Several years ago I asked a friend, “What are you going to teach your children about their heritage?”  She stated that she really hadn’t thought about it much but she would teach them about traditional Cherokee foods such as fry bread and the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash.   She was certain to share words and phrases and talk a little about her tribal history.   That she was full-blooded Cherokee and married to a Black man I was curious what she was going to teach her children about their Black heritage.  After pausing she lightly laughed and stated, I guess I can teach them how to make fried chicken!  Sobering to the idea that she had not thought about teaching them about Black heritage, she stated, “Well, I don’t know, I’ll leave that to my husband.” 

As my sons are ages two and one I find myself thinking about the answers to the same questions I asked:  what am I going to teach them and how am I going to teach them about their heritage?  I do not want them to develop a sense of Blackness through media and entertainment outlets that offer Black people merely as entertainers, athletes, pastors, politicians, and criminals.  I want them to succeed because of their heritage, not in spite of it.  I want them to be Black without limits.

I refuse to accept the following limiting formula: ghetto + poverty + fried chicken+ basketball = Blackness.  I’ve already watched music videos with my sons and realized that while I thought it was too early to start heritage history lessons, I already have started popular culture lessons that utilize the above formula.  Now I know I better get started teaching them about their heritage, and conveying a different formula. 

What can we do?

Fortunately there are a number of children’s books that have themes ranging from Egyptian, West African, and Caribbean histories to DVD’s that feature positive Black characters.  So, this is a good starting place.

But it is not enough to allow books and movies to be the only conduit of cultural knowledge for our children.  Family traditions are ways to tell our children about our heritage.  Greens, for example, became a staple because they were one of the few crops cultivated by slaves that were allowed to be used for their own benefit.  Thanks to the genius of Black women greens became a delicacy. 

A new formula

Another suggestion is to form a generally agreed upon definition of Blackness that can be shared from one generation to another.  Blackness, unlike nationality, is not limited to place of birth.    

Politically and physically, Blackness includes but is not limited to the experience of being recognized as Black, and the experience of having a familial link to a history of oppression related to skin color. Culturally, blackness includes but is not limited to: resilience and adaptability; creativity and generosity with limited resources; turning negatives into positives (ranging from experiences to language usage); valuing inclusiveness and cooperation; maintaining oral traditions; recognizing and valuing extended family and fictive kin; valuing individual competitiveness but within the construct of the collective; valuing spirituality and nature; operating from a world view of forgiveness; tending toward the colorful relating to personal and domestic adornment; and being celebratory and participatory.  These are core values relate to Blackness wherever Black people are from – Canada, Mozambique, France, Germany, Jamaica, Italy, Colombia, or Tupelo, Mississippi.

Relating these to our children on a regular basis will help move us from ghettoizing the Black experience and move us toward expanding the Black experience to embrace the affirming traditions ranging from music to mathematics.

Yan Searcy is an associate professor in the Departments of Social Work and Sociology at Chicago State University where he has taught for the past 16 years.  His areas of research and practice include child and adolescent welfare and urban social policy.  He is a proud husband and father of two! Need parenting advice? Email [email protected] and your questions may appear in future column!