Written By: Preston A. Thompson
When thinking about black culture several things come to mind. Hip-Hop, R&B, Gospel, barbershops, inventors, businesses, educators, scholars, Black Twitter, just to name a few. However, we forget about how important the black family is to our culture. Yes, the black family has always been at the heart of our culture. It is where our genetic makeup originates and explains where we contribute to the culture bringing our own unique styles and personalities. It is more than just relatives descended from two people several generations ago, but also our pride and joy, number one support system, and sometimes guilty weakness.
The Silent Generation has been the upkeep of the black family. A skill crafted by their parents who learned it from the generations before. Now, the Silent Generation has passed it to the Baby Boomers who will pass it to Generation X in hopes for the tradition to carry on to Millennials and Gen Z. That family bond hangs on the balance despite living in a world that is everchanging.
In the 2010s the world as we knew it advanced in technology. Smartphones became smarter, social media occupied our time, streaming TV and music became popular, the internet got faster, communication gained more ways to remain connected, computers became a part of our everyday lives, Amazon hurt malls without opening a brick-and-mortar, the list goes on. The 2010s also changed our thoughts and social trends. The computer teens are now the cool kids on campus, self-health (both physical and mental) become top priority, starting a career tops starting a family, should I keep going?
What does this mean for the traditional black family? For decades, this group never had to adjust although the world around it did. Lately, it appears family submitted to an everchanging world. Let me explain.
The Millennial Generation values genuine honesty and loyalty in people more than blood relatives. In fact, if the source of mental pain comes from family, this generation will work to fix the problem rather than cover it up. When some Millennials rule a family member’s behavior is too toxic to fix, he or she may become less involved to the point of choosing self-happiness over family. Think about how many times you scrolled through Facebook or read an article exposing toxic behaviors in his or her own family? I have seen too many, especially on Twitter. I also listened to family, friends, and colleagues in my age group talk about behaviors their family have and how nothing is done to change it.
I first noticed this change in the mid-2010s. One night at work I was casually strolling through Facebook when an older family member’s post caught my attention. The post was concerned about the black family and how it was not the same in comparison to when she was younger. She stated black families once depended on one another and were close. Family always got together and enjoyed each other’s company. Parents never had to worry about who would take care of their children because family was always available and willing to help when needed. She then mentioned today her children do not know their own cousins. Even in family’s presence the children and adults are on their phones not engaging with one another. Some act like they do not want to be around their own family. You cannot even get a good turnout for family reunions these days. Of course, I am paraphrasing from the actual post, but you understand.
This post had me thinking, has the traditional black family changed? Has the heart of our black culture finally submitted to an ever-changing world? How could we have allowed this to happen?
I began to think back to my 90s childhood and 2000s teen years looking for possible clues that may have went unnoticed. If your childhood was like mine, then you are aware of growing up in the large black family. Almost every week my intermediate, and sometimes extended family, would have impromptu get togethers. My grandparents’ house served as the unofficial headquarters. The amount of family that came in and out of their house were unmeasurable; yet my grandparents enjoyed the company. Every year during the month of July our extended and distant family would get together in a predetermined city or town for our annual family reunion. This was the time you caught up with family you have not seen in a year, met newborns, chilled with cousins in your age group, ate, did family activities, hugged everyone goodbye, and said, “I’ll see you next year! Keep in touch!”
By the 2000s extended and distant family began to gradually miss family reunions. As my generation got older most of us moved to cities and towns that were farther away from our hometowns. The upkeeps of the family got older while several died. When you add up some of these variables it appeared our family not only changed, but also inadvertently became more distant than before. By the 2010s family became connected through parents rather than the whole family. Our big get-togethers that brought the whole family together happened during a relative’s funeral. The annual family reunions saw a significant decrease in the number of family members attending. Promises were made to keep in contact, but most were kept through smartphones and social media rather than face to face. Sure, we use Facebook to like and comment on each other’s life achievements (i.e., graduations, starting a new job, getting married, the birth of a newborn, becoming a homeowner, etc.), but that was all done virtually when we cannot physically be in the same room. If this sounds like your family, then I may have a few examples to help explain why your traditional black family may have become more distant than you think.
1) Your family lives too far away from each other:
My grandfather was born and raised in a small town called Johnston, South Carolina. He got married, started a family, owned a house, worked, retired, and died in Johnston, South Carolina. His seven children lived in neighboring towns less than 50 miles from Johnston. This benefitted them because living close to their parents meant they could always make visits and still be able to go home on the same day. Today, my closest family member is my mother, and we live more than 50 miles apart. If I want to visit her, I will need to plan a trip even if it is just for a day.
When family lives long distances away from each other, the dependency on each other suffers. You have no choice but to become independent although that is not necessarily bad. In some ways you find out how strong you are without family nearby to provide the immediate help if needed. This also means you must carry the burden of maintaining your lifestyle should something go wrong.
Previous generations appeared to be subconsciously bound to their hometown. Since family was always nearby, someone reliable was always around during those moments of need. Some family feared moving too far away from family meant if an emergency happened no reliable relative would be close to provide help.
2) The chase for higher education also adopted you into its blended family:
If you are like me then you also took the traditional path to higher education. You graduated high school at 17 or 18, went to college a few months later, lived on campus, made friends, joined student organizations, stressed about exams, and received a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, during those years you did not just receive a degree. You have also gained more perspectives about life that may not always agree with the family values you were raised on. The biggest differences can be for the first time in your life you could debate the lessons you are learning, encouraged to think freely, and challenge the status quo of what a culture accepts as opposed to home where your family may have forbidden this type of thinking because it threatens what was established and accepted.
Whether you attended a HBCU, PWI, Ivy League, technical, or arts college one thing is common you want to belong in a world that is different from your home. So how do you do this? The answer is finding a person, group, or organization who represents who you are. Joining these groups of people will make your college experience more rememberable. Once you begin to trade ideas and find similarities amongst each other you start to think like the group. You may begin to reject some of your family values that do not match and replace them with your newfound ideas in hopes of bettering your life after college.
Although it is great to gain different perspectives, your family may have a hard time accepting the new you. Maybe they feel being replaced for the organizations you joined while in college feels like you have turned your back on them. If you and your family cannot come to a compromise, you may find yourself leaning more towards the groups of like interest rather than your own family.
3) Job localization has forced you to move farther away from your family and hometown:
This example ties examples one and two together. Now that you have your degree or trade skill you must satisfy it. The work and effort you put towards it needs to be fulfilled in the form of a good paying job in that field. This sounds easy, but for many it is not especially if it means moving farther away from your family and hometown.
Small towns not associated with a city may not have the jobs you are seeking with your degree. In addition, if it has that type of job, it may not pay as much in comparison to similar jobs in larger metropolitan areas. For this reason, small towns today are suffering in population and wealth because their talented citizens are moving to cities with better paying jobs.
Job localization may be the cause of some family separation by distance. Large corporations and successful private sectors that pay well localized into cities or neighboring towns. As a result, the talent does not become dispersed, but grouped into these areas which creates long distance relationships with family who are still living in small towns.
4) We have become so connected through smartphones and social media that face-to-face interactions are becoming disconnected:
When cellphones were first released to the general public no one imagined they would advance into what we know them as today. Social media is easily accessible with the tap of an app and little to no cost creating a quick way to communicate with virtually anyone.
Why this maybe a problem for the traditional black family? Older family members (before Millennials) grew up in a world where family communication was done mostly through face-to-face interactions. The home telephone was just a way to communicate when they could not see each other.
Let us think about family reunions and Sunday dinners. This was the main way older family members really got to hear about what is going on in a relative’s life. Got engaged? Before smartphones with video chat, one would have to drive around to all family members he or she liked to show off that ring and fiancée. Gave birth to a newborn? Family reunions, Sunday dinners, and church were the places to meet up and show him or her off. Any other life events? Telling family over the telephone was one thing, but the anticipation for face-to-face interaction was the preferred method of communication.
Today all of that can be seen and done in just a few minutes without leaving the house thanks to smartphones and social media. One can bundle all the liked family members into a group text message and video chat. So instead of going from house to house or family get-togethers, you can just send a video of your newborn drinking milk. Even though this is convenient for our generation, this may not always work well for your older family members especially when they feel it is becoming too common. Remember your older family members are still trying to figure out how to Zoom or Facetime, they are probably just learning how to send emojis. They still need your physical presence.
May this explain why the turnout at the annual family reunion decreased over the years. With everyone owning a smartphone and social media family knows what is going on in your life without you calling considering if you are an avid poster. With social media constantly trending upward as the main source of news and information daily are family reunions needed if anything you share can be done at the moment it happens?
5) Online articles that expose toxic family members are triggering past hurts caused by family. The sad part is the victim never fully healed from that episode:
Family was first and everything in the average traditional black family. We protected each other through the good and bad, and outsiders had to respect that. No matter what a relative did that was wrong, we easily forgave (often coerced into it) because that was what the older generations taught us. Sometimes we painted a perfect picture of toxic family members to others so well we became blind to his or her continual toxic behavior because we believed family could do no wrong to each other.
Remember when I said the Millennial Generation values genuine honesty and loyalty more than blood? I find this to be true. We have a hard time painting an “everything is fine” portrait of our families when toxic traits are excused because of the family first mindset. With self-health and mental healing being front and center in today’s black culture, we are very truthful about the problems that have once affected us in adverse ways. If that happens to include hurtful events caused by family in the past, then we tend to pick healing over the perfect family portrait. Unfortunately, those hurtful events go without justice, and the victim is forced to forgive and forget when in truth we struggle to fully forgive knowing our family will silence us about it. Not seeking proper help for this creates internal battles we fight with whenever triggers come. Physical and emotional pain, neglect, abuse, depression, confusion, lack of trust and other emotions plaque our minds when we see a constant reminder at family get-togethers while trying to force a smile just to please older family members.
The Millennial Generation is using our platform to express ourselves about the things that once hurt us. Sometimes they can come off as funny, but serious post attracts others who had similar situations. We find support groups and read online articles about how others overcame traumatizing events. Sure, this may damage the perfect family image, but the need for affirmation from like minds and support for our healing journey is more freeing.
6) You know your successes are congratulated by family, but you also know some are jealous while cheering you on:
Not everyone grew up in a well-established family with degrees on the wall, successful careers, generational wealth, etc. Some of us grew up in families who made sacrifices daily to keep up with life’s demands. So how does one cousin who grew up in this same family, struggled, shared the same clothes, still found a way to succeed while the rest of the family seem to be stuck in the same situation that has kept them down for years?
The answer is the hustle and determination paid off in his favor. He made it and must keep going to maintain that success, and honestly, he may not be able to take the family with him at that moment. Sadly, it takes one family member to feel like this cousin is not doing enough to give the family credit for more family members to feel the same way. Jealousy can change the family bond into one that is not genuine. As this cousin succeeds more in life you may find yourself cheering him on, but deep down inside you also find yourself being jealous that you struggle to duplicate. Remember, your time will come just like his. Be happy for him during his moment and keep working towards yours. Recruiting other family members behind his back just so you can all sit around and talk down about his every move in life only hurts your chances at success.
7) Family rivalries may have made your family distant:
Sibling rivalries, favorites, the desire to be the first to do it in your family, telling your children to do better than their cousins can all give birth to pride. If pride does not make you a winner, then comes jealousy. Keep losing with jealousy, and malice towards your family will control your mind. This is where you reach the point of finding anything wrong for all the good in any family member’s life, particularly the targeted ones. Family rivalries do not create strong bonds. It creates a competitive environment that can only be satisfied with winning. As a family we should want the best for each other, but we must learn that our very own family is not your competition. We each bring different talents to the table that can be used to uplift each other. No one in your family should be your rival.
Maybe the traditional black family has been distant in this era than in the previous. However, we have better ways to communicate even if we live far away from each other. Advancing technology, distance, and communication without physical presence should not harm a family’s bond, but all members should take time to use these tools to build a stronger relationship. At the same time, we should try to make time to communicate even if it is through texting or Facetime. Who knows? When that big gathering happens again it may bring back that traditional black family feel with a new black family trend. Remember, traditions were once new ideas, and new ideas create new traditions.