When I was a child in Detroit and had more living relatives than I do as a middle-aged person, I felt like I had the smallest family of anyone I knew. Friends and neighbors would speak of cousins of the first, second and third varieties. I’d hear of large family reunions and think: all of my family could easily fit in one medium-sized room (if they were ever to assemble all at once, which I cannot recall ever happening). I had one cousin, and was unclear on what qualifiers like “once removed” meant when used to describe extended family. My mother had one sibling (the mother of my sole cousin); my father had two brothers, only one of whom married. Of the three brothers, only my father had children: my sister and me. When they were alive, my grandparents, with one exception, seemed to be without siblings (though I can’t really say for sure). I knew my maternal grandfather had a brother and a sister, but he lived in another state, and she wasn’t invited to any family gatherings I ever attended. My family only got smaller over time. At some point after all of my grandparents died, my aunt divorced and one of my father’s brothers died, leaving me with two fewer uncles. My sister became what people in another time would have called a spinster, and she gave birth to no one. My wife and I never had children either. I never developed any relationship with my in-laws.
As any blues singer can tell you, you can’t lose what you never had. Although I’d hear folks talk about distant family connections and sizeable family get-togethers, I never longed for a larger family. I never felt I lacked anything because I came from a small family. My particular circumstances certainly shaped my attitude toward the concept of family. I grew up in a white family in a predominantly black city. The family reunion attendees I encountered tended to be black. Eventually, as an adult, I learned about the Great Migration – the massive movement of African American men, women, and children from southern to northern and western states from World War I through the end of the 1960s – and understood that many of the families celebrating reunions had been affected by what Isabel Wilkerson, in her fascinating 2010 book The Warmth of Other Suns, calls “perhaps the greatest single act of family disruption and heartbreak among black Americans in the twentieth century.” Some family members moved; some stayed behind. If my family had been rendered in such a way, perhaps I would have felt differently about what family bonds – sustained, sundered, renewed – could mean. But the fact is that it wasn’t, so while I grew up in a prominent receiving station for participants in the Great Migration, and can intellectually comprehend the appeal of family reunions for people with histories different than mine, I can’t pretend to have felt the emotional pull. Perhaps much farther back there had been painful disruptions as some of my ancestors emigrated from other countries to the United States while others did not, but nothing like that occurred in living memory, and it would not have been compelled by the multitude of causes that spurred the intranational travel of the Great Migration (such as the simultaneous pull of economic and educational opportunities and the push to flee racist oppression).
I can grasp why some people treasure their own families, but in my opinion the
widespread veneration of the very idea of family never made much sense. Back when conservative politicians routinely trumpeted “family values” I always wondered precisely what that adjective indicated. Presumably, love and compassion would earn the descriptor, though those are really states of being or emotions rather than values. Or did it signal “traditional” family configurations in which women were subservient and stayed home, men were responsible
bread-winners, and children were obedient? In any case, what about when home is where the hatred is (to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron)? What about when family life involves violence and substance abuse, deception and resentment, antagonism and estrangement – which is all too
frequently the case? If family as an adjective is only supposed to conjure agreeable associations, then it’s a pretty useless word for denoting what actually occurs in real families. And it’s not just on the right that family is used in an amorphous and unhelpful way.
Politicians of all stripes express concern for so-called working families, and a progressive third party (that never became much of a force) called itself the Working Families Party. In some ways, “working families” is more annoying a phrase than “family values” – it’s no less vague and perhaps even more imprecise (if not dishonest). For one, it seemingly harkens back to days prior to laws prohibiting child labor, when even the youngest family members might have worked, and it would also, if taken literally, exclude retirees or full-time adult students or even the unemployed who might be parts of families but not in fact working. For another, liberals and progressives using the label seem to want to glom on to the warm and fuzzy feelings connected with the word family while simultaneously obscuring a class-based approach to political action. Calling a party a Workers’ Party or a Labor Party (another group that went nowhere) would make plain a focus on economic issues but might bring to mind soviets or politburos or other commie structures anathema to American voters. Adding “family” to the name softens it up and makes it seem less foreign or threatening.
So if on the right “family values” really means family units are largely accountable for themselves and should expect little government involvement in their welfare, while on the left “working families” require government efforts to assist them rather than furthering the interests of the rich, then my skepticism about the word’s utility is fully merited. The word doesn’t really mean a damn thing in these contexts. (Whether government should promote laissez faire or actively redistributive economic policies shouldn’t be based on whether or not those affected have families or not, though a People’s Party isn’t likely to gain traction in the United States either.) But my real gripe isn’t with the word’s elasticity so much as with its unearned positive public image. While in common usage all along the political spectrum family becomes virtually meaningless, it somehow still conjures all things good and decent – despite the repeated reminders that families can be brutal and harmful as well as affectionate and supportive.
It’s easy to say you’re pro-family, and few would say the opposite. It’s harder to say something substantive. I think those Detroiters I met back in the 1970s and 1980s who happily attended gatherings, sometimes including family members they’d never even met before, really did feel something strong and true, even if I never experienced the equivalent, but whenever I hear anyone promoting “family values” or advocating for “working families,” I become suspicious of their motives. When it comes to families, it’s the actual people, not the vague abstractions, that make all the difference.
John G. Rodwan, Jr., author of the essay collections Holidays and Other Disasters (Humanist Press, 2013) and Fighters & Writers (Mongrel Empire Press, 2010) as well as the chapbook Christmas Things (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2011), lives in Detroit, Michigan.
Check out this epic clip of interview with nationwide speaker of Circle of Change Leadership, Dr. Joshua Fredenburg (Dr. J), by Dr. Dana Emerson
African American artistry has always been cornerstone to the winds of change in America. I was first introduced to the Harlem Renaissance as a graduate student studying African American literature in my 20’s; the brilliant artistic voices of this generation of writers and poets showed me the power of creative work that transcends political oppression, economic disparity, and intolerable cultural biases. Writers like W.E.B. Du Bois, who helped define the African American experience with his concept of “double-consciousness and the veil” from The Souls of Black Folk, and Langston Hughes’s poems like “Dreams” and “Let America Be America Again”. This proliferation of artistry signaled a progressive change in the state of a 1920s-30s American culture that was not nearly far enough away from the ravages of slavery and the incoherent basis for racism. The talent of these writers and artists made people notice, and America responded for decades in all sorts of ways: politically, hypocritically, chaotically, sometimes violently, but oftentimes beautifully, when more and more people were actually brought to see, feel, and act in the interest of better humanity.
Now, one hundred years after the Harlem Renaissance, we’ve had an African American President, and it’s true that this helped far more people of color feel that they, too, have the ability to lead and further causes that support a more beautiful, progressive, intelligent, and innovative nation full of diverse imaginations. With the emergence of this reawakening, transformative artistry can continue its legacy of lifting culture to higher ground. Let’s keep the momentum going for a 21st century renaissance; one that is infused and designed by the ethic of love.
Marilyn Brock, Sept 2019