By Damola Awoyokun
Knife murders, gang culture, drugs, jail, overrepresentation in sports and music, underrepresentation in Oxbridge or in top courses of other universities, substantial underachievement, general underperformance etc.A lot of these are blamed on black people’s dysfunctional attitude to family life and child-raising. But we who came from Africa know that it is not a black problem it is a Caribbean problem but we have only come to accept it as ours too because we are one black family. And once blacks from the two continents annul the flimsy complexes that stand strongly in the way of mutual cultural dialogue and learning from each other, many of these problems that have impaired black people’s positive contribution to the British society would sharply subside.
Watching Jamelia’s episode in the documentary The House That Made Me (Thursday 23 Dec 2010 9pm on Channel 4 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nfT_U6rAfY4) one could see the rehash of this dysfunctional attitudes over three generations of the same ‘black’ family. Jamelia herself is a single mum of two kids from different fathers. Jamelia’s mum had her at age 17. Her two younger brothers are in jail; one for murder. Her father is always in and out of prisons. “Dads are rarely involved in their children’s life and their independent mum raised the kids single-handedly,” the narrator said as if it is a gospel truth.
But the honour code in many parts of Africa is pro-family.Saying hello to friends, colleagues or strangers is incomplete without asking about their families. And answering in the positive is a source of pride and self-validation. To have a wayward child, a bad mother or an absentee father diminishes each of the family member’s stature in their own different social milieus. Even armed robbers question the other’s ability to lead an imminent operation. ‘He cannot control his family successfully, how can we trust you to successfully direct this operation?’ This kind of thinking permeates every facet of life among Africans. The stakes are too high that you have to work really hard on your marriage life. Africa may have a lot of problems but growing up under a single mum is not part of them.
It is from the African point of view that I have come to understand as a very dangerous myth the concept of the independent woman and some black mothers’s eagerness to be seen as such because the honour system cherishes it. First, it is making men more and more irrelevant in their own homes. Second it is giving women excuse not to really work hard to save the marriage. Third and most importantly, it is infecting the psyche of kids, both male and female, to prima facie see the male as a problematic figure in any given relationship. Whereas as Phillip Roth shows in his new novel Nemesis: the person we are praising for being kind, loving and full of goodwill may actually be the carrier of the destructive germ. It is true that to compensate for their minority treatment by the outer society, black men are more eager to quit a relationship that turns them into another minority in their own homes and this idea of “superman women” and mothers deliberately inciting actions that make children believe they should love their mum more than their dad do not help matters at all.
It is important to point out that after Jamelia’s absentee father, her mum had another lover, and it was the same old story and their offspring till ended up in jail. With the lessons from these woeful examples before her, Jamelia herself still became a single mother of two daughters from two different fathers yet she is under thirty. And when the documentary found her with her childhood friends their own situations too are all the same: single motherhood. Unfortunately, the documentary did not air the opinions of the only one still with her husband.
When black women say they suspect their husbands or partners have started going out to cheat which of course marks the beginning of absent fatherhood, I ask, since both of you were in love before why did you now allow somebody out there to be better than you? I ask the question knowing fully well that most times people make reports also to mask their own bad behaviour. The response I get is that I am being mean-hearted. But mean-heartedness is invoked because we live in a culture over-saturated with sympathy at the expense of reason and many are appealing to sympathy as a means of self-validation whereas what they need is serious criticism. One of the lessons which black mothers can draw from lesbian marriages is that it many of the problems that they arrogate to their men hence boot them out or make the home intolerable for them, are normal human conflicts arising from two people living together based on an indefinable degree of mutuality. As the lesbian unions have shown, they are not necessarily the male problem.
From the documentary, it is pretty obvious that Jamelia’s father is not too much of a bad man; he was just a victim of circumstances that had certain things being done, Jamelia’s family’s situation like many ‘black’ family’s wouldn’t have slipped further down. For instance knowing fully well the almost inevitable fate of black children from single parent household, would Jamelia for the sake of her daughters, apologise to her man and promise that his concerns would be addressed in order to have him back? Like I once told a friend in a similar situation. ‘Your so-called close friends asking you not to go back and apologise are not really advising you, they are just seeking converts to their view on strong independent women.” One has divorced two times and she is less than 30. Another is a mother of four children from four different men. Apologising has nothing to do with who is right or wrong. It is humility and humility is not humiliation. It is a product of grace and honour. Though very difficult, apology would have elevated Jamelia and given her enough moral capital and bargaining power so that later when her relationship is back on a deeper course, she too will be able to demand from her man the actualisation of her concerns too. Four years now and still counting, my friend is still together with together husband.
Damola Awoyokun is a writer and essayist.