The most important influence in a black child’s life can often be the grandparents.
That’s true, even with both parents around. In my remarks to Church Women United Saturday at Third Baptist Church, I discuss the special role that grandparents play as the transmitters of culture and values.
Unfortunately, we live in a society, and particularly in a city, that does not value the black family. Every message directed to our youth suggests “Don’t listen to them, take the quick and easy road.” As we know, that’s a road that leads to disaster.
I’ve been blessed with two great parents, my late father, and my mother, who is actually hospitalized in Iredell County, N.C. today. Yet my fondest memories are of my grandparents, Grampa Jack on my father’s side and John William Tatum, on my mother’s side. I was actually named for him. Although he died when I was eight years old, I have almost total recall on every conversation we ever had. I remember us sitting on a swinging aluminum couch on the porch of his farm when I was five years old, telling him about my plans to become President. It was only later that I realized what it must have been like for him in 1960 to support those dreams. In 1960, no black person had even voted in North Carolina for 55 years.
I wrote my first novel, Grampa Jack’s Secret, about my other grandfather. It told our family history through nine generations all the way back to Mali in the 1400s. The literary device I used was the relationship between father, son and grandson in each chapter. That’s how important I know that relationship is.
For my own mom, I watch how my nieces and nephews and grandnieces and nephews are pretty blase about their parents, but their whole bodies light up when they see “Nanny.” When my son had a surprise 30th birthday party, we got the biggest response when his grandmother stepped out. (see picture above)
Black children today are in a crisis, here and every other major metropolis in the country. That’s why I started ReUNION: Education-Arts-Heritage, an instructional television network. We’ve designed it based on what we have learned and studied about the relationship between children and their grandparents.
In 25 years of textbook publishing and teacher training, I’ve tested over and over again an almost perfect way to have a great classroom environment. Know every child’s grandparents. Use their lives as the canvas upon which you paint lessons.
About 10 years ago, I was in a special ed classroom at Denman Middle School. I suggested to the teacher that she ask each student to find out what their oldest living relative was doing when they were 12–who was President; what they wore and what kind of music they listened to. About a week later, she called to say that she had never seen more parent engagement and it was the most successful assignment she had ever given.
Several years ago, we tested the pedagogy with a group of teenagers at Potrero Hill Apartments. Before we met any of them, I sought out and had a drink at Sam Jordan’s with the community grandmother. I told her that we wanted to show the children how to get jobs in biotechnology and health care. She was excited and said we wouldn’t have any problems at all. During the six weeks we worked with children who had not seen success anywhere else in their schooling, the only discipline we ever had to do was to drop the names of their grandparents. Their final assignment was to do an oral and multimedia presentation of their work to their family.
A lot of kids may not know their grandparents for various reasons. Some of them know them very well, because the grandparent is also filling the role of parent. Through ReUNION, we’ve designed video lessons which convey that same sense of belonging that grandparents uniquely convey.
We are working with the Dr. George P. Davis Multipurpose Senior Citizens Center to create a cookbook and community history in time for the next Black Cuisine Festival. We’re involving students from schools in the area with the project. This is the kind of exercise we’re building around the country.
The answer to what ails black children is not closing schools, locking them up in prison or sending them off to war. People who don’t understand the communities they live in are only making the problems worse. We believe that grandfathers like Oscar James, who organized HP Uniti, which is a group of Hunter Point men who act as community grandfathers, and grandmothers like Espanola Jackson, have the respect and the wisdom to lead young people in the right direction.
If you have recipes, we encourage you to participate. You can also help by encouraging the leadership of the school district to support ReUNION in our schools. We’ve asked the Superintendent’s Zone to provide it for all their classrooms and we’re reaching out to every principal in the district.
When schools are not reaching out to you, we encourage you to work with us so we can help you be visible.