Years ago, I attended a bachelor party with a friend of mine who was originally from Nigeria. We discussed how in his culture the bridal and bachelor parties were combined, and that as part of the celebration, they washed each other’s hands in a single bowl. It was supposed to symbolize how the two families would take care of each other. After we talked about this, he made a statement that has stayed with me to this day. “When a man leaves his home,” my friend said, “he takes with him his culture.”
I think about his declaration every time I see African American folks who seem to want to forget their culture. Nowadays, it seems that in order to be successful, American black folks must assimilate with the mainstream culture to the point of losing their own. And too many of us are more than willing to do just that. Not only are successful blacks, other than those who entertain or play sports, expected to look like mainstream America, they also must act the part.
Recently, I met a young black man who seems to have it on the ball. Everything about him says, “I’m making it in corporate America.” He wears power suits and ties, drives an expensive foreign sports car, and lives in an urban townhouse.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for the brother. He’s come a long way from his family’s meager beginnings in North Charleston’s Accabee community. The kid is only one generation removed from the life his father knew — chickens in the backyard, a household without a car, a time when the neighboring families shared the corn, beans, sweet potatoes, and watermelons grown in a vacant lot.
The other day his father and I talked about the nights we spent sleeping over at each other’s houses warming ourselves by the wood-burning stove — the only source of heat in the house — before being run off to bed so we could get up early enough to boil our bath water on that same stove top before school the next morning. My friend’s son listened with obvious disdain.
He doesn’t even attend the family church anymore. Instead, he worships with one of those congregations where everybody’s focus is on getting their share of the pie right now, instead of that pie in the sky when they die.
I can’t blame him for that. It’s only natural for people to want to move beyond their origins. But I’m saddened that so many up-and-coming young blacks feel they have to leave their heritage behind if they are to get ahead. Sure, you must use the tools and language of the mainstream culture if you want to function at higher levels, but nobody totally abandons their own culture.
I was talking to this guy the other day, and he was telling me how he recently shared that very same sentiment during a meeting about local public schools. “I told them integration was the worst thing to happen to black people,” he said.
I agree that integration has cost black people their culture and their businesses — hotels, restaurants, and a host of other community enterprises that were necessary because blacks were denied service at most white establishments — but I don’t think integration has been a bad thing. At least not the attempt we’ve made at integration.
I doubt anyone thinks our society has achieved full integration, and most would probably agree we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. That’s why it’s imperative for black people to work hard to insure they preserve the culture that has brought them through slavery, Jim Crow, and now integration.
I know times have changed, and black people must change with them. But losing the culture that brought us together during periods of trouble and hardship, the culture that developed over generations of disenfranchisement, the culture that inspired our young to continue to progress despite the obstacles is not the way to go. In fact, it is precisely because black people never abandoned their culture that so many more of our young now have increased opportunities.