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Social Studies

Family Far and Wide

The other night I watched a post-Katrina documentary focusing on Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish called Still Waiting: Life After Katrina. After five years, many documentaries, and, of course, Treme, I think many of us have become almost immune to the effects of images of devastation on the Gulf Coast. It’s gotten to the point that I lump Katrina footage in with any other documentary scenes of almost post-apocalyptic destruction. Before you know it, I’m ranting to my wife about how we need a shotgun and some dried beans and some bottled water, and laying out how we can reinforce our car doors with steel plates and cut gun ports in the windows and how we can use pig shit to power the house, and then I’m jumping up and down on the futon bellowing, “We Don’t Need Another Hero (Thunderdome)” at the top of my lungs and, well, it’s not a good scene.

The sociological aspect of this particular look at Katrina is what really struck me though. Although the various commentators referenced neither Master Blaster nor Aunty Entity, they also compared Katrina to other disasters in general. What they observed is that one of the unique components of what happened to areas like St. Bernard Parish is that entire extended family structures were obliterated because they were all there together. Thus, when disaster struck, there was no familial support in place to help, because all those lives were all devastated as well. When I heard the subjects of the documentary, the Mays family, had over a hundred people at the one relative’s house in Dallas because basically all of them had been in this one location for over four generations, even with the lack of career opportunity and potential for social mobility, my gut instinct was to call it dysfunctional.

And I really had to check myself, because, historically, that almost fetishized focus on a family structure is an integral aspect of the black community. Whether you look at how insanely elaborate black family reunions can get, the way “It takes a village . . .” has always played out in our neighborhoods, or even the decades-old phenomenon of the “play cousin,” the concept of the family has always had a specific resonance with African-Americans. Of course, most disenfranchised or minority communities can say the same—though I’ve never heard of anyone non-black having a “play cousin,” and I wonder if the politics of the family reunion T-shirt are as intense in other groups—but it doesn’t take a genius to see why shit gets so deep with black folks. All together now: “Because of slavery and the way it tore families apart, black people are particularly sensitive about relations, etc., etc.” And I think that sensitivity has played out throughout the black community in the tension between family ties and opportunity. Because of the way this thing called America works, when you’re black, you’ve usually got to pick: your community or a job.

I know I instinctively felt the way I did about the Mays family because my people chose jobs. My parents left the South in ’62 and ain’t been back since for more than a visit. Y’know, the stars might have fallen on Alabama, but no jobs did. Right now, if you ask my dad about his heady days as a strong-backed young man on the docks, his eyes get this beatific glaze as he talks about how you could “work as long as you wanted and make as much money as you could.” And, because of the opportunities that were in Baltimore that weren’t where they came from, my parents kept working and bought a house and started a family and yay us. But the converse is that I only saw my grandparents once a year, in the summer, and forget extended family. I have first cousins that I barely know because they were there and I was here.

And that choice continues to play out generationally in its own way. Following my parents’ example, I’ve moved around throughout the Northeast in my adulthood looking for my own “work as long as you wanted. . . .” I haven’t moved as far as they did, and because of technology, I don’t think it’s been as big a deal, but there’s still been a price to pay. For instance, when my dad had a stroke a few years ago, my siblings just raced across town, but I was in Philadelphia. Lemme tell you, I don’t wish that two-hour drive down I-95 on anyone. Nor do I wish the one we took when my father-in-law had his own scare. So, though I still disagree with the way many families have remained clustered together, the older I get, I understand more.

Appropriately enough, it’s still playing out. Right now, all eyes are on my 17-year-old niece. She spent the last few months in a summer program at Stanford, and, well, everyone’s holding their breath to see if she’s gotten the West Coast bug. I mean, c’mon, can you imagine being 17 in the Bay Area during the summer? Plus, she’s the oldest of the next generation, and you know how that works. After her, my younger nephew will go to college in Paris, and then, my own daughter will go off to school in India, and my youngest nephew will end up on the moon. If she goes, it’ll be rough on all of us, but, like the Mays family, we’ll do our best to continue to hold the family together, come hell, high water, or hurricane.

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