In Generations of Captivity, Berlin has a passage characterizing the Black family toward the end of the period of slavery when many free Blacks and fugitive Blacks lived in the North under difficult circumstances and in the South under even more difficult circumstances. The adjustments to family life made necessary by their precarious condition echo down through the decades to today, 170-200 years later. Reading it, I was struck by how closely it fit to my wife’s concept of family.
Here is what he says on pp. 236 and 237:
“But the African-American family stretched beyond the boundaries of the household and reached deep into black society, incorporating nonresident relatives, friends, and associates through an expansive definition of kinship. In patterns of migration, neighborhood alliances, mutual assistance associations, and even street life, it often seemed that all black people were related if not by blood then by choice…..The proportion of northern black families headed by two parents declined steadily during the antebellum years. Still, despite these many obstacles, most black children lived in households with both a mother and a father. Indeed, the commitment to two-head households ran so deep that “aunts” and “uncles” in the community regularly adopted children who lost their birth parents. The flexibility of the African-American family and its ability to absorb a variety of unattached individuals reflected both the difficult circumstances of black life and the commitment to maintaining kinship ties.”
These values correspond to the values so often expressed by the wife over the decades and we have taken in many people. We have helped many people, some of whom would be and were rejected by the larger society. That is why the Black community needed to be “expansive and flexible.” That is also why I despise these Horatio Alger stories of Black people battling against all odds to become successful, even free. The message is: White people can act like total asses but if a Black person just has true grit, he or she can overcome all that. Bull f****** shit.
And before any reader takes umbrage and points out the strength of families among other groups, including Whites, let me remind you I have lived in this society for 78 years and observed a lot working in both social services and education. There are cultural differences. My own White working-class family was fine but had its problems, just as most Black families have their problems. But casting a young White person out into the world of White America is one thing, but casting a young Black man out is an entirely different thing. Same goes for a young White woman vs a young Black woman. Same goes for a middle-aged…… you get the idea (I hope). This is what gives the lie to Mark Lilla’s complaint about Democrats and Liberals and Progressives focusing on identity politics. The identity group is White people, the one we have to deal with. Sikhs and Alawites are not a threat to me or mine.
So if you are so convinced that your model of proper family constellation is the only one acceptable, just leave us alone. And stop whining about the use of words like community and identity; they mean something to us if not to you. If you do complain, it is because you see the real world as your world and anything deviating from that as pathological. That’s why I always go back to my trope of the kid not showing up for school or work b/c he had to help his aunt move out of her place she’s just been evicted from; the teacher and the employment counselor will not be there for him beyond their brief work assignment to him but his aunt is there forever.