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The Death of The Matriarch

ma·tri·arch [mey-tree-ahrk] noun - 1. the female head of a family or tribal line.

2. a woman who is the founder or dominant member of a community or group.

3. a venerable old woman.

There used to be a time when Black families, and some black neighborhoods, had a matriarch. This was the lady that everyone looked up to. She offered wisdom, history, guidance in child rearing, tradition, and just overall pride and dignity. She also handed out a butt whooping or two as needed. She was the real backbone of the family unit and personified its foundation. These days, there is a void of this type of influence in the Black family and in Black culture. Is it just me or are they few and far between these days? Either the person isn’t around to adopt that role any longer or the youngsters who would most benefit from a matriarchal figure tune out any messages coming their way.

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Matriarchs of Black Culture: Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey and Rosa Parks. I wonder who their family matriarchs were?

She was a wealth of family history but the most important lesson she shared with us all was how to treat each other and how to BE a family. I gave many an eye roll to the ceiling over my Granny telling and retelling stories of family members I’d never heard of or met. I remember toiling in her garden at 8 or 9 years old at the butt crack of dawn during summer break from school; having to go fetch THREE switches from the tree in my Granny’s yard that she would braid together and wear out on me and my brothers; her lectures about love and family when my brothers and I or our cousins would try to punch each other’s lights out. Those times that I absolutely HATED growing up actually instilled character, work ethic and a sense of family I haven’t outgrown to this day. I bawled like a baby when she died at 98 years old.

My grandmother was the centerpiece of my entire family growing up. My mom, my uncles, all my Kansas City cousins, and even family that visited from out of town ALL knew. Granny was the driving force of our family. She, of course, knew our family history going farther back than any of us. She told stories about her childhood in the Deep South growing up on a farm. She shared her memories of her Dad and HER grandmother, and her grandmother’s stories of HER grandmother. She knew the story of the land that has been in our family for years and how its ownership has changed hands. She shared stories of the births of my mom and her brothers delivered by midwives even before birth records were kept of Blacks in the county where they lived.

3. a venerable old woman.

My Grandmother, little brother Louis and my mom at church.. circa 1977

Our family’s matriarch taught us to keep the family close knit, above all else. She taught us how to act respectfully toward each other and with others. She taught us to love first and judge later, if at all. Through her, we knew what a strong black woman looked like. Thanks to her, my mom was able to raise three boys to men singlehandedly. We also had our share of “Miss Mabels” and “Madeahs” in neighborhoods where I grew up and EVERYBODY respected and obeyed these ladies. The good kids and the bad asses. They were the neighborhood judge and jury and not a parent on the block complained.

While this role still exists today, it seems to have been diluted or corrupted over time. The significance, the honor, the respect does not seem to have been handed down to the current generation of young blacks. Kids these days simply aren’t trying to hear anything their elders have to share.

Wisdom is brushed off as kids seek their own path (and often crash and burn before they’ve had the opportunity to gain lessons from their choices). A few points…

  1. 'ELDERS' ARE THIRTYSOMETHING: For one thing, grandmothers these days are in their late 30s a lot of times. Early 40s at best. Some are still trying to be ‘about that life’ and haven’t learned enough from their own life experiences to represent the matriarch role. They may not appreciate how their behavior influences younger family members or acknowledge the opportunity to pass on lessons and knowledge and history to the rest of the family. Or sometimes they simply may not care. It’s also possible that the role is objectionable because, like crow’s feet, it’s seen as a glaring sign of aging.

  2. THUG PASSION: In some instances, kids and young adults are passionate about and determined to be perceived as thugged out. Taking heed to any information or life lesson an older family member wants to pass on goes against having credibility in the street. The same way reading and speaking proper English are perceived as soft, listening to your elders contradicts their hardcore sensibilities. With this, many life lessons and valuable family history, from a wholesome and trustworthy source, are rejected and ultimately not handed down. Possibly forever lost. Another contribution to the breakdown of the black family is therefore made.

  3. REALITY SHOWS - KEEPING IT REAL, STUPID: MTV, BET and real housewives replace the matriarch as a source of setting an example for younger heads. Hell, in a lot of homes, the parents are watching them too!! Chicks seen as ‘Boss Bitches’ or “real” women are lowering the bar of what constitutes a strong black woman. Suddenly, wilding out in restaurants and public events is not frowned up but looked forward to by faithful reality show fans. While, it may be understood that the behavior is frowned upon, it’s still on the landscape of possible actions because it’s now part of regularly scheduled programming. (I won’t even mention that the rest of the world who may not know Black folks personally have this BS as their only peek into Black culture). I digress. Also, Black men are often portrayed as lying, child support dodging lowlifes and RARELY as strong, head-of-household, hard- working breadwinners. The younger generation doesn’t reject the negative, monkeyshine buffoonery for what it is because the message doesn’t come from their role models that folks with any sense of self, family and pride don’t act like that; that men with expectations of employment prospects don’t wear their belts around their thighs leaving their entire ass cheeks and drawers exposed.

Who adopts the matriarch role in YOUR family? Maybe the matriarch in your family could be YOU. Remember, just because the dictionary definition of matriarch refers to a female doesn’t mean that the family icon cannot be a MAN!!

I think it’s commendable that celebrities like Steve Harvey, Tyler Perry, Tyrese Gibson, Black Girls Rock, Beverly Bond, Oprah Winfrey, Magic Johnson, Trent Shelton and so many more adopt a national role model position as ‘doers’ in the Black community but they are only part of the village it takes to mold our youth. You can look to their influence as a tool to do YOUR job. Thank God for what they do but, technically, it’s not their responsibility. No kids? Try mentoring. No drive? No pressure, just don’t flaunt it like it’s the thing to do. Please step aside and don’t collide with kids that have potential to do waaaay better. That’s how you can contribute.

I think we have to go that extra mile to make sure that our next generation gets the messages.. family is important and has to remain strong, having pride and integrity is important, work hard and reward yourself, believe in yourself then go prove it to others, perform acts of kindness without a spotlight.

Sometimes your message may have to start with ‘if you’d shut the hell up you might learn something’. Sometimes these lessons don’t get through the first time. Hell, NO TIME will the lesson get through the first time. But someone has to take the role of paying forward the things that make your family valuable and worth preserving.

These are building blocks that constitute a strong foundation. The matriarch is the cement that binds them all together.


NOTE: As usual, the thoughts expressed here are just one man's opinion. They are by no means the entire discussion on the subject. Disagree? Something to add? Write me, I would be more than happy to publish it. Go to the contact page and send me an email and we will work out getting your thoughts published. OR, just blog about it in the blog section.

v. ray


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