Atlanta was the scene of the Hubbard-Spann family reunion during the first weekend in August. Atlanta, the capital of the New South, has a lot to offer, but my family had a serene reunion in the woods of the Simpson's Woods retreat center, which is used by the Methodist Church for religious retreats and spiritual renewal.
Coming together has been an ongoing thing for black families, from Sunday dinners and birthday parties to funerals, but the family-reunion craze really didn't take off until after the Roots series premiered on television in 1976. Thousands of black families began reconnecting their roots with reunions in different regions of the country annually and semiannually, usually during the months of July and August.
Atlanta is a short distance from Macon, Mississippi, where the Hubbards and the Spanns intermarried and lived side by side on plantations until the great black migration north. During the late 1930s through the 1950s, a time of vicious racist actions against blacks in Mississippi, hundreds of thousands of blacks including most of the Hubbards and the Spanns migrated from Mississippi to the north, where racism was less fierce and opportunities were more available.
Back in the South, I sat up listening to my grandmother and great-aunts swap stories of the past as if they happened yesterday. I heard of how my great-uncle Daniel Spann was accused by the sheriff of Macon of helping someone evade the law. Although Daniel had committed no crime, the sheriff felt entitled to question him and regulate his movement on a whim. My great-grandmother Liza Jane Spann felt it was a cynical attempt on the sheriff's part to get her land, about 200 acres. The sheriff knew that Liza Spann would mortgage her land or do just about anything to get her son out of jail. After family and friends counseled her to be patient, she decided to let her son stay in jail for a few weeks. When the sheriff saw she wasn't going to mortgage the land, he released my Uncle.
Despite the terror that was perpetrated by whites against blacks, the family stood strong. There are thousands of stories like ours, and one of the things that bound the family together was the love and respect that black folks had for each other.
According to Dr. Julia Hare of the San Francisco-based Black Think Tank, family reunions are a way to reflect upon issues of importance to family and a way of keeping the family intact.
"About 100 years ago, 90 percent of black families were headed by two parents married-couple households," said Hare, who is also co-author of The Endangered Black Family. She said this could be attributed to the fact that, during slavery, blacks weren't allowed to marry. After slavery was abolished, blacks rushed to marry and strengthen the family unit.
Today, the black family is in crisis. According to census figures, married couples head only 46 percent of black families. Hare says the breakup of the black family began when blacks started picking up many of the societal behaviors of the dominant culture. This was aided by the disappearance of industrial work in American cities in the early 1970s and 1980s.
This one-two punch drove jobless men away from their families and helped contribute to a disconnect between youngsters and the extended family. Many of the positive traditions and rituals that were practiced and taught by the elders began to disappear.
Although it will take a lot of things to restore the black family, one of the first steps that could do some good is the family reunion. It's a retreat where one can visit loved ones, talk over the good times and the bad, and get back to the basics and the meaning of the family the commitment and the love that is shared with one another. n
Lee Hubbard writes on hip hop, and national and urban affairs. His column appears on AlterNet.org.