I remember when families were simply broken. Such a clean and direct word, broken is. And broken families were assigned a straightforward moral value that never offered a solution for fixing the perceived social ill.
The expectations were clear: Children from broken families would probably never amount to much of anything. To be broken was sad and deplorable. It was a negative badge.
There were two ways to prevent the tag from owning you. You could take ownership of it, using it like a weapon to strike fear into the hearts of those who were willing to stab the pin so deeply into your flesh. The more militant voices of the civil rights era and even the forefathers of Rap and Hip Hop fashioned philosophical armament and raised armies this way.
Or you could play physician and heal thyself, mending the break with a cast of extras that became an extended family -- layers of mothers and aunties and grands, a transfusion of new blood and new marrow.
I come from a broken family, smaller and tighter than the examples that normally come to mind. My parents were high school sweethearts who married on Valentine's Day, delivered me almost nine months later, and split up about a year after my birth.
To cop one of my favorite Bushisms, my "newkuler" family featured a mother and grandmother as parents, though -- now borrowing from Hilary Clinton, who leased the notion from Africa and other "tribes" throughout history -- the village that raised me included an exceptional community of single mothers.
I was the sole "prince" among the offspring. The beloved manchild.
Society promised to house me in a correctional facility when the time came, as it surely would before I reached my 21st birthday. I remember the statistics, the litany of numbers preached like Old Testament truths.
The Gospel According to the Census Bureau believed in creating mantras that took on the mystique of self-fulfilling prophecies. We were broken, and we were incapable of producing anything other than more broken pieces.
I suppose it's fitting to acknowledge the passing of Ebony Publisher John Johnson, who initiated a revolution of sorts by offering positive alternatives to the negative portrayals of black folks and, more specifically, black families. My cynical side would argue that Ebony and Jet showcased the fixation of black families' efforts to achieve middle-class values and status that exposed a deeper spiritual void in the American family structure.
In actuality, though, I come from what I believe was the last generation of broken families. That term and its implications have become an endangered species. Under the distinctly modern pressures of today's world, the "newkuler" family doesn't fracture so much as succumb to distress and emerge as a "dysfunctional" unit.
Society back in the day would have loved for everyone to believe that there weren't many broken families and, more importantly, that the broken ones could easily be classified and explained away due to race. That way all the facts and the supporting data could be color-coded in reports and dropped in a dead letter file.
Unfortunately, the rapid evolution toward dysfunction has exposed something far more startling. This explosive disintegration of the "newkuler" family has us all desperately seeking the one elusive resource capable of mending this gaping wound.
The "new" American family features an even more fluid composition, with single fathers as well as single mothers. Families are reconstituted and fortified by the divorced and dissolved.
As a single man without children in my thirties, there's a high probability I'll end up becoming the father to another man's children -- possibly even greater than the chance I'll father my own children.
I marvel at my current "new" family unit. My mother remarried, and I now have a 6-year-old brother who will grow up with a big brother old enough to be his father. He's also experienced a succession of foster brothers who would challenge the stereotype laid on them. Despite their uniquely complex backgrounds and issues, many, if not all, of the teens we've sheltered for a time have shown as much love to my brother as he's given them.
Among the steadily rising ranks of new foster and adoptive parents are same-sex couples. It's fascinating to watch as the traditionalists wage war against those they feel would disrupt a social construct that, in itself, should be labeled "broken" or "dysfunctional."
Their rigid notion of the American family doesn't exist. It might never have.
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