Learning Through The Generations by Dionne Gravesande

Dionne Gravesande writes why it’s important for Black communities to share their history and experiences intergenerationally, and reveals how families, communities and churches can do so

I smiled when I heard the phrase, ‘We roll deep’. It was used by a young woman, who was describing her relationship with her parents. Given the rhetoric around dysfunctional families, it was good to hear her talk about a positive experience with her parents. I asked the young woman to expand her description, and she explained, “‘Rolling deep’, in this context, means a deep, understanding and respectful relationship. We are open and honest; I learn from them and they learn from me.” That’s quite a powerful statement, which I think deserves further reflection in the context of Black History Month.

It is important to ask the question how our community understands intergenerational relationships. When people are raised in different time periods, their values and perceptions of the world can be quite different, and this can lead to difficulties in understanding one another. Because of this gap in understanding, it’s important for us to find links between younger and older generations, so as to build the reservoir of knowledge and experience.

Learning through the generations is not a new concept; it is how we have told our story of struggle, triumph and celebration across the ages. The Black Church needs to become creative in recording and telling a 200-year post-slavery story. That story is one of Black identity, strength and solidarity. The story involves women, men and children. It’s a freedom story about our collective struggle, contribution and reconciliation with each other across the continents.

History states that Carter G Woodson initiated the Negro History Week in the USA in February 1926, which then became Black History Month (BHM). He chose February, because the birthdays of two influential figures took place within it: Abraham Lincoln, US President and abolitionist, and author, Frederick Douglass. Meanwhile, BHM in the UK is widely attributed to Akyaaba Addai Sebbo. The first event was held on 1st October 1987, when the Greater London Council hosted Dr Maulana Karenga from the US to mark the contributions of Black people throughout history.

The Black Church should be central to BHM here in the UK because, had it not been for a faithful and traditional generation (ie. those born between 1927 and 1945), my struggle for racial equality and for other social justices would have been so much harder. It was the Church that gave individuals the belief that they were created in the image of God and given value, worth and dignity. The message of Christ filled that generation with hope, joy, determination and courage to keep on keeping on. BHM surveys show that too few of our young people know our collective story, not because of a lack of interest, but because of a failure to connect them with their history and legacy. Such disconnection is troubling and affects young men in particular, since this is the group over-represented in prison and in mental hospitals. The young must be better informed about their place in our history, otherwise how will they take full charge of the mantle we must pass on?

Since the Civil Rights period, a revolution in consciousness that encompasses many Black institutions – including the Black Church – has emerged, and continues to grow amongst our young people. They need mentors and role models, so they can play a full and active part in society. Young people also have a key role to play in church, and should be trusted to achieve their calling and mission. The late African-American writer, John Henrik Clarke, wrote: “If we are to change tomorrow, we are going to have to look back with some courage, and warm our hands on the revolutionary fires of those who came before us.”

Intergenerational relationship is not something churches do – it’s something they become. It’s nothing short of a paradigm shift, and the whole church must value intergenerational relationships and community at a core, philosophical level. This shift requires that all of the leaders of the church (not just the youth leader) buy into the value of intergenerational ministry, and commit to changing the culture of the church over the long haul. This does not mean eradicating age-specific ministries, because they work to a point; all ages still need their own space to grow and develop at their own pace. But everyone needs to be part of a web of relationships that includes their peers AND members of other generations.

Wisdom, courage and determination fill the stories of many who left African and Caribbean shores many years ago; these stories still inspire us today. I say it’s time to celebrate our cultural identity which is far too often misrepresented, when it is not being ignored in the mainstream.

We (grandparents and parents) owe it to our children and grandchildren to set aside our differences, and unite on a common purpose so that our collective story can be told. After all, through the generations, our story rolls deep, very deep indeed. So wherever you are on your journey in life, pause for a moment to remember those who came before us, and consider sharing their story this Black History Month.

DIONNE GRAVESANDE is Head of Church Advocacy at Christian Aid

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