Dads Against the Divorce Industry

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U.S. News 07/28/97: One Week: In praise of black family reunions

BY ANNA MULRINE

In praise of black family reunions

The black family reunion is a peculiarly American phenomenon, made necessary by itinerant forebears. In Bowie, Md., recently, the Walcott family stood hand in hand as Aunt Lucille recited the blessing. Her prayer of thanks for strong parents ended with a command: "Now go love each other." That's what the 12 children of Jack and Edna Walcott (ranging in age from 50 to 72), 47 grandchildren, and 50-plus great-grandchildren came to do, from Zambia, England, Canada, Texas, Alabama, and New York. Among the oldest generation at the reunion, it was the most Walcotts who had been in one place since the youngest left their birth home in Guyana, South America, 37 years ago.

While black families have been having reunions for over 50 years, most have been initiated only in the last generation. Until the 1960s, many African-Americans who lived in Northern cities regarded their Southern homesteads as oppressive places they needed to leave behind, spiritually as well as physically. But as the abolition of Jim Crow laws ended the humiliation of riding in the back of the bus on the journey home, and as black student leaders pressed for black-studies programs, black churches in the South began to lead members in a search for their heritage. African-Americans who had left for the North in the 1940s and '50s were drawn to seek the Southern roots and families they had left behind. In 1977, Alex Haley's Roots aired on television and harnessed the medium's power to stir those quests. Partly as a result, there's been a reversal of an old pattern: For nearly a generation, more black Americans have moved to the South than have left.

Counting blessings. More reunions have been happening every year as well. Genealogy is a middle-class pursuit, among whites and others as well as blacks; reunions are dependent on family success. For blacks especially, reunions are a chance to assert that they have a history different from the stereotype of black families broken down.

But at the heart of the reunion movement is a conviction that while families should count their blessings, they must also share them to keep other parts of the family from crumbling. And as reunions progress to greater levels of organization--first with family newsletters, then family chapters, eventually with family officers and bylaws--families seek ways to leverage their prosperity. Reunions begin to look like conferences, with discussions about fund-raisers for scholarships and plans for credit unions to support small-business initiatives.

Perhaps because black family reunions seem to exist outside politics, African-American organizations like the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have not included the reunion movement on their agendas. Instead, the enterprising turn of reunions has attracted the interest of corporations like Coca-Cola and Coors Brewing, which are keen to tap the market of middle-class blacks. This week, however, the National Council of Negro Women will launch its 11th annual Black Family Reunion Celebration in Atlanta, in recognition that the concerns of major black organizations are those of the families that gather in reunions: identity, self-help, empowerment.

At the Walcott family reunion, cousins in matching reunion T-shirts stood knee to knee to see if they had the same bowlegs. Brothers and sisters lined up to talk to a sister who, nearly 30 years ago, left the United States for Zambia. They were self-energizing, buffered for the moment from the strains of outside forces. The Walcott family is following a path well worn by other blacks. As they vote about how to use money they have pooled, elect family leaders, and debate the merits of reconstituting themselves as something even more purposeful than a family, black families are creating parts that might be models for a larger whole.

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