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'Aching' for Balance

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From Gwendolyn Brooks

Like her contemporary Langston Hughes, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American author to win the Pulitzer Prize (1950), tells in her poems the story of Blacks (she insists on capitalization of the word, and disdains the newer term "African-American''), recreating in verse their faces, personalities, dreams, and relationships. In "Family Pictures,'' the lecture she delivered last week in Washington as the 23rd Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the 76-year-old Ms. Brooks takes a wide-ranging look at Blackness in contemporary American culture, calling upon her poetry and life experience to convey certain messages about living together in a multicultural society.

In the following excerpt, she addresses current media-conveyed perceptions of the Black family. (Education Week breaks with its stylebook to honor Ms. Brooks's punctuation and capitalization preferences.)

The BLACK FAMILY! I speak now of the little unit within the large Extension. My brother and I were fortunate. Growing up in a home in which Blackness was cleanly honored--valued--allowed us peace and range. I still exclaim, as I exclaimed in 1989, I know very well that there are Black weaknesses, Black failings, and fallings-off. But numbers of us ache for balance in these contemporary reports. Numbers of us claim views, prominent views, of amiable Black Family, morally nourished Black Family, nice Black Family. Yes, Blacks are involved in drug abuse and drug-dealing, and alcoholism and pill-popping, and theft and assault and child-desertion and prostitution and homicide; as are whites, browns, reds, yellows. But there are also the firm families: the durable, effective, and forward youngsters, the homes regularized and rich with intelligence, affection, communication, and merriment. The necessary corrective programs must flourish--individual, state, national, world. But the already-successes must be announced, featured, credited.

My husband, Henry Blakely, a writer and social planner, is in this company with our brilliant daughter, theater-founder Nora Brooks Blakely. We have a brilliant son, California software designer Henry the Third. Henry the Second and I were married 55 years ago. In the Black community, many long-lasting marriages jog along, jog along. Rarely do these hit the headlines. The headlines are reserved for the teenaged unmarried mother: rarely the manymanymanymany lovely young girls who are clean-willed, cleanly adventurous, warm of heart and clear of spirit, reasonable, sane young girls, in love with the ideals of knowledge, good citizenship.

Indeed, who is to guarantee that such positives have eluded every one of the teenaged unmarried mothers? Incidentally, the loud critics of teenaged unmarried mothers and of one-parent homes are not considering the amount of pain they are lavishing on innocent children who happen to be members of single-parented homes. Are such keen and sly-tongued assessors aware of the permanent harm they are inflicting on these children--of the hot contribution they are making to a loss of self-esteem? Do they want to contribute to that loss? Do they want to inspire innumerable playground comparison-conversations: "I'm better'n you, because I have a double-parented home. I'm better'n better'n better'n you.'' Cheerily ignored is the truth that an impressive percentage of double-parented homes--I include the most luxurious Caucasian homes--are hell-holes of sexual abuse, childbeating, wife-battering, bickering, incessant profanity, elegant drug-dealing, pornography exposition, racism espousal. Left out of current diatribes are recipes these single mothers really could use. Questions come to mind.How do you force a man to stay in the home--thus maintaining "double-parenting''? How do you force a man's society-weakened body to stay alive?--thus maintaining the supposed efficiency of double-parenting? When a husband dies, the home is no longer double-parented. Are the then-fatherless children in that home automatically doomed to failure and moral depravity? Proud double-parented homers on Monday, after the death on Tuesday or Thursday are they to hang their little heads in shame?--in kindergarten?--on the playground?--because they are now dimmed, maimed, permanently demoted citizens of the horror of horrors, the Infamous, insecure, ugly disgrace, the SINGLE-PARENTED home.

Franklin Roosevelt experienced a single-parented home. Abraham Lincoln experienced a single-parented home. Angela Lansbury experienced a single-parented home.

For copies, contact the National Endowment for the Humanities in Washington.

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