Over the last year, I’ve found that time seems to have lost its hold on me. While days, weeks and months pass, it often feels like mere minutes or even years have gone by. As our efforts to stem the tide of COVID-19 continue and many of us opt to mask up, physically distance and/or stay at home, our connections have become strained.
We feel the strain of a lack of physical contact that cannot be filled by social media, Zooming or instant messaging. There is something so powerful in the ability to hug, touch, cuddle and laugh with people in person, to establish intimacy and to welcome people into our homes and private spaces. As we struggle with the complexity of our desire to be with those we love and to remain healthy, the way we see each other and are seen by each other has profoundly shifted.
In fact, it reminds me of a book I read as a college student by John Blassingame, titled “The Slave Community.” In this text, Blassingame explores Black pre-Civil War culture and the slave family. He explored dating practices, wedding ceremonies, childrearing, family roles, language and discipline. Using lived experience, he examined how people who were separated remained connected, maintained culture and values that continue to this day. He also helped me to understand the concept of fictive kin.
Fictive kin are people not related to you by birth, adoption or marriage but instead are those who have an emotionally significant relationship with and to you. In this way, the slave community, by virtue of the families split up and sold off to different plantations, had to find ways to connect, support and encourage each other. While one would always seek their family ties, family could also be built where it had previously not existed.
This reflection is made all the more interesting because of this year’s Black History Month theme, “The Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.” What can Black history tell us about family and about connection in the time of COVID?
As Utahns, many of us actively engage in the pursuit of genealogy to understand who we are and where we have come from. We seek to find connections to establish family ties and history to represent us and the identities we hold. Today, we continue to do this work along with the help of genetic testing that allows us to connect from the comfort of our homes. Still, we continue to develop fictive kin ties because we cannot be so lucky as to be related to all who feel a part of our families. It is how my Uncle Steve Sherrod became my Uncle Steve — not by blood or law but by time, love and respect.
As COVID continues to divide us from physical connection, I am hopeful that as access to the vaccine is made available, we can begin to reconnect with each other. We can recognize how our families have expanded in addition to how past hurts have been acknowledged and addressed, so we can learn and grow together. As we look forward to the days of in-person family gatherings and engagements, I invite you to join us virtually at Weber State as we engage in multiple conversations about Black family, representation, identity and diversity. More information will be available on the Weber State University Office of Diversity Facebook page.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, WSU alum and NFL recruit Wade Davis will discuss what it was like to be a Black, gay athlete in the family of collegiate and professional sports.
On Feb. 18, Ruby Bridges will share her perspectives. Her family and larger community underwent significant trauma as she integrated New Orleans schools as an elementary student escorted by four federal marshals for an entire year — after Brown v. the Board of Education.
You may continue your engagement by watching the documentary film “End of Slavery” followed by a panel discussion led by Loki Mulholland later this month.
Finally, I leave you with this, a piece of my own family history. Bettye Berliner Gillespie wanted to swim in the Lorin Farr Park public pool. Unfortunately, when she and two friends went, they were denied access because of the color of their skin. My Gran and her friends took this issue to the Ogden City Council, after which a story appeared in the Standard-Examiner about their trial. Shortly after, Weber State College, then located on 25th Street, shared a statement that Black people were welcome to use their pool.
I am a self-proclaimed Wildcat. That being said, it wasn’t until my later adulthood that I knew that the Weber State family had welcomed me and mine before I was even born. Learn with us as we study the Black family this year. You may find a few connections of your own.