Preserving African Culture for a Black Child in ‘the west’: a Letter to Parents by Kelise
As your child grows, there will approach a time when they must “fly the nest”. As we age, we tend to drift from innocent ideas, from wanting to be astronauts, to framing first loves through rose-tinted glasses and then eventually moving away from the homes of the ones we hold dear. Sometimes these moments are easy, though oftentimes they are forced - and although it is expected of us, there is always a piece clinging.
But what if that clinging piece was something more than an innocent childhood idea? What if it was something integral to who your child is?
If you were to walk into my grandmother’s house, first what would hit you would be the aroma of food, prepared in a series of rituals days in advance. Then it would be the decorations. An African tapestry of the three wise men, a mural of African American civil right icons, framed memories of generational black joy, and a lot of flags. These tokens never moved and are what I have built memory and identity around. Something I plan never to ‘drift’ from.
My grandmother is the matriarch to not only my family but to my identity. For birthdays and Christmases, I never asked for materialistic presents but instead only ever wanted her “hand me downs”. These entailed traditional clothing made from Madras cloth that conjured the memories of my African ancestors, brightly dressed in celebration of emancipation. The hand me downs also included necklaces symbolising my grandmother’s Catholic faith. It was here where I first saw the complexity of colonised African-Caribbean culture, where western religion was adhered to alongside African customs.
Perhaps my grandmother and I created sentimental attachments because we witnessed what a lack of identity could do. I first spotted this through my grandparents who arrived in a Windrush generation, and I saw the heartbreak at not remembering their native language. I again saw this as I entered my teenage years, through my experiences as a young biracial woman living in England.
To pinpoint African culture, or in my case, African-Caribbean culture would be impossible. Yet it has always struck a chord with me that although Africa spans such vast land and languages, and although people of the African Diaspora are displaced people with no name, solidarity remains. And through such loss, we create such beautiful works of art. Art which arguably is brought out of pain.
And so, even though early in my life I had looked to tangible objects to validate my sense of blackness, I went on to discover that it was found elsewhere. In a spirit and culture, and a community rich in creativity and the beauty it makes out of its own hardship.
‘African-ness’ would be nothing without the feeling of returning your grandparents to a home they haven’t visited in over 50 years, eating ackee and saltfish, drinking rum, getting to chew on sugar cane, watching your cousin dress up and only answer to T’Challa, listening to Kendrick Lamar, reciting every line, watching spike Lee, reading Chinua Achebe, sitting in a chair for 8 hours as someone dreads or braids your hair, doing the electric slide to Candy…
.… Or it can feel like teaching your children about the racism yet to come and fear you are ruining the innocent lust for life we all once had before we became weathered. It can feel like pride and all at the same time it feels like immense sadness…
But as someone who has very recent memories of being a black child in ‘the west’, I can tell you that both of these experiences of ‘African-ness’ were vital for me to learn.
The dishes, the music, the dances, the films, the hairstyling experiences are oftentimes seen as stereotypes, possibly harmful. But too many black children living in a western world, they are not only rites of passage but firm connecters to a disjointed heritage and the bridging of the forced diaspora of the African people. Although some would argue that teaching children of a violent past may be a traumatic reliving of oppression, I believe it is a chance for your child to become empowered. So that we can find the opportunity to create a newfound beauty and strength out of historical silencing and injustice.
And so, to parents, a message from an almost adult child: preserve and protect the traditions of Africa and the black community and teach your children about the creations of a violently displaced people who look like them. Tell them that they matter and that they have a right to influence and cultivate. As my grandmother did for me, in hopes that the future will see the fruits of our labour: children who are firmly rooted in strong educated identity.