What Is Family: A Black History Reflection
By Rebecca VandenHoek, LMSW
Every year since 1928 the month of February has been a time of remembrance, honor, and learning. This year let us honor Black History month in a special way as we look to this year’s theme of, "Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity" (Association for the Study of African American Life and History, 2021). It is a great task to undertake to examine each piece. Let us simply look at just one piece -
When you hear this word, inevitably, I could make assumptions that certain words come to mind like: mom, dad, sister, brother, cousin, grandmother, love, home, etc. Family is a word that is included in most people's vocabulary but the depths of its meaning is different for everyone. For those who identify as part of the African American community, this word means far more than the words listed above. Family is something that is an integral piece of who they are and an integral piece of a story that has been misunderstood and misrepresented for generations.
The historical canvas for people of color is and continues to be stained with images of devastation; loss of personal freedoms; pain and heartbreak; and attacks on the rights that allow human beings to thrive. We have seen loss of independence, communities, and homes. To those who identify as people of color, family is more than just a list of people who live under your roof or happen to be in your family tree from a First Grade social studies lesson. This word rather, describes all of those you dearly love who surround and hold you together as you live with and for each other. These people stand with your community both blood and neighbor to see life improve for the generations not yet; you fight together to better survive; you take a stand over and over so that everyone might hope to thrive through this thing called life. It is much more than just a word.
For families of color, family encompasses their location; the function that each relationship provides; the values each relationship brings and upholds; affiliation connections, and lastly the deep connection that comes from blood ties (Sociological forum, 1995) . All of these things paint a beautiful canvas of a community that not only has expanded and built up a family of all people, but also demonstrated the resilience of humans facing oppression. People of color have shown America that the true value of family is the love they share-- this is the most important bond one can hold. It is considered an honor to be named ‘family’ for those who are not blood, because it means that you have given your heart and soul to protect and serve those you love, no matter what. It is an act of courage in a time of great consequence.
The heartache of Black History month comes in knowing that we are honoring the work of valiant, brave, courageous men and women. They were of all ages and gave their bodies, minds, and souls to the work of freeing, liberating, and bringing equity to their families and loved ones. These many people have brought change upon change for families across the world, one inch at a time. The years have now continued on and the same pain is still at the front door. The faces being stepped upon are still those of someone's brother or sister.
They were of all ages and gave their bodies, minds, and souls to the work of freeing, liberating, and bringing equity to their families and loved ones.
In America today, according to the 2019 US Census Bureau, an estimated 48,221,139 individuals identified as African Americans. This includes those who identified as ‘Black Only’ and as ‘Black in combination with another race’. This group accounted for 14.7% of the total American population of 328.2 Million in 2019. When we take a closer look at these individuals we know that around 16% of these individuals also struggle with mental illness. The dehumanization, trauma, deep rooted infrastructure of racism on all levels, oppression and violence has created an environment where many people of color feel they can not trust the medical and mental health worlds to support them in their struggles and pain.
If you are reading this blog today I might make the assumption that you may identify as something other than a person of color. I can not hope to understand all of who you are or the struggles you have faced, but what I can say is that if you are not a person of color, you also can not understand fully the struggles their families have faced. In America, we all pay a price for racism. If you have never asked yourself about the price you have paid or what this all costs then I implore you to think about how you might examine your own experience as a human being who is not a person of color.
Ask yourself these questions:
- When did you first think about your race? What was the context?
- What does race mean to you?
- What do you say or do when racial injustice presents itself in everyday contexts (work, school, community, etc.)
- Who makes up your family?
- How have you educated yourself on things like: white privilege, racial equity, systemic oppression, microaggression
Lastly, when we started this today, we talked about family and what it may mean to each of us. Family is something that often is built of our need and experience. If we stand to heal the disparities in this nation I encourage you to ask yourself: Are your friends of color family too? After all, a family is:
"Two or more people who share goals and values, have long-term commitments to one another and reside usually in the same dwelling." (Blessing, M. (n.d.))
By Rebecca VandenHoek, LMSW
ASALH- Association for the Study of African American Life and History. (2021). Black History Themes. In ASALH- The Founders of Black History Month. Retrieved from https://asalh.org/black-history-themes/
Black Demographics. (2020, June). Black Population in US. In The African American Population. Retrieved from https://blackdemographics.com/
Blessing, M. (n.d.). Meaning of family. In lovetokknow. Retrieved from https://family.lovetoknow.com/about-family-values/meaning-family
Sociological Forum, Vol. 10, No. 4, Special Issue: African Americans and Sociology: A Critical Analysis, (Dec., 1995), pp. 569-592
Books to Learn More
- White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo
- My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, by Resmaa Menakem
- How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi
About the Author
Rebecca VandenHoek, LMSW
Rebecca is an individual therapist who works primarily with school aged children, teens, and young adults. Her work is focused on helping clients to understand how their mental health affects their whole being. She is passionate about helping individuals find ways to grow and cope with distress. She enjoys work to help clients cope with trauma, eating disorders, domestic abuse, self injury, and depression/anxiety. In her office you might enjoy things like: art, yoga, dance, music, or relaxation training.