I was sitting with a group of Africans in mid-February (mostly Nigerians and Tunisians) and they were discussing the African
model of family. As they talked, the one thing that really struck me was how they defined "self." Their concept of self is
not internal and individualistic but rather external and inclusive. Ultimately, the "self's" well being is totally and inextricably
tied to the well being of the "other." In certain respects, there is no other, every person you encounter contains elements
of who you are and there is virtually no way to separate yourself by word or action from your family or community.
It occurred to me as I listened, that at one time, African Americans also valued this model. Family was central, community
was important. We did not separate ourselves from our families or live in isolation within or from our communities. In this
critical juncture of our evolution perhaps we need to take another look at this model.
Not so long ago, at least in my family, I had a laundry list of women and men that I could appeal to at any given time. The
women: my mother, her two sisters, my great aunts "Big Mama" and Aunt Peewee. The men: my father and his three brothers, my
stepfather and his friend Mr. Moses ( who was not related but a permanent fixture in our home), my cousin "Pooh Boy" who lived
in the attic, and of course that one male relative that no one wants to talk about. You know who I mean.
Bottom line, there were always plenty of men and women that we could learn from (or keep the kids away from). I am a patchwork
quilt of all those women and men who were in and out of our home. My penchant for scrambled eggs served in depression era
tins from my 100 year old grandfather. My "you aint gone worry me" from my older cousin Ann. The way both my sister and I
sway our hips when we walk from my Aunt Maylees.
Where did we go wrong? When did it become okay to separate ourselves from "ourselves?" When did we get so "fast" that we was
too grown to live with our parents or have them come live with us?
Now I love my privacy as much as the next, but at what cost? In my search for myself, my own car, my own home, my own life,
I wonder if I have robbed my children of their opportunity to cobble themselves together from bits and pieces of their ancestors
and kinfolk. Even though they have three grandmothers, a grandfather, eight aunts and a corps of cousins, they will not know
the same kind of "kindred" spirit that I grew up with, not really, cause I just don't take the time to make it happen.
Last month I mentioned that one of the most important things you can do for a son is to provide him with a 2nd and 3rd family,
a tribe if you will, composed of men who can lend a different experience to their development. I mentioned that my sons have
at their disposal a diverse group of men ranging from professionals to laborers to wayward youth.
As I sit here writing, I realize that this extended family is every bit as important for our daughters as it is for our sons.
The fact of the matter is that if we are going to do this thing right it does take more than one parent, it takes more that
two parents or even three. We have forgotten our history. We not only have to remember our past but we must also "re-member,"
become one body again.
We have to re-member the extended family (related by blood or not) and pull them back into the fold. Re-member and piece together
those latent ancestral memories, appeal to all that is not yet forgotten. We have to re-member before all is lost.
During the 2003 holidays, my then 12 year old son asked if we could have his aunts and grandparents over for a family dinner.
I was both chastened and saddened by the fact that he probably had this yearning long before he was able to articulate it.
I had never prepared a feast for a large gathering before, but my three children and I spent hours in the kitchen preparing
an old fashioned Thanksgiving dinner. We had good enough food, extraordinary conversation and wonderful camaraderie. My son
went to bed with the biggest smile of satisfaction on his face.
What I learned from this experience is that deep in their own ancestral memories, our children remember the importance of
knowing who you are in determining who you are to become. They yearn for community for the re-membering. Deep in my soul I
truly believe that our children are born with a "knowing," a sense of what is essential and real as they prepare themselves
for their journey through this physical space.
Because our children chose to come through us, perhaps one of our roles is to pave a safe path for their journey. A safe space
to bounce their evolving ideas of self as defined perhaps by the African model. That is, to use everyone they meet, "call
into their space" to reflect back to them a "self" to aspire to --or not. Our role? To pull together a community peopled with
elders and role models that are whole themselves and have our children's best interest at heart.
As unschoolers perhaps we have more of an opportunity than most to have some input into our children's future and their community
in-formation. For, I can't help but think that with or without us, their yearnings, their desires, their will, "will be done"
one way or the other.