I guess all of us have been asked what will you do to preserve your child's Ethiopian heritage and culture? I had to answer a series of questions before I could formulate an response. [Here goes another series.]
- What is Ethiopian culture? What is the history, the celebrations, the food, the music?
- What is the spiritual connection or foundation of Ethiopian people?
- What is the hope of an Ethiopian mother and father? What do they expect from their children and how to they prepare them for the future?
- What is the hope of a little boy or girl growing up in Ethiopia? If they ever returned home who would they most want to be and what would they want to do?
- Why does it matter if they retain part of their Ethiopian culture if they are going to live in America.
- How does growing up in America change their lives, their opportunities, and their self-identity?
- How did having a strong cultural understanding, shape me? Who would I be if I didn't know who I was? Who would define what I should be?
African American people have a very deep, rich culture. Like any culture it is built upon a historical reality and a preserving response. We hold on to the best things about who we are and shed others in an effort to assimilate. I asked myself, how did I learn my culture? I learned it from the inside out. I didn't come to understand the traditions by reading about them, I learned by experiencing them with generations of African American people who told me why certain things were significant. I didn't hang pictures or flags on my wall first. I developed some sort of admiration, respect, connection, and/or reverence for the person or the symbol. I bought things and placed them around the house, because I drew strength from them. Drawing that strength was only possible because I understood them in context to a struggle of a people.
Cultural things are not the trends of a hairstyle but the tradition of sitting between your mother's legs to get your hair done. I don't know of many people who went to the hair salon back then, but I do know that any little black girl could get a lesson sitting in the kitchen on Saturday night while hair was being washed and styled.
I jump up when I hear an old R & B record because when I hear it, it takes me back to a certain place or time. I connect with the words that tell a story that is unique to our black experience -- it allows me to reminisce, hope, or hang on. Even though I probably attended black history programs and a couple of Kwanzaa celebrations I went because it was a gathering of black folks that understood the meaning. I didn't go to learn the meaning. I learned who I was by looking in the face of my mother and her sisters. They were constantly telling us what would be expected of us and how we would need to respond. More importantly the modeled the behavior and demonstrated the character.
I learned something new every night over dinner as my parents told stories about the good old days. Even when those story included tales of segregation, poverty, or injustice -- they were the history that my parents knew. They talked and we got to ask questions. I learned black history by sitting in church next to the old ladies that told me about their days as young girls traveling in America. It was because I heard the stories first that I wanted to find books in the library and not the other way around. I gained a love for books when I heard stories
I come from a large family. On my mother's side there were 10 children, 8 girls and 2 boys. On that side alone I have 35 first cousins, many who have children my age. Our parents didn't talk to us about limitations but they instilled a hope that our generation was the one the could make a difference if we worked hard and "lived right." I picked a certain style of clothes not to reflect that I was black, but to honor one of my hero's who had paved the way for me.
I tell people all the time, you see my face and my accomplishments but their are a thousand faceless and nameless black men and women that poured their faith and hope into me. Many of those people don't speak correct English, never thought about going to college, and aren't interested in being important. It was the women in my church that always told me that I could do it. It was the janitor in the school, that whispered in my ear that he saw what I was doing and it made him proud. It was the women who had very little that would buy me cards of encouragement every step of the way. The women who baked my favorite cake for the smallest achievement. What I learned is that we are a culture of love and commitment. I learned in my culture that you reach back, pull up, and push others forward. Culture is the lessons learned from the actions and not the actions themselves. Otherwise it's all symbolism and no substance.
One phrase that I've come to hate through this process is, "...just because they are black." I hate it because there is absolutely no understanding of the substance about what that means. It's thrown off as some insignificant fact that should be ignored, co-opted, or eradicated or exchanged. Black is simply a symbol of a much deeper connection, history, culture, and struggle that can't be brushed away. Compare it to saying, "...just because she's American." "...just because she is a woman." Why do we join the Yahoo adoption groups? Is it just because we are adopting or is that because we are adopting that we face different life experiences than others, that our path to parenthood is fraught with twist and turns, and that we find community with others that have gone before us? Mmmm....think of about how it feels for someone to dismiss your adoption experience that way. You would think to yourself, "do these people know what it takes and what we have to go through?" That's it it feels to me when someone says to me, "...just because you are black."
I don't want my children to understand their culture just because they were born in Ethiopia. We weren't asked the question just because the children were born in Ethiopia. We were asked what we will do to maintain their heritage because it is crucial to the development of a healthy self-identity. To be whole they have to know who they are and how they came to be.
I came to the conclusion that my culture is not the signs and symbols that I wear that tell others that I am an African American woman. My culture is reflected in how I feel about the fact that I am a black woman and I how use that information to press my way.
With this understanding I set out to learn about Ethiopian culture from the inside out. I wanted to understand how my children could preserve their Ethiopian culture living in America with an African American mother. Preservation suggest that there is something already their for them to hold on to. I needed to find out what that was.