“A Barbecue Ain’t Gonna Fix It…” Part 1
Changes in African American Family Gathering Culture
When I was a little girl, I loved the movie Soul Food. Probably way earlier than I should have been (lol), I used to watch the movie on repeat. Yes, I was entertained by the characters and storyline, but secretly, I always saw a lot of myself in the lead character, Ahmad. He was one of the youngest people in a large family whose memories and traditions spanned decades before his birth; and when he was born, he got to take part. As stressful situations began to unfold amongst the adults around him, Ahmad was forced to take off the rose-colored glasses of childhood innocence to look at his family’s relationships with more mature eyes, and thus see them for what they really were.
I identified with Ahmad because my family was a lot like his in some ways. I was the youngest for many years. Unlike Ahmad, I had lots of older cousins who were close to each other in age, but too old for me to tag along with during summers and weekends spent at my grandmother’s house. As a result, I spent a lot of time at the feet of my elders, being “seen and not heard,” as the old folks say. There are perks to being the youngest in the family for as long as I was; you’re afforded many opportunities to spend time learning and collecting gems from those who have been around a lot longer than you. For me, this included experiencing the good things – like old school Saturday morning cleaning rituals and being taught trade secrets from my grandmama’s kitchen – as well as the darker things, like overhearing adult conversations set against the backdrop of frustration and disagreement. Along with the intentional lessons, I secretly collected an abundance of cautionary tales that no one realized I was learning from, much less paying attention to. You know how adults always assume that their coded language goes over their kids’ heads? Well, I have some breaking news, most times it doesn’t.
I’ve seen and done a lot since those days, and in my conversations with Black peers, I often laugh at the common threads of our experiences; like the fact that many of us grew to love ‘70s and ‘80s R&B during Saturday rendezvous with our friends, Pledge and Pine-Sol. But just as often, I hear similar questions echoed regarding when and how the functions of Black families changed. Many of us recall that back in the day, families came together in somebody’s park or yard to share afternoons filled with food, laughs, games, and music. The beloved cookout, a tradition that has evolved, or for some dissolved, over time. My family was known for their huge gatherings and reunions; my grandmother is one of nine children hailing from a large home in one of Louisville’s historically Black neighborhoods. Before a school was built in it’s place, a huge park was right across the street. Over 40 years later, family members still fondly recall the barbecues held on that land.
Between conversations with my cousins and friends, I’ve heard many millennials wonder:
Whatever happened to those big family functions we used to have?
Why don’t we get together like that anymore?
Why does it seem that these traditions fade away with the passing of our elders?
What happened to the “family?”
While the details can be complicated, I think that there are two main answers to these questions. For starters, people age. The cooks, set-up, and clean-up crews eventually get older and can’t continue putting on events for their extended families forever. If the knowledge on how to plan, fund, and execute those events isn’t passed down, or nobody picks up the torch to carry them on, then eventually they stop happening altogether.
The other reason, which may not always be easy to detect without a certain level of information and context, is because longstanding, unresolved family issues eventually have a habit of coming to a head. For some families, this is characterized by some big falling out. For others, it’s a much slower and subtle process of unravelling. From the outside, the now-grown kids in the equation may perceive it as, “My family used to have big functions when I was little, and then just stopped doing things together,” when the reality may be that old unhealed issues drove people apart. Or, people got tired of tolerating foolishness just for the sake of a big happy family aesthetic. As unfavorable as it may be for me to admit this publicly, both of these reasons, but especially the latter, apply to my own extended family.
Remember how I said I observed and heard a lot of family tea from my elders? Well now, when these questions come up, I often find myself in a unique position to make certain connections that others are not always able to. Rather than looking back with the perspective of a kid at the cookout, I recall these events with lots of context from the rifts I witnessed and post-event commentaries I heard over the years. I’m a bit of a silent grio, if you will. While I take no pride in gossip and I didn’t speak out of turn when I was a child, the point is that I remember many details of the complicated histories between relatives which influences the state of their relationships, or lack thereof, today.
While recently talking to my mother about this topic, she inspired my series title when she summed up her thoughts, quite eloquently, in just six words:
“A barbecue ain’t gonna fix it.”
In other words, yes, many of us remember and long for those large family gatherings from yester-year, but even if we had another one tomorrow, people’s unresolved questions, misunderstandings, interpersonal issues, and bad habits would still persist under the surface, sullying the fondness of those memories for some. So how do we fix those issues to bring people back together again?
In my next two blog posts, I will talk about the ways that I think our community should address the issues that keep our extended families apart. I’ll also explain the actions that I believe we, the younger generations, can take in order to make those cherished family gatherings happen again (after the COVID-19/20/21 panoramic* is over, of course). This isn’t one of my lighthearted series of posts because these topics are hefty in weight. But just like our elders used to say, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” This sentiment applies to our family units just as much as it applies to our individual lives; we can’t create the changes we want to see, unless we take a long, hard look at the full scope of our [family] history.
Come back next week for Part 2. In the meantime, stay safe and #StayKultured.