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Harlem on My Mind

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I miss the "village days" of parenting -- where you could expect everyone on the "block" to love (and discipline) any child as their own. Nowadays, we like to say, "It's none of my business."


Kimberly Seals Allers: I was walking in Harlem, New York City, one day and I heard and saw a young African-American boy (about 10 years old) being scolded by his father. As with most kids, it seemed like his father was telling him to do something he didn't want to do. The father was yelling at his son, and it became more intense. The rest of the conversation -- voices elevated, high intensity, passersby watching -- went something like this:

Young Black Boy:
"I wish I could kill myself." (Repeat, repeat, repeat.)

Father: "Oh yeah? What good would that do?"

Young Black Boy: "At least I could be in heaven, and I wouldn't have to be around you."

Kimberly stops in tracks.

I couldn't move. The father continued to yell at the boy, while the mother stood by quietly holding on to a baby stroller.

Now, I know emotional blackmail when I hear it, but I could see this boy's pain in his face and in his body language. It was one of those moments when my mommy-instinct told me to run over there, hug that boy and tell him millions of moms are rooting for him and his success and that this life here on Earth can be beautiful and peaceful and full of possibilities. And that even when it isn't, you don't ever give up.

I wanted to run over to his mother with hugs as well, and an understanding and empathetic look, like, "I know, sister, it ain't easy" -- and share some of my own struggles in childrearing.

But I knew none of these options were allowed.

Back in the day, it was a given in most black neighborhoods that everybody on the block or in the apartment building was responsible for your well-being as a child. Every neighbor could tell you off or tell your parents what you were up to (and their concern was welcome), and a few select neighbors may have had punishment or spanking privileges. Your child was everybody's child.

But on that day, I knew that our "village" mentality had long disappeared, and that I needed to mind my own business, stop standing on the corner acting as if I was lost (when I was really engaged in the drama) and keep it moving to my car.

I drove off very sad that day. I was sad to hear that beautiful young boy declare that he thought death could be better than his life. I was sad to know that, at a time when we need other mothers, aunties, grandmothers and sometimes well-meaning strangers more than ever before to help us raise powerful and productive black children, we have rid ourselves of these traditions. To our own detriment, I think.

But I was even more upset with myself. I felt I should have said something, done something, anything, despite the consequences. I even dreamed about it -- my negligence haunting me in my sleep.

I wonder, if we can start showing black mothers that we care, understand and support each other, can we bring "the village" back? If we rewrite the rules for what actually defines "my own business" and say, "Every black child is connected, and if yours fails, mine fails -- so therefore, by some very basic rules of logic and humanity, it is indeed very much 'my business'" -- can we bring it back?

Can we??

next: My Baby Was Tongue-Tied
4 comments so far | Post a comment now
Mark (Dudge OH) March 11, 2010, 12:28 PM

This isn’t just true for the black community…

MommaToNico March 11, 2010, 3:29 PM

I can’t understand why the authr always makes this about being black. I am a white mother raising a biracial (black and white)son and articles like this are just plain dumb. You don’t think white mothers miss the “village” mentality? Oh right, I forgot… Only black kids need discipline and love.

Black Iris March 11, 2010, 6:00 PM

I think one reason we don’t raise children together anymore is that we don’t know the people in our neighborhoods. It’s a lot easier to intervene when you have a relationship with the adults already.

I like to think the boy in the story wouldn’t even have gotten to the place he was at if his parents had been part of a supportive community already.

Zora's Mom April 22, 2010, 9:52 AM

Ummm, could the author possibly see everything in black because she’s black and that’s her experience and that’s what she knows? How would she know of the village mentality of whites? Why is it that minorities are expected to see things from everyone else’s perspective when most whites don’t even think to do the same? Nobody’s complaining that the other bloggers only relate experience from their white perspectives. Give the woman a break. Sheesh!

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