“It is the family that gives us a deep private
sense of belonging.
Here we first begin to have our self
defined for us.”
What’s more vulnerable and real than family?
You don’t get a say over how you came into this world, and the circumstances you were born into. Arguably, that’s what makes the topic of family and kinship so contemptable for many people: you’re forced into a relationship, for better or worse, for a large part of your life. Even if you move away, change your name, change your phone number, and cease communication, you can’t escape your family and the impact they’ve had in defining you completely… Trust me, I’ve tried. *wink*
In the theme of celebrating and exploring our histories, our personal histories are probably the most defining, central aspect of who we are as a people in any community. Especially in afro-centric societies where our community has been established around the devastating realities and unconventional roots of family dating back to slavery, kinship is incredibly important to us.
“The breakdown of the black community, in order to maintain slavery,
began with the breakdown of the black family.
Men and women were not legally allowed to get married
because you couldn’t have that kind of love.
It might get in the way of the economics of slavery.
Your children could be taken from you and literally sold down the river.”
Because our families have been systematically targeted and torn apart for centuries, we’re often lectured from a young age about the importance of looking out for relatives. Regardless of how dysfunctional any member may be, we’re programmed not to allow any family member to figuratively go down the river alone. The black family, in the aftermath of slavery, became a community, business, and government within itself. Unfortunately, it was often plagued by external and internal struggles, and over time those traumas began to deteriorate the status of the American Black Family Unit in new ways.
Here’s where we get personal.
The concept of the “Black Sheep” within a family is not exclusive to any race, culture, or generation. However, when you start examining the concept of the black sheep within the context of the American Black Family, things get extremely complicated. In a culture where the importance of family is stressed, not feeling a connection to your own family is devastating, to say the least.
Whether it’s a father who walks out on his children, an overworked single mother being largely uninvolved at home, belonging to a blended family that doesn’t quite mesh, untreated mental illness, or having a large generational gap between siblings, there are so many situations that cause a rift and resentment amongst families. There are so many factors that can make us feel out of place within our homes, regardless of family size, structure, location, class, etc.
For many reasons, I am the black sheep of my own family. I’m largely disconnected and different, and can honestly say that nobody in my family genuinely knows me or has made an effort to understand me. I remember looking up to a particular older sister the most out of all of my siblings… until one day her daughter told me some discouraging things my sister had said about me! I was heartbroken, and felt silly that I had been forging a one-way connection to someone who didn’t have much interest in me. After that, and a few other crazy stories, I kind of went back into my shell and mostly stayed there until my mother passed away.
And even though our family became much closer for a period, I have still largely remained the outsider of the family. I’ve long accepted my position as the black sheep, but until recently, I haven’t really coped with that disconnect. One of the hardest pills to swallow in losing my mom at 24 years old was the foreseeable void. While it’s not easy to lose a parent at any age or stage in life, there were so many milestones I hadn’t crossed that I now wouldn’t have my mom for; obtaining my graduate degrees, getting married, buying my first home, having my first child. I’ve become so much more aware of being the black sheep in the past year when there’s the added absence of a parent.
How Do You Cope?
Another life lesson I’ve learned in the past year: you cannot change others’ perceptions of you, and in turn, you can’t always change the relationship. I’ve always been the family outsider; no amount of texting, calling, or hanging out is necessarily going to change my family’s dynamic. If anything, it exacerbates the tension and makes the disconnect more evident.
So personally, I accept the distance and cope with self-care. I find healthy ways to engage and love myself, especially when I feel lonely. I say healthy, because I know of many young people with similar situations and emotions that find themselves in abusive relationships or destructive groups seeking that sense of family.
Being the black sheep doesn’t mean that you’ll never have a sense of kinship or belonging. I had to create something for myself to belong to when I couldn’t find an existing space. If there’s one thing to be learned through the tragedy of slavery, it’s that kinship doesn’t only apply to those who share the same blood as you. There are things greater than last names and family origin that connect our community. Somewhere, in this world, is something or someone that accepts you as family and cares for you in the most positive ways. The things that make you a black sheep don’t make you ugly or undesirable. They make you misunderstood in a space you don’t belong. Be proud of and honest about what makes you different, and you’ll find a place of acceptance.
“Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.”
– Zora Neale Hurston
Make sure you check out my accompanying poem, “The Ugly Black Sheep”