Family and Community: Self-Help - a Black Tradition

By Height, Dorothy I. | The Nation, July 24, 1989 | Go to article overview

Family and Community: Self-Help - a Black Tradition


Height, Dorothy I., The Nation


It is our task to make plain to ourselves the great story of our rise in America from "less than dust" to the heights of sound achievement . . . The situation we face must be defined, reflected and evaluated.

Recent negative portrayals of the black family have made it painfully clear to most African-Americans that although much has changed in the naional life, much remains the same. The incessant emphasis on the dysfunctioning of black people is simply one more attempt to show that African-Americans do not really fit into the society-that we are "overdependent" and predominantly welfare-oriented. Quite overlooked in this equation is the fact that most black Americans are, on the contrary, overwhelmingly among the working POOL

Equally overlooked when the disingenuous topic of the supposed lack of black "self-help" is conjured up, is a fundamental truth: that the major energies of black people in America historically have had to be directed to attaining the most elementary human freedoms (such as owning one's own body and the fruits thereof) that our white sisters and brothers take for granted. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was perhaps the most extraordinary example of a mas "self-help" movement in American history: self-help mounted under grave conditions to throw off the yoke of American apartheid. Yet it was not a new event so much as the continuation of an old tradition. Since the end of the slave era black people have had to provide services for one another in every conceivable way: feeding and clothing the destitute; tending the sick; caring for orphaned children and the aged; establishing insurance companies, burial societies, travelers' accommodations when hotels were segregated-the list goes on.

In 1909, almost fifty years before the modern civil rights movement emerged, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (preceded by the Du Boisorganized Niagara Movement) was founded following the lynching of a black man in Springfield, Illinois. Its first major undertaking was the fight against the hundreds of such atrocities then occurring annually. The Urban League wasfounded the next year to advance economic self-help.

Eighteen years earlier, a fearless journalist named Ida B. Wells began a crusade against lynching, by lecturing, organizing and compiling the first documentation of the social political and economic facts behind the atrocities. In 1895, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs was formed to bring to bear the collective strength of women in ameliorating the desperate conditions in which out people lived.

What is clear to us in the current era of ever mounting disparagement of the black family-and the internalizin by our young people of the negativism thrust upon the daily-is that we need a movement that will retrieve an build upon the value system of the traditional extended family, the strong sense of kinship ties that goes back to the days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, when it was up to us either to forge ties of mutual support or perish as a people. Those unbreakable bonds sent people searching for one another after the forced separations of slavery. They are still evident in our custom of calling one another brother and sisterand mother, aunt and uncle-even when there is no blood relationship. There's an entire history behind these interactions that is precious to our sense of self-worth and identity as a people. Those who attempt to supplant our conception of ourselves with their own are either ignorant of this proud history or, worse, bent on concealing or eradicating it.

The history of self-help among blacks offers models that will be useful in the search for innovative approaches to current problems. For instance, I recall that in 1939, when I worked in the Harlem Y.W.C.A., the Florence Crittendon Homes took in unmarried white mothers, but there was not a bed in the city for unwed black mothers. …

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