed. The male figure has no actual power, and the decisions of life come only from the women in the story. The male figure is isolated and powerless. The women do not have their intelligence and power hidden behind cultural egotism. Indeed they must be stronger and smarter than their men in order to survive the world that deprived the males of power. There are nonetheless underlying common themes that run through the family stories in spite of the cultural differences. These ideals, while coming from different experience, speak to a peculiarly American ethos. The evolution of the story telling has been away from the traditional (father at the head etc.) to less traditional families probably no less mythological, but answering to a different set of myths that stand for the current model of ourselves. I strongly suggest reading
A Raisin in the Sun
as a basic text for his unit.
In art, as a typical media for family exposure, one can witness the painter’s evolutionary hand in depicting family life. Paintings in premodern times emphasized a stiff, more stylized version of the family. Families would pose in a way as to note the degree of authority and importance their roles held. In the modern era, Rockwell (noted American artist) painted children, men and women in amazing detail and with a “natural” feel which has influenced much of American art today. Guy McElroy, in a book of portraits,
Facing History: The Black Image in American Art
depicts the natural beauty and cultural pride in the Black family and the images of Blacks in society. He too captures the natural inner beauty of the people he paints.
Part of my unit will consist of tracing the formation of families in our society. It will deal with family structure. By family structure I mean the changing roles each member of the family plays and how time and socio-economic factors have permitted the roles to metamorphasize. Some credit needs to be given to the Women’s Movement for rescuing the mother from the kitchen and placing her in the world of work. However, one must also understand the economics of the twoworking parent families. While the two income family has always been with us, it is only recently that such families exist out of choice rather than out of pure necessity.
Families in which two incomes were needed to provide the basics of life are understandable from the point of view of survival alone and need not be looked at in this unit. Families in which both partners are professionals and have careers by choice are reflective of a major change in societal fabric.
I would like to concentrate on various media and their depiction of American life. The T.V. and film industry has merchandised family entertainment and in many ways has promoted the changing family style. Many family shows today react to this societal change. In “Full House” the audience relates to a family without a mother in which the family’s central figure is a widower raising two girls and a dog. In “My Two Dads”, two men raise a child. In “The Cosby Show” the father, a physician, is married to a lawyer. There is no issue as to the equality of the parents. This show is a wonderful illustration of the “new myth.” The skin color of the Huxtables is not relevant. This is an American family. The image of strength, love, intelligence, and openness regardless of the position occupied is delivered directly to audiences everywhere.
Let us trace back for a moment to the late 1970’s. Notably, the babyboom generation was growing up then and the importance of family issues were paramount. They shared the limelight with civil rights, women’s issues, political, social, religious and artistic evolution/revolution of the times. In the late 1970’s came still another awakening child abuse as a public issue. Until now, this subject was backshelved and not publicly discussed. After all, family related issues were considered personal and confidential and it was not polite to “air one’s dirty laundry” in public. An article first appeared in 1962 entitled “The Battered Child Syndrome.” This was published in the
Journal of American Medical Association
and started the ball rolling. The intrinsic power of the issue along with the notoriety of its medical experts made an enormous impact on society of that time. For years this problem, child abuse, went under the category of “known but not acknowledged”2 and now all the horror was out in the open for everyone to read and comment on. Professionals and nonprofessionals alike were urging communities to deal with the blight of child abuse. As Demo’s book,
Past, Present and Personal
states, “elected officials in state after state rushed to create legislation that would strengthen protective services to children.”3
We must note that throughout the history of mankind children have always been abused. It is only during this century that we have developed a sensibility to this abuse and find it (in many ways) outrageous. We have entered the technological phase of the modern era of man, and with this the family has entered a new beginning as well. To many of my students, the nuclear family as tradition implies will not be relevant, a version of extended family is more realistic here. Also, although my students are classified as “minority students” a total historical immersion into the African experience will not be applicable as well. My students of Black and Hispanic background, are inherently “American” and they tend to deal with the situation of the here and now rather than in the past histories of ethnic or cultural background. Not that I will underrate the historical contributions of their roots, but I feel that understanding the American family (even if we use mainstream white families) will be easily understood if kept simple. By reading various literary essays n family history, poetry, and using parts of
Raisin in the Sun
my students and I will get the importance of family issues via a literary showcase; by watching television, viewing slides/photos and paintings we will become familiar with impressions of the family in other media as well.
In the 1970’s
(weekly T.V. show) portrayed the ideal American rural family including the extended family. That is, the grandparents were very much a part of the weekly plot line and they were included in the decision making of the family. Since all family members lived under one roof, it is the authentic example of extended family. Although
embodied rural Americana, the show had vision to change with the times. There is an interesting paradox here.
was designed to respond to Americans’ nostalgia for simpler, older country life, but the problems it addressed were relevant to contemporary families. Judging by its popularity on television, the show captured audiences from all over the United States (urban and nonurban as well). The director was able to have each episode develop and coincide with the timelines for which it was geared to. So we do see the old fashion virtues side by side with modern day tribulations unfold. The show had wide national appeal, and like
The Cosby Show
it represented a true to life format to which the general audience could identify. The trials, joys, events and developments of the television characters could have been those of our own lives.
These same changing themes are reflected in all media. Literature and the visual arts show the same evolutionary trends over the last fifty years. A modern day book,
Maggie’s American Dream
(published in 1989) by Dr. James P. Comer, is a personal account of a mother in a Black American household and her perception of family life. Divided into sections, this book represents a family’s goals and aspirations (typical of Americans) but much more important, it portrays the individuals as real people and their roles as development of themselves.
Issues such as divorce, single parenting, death, adoption, serial monogamy and inter racial relationships are an integral part of this unit. For when one discusses family history, one is aware of family changes as well. I have listed in the
Bibliography for Students
various books I have previewed. These readings, I feel, will greatly assist the educator when discussing sensitive issues in family life. Early adolescence is such a perplexing time already and for these young adults to cope with the death of a parent, loss of a parent or any other change in their family unit, could result in long term emotional damage. It is our duty as teachers to provide perhaps the only real stability in their lives. These readings will then become a springboard for classroom and/or individual discussion. Most of the books listed are written with a young audience in mind and they give a straightforward message while dealing with issues such as death and divorce. These are the same issues facing our children in the New Haven community and the same issues that sociologists claim plague the inherent “health” of a family. This unit will also include slides of paintings I found helpful to share with the students. These painting and photographs depict the “changing” family. The suggested readings and students’ bibliography is attached. Lesson plans are included with the unit for guidance and use by the educator.
Thus, this unit’s desire is to unleash in the educator a creative approach to teaching urban middle school children the importance of the family and the family’s focus in the media.