Oftentimes the words “Black History Month” make people think of well-known pioneers such as Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks or Harriet Tubman. Don’t get me wrong—all of the things they did in the past such as the Civil Rights movement and the Bus Boycott led to Black people having certain rights and freedoms today, but Black history for me means something different. I was born in 1988, and the traditional ways of Black community and culture are so different now than they were when I was a little girl. The true history of our past was once taught in schools back home in Chicago-it made a world of difference in the way that we connected as a community. Today all of that has changed, and the past is now a part of history.
The definition of Black history to me means the real stories, cultural beliefs and practices of the African people known today as African Americans (Blacks). The right to identify as an African or Indigenous American was prohibited and deemed a crime by law and sentenced to one year of prison due to the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. State and local courthouse records in many states, such as Virginia, destroyed courthouse records and reclassified all non-whites, including Black, brown, and Indigenous people, as colored. The Racial Integrity Act and damaging of records caused many families hardship due to not having knowledge of their true history. True Black history is inherently tied to cultural traditions and beliefs. Those cultural beliefs and practices were forbidden, damaged and lost. Today, African American descendants are lost, broken, divided and confused.
It wasn’t always this way. There was once a time during my lifetime I witnessed a thriving Black community where everyone was connected.
As a community we all looked out for each other. Most families had two-parent households and oftentimes had other family members living together all under one roof. All the able-bodied adults held jobs, and the grandparents stayed home to cook, clean and care for the children. We ate Sunday dinner at the dinner table as family, and the children sat at the kiddie table together with cousins, neighbors and friends. We attended church on Sunday morning following a night of hair combing in the kitchen right next to the stove where Momma would grab your kitchens (nappy hair at your neck or edges) and smooth them with grease and a hot comb she’d warmed on the kitchen stove. Everyone dressed up in their Sunday best, and at least one member of each family played a role in Sunday service whether they were choir members, ushers or servers.
Cousins and siblings walked to school together, and the elders stood on their porches monitoring the youth as they all went to school. If you misbehaved, a stranger would walk you home to your parents’ house to tell on you, and you’d get a spanking right then and there. If you misbehaved in school, your parent or relative would come to the school and spank you in front of the classroom. There was no such thing as a case manager who would get involved. These methods may seem harsh, but they worked, and children stayed in line and were rarely disrespectful to adults as a result.
For our birthday we would have a house party in the backyard with relatives and friends and have cake, ice cream, hot dogs, potato chips, penny candy and juice, and we always had a great time. Our daily routine was prayer with grandparents before school and breakfast. After school we took off our “good clothes and shoes” and put on our play clothes to go outside and play until the streetlights came on. We weren’t allowed to go outside before doing our homework. Outside we behaved and played nice with friends and drank water from the water hose and got wet by the fire hydrant that an older person would break open for us on the street so all the children could get wet in the summer. We had block parties where each block in the neighborhood took turns once a month putting together a community event on their street with music, food, bounce house, games and community resources for all. Families argued, fussed and sometimes fought but never was it any Black-on-Black crime or violence. There were so many youth programs and activities for young people that taught us the importance of being a good human being. Every adult we ran across was a mentor of some sort.
If there was ever a problem in the family the grandmother or grandfather would fix it right away. If mothers weren’t available, the aunts would step in. If the fathers weren’t available, the uncles stepped in. If the community had an issue, the church stepped in right away. Girls were taught the importance of self-respect. Boys were taught manhood. The television shows back then marketed unity, love and compassion within the Black family and communities. The good deeds of youth and community members were highly advertised and promoted. You rarely saw any violence.
One day all of that changed. As laws changed, mothers were offered housing assistance which pushed the fathers out of the home. Drugs and guns were dumped in targeted neighborhoods, and crime rates and drug abuse increased in our communities. The policies surrounding Black history in education changed, and teaching the truth about our ancestors was forbidden in school. Our grandparents passed away and our parents did not pass down the tradition due to many families from the 60s and 70s being products of the drug epidemic. Fist fights were no longer a way to settle beef; everyone now had illegal guns. The media promotes so much violence in our community and in our homes that our people are encouraged to live this sort of lifestyle, and those outside of the culture treat us all like the ones they see on the television screen. Many of our industry and community leaders who try to create change are murdered. The fear of death, incarceration, lack of support and mental illness is what’s keeping the Black people from collaborating and advancing as a people.
The vision that you see of Black people today is not a reflection of my childhood back in 1988. The history of Black America is now a history of the past that I can pass down to my children and grandchildren to let them know that we were once a people of Unity, Integrity, Pride and Optimism. Through my work as a community leader and founding director of Journie, I strive to pass down those cultural traditions and stories to my own children, grandchildren and youth that I serve throughout the community.