How Important is Your Family’s Story?

26 Mar

In my last post I quoted something the writer Walter Mosley had said about why some Black people are angry. “They stole our story.”

A week ago, I came upon an article in the New York Times by Bruce Feiler about the importance of families developing a “strong family narrative.” A story.


Now a family narrative isn’t exactly the solution to a having our collective history, culture “our story” stolen. But it kinda is. When the mini-series Roots aired in the 1970s it was the most watched television show–ever. Why? The narrative. Was the stuff in Africa fiction, of course it was, but that wasn’t the point. (Again, the actual stories were not preserved).  To be able to follow this one family through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, was mesmerizing. The country watched, mesmerized.

What we can do is be conscious of what we’re doing now. How are we sharing time with our kids? What do we tell them about ourselves, grandparents, uncles, aunts?

A psychologist at Emory, Marshall Duke, was asked to explore myth and ritual in American families.

Because of all the research on the dissipation of the family, he became interested in what could be done to counteract it. His psychologist wife had shared with him that she’d noticed something about the students with whom she worked who have learning disabilities. The ones who knew a lot about their families tended to do better when they faced challenges.

Dr. Duke decided to test her hypothesis and created a 20 question test for kids called, “Do you know?” It asked questions like: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Where your parents went to high school? Where they met? Do you know about an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family?

After comparing the results the conclusion was overwhelming. The children who knew more about their family history had a stronger sense of control over their lives and higher self-esteem. “Do You Know?” turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome set-backs (big and small?)

It’s simple: the child’s sense of being part of something larger.

A community of  psychologists say that family narratives consist of one of three forms:

“When we came here we had nothing, but your grandfather worked hard and sent your mother to college…”

“We used to have it all, then we lost everything.”

They say that the third one is the most helpful:

 We’ve had our ups and downs. We built a  successful business; your mother was the first woman on the city council, but we also had setbacks. Your uncle was arrested, your dad lost his job…but we stuck together.”

One suggestion is for families to create a mission statement like the kind companies have to identify their core values.

A lot of you already do this, but Dr. Duke recommends occasions like holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even car rides to the mall, to convey a sense of history and ritual.

In my birth family, Friday nights were for Tree Tavern frozen pizza and playing Pokeno at the kitchen table and my Aunt Thelma, my mom’s sister, would come over. Now, with my family, Friday night is for ordering pizza and either watching a movie or playing a board game.

“The traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.

For many years, research has said that happy families communicate effectively, but it’s not just the talking; it means telling something positive about yourself that illustrates how you overcame a hardship.

In Feiler’s book, The Secrets of Happy Families…he writes:

“The bottom line: If you want a happier family, create, refine and re-tell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.”

Years ago, probably  25, I was in an apartment of a woman I knew and saw that her hallway wall was filled, top to bottom, with black and white pictures. I’d never seen a Black person with that many pictures, generations of family members. I remember feeling a stab of envy. I’d never seen pictures like that of my family. I didn’t think we had any.

Five year later, when I married Cliff, I saw that his family had old family pictures on display (although most were stuffed in boxes). His father happily made copies for me. I also started pressing my mother, aunts, older cousins and they searched and gladly shared what pictures they had.

I’m sure my kids’ take our stories and the pictures for granted. They’ve never not lived with them. They might be able to name two of the relatives and they know that their paternal great-great-great grandmother Caledonia had bought her freedom.

One day Ford asked about the relatives in the pictures. He was in the fourth grade and was learning about slavery. Each photo that looked especially old, he ran his small finger across the glass and asked: “Was she a slave? Was he?”

When I hung those pictures, twenty years ago, I wasn’t consciously providing a family narrative, but I understood that people need to know where they come from and who their people are.

The pictures in this post are of our family–the top two are Cliff’s grandparents and parents; the lower four are my grandmother and her boyfriend, a great-aunt, Dad and Aunt Thelma.

What do you think? Do you have a family narrative? Is it important to have one?

2 Responses to “How Important is Your Family’s Story?”

  1. Carmen March 26, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    Wow, thanks for your insight… I love this and, my hope is to create a narrative that serves my family for years to come.

  2. Malika Norman March 27, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

    Hi. Im Malika and im 21. I think pictures and a narrative are important. I cherish the painting of my grandmother and step grandfather in the home living room. Not many Black “folk” have that.

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