Kelley N. Robinson
When I was a little girl, I can clearly remember running in the house one day after school bawling my eyes out because some of my classmates were talking about my clothes. My family couldn’t afford the latest fashions but my parents worked as hard as they could and did the best they could. I’m appreciative of this today but on that afternoon, all I wanted to do was hide. Worse still, when I told my father what the children said he responded rather casually, “Don’t worry—it builds character.” It was a little too casual for me and I responded almost impudently, “What do you mean, build character?! I had been humiliated in front of everyone and that was all he had to say? He kind of looked at me out of the corner of his eye [as if to say, “Watch it. ] then proceeded to explain just what building character was all about. When I confront my hardships and not only deal with them but, subsequently, move forward to endure greater issues, I become a stronger person which enhances my character—my essential being. I was impressed by that and have been working on my character ever since. This character building has been taking place not only in my life but in the lives of many other African Americans as well who have had to and continue to endure the struggles that life in America presents.
The lives of African Americans have been filled with much suffering and hardship. Since our enslavement, we have had to encounter many heartwrenching setbacks and obstacles. Even today, dreadful trials continue to beset us, yet we survive. Not only do we survive but, in the midst of our trials, we are able to experience a level of joy and laughter. How can this be? How can one be jovial when life seems to incessantly deal hard times? “In the Black experience tragedy is unavoidable. Resilience and revitalization of the human spirit are facilitated by the use of humor and by the knowledge that one is not alone; there are others who will bear witness to the profound sorrows of existence” (White, 1984). The Blues culture, which encompasses this Black experience and uses all forms of oral and written expression, speaks to this depressed yet resilient spirit. Blues is defined as a state of depression and melancholy. Those who are a part of the blues culture; however, do not swim in self-pity and sorrow but accept their situation and make the best of it. In the forward of Albert Murray’s,
Train Whistle Guitar
(1989), Robert O’Meilley said this of Murray’s work regarding the blues:
In these books the most commanding point is that there is a fundamental difference between the blues as a feeling of melancholia and
, which . . . functions to bring people closer together for lighthearted fun, . . . for stomping the blues. Heard in this way the music has an underlying dimension . . . that is forthrightly heroic. It’s keystone strategies for perseverance are
of the low, dirty fact . . . that things are not necessarily going to work out for the best and
in the face of this unhappy truth . . . Even the music itself can suggest the role of a hero. And although blues and blue-steel heroes cannot always win (life is so low-down and rotten) at least they can go down swinging.
As a result of the sharing within this culture, we connect with one another by the oral tradition which yields a power that comes from the spoken word.
“The spoken word represents a mutual participatory space in which both the speaker and listener continuously affirm each other’s presence within the context of a call-response dialogue” (White, 1984). While the earlier existences of this harmonious dialogue was found in Negro work songs sung by slaves, it has been and continues to be manifested in many different forms. This call and response form is used in spirituals, and even in Sunday morning services.
Church has historically been an outlet for the feelings of African Americans and there, they are able to release pinned up emotions. “By singing together, they also share those emotions and gain solace in their togetherness” (Haskins, 1987). In present day churches, this form of affirmation also takes place as brothers and sisters shout “Amen! , “Preach the word! , “Tell it! , and many other phrases that encourage the preacher as well as other saints. While many members of our American society and the world at large do in some way affirm one another it seems to be crucial not only to the survival of the African American race but it also seems to naturally and effortlessly transpire.
“One supporting theory suggests that there are psychological themes noted in the language, oral literature, and expressive patterns of Blacks” (White, 1984). The first theme is vitality. “It speaks to the sense of aliveness, animation, and openness to feelings expressed in our thoughts” (Redmond, 1971). This vitality serves to capture and hold the attention of the listener as colorful words and phrases are used or spoken in a way that make one’s imagination dance. Being an African American teacher, I, likewise, find myself sharing with my students in an exciting, vivacious and, as one Lance Jeffers said (1971), “wholesomely uninhibited fashion. What makes this vitality so significant is that it is life-affirming. Instead of feelings being repressed, they are freely shared with others and hopelessness and pessimism are rejected. This allows a forum for being honest and genuine—keepin’ it real.
In an effort to maintain the level of reality, clearly the message expressed in the folk poetry of the blues and gospel music is that profound sorrow, pain, hardship, and struggle cannot be avoided. In this there is an oral tradition whose roots go back beyond written records. “In West African countries, it was the role of professional musicians known as griots to preserve ands sing the history of a particular family or tribe, as well as to improvise on current affairs” (Busby, 1992). The blues singer of today closely resembles the ancient griots as they open up the window of their souls and tell it like it is. We have been historically beaten and defeated but disappointment, tragedy, and setbacks are inevitable. “This is simply the way things are” (Neal, 1972). In an effort to survive, the first step is to see life exactly as it is, but this does not lead to resignation or despondency. “Instead, the goal of a Black presence in the face of adversity , and thus the second theme, is to keep on keepin’ on, to keep the faith, to maintain a cool steadiness, and to keep on climbin’ until one has transcended” (White, 1984).
Our modern day griots, blues and gospel artists, writers and even rappers of today express the hard times that come their way but remain optimistic, always believing in a better day. Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son is an example of the steadiness and perseverance that must be maintained in the he face of misfortune. In this poem, and aging Black mother is sharing the facts of life she has learned through experience with her son. This poem encourages the child and all of us to keep on going. More recently, Blacks are experiencing these tough times and dealing with them. In a
1997 interview with the now deceased rapper, Christopher Wallace (aka Notorious BIG), the rapper stated,
I think people need to realize that there are tests and obstacles that everyone has to go through. A lot of n— want to give up and do wrong, but they don’t even think God is in their corner. What I respect about God is that he always steers you in the right direction. [with regard to a tattoo] That’s why I went and got it, to reassure myself that no matter what goes wrong, no matter how bad sh— is looking, God is right here . . . all these jealous people, all these sharks, and scandalous b— and haters, He’ll stop all of that. He’s going to take me where it is I’m going to avoid them.
This rapper realized that hardship was a part of life and you have to hold on and persevere, not matter how difficult things get. “Psychological growth and emotional maturity cannot be completed until the person has paid his or her dues by overcoming hardship, defeat, sorrow, and grief” (Baldwin, 1963). Once people have been victorious over their trials they tend to have more respect for life and can be more compassionate when others are going through.
Thus far, I have discussed the difficulties that come with the Black experience and while these troubles are inevitable, there is more to life than your man cheatin’ on you, and being ‘busted and disgusted’. The third theme speaks to the other side of this sorrow—joy and laughter. “The trouble will pass, the blues won’t last always, and freedom will emerge on some bright sunshiny day” (White, 1984). The openness to a balanced range of human emotions in Black consciousness that is not burdened by guilt, shame, and self-debasement makes it easier to tap into the powers of revitalization found in sensuousness, joy, and laughter. This was evident in the 1970 television series “Good Times . This poverty stricken family lived in the run-down, rat infested projects of Chicago, always struggled with rent, and ate oatmeal for dinner, but continued to find humor daily and they “maintained . Even the name of the show suggests a level of satisfaction and happiness. Being able to laugh was crucial for the Evans family and many other black families coming up then. “Blacks use humor as a weapon to confront adversity” (Davis, 1968). Black comedians such as Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory often used the negative social-political realities of that time to make jokes and today’s comedians are continuing in that same vein. I believe it was comedian, Steve Harvey, who once responded to the offer of a free cruise by saying that the last free cruise black people took, they couldn’t get back home. One of the first models of realism in Black comedy is Langston Hughes’s creation of Jesse B. Simple (1950, 1953, and 1957). Better known as Simple, this is a fictional underemployed Black male living in Harlem in the 1940’s and 1950’s who worked for white folks in a low-status job and regularly talked about issues such as racial oppression, growing up in the South, Black pride, and struggling for survival. Langston Hughes used this comedic character to ‘tell it like it was’ for the lives of African Americans. The willingness to laugh in the face of misfortune without denying the seriousness of adverse reality is part of the survival equipment of African Americans. Humor grounded in reality is psychologically refreshing; it defines the situation in manageable terms and prevents the build-up of unbearable anxieties by not allowing people to take themselves too seriously. “Soul is the ability to laugh while growing with the hardships, paying dues, and transcending tragedies” (White, 1984). Through emotional vitality, sense of authenticity, and the ability to see the humor in situations, African Americans are able to encourage one another, support one another, affirm one another, thus making the journey of life worth traveling.
The application of these life-affirming, self-validating themes is even more crucial to the positive growth and development of the African American child. Our children are lacking determination, endurance, and self-affirmation, which negatively affects their ability to encourage and affirm others. Black children, just like all other children move through the major stages of human growth and development but there are children today who are seriously lacking the necessary support to successfully move through these stages. “During these critical developmental periods, the focus for the Black child is successively on physical closeness, survival, mastery of the oral tradition, coming to grips with oppression, and resolving the inclusion-excursion identity dilemma” (White, 1984). In the early years, the saying “It takes a village to raise a child is primary as the mother receives the assistance of any number of adults, grandmothers and ‘big mamas’, as well as older siblings in caring for her baby. “Because the cultural framework promotes interdependence, emotional closeness, and physical touching, young children are likely to be given considerable affection, nurturance, and comforting physical contact” (Kunkel and Kennaid, 1971). As a result of this, a sense of confidence is generated in the child that motivates that child to satisfy explorative and inquisitive drives. The child feels that he can trust his world and this allows him to feel good about himself. What makes this an unfortunate reality for Black children today, particularly urban children, is that the cultural framework is crumbling. To elaborate, younger and younger children are afraid to take risks and explore because that basic trust is absent. Family members are missing from the homes and, in some cases, from their lives and they are forced to go to the next stage without that needed level of self-confidence and respect. Having this is essential to being successful at the next stage of development which demands survival, responsibility and resilience.
In the past, children who grew up in the Black family were, generally, exposed to a cultural tradition where the emphasis was on survival through collective responsibility, resourcefulness and, and resilience. Even in Africa, this has been a practice of many tribal communities. In the observance of Kwanzaa, these principles are the foundation of the harvest celebration (Kujichagulia-self determination, Ujima-collective work and responsibility, Kuumba-creativity, and Imani-faith). In this web of interdependent human relationships, children learn by imitation, discovery and direct teaching that they are expected to work cooperatively with others to make a contribution toward the survival and well-being of not just themselves, but of the group as well. In Richard Wright’s,
, (1945; 1953), Richard’s mother became ill and he began to do work in the neighborhood to earn money for food. Whether it was running errands, or working a job, he realized he had to do something. Likewise in James Baldwin’s,
Go Tell it On the Mountain
(1953; 1981), John had to do chores which included dusting the dining room until he choked. It didn’t matter that it was his birthday—the house needed to be cleaned and everybody had a part. In my personal experiences, I remember having chores and responsibilities to tend to before my freedoms could be exercised. I also remember going through tough times with my family and watching my parents stand amidst the storm. This has proven to be most beneficial to me in my personal and professional life. Today, however, fewer and fewer children have those models to imitate and are not learning the importance of being responsible, resourceful, creative, and determined. It is true that children do learn from first-hand experience and life is not easy. They see their family members confronting life’s hardships that may include job layoffs and other economic misfortunes, sick loved ones, incarcerated loved ones and many other trials for which there are no dreamy solutions. But instead of them observing these adult family members cope with these difficulties by remaining resilient and resourceful, they see them giving up and, in turn, the children imitate what they see as a way out—drug sale, drug use, or any other quick, get-over scheme. This does not coincide with the culture that The Blues represents. In Albert Murray’s,
Train Whistle Guitar
(1989), Red Ella killed her husband because he was seriously mistreatin her. While she was somewhat justified, she failed to realize that bad luck and disappointment (the blues) did not mean the end of the world but only that she had to endure just like everyone else. Our children are not learning this, which is affecting their ability to endure, that, in turn, affects their ability to survive. As a result, the survival of the African American race begins to crumble.
While it is apparent that African American children are lacking the models in their environment to affirm them and teach them how to persevere, there are some historical figures whose life experiences taught them how to go forward in the face of adversity. Both African Americans men and women have exhibited an enduring faith and have built characters that show their strength and vitality. Far from complying with the passive, acquiescing stereotype, Black women through the centuries have been awesome leaders occupying major positions in the history of liberation struggles. People like Queen Hatesheput, whose defiant reign is remembered by her obelisk, which is still standing at Luxor. “Queen Nzinga is another who in Angola during the 1630’s and 1640’s tried to organize resistance to Portuguese slave traders” (Busby, 1992). Other women followed, such as Harriet Tubman. As a young slave girl, she was forced to work in adverse conditions, but she held on for years until the time was right to run for freedom. Even during that time, she suffered through many calamitous situations such as leaving her family behind, and encountering sudden and untimely sleeping spells while running for her freedom. Her determination in spite of her struggle is an example of what children need to see. The line of phenomenal women of great character continued with Ida Wells Barnett who fought against lynching and racial injustice and Rosa Parks who refused to move to the back of the bus which ignited the Civil Rights Movement. It continues today with the efforts of Congresswoman, Maxine Waters, and Senator, Carol Mosely Braun who have come a long way and are working hard to remain resourceful, resilient, and responsible in life’s struggle for freedom.
There have been many men throughout the years as well who have learned how to go forward in the face of adversity. Nelson Mandela certainly stands out as one who has endured. Serving a prison sentence of twenty-seven years, he has relentlessly struggled for freedom and justice in South Africa. He had to separate himself from his family, abandon his profession, and live in poverty but as he wrote in a letter while underground, “The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days” (Mandela, 1961; 1990). While he and those such as Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are the more well known figures, there are other men who understood the blues culture just as well. One great musician who truly knew something about the blues was Louis Armstrong. Children can learn from him that know matter how low life may seem, you have to keep going on. Children do not know that Louis Armstrong’s neighborhood was filled with so much violence in the early 1900’s that they called his neighborhood ‘the battlefield’ (Brown, 1993). The people who lived there were the poorest of the poor and were looked down on by other blacks. He lived in a shabby, run-down house and never had enough food to eat, or clothes, but he persevered and found his freedom in music. Every individual has his/her own trials but they are unavoidable. I believe that teaching the students how to accept and confront their situations will help them to better deal with life’s adversities and thus, develop good character.
In an effort to improve the moral and ethical integrity of children, the goal of this unit will be to expose students to The Blues culture and instill in them a sense of appreciation for struggle. This unit will assist children in accepting who they are and help them gain a level of self-respect. Most importantly, it will affirm children by letting them know that they have worth and are important to the survival of their race—no matter how bleak their situation may appear. More specifically, the objectives are as follows:
Through literature discussion and role playing, identify the importance of confronting challenges and overcoming them.
Discover, through research, their personal history.
Affirm personal memories by creating a history book of themselves—“Mystory.
Discover the importance of endurance and determine ways in which to endure trying situations.
Reflect on present ‘place in life’ and future aspirations. Record them both and list ways to get from one level to the next.
Meet, through research, famous African American musicians, scientists, and other leaders whose lives have withstood long-suffering.
Write a futuristic autobiography that discusses how they overcame life’s challenges to get to their point of success (use real life hurdles).
Compare the lives of slaves to the lives of the “Buffalo Soldier” . List the similarities between the two.
Research family genealogy and make a family tree.
Create and unveil monuments that represents who they feel they are. Dedicate monuments.
This unit will take approximately six weeks to complete and will be the beginning of the social studies curriculum unit for the fourth graders.