We are all members of a family. Whether it is a traditional nuclear family, blended, extended, single-parent, or adopted, we hold a connection. And while many similarities may exist, every family is unique with its own combination of strengths and weaknesses.
When families are healthy, the impact is positive and far-reaching in society. Similarly, when the family is unhealthy or dysfunctional, the effects are devastating. No family is immune to divorce, teen pregnancies, unemployment, abuse, and addictions, but unfortunately, the African American family is disproportionately plagued with many of these societal ills. Historical and cultural influences, discrimination, segregation, migration, and urbanization have profoundly shaped the functionality of African American families.
The Family During Slavery
The history of the African American family dates back to 1619, when 20 African slaves arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. Their journey was the first of many to follow, as Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly 12 million Africans survived the transatlantic 90-day crossing.
Slaves were prohibited from having legal marriages, which made a stable, secure family life more than difficult — and technically immoral. Families were often torn apart through the lucrative slave market that was a constant threat to the cohesiveness of the family.
On the other hand, slavery created new dynamics, where platonic relationships were formed for families with missing relatives that allowed other slaves to fill those special family roles of father, mother, brother, aunt, and uncle. After the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and the ending of the American Civil War in 1865, slaves were freed. Despite this significant milestone that came with measured progress, however, the African American family faced unimaginable setbacks. Voter suppression, Jim Crow laws, and many other challenges such as inequities with housing, education, and employment continued right into the twentieth century.
Despite the Challenges
Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. The African American family has made many strides. Approximately 4.6 million African Americans hold four-year college degrees today compared to the Harlem Renaissance period in the 1920s when only about 10,000 African Americans were college-educated.
Despite the challenges of the past, the African American family has exhibited perseverance and resilience. The African American family has not traveled its rugged road alone, but has had several stabilizing forces, including the African American church, that has contributed to its survival since the 1600s.
So here we are in 2022 — seemingly an unprecedented time on many fronts. Yet we are experiencing a time when opportunity awaits us all. We must focus on building bridges of hope, love, and unity that strengthen all families. Educating and dialoguing about some of the difficult topics with the goal of learning from each other is a great starting place.
Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” To embrace this disposition, we must set aside our differences and seek out our similarities.
John speaks of God’s multiethnic family reunion: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9, NIV).
We need wisdom to know what we have been called to do without being apprehensive of our neighbor. And the African American family must continue sharing its history regardless of its painful past in order to bring healing and closure, and to inspire future generations of families.
— Washington Johnson II is an assistant director of Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries for the North American Division, and captain (CHC), United States Navy Reserve Chaplain Corps.