As I sit on the bus, a young lady walks on, dressed with a pink shiny birthday hat. As the bus rolls on, she begins a conversation on her phone, permeating the quiet bus ride.
She speaks with an agency, explaining to someone on the other end that she was adopted and now searching for her birth mother and suspected brother because she wants to one day teach her son about family.
On this day, her birthday, she’s searching for herself. As the conversation continued, I learned she also was homeless and living at the local Salvation Army. Sadly, this is plight for a lot of children of color. Thirty-percent of the country’s homeless and some 25 percent of those in prison were once in foster care.
African Americans make up a disproportionate percentage of the U.S. prison population; black students drop out of school at alarming rates and are increasingly victims and perpetrators of violence, causing many of us to wonder why.
One reason could be the dissolution of the African-American family.
Single-parent households rose to 67 percent among African American in 2011, the highest for any race, according to the U.S. Census. Even without looking at these statistics, it’s easy to see the shifts in the African-American family.
I have witnessed this change in my own family. Growing up, both of my mother and father’s families were close. There was a strong, connected family bond. There were Sunday family dinners with extended family, united holiday celebrations, a very strong matriarch — Grandma — and a strong emphasis on the family unit extending beyond the nuclear family.
There was always a sense of belonging, and even if the nuclear family fell apart, extended family was always there to pick up the slack.
I also had the benefit of meeting both of my great-grandmothers, who established the family climate and were strong, dominate figures in the functioning of the family. I watched the traditions dissipate as they both passed on.
I’ve seen even further dissolution as my grandparents pass on. The role of the African-American family is shifting from a joint family base to a more nuclear based unit where individual families essentially are fending for themselves without much network to fall back on.
With the high instance of African-American teenage pregnancy, low literacy and the increasingly tough economy, the network that provided for so long would really help now.
Like the woman on the bus searching for her family, many of our youth are lost with no set identity, so they end up identifying themselves in the wrong way. Society labels young, single black mothers as burdens, trying to live off the system to the point where single black mothers trying to better themselves face scrutiny.
I experience this prejudice when a perfect stranger feels the right to speak condescendingly to me while I am parenting my child. I’ve labeled it “Parenting While Black” because it’s like “Driving While Black.”
African-American males are seen as a nuisance, suspicious, up to no good, dead-beat fathers, and with a detrimental cultural identity and sparse familial role models, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to fight these forces, especially without the pride a sense family and a sense of belong provides.
While some may see the dissolution of the African-American family in terms of a lack of father in the house, it’s apparent there’s more to it than that.
Our mentality as a community has changed. It is an “I got mine. Good luck getting yours” attitude now.
Meanwhile, our children are suffering, our communities are in bad shape, and we are at crises.
Whether the shift is good or bad, the shift is apparent, and percentages will continue to rise without proper intervention or some institution that substitutes that important family structure now increasingly lost.