Monday, October 27, 2008

What Is a Family?

With thoughts toward my children:

What is a family? Is it just a genetic shain, parents and offspring, people like me? Or is it a social construct, an economic unit, optimal for child rearing and divisions of labor? Or is it something else entirely: a store of shared memories, say? An ambit of love? A reach across the void?

I could list various possibilities. But I'd never arrived at a definite answer ... Instead, I drew a series of circles around myself, with borders that shifted as time passed and faces changed but that nevertheless offered the illusion of control. An inner circle, where love was constant and claims unquestioned. Then a second circle, a realm of negotiated love, commitments freely chosen. And then a circle for colleagues, acquaintances; the cheerful gray-haired lady who rang up my groceries ... the circle finally widened to embrace a nation or a race, or a particular moral course, and the commitments were no longer tied to a face or a name but were actually commitments I'd made to myself.

At first I reacted to all this attention like a child to its mother's bosom, full of simple, unquestioning gratitude ... an obvious contrast to the growing isolation of American life, a contrast I understood, not in racial, but in cultural terms. A measure of what we sacrificed for technology and mobility ... the insistent pleasure of other peopl's company, the joy of human warmth.

As the days wore on, though my joy became tempered with tension and doubt .... Now I was family, I reminded myself; now I had responsibilities. But what did that mean exactly? ... I'd been able to translate these feelings into politics, organizing, a certain self-denial ... [but] faith in participatory democracy couldn't buy Jane a new set of sheets. For the first time in my life, I found myself thinking deeply about money: my own lack of it, the pursuit of it, the crude but undeniable peace it could buy ....

But, of course, wealth involved trade-offs for those who weren't born to it .... the same perverse survivor's guilt that I could expect to experience if I ever did try to make money and had to pass the throngs of young black men on the corner as I made my way to a downtown office. Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave other behind. And perhaps that was that fact that left me so unsettled - the fact that the same maddening patterns still held sway; that on one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association. It was as if we are all making it up as we went along.


I remember a conversation I had once in Chicago when I was still organizing. It was with a woman who'd grown up in a big family in rural Georgia. Five brothers and three sisters, she had told me, all crowded under a single roof. She told me about her father's ultimately futile efforts to farm his small plot of land, her mother's vegetable graden, the two pigs they kept penned out in the yrard, and the trips with her siblings to fish the murky waters of a river nearlby. Listening to her speak, I began to realize that two of the three sisters she'd mentioned had actually died at birth, but that in this woman's mind they had remained with her always, spirits with names and ages and characters, two sisters who accompanied her while she walked to school or did chores, who soothed her cries and colmed her feaars. For this woman, family had never been a vessel just for the living. The dead, too, had their claims, their voices sshaping the course of her dreams.

So now it was for me.

Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father. New York: Random House, 2004. (327-338).

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