STRENGTHENING THE FAMILY
Sunday, April 6, 2008
Bernice Johnson Reagon, Lectionary Team Cultural Resource Commentator
The Ephesians text for this lectionary moment (Ephesians 5:21-33 and 6:1-9),
provides a rich range of opportunities to explore the complex ways in which African
Americans struggled to form and hold family in that journey in this place that began with slavery.
Historical Background and Documents
I. The Auction Block and the African American Family
Reverend Pearlie Brown was born in Americus, GA. He was born blind and he and his
brother Early were raised by their grandmother. A great slide guitarist, Reverend
Brown made his living as a street singer in Macon and Americus, Georgia. I met
him during the late 1960s and he told me about his grandmother who had been a
slave and was sold as a child from Virginia to Americus Georgia. The spirituals
he sang and played were the ones he grew up hearing her sing. One of his songs
was about the dreaded auction block and the text captures the image of families being torn apart:
If I never ever see you anymore
I will meet you on that other shore
Pray hard…, Live the life…1
I grew up in Southwest Georgia and one of the songs we learned was also about the auction block.
No more auction block for me
No more, no more
No more auction block for me
Many thousands gone
No more pint of salt for me…
No more Jim Crow lash for me…2
American slavery as a system was hostile to family formation. And the auction block where members
could be sold at the decision of the owner as property was the most feared aspect of that system.
How does one experience family during slavery? How does the African American family survive the
auction block? What kind of redefining occurred as Africans enslaved in America treaded our way
through the cauterizing fires of slavery to create a way to support and extend life in this
new land we were creating via forced labor?
What did it feel like to get off the boat and find yourself alive after the Middle Passage
journey? How did the eternal life force of the universe succeed in pulling so many of us
to continuance and extension of life? In spite of being inside of a structure that tore us
apart, during slavery, we redefined family in a stripped down way to understand what and
how to build flexible changing core human units that could then be the components of a
fragile, always under fire community. We also, in our survival living and dying, wove
into being the hybrid culture that held everything we did and were and could become
and wanted never to see again.
How does one come to know that she or he is evolving within a family unit? Initially,
it is really about protection, not being too cold or too hot, not being hungry, being
able to sleep, being held and surrounded by people who looked at you and smiled and
rocked you, before you knew you were her or him. And it is about being called and
pushed to move forward when you never get all of the former things at the same time.
There is the sense of being led to know and use your capacity, with whispered hopes
that there would come a time when things for us would be less wrong. One was
surrounded by those who taught us what and who we were, calling the child to come
into his or her growing self. Your teachers who took care of your needs as best they
could, introduced you into the world and moved you quickly as fast as you could learn
how to be in this larger place, run by those who did not acknowledge you as a living,
spiritual, being in need of a family. Jennie Hill a former slave described the way our
family, parents and children were viewed within the system of slavery:
Some people think that slaves had no feeling-that they bore their children as animals
bear their young and that there was no heart-break when the children were torn from
their parents or the mother taken from her brood to toil for a master in another state.
But that isn't so. The slaves loved their families even as the Negroes love their own
today and the happiest time of their lives was when they could sit at their cabin doors
when the day's work was done and sang the old slave songs, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot,"
"Massa's in the Cold, Cold Ground," and "Nobody Know What Trouble I've Seen." Children
learned these songs and sang them only as a Negro child could. That was the slave's only
happiness, a happiness that for many of them did not last.3
And another ex-slave, Savilla Burrell, remembered the heartache this way:
“They sell one of Mother's chillun once, and when she take on and cry about it, Marster say,
‘Stop that sniffing there if you don't want to get a whipping.’ She grieve and cry at night about it.” 4
Michael Tadman in his study, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South,
estimates that one out of every five marriages was prematurely terminated by sale and that if other
interventions are added, the number rises to one in three. In addition, slave trading tore from the
family one in every two slave children under the age of 14.5
How do a family and a community combat the destructive experience of slavery? How is love expressed?
Frederick Douglas wrote of not developing a mother son relationship with his birth mother for he
was separated from her before he was 12 months old as was the treatment of slave children, and
raised by an older woman who took care of the younger children on the plantation. However, he
also writes of having had minor contact with his birth mother who was on a plantation some
distance from him. She would slip away after a hard days labor in the field, would walk miles
to his cabin and lie down next to him a few hours only to have to get up in the dark to toil
another day in the fields.6 For this to happen, she had to have the need to be with her child,
she had to have people on both plantations who did not give her away as she determined that she,
with all of her being, would snatch this space to hold and nurture and be held and nurtured.
II. Family Is What Family Does
Hambone hambone where you been?
Round the world and I’m going again…
This hambone rhythm verse refers to someone in the kitchen of the plantation securing a
hambone and using it to favor the pot in the slave cabin and then passing it on its
journey from one cabin to another so that each day another pot would be flavored until it was no more.
And this passing sustenance in silence created an invisible joining where we knew we were connected…
and responsible for each other. And who put the salve in the wounds when the one lashed lay upon the
ground? Who extended the knowledge of healing? Was it biological? Sometimes, but sometimes not.
Family is what family does…. Albert Murray’s novel, Train Whistle Guitar7 is an
excellent literary example about the African American extended family. Murray’s novel chronicles
the coming of age of Scooter, a pre-adolescent African American boy, in Gasoline, Alabama. During
the course of the novel, Scooter is given protection and is nurtured- is raised, in addition to his
grandparents, by myriad members of this down-home community, such as Luzana Cholly, the community’s
itinerant bluesman and Blue Eula Bacote, the sorrowful school teacher. These persons are all members
of Scooter’s extended family. At one point Scooter reflects that you can choose your own relatives,
i.e. “play” brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, et al, while growing up in Gasoline Point.
III. The African American Church and the Family
As we moved through the Civil War, fashioning freedom in hostile territory, the African
American church was a powerful influence in calling its members to be conscious of forming and strengthening
family units. The African American church created rituals where families could come together and draw
from our prayers, our songs, testimonies and sermons which would provide sustenance for the next day
until another coming together.
The African American church put before us the idea that it was important for families to stay together,
and that systemic organized learning was sacred and so important that our first schools were in our
churches and then our churches built the first schools on church grounds. It was important that all
be engaged in learning, adults and children. As soon as a lesson was learned, that lesson was taught
to someone in your family. When resources were too low to send all of the children, then often one
was selected to go. In the case of Tuskegee founder, Booker T. Washington, he left his home in West
Virginia to attend Hampton and was aided by his older brother who stayed and worked in the coal mines.
After Washington graduated, he was able to assist his brother who also completed the Hampton course.8
Mary McLeod Bethune, born in 1875, was the fifteenth of seventeen children in the family of Samuel
and Patsy McLeod. Her parents and older siblings were born into slavery. Of her large family she was
selected to go to school. Her family’s meager resources were focused to make it possible for her to
attend the Methodist Mission school and she returned home each day to try and to teach what she had
learned to her family members..9 School and church were partners in supporting families.
Probably nowhere is the “remix” concept stronger than in looking at the multi-decade searching that led
families to leave the South and its racist repression to seek new opportunities in other regions of the
country. Sometimes the African American migration that stretched across much of the 20th century
occurred with one member moving north and sending for other members as soon as a foothold was
achieved. This leaving the South after the end of slavery followed the strategy of escape during
slavery and the leavings and relocation during the period immediately following slavery. When
Charles Albert Tindley left Eastern shore Maryland for Philadelphia in 1875 at 17, he was sent
by one maternal aunt to her sister who already had a home there. During the early years of the
20th century, by the hundreds of thousands, movement to urban centers increased as Jim and Jane
Crow terrorism intensified. Black men especially bore the direct brunt of brutality with the
ever-present threat of chain gangs and lynchings. Often, they were the ones to leave, but also
one finds entire core family units making the journey in search of a place where they could raise
their families and expand the possibilities of advancement. Almost never, did the entire extended
family make the migration. In fact, in a wondrous ‘remix’ the Southern base of families as a support
for the new transported families was exercised through various means of downhome-coming. Here the
region that drove them to move forward also remained a source of strength and renewal because of
those who stayed behind.
IV. The Black Family Now
Today, we need these early images of family to remind us that the contemporary idea of a family as
father, mother and one or two children is alright as far as it goes. That the family unit always
needs that grandparent/aunt/uncle/cousins/nieces and nephews and the family members who are not
related to you by blood but help you find your way just the same. Church congregations provide
rich opportunities for parent-absent children, and grandparent-absent children to sit within
the energy of parent and grandparent generations. Children do better growing under the shadow
and shade of grandparents. The church must continue creating experiences where families are
the focus, Family Nights, church outings where the focus is all members of the family being
within the embrace of the congregation.
African Americans have many families that fit the norm in what is a contemporary family—both parents,
few children, access and relationship to the grandparent generation…. However, desperately needed is
the acknowledgement that a substantial percentage of our families have non-traditional formations.
The African American church has to find a way to embrace and acknowledge and affirm these nurturing
unions. Allowing families to define themselves and accepting single parenting as a valid strategy
for raising a child is crucial. If you read the story of gifted pediatric neurosurgeon, Dr. Ben
Carson, you find a mother, Sonya Carson with a third grade education, who worked not only to house
and feed her children, but battled challenging pulls within their community to keep them under her
wing. She struggled to make sure they understood that they were expected to be supportive members
of their family and supportive citizens in the larger world.10 This was the home-church-school at
its best. The home-church-school has been a crucial bond for our various configurations of family
Support Networks for the Black Family
There is a growing contemporary application of support network for families. Increasingly, church expanded
ministries have moved to a place where again they take on the burden of being a vital element in the
transformation of their communities as safety zones. These congregations are building housing for
those without shelter, they run food and clothing pantries, they are building schools for the children;
they are a major source of grounding and nurturance for families. The most aggressive expressions of
these in urban communities, take their children as they come. One minister in Philadelphia said that,
“if a child gets to our door after school, we are a place of safety and nourishment, a place where one
gets assistance for homework… a place where the child feels they belong, they are wanted, that they
are a gift and our only chance for a tomorrow.” The image here is of a safety zone, a place within
a region full of danger, that works to be sure that once inside, the family, the child, is safe and
will not experience disrespect nor abuse.
The early Christian communities suggested that within their circle, one could find the family and community
one needed to build and model a spirit-centered life. And collectively, this circle moves as a beckoning light.
Come home, come home
Ye who are weary, come home.11
And as we enter a new century, we find a reverse migration as the children and grandchildren consider the
South as a place to return with opportunities created by advances of the Civil Rights Movement. And, as
was the case with my oldest sister, we were instructed to return her remains to the family plot to rest
in the soul of the place now transformed in Southwest Georgia where our core family was formed. This
is much akin to the Methodists turning the term “Methodists,” which was one of derision into the
revered name of their denomination, or early Christians transforming the Cross, an instrument of
“suffering and shame” into a universal symbol of hope and faith, or African Americans
reclaiming–embracing “black” as a symbol of beauty and elegance. So, too, in this
place where Black lives were once governed by the auction block, the African American
family still rises and flourishes reaching for support from church and community to
face the ever evolving challenges and dangers of these times.
- African American spiritual
- African American spiritual
- Slave narrative at South Carolina's Information HighWAY. Online location: www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/firstperson.html accessed 4 January 2008
- Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South. Madison, WI: University of
Wisconsin Press, 1990.
- Douglas, Frederick, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Boston, MA: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office,
- Murray, Albert. Train Whistle Guitar. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1974.
- Washington, Booker T. Up From Slavery. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1901.
Download at no cost at www.bartleby.com/1004. Last update April 2000. accessed 4 January 2008
- Reagon, Bernice Johnson. Mary McLeod Bethune. unpublished paper.
- Carson, Ben, and Cecil B. Murphey. Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. 1990 Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
- Thompson, Will. “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” Hymn