In spite of a systematic attempt by much of American society to destroy the foundations of family life for African-Americans, the Black family unit in all of its varied forms has survived.
Throughout America’s history, social and economic forces have worked directly and indirectly as pressures designed to weaken the African-American family and erode the strengths which can be gained through family ties. Despite these negative forces, the Black family unit developed as a stabilizing and sustaining influence, surviving and promoting the survival of individual African-Americans against tremendous odds.
Through the seemingly impossible days of slavery and up through life in modern day society, the family has been of tremendous importance in the lives of African-Americans. The image which many people hold portraying the Black family as broken or non-existent is not an accurate one. In reality, the Black family provided a strong support system that enabled, and still allows, many African-Americans to survive both physical and emotionally in the face of considerable obstacles.
Despite the theories presented by some possibly well-meaning researchers, the African-American family has not always been in a state of confusion. Though, of necessity, it was sometimes organized along what the majority population would probably term nontraditional lines, the family unit usually contained strong role models, both male and female. It was built on an inter-relationship that fostered responsibility, sharing, and a warm sense of caring for other members.
Teaching in a self-contained fifth grade classroom of twenty-three African-American pupils, I am aware of many of the strengths as well as many of the problems to be found within the families of my students. I am also keenly aware of the need for my pupils, and all pupils, to develop a strong sense of self-esteem in order to achieve success in life. In today’s world this is not an easy task.
In the past I have found that pupils of this age are generally unaware of the historical development of African-Americans in this country. They are even more unaware of the realities of individual life during these periods. Their knowledge is scattered and often based on stereotypes. Though recent emphasis on African-American history has made them more knowledgeable about individual achievements, they do not see events in a historical context, which prevents them from seeing the full significance of individual events and influence of history upon them and their families today.
A study of the historical development of the African-American family in America, from its African roots forward, could help foster the kind of understandings that would allow my pupils to see themselves and their ancestors as part of an institution whose role is one to be admired. In turn, I would expect that they would be better able to recognize and take pride in the positives of their present family as well as better understand the pressures contributing to any existing problems.
In order to achieve this goal, it seems imperative that pupils be presented with materials that provide a more accurate picture of Black family life as it existed and as it now exists in America.
Through the selection and use of appropriate children’s stories and poetry, as well as excerpts from some adult literature, a much clearer picture of the reality of African-American life can be gained.
Various paintings focusing on the African-American family can provide positive examples and serve as springboards for further discussion and reading. The famous
by Henry Tanner with its nurturing grandfather figure opens many avenues of exploration. Though rather abstract in style, Charles Alstan’s
presents a more traditional family configuration for viewing and discussion.
It also seems important to expose pupils to American Art which depicted African-Americans in a negative or stereotypical manner. The historical changes both in who painted Blacks and how they were painted is worthy of consideration. An excellent collection of pictures together with historical information may be found in Guy C. McElroy’s
Facing History—Black Images in American Art
Photographic collections, such as those fauna in Middleton Harris’
The Black Book
, starting from the days of slavery, show us a rich history of craftsmen, artists, inventors, performers, and everyday men, women, and children. Also included are photos and sketches showing the harsher, often brutal, side of life. Even these, however, send out a message of strength, love, and cooperation gained through “family”.
A recent photographic collection,
I Dream A World
, by Brian Lanker, presents excellent pictures of present-day African-American women with a short biographical sketch. Though only a few are shown in a family-type setting, the power of their faces begs for speculative discussion about their lives and character. Along with each picture, there is a page of comments by the woman involved. These comments often give recognition to the supportive influence of family.
Regarding the specific course of this unit, as its primary goal, it will provide varied opportunities for pupils to examine examples of American literature, painting, photographs, and representative artifacts which reinforce the concept of the African-American family as a continuing positive force.
It is designed with a self-contained fifth grade classroom in mind, but could readily be modified to fit other circumstances.
The unit easily lends itself to inclusion in a variety of subject matter areas which could be integrated naturally into one general study. Lessons in the area of social studies would provide the historical context into which the study of related literature, paintings, and artifacts would fall. In turn, these areas would be examined and expanded during reading, creative writing, and art class. During the heart of the study, it would seem wise not to make any subject matter distinctions.
Regarding length, in my self-contained classroom, the basic unit, including the historical background needed, would take at least two months of integrated social studies, reading, creative writing, and art lessons amounting to from five to eight hours a week. Activities designed to develop an increased understanding and appreciation of one’s own family might continue throughout the year. Time could easily be adjusted to meet individual classroom situations.
After providing a brief background an the origins of slavery, we would examine societal and family traditions that existed in the African homelands from which the first African-American slaves were separated. Pictures and accounts in Valerie Bank’s
Kwanzaa Coloring Book
provide one source of age appropriate material in this area. In
by Virginia Hamilton, in which the author examines a young girl’s fascination with a woman she believes to be an African Queen and the lesson she learns from her, we have a look pertinent to understanding the connection between past and present.
Turning to slavery in the United States, we would learn of the factors, as well as the deliberate techniques, which provided tremendous obstacles to the formation of strong traditional family units among African-Americans. In turn, we would see how adversity created strengths and strong ties among African-American slaves—just the opposite of what the proponents of slavery desired.
Both adult and children’s literature contain many examples of African-American slaves who bonded together in both traditional and non-traditional families defying the attempts of white slave owners to keep them weak as a people and therefore easily controlled.
Excerpts throughout Alex Haley’s
give us accounts of “family” strengths. Sharing these selections with the group could possibly be followed by a showing of the television movie of
which examines the entire period through the eyes of “family”.
More on a fifth grade level, the book
by Betsy Haynes lets us observe the intricacies of “family” support existing on a typical southern plantation. In the face of tremendous obstacles, we see this support providing the individual and group hope which fostered survival.
Although probably not suitable for reading in their entirety, Harriett Jacobs’
Incidents in Life of a Slave
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
by Harriet Beecher Stowe contain a number of sections which present both the horrors of forced separation and the depths of caring existing among family members. Certainly a summarized version of Harriett Jacobs’ story, including some select passages, would provide a powerful example of the sacrifices made for family. Likewise, a summary of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and reading of selected sections would breathe life into the facts of history. Children of this age would be capable of making general comparisons between the two novels and could understand the weaknesses in
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
as well as its historical significance.
In similar manner, we would move forward historically through Reconstruction, segregation, the civil rights movement, up to modern times examining the forces affecting African-Americans with a special focus on the role of family as a positive influence as well as an institution affected by the course of history.
Alice Childress addresses the problem of drug addiction in
Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich
. We are allowed to view the problem through the eyes of all those involved and see how each is affected and tries in his/her own way to help the situation. A particularly positive character is the addict’s “step-father” who, though not actually married to the addict’s mother, plays a crucial role in his life.
, Eloise Greenfield tells the true story of a young girl who escapes death in an accident only to be left paralyzed. Through her own determination and the support of her family and friends, she is able to move forward both physically and emotionally.
In the area of poetry, Dudley Randall, in his collection of African-American poetry,
The Black Poets
, provides a chronological presentation beginning with “Folk Poetry” and carrying us up to modern times. The same is true of Langston Hughes’
. Many poems in both are appropriate to this unit and the age level involved.
In his book
Beyond Black & White
, James P. Comer not only provides a clear picture of the historical development of African-Americans in this country, but he also intertwines stories of actual individuals to show us the role played by family. Dr. Comer’s knowledge of sociology, political science, economics, and psychology make this book an excellent source of understanding for the teacher.
This should ultimately help in deciding upon appropriate material for use in the classroom. Also, there are excerpts from the text which could be used directly with pupils when presenting the historical picture.
It is important that pupils be exposed to material involving ordinary families who lived their lives in a positive manner in spite of the inequities imposed by the dominant society—families with positive values and worthwhile goals who succeeded.
All of Virginia Hamilton’s books that I have read provide excellent examples of ordinary people living together, facing problems, supporting each other, and learning together. The characters are easy for children to identify with. The interrelationship of family members is realistic and positive. Though some of the situations presented in
A Little Love
are a bit mature for fifth grade, her depiction of Sheema’s relationship to her grandparents is worthy of excerpting. (A partial list of her children’s books is included at the end of this unit.)
Children need to become aware that great accomplishments were achieved in the face of adversity long before modern times.
The Black Book
provides pictures and text explaining contributions made by African-Americans throughout history in almost every phase of life.
magazines often feature people whose accomplishments cover a wide spectrum. Though they are often pictured in a family setting, it would be hoped that, at this point, pupils would realize that “family” support probably played a major role in achieving success even when it is not discussed.
Throughout, attempts would be made to draw connections between early and modern families. Activities would involve pupils in examining the positives existing within their own families.
There are numerous related activities which lend themselves to both topic and age level. Here are general summaries of just a few. Three more detailed lessons will follow.
Through talking to other family members, looking at old photographs, and examining other family records, pupils might develop an individual family history.
After determining the symbols that best represent the spirit of their family, each pupil could create a family coat-of-arms.
If older family members or friends are available, pupils might conduct interviews centering around recollections of the past. Interviews could be tape recorded or written and then shared with the class. In some cases, these individuals might be willing to speak to the class.
Pupils might collect various things that have been in their family for a number of years. If these are not available, they could select things that are important to the family now. Depending on the nature of the articles, these “treasures” could he shared or photographed for sharing with the class.
A gallery of photographs both from the past and the present could be arranged in the classroom.
A “rap” about their family or an individual family member could be created and presented to the class or another audience.
A list of suggested children’s literature provided in this unit includes only a small number of the appropriate works available for use in achieving the desired goals.
Though planned primarily for African-American students, the unit also could develop understanding and sensitivity in pupils of any racial group.