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The Invisibility of the Black Family

The Invisibility of the Black Family
During Hurricane Katrina

By Lillian B. Poats

There is an increasing buzz in American society about the “collapse” of the Black family. The sentiment has been echoed by researchers, politicians, writers and even entertainment personalities. But that belief has a hard time explaining what we all saw on our televisions after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.  The media brought us extensive coverage of the horror and desperation that followed in the wake of the hurricane. But as I listened to the accounts, there was one element which seemed to be completely missing: The role of the “Black family.” There was very little, if any, coverage given to the challenges for families, yet it was clear to me that many of the people survived only because of the strength of the family.

News cameras captured images of survivors wading through polluted, waist-deep water. Although it was rarely mentioned directly,
it was clear that many of the evacuees were families. In the rush to tell the shocking stories, the media largely ignored the heartbreaking accounts of parents struggling to save their grandparents and children.

One young lady who escaped the devastation in New Orleans enrolled at Texas Southern and recounted her family’s journey from their home to the “safe haven” of the Superdome. “There were four generations of us in that water,” she said. It’s interesting that stories like this warranted little, if any, media mention.

As it turns out, the storm itself may not have been the force most responsible for pulling some of these families apart. In many cases, the families arrived safely at evacuation centers only to be separated by the chaotic system FEMA put in place. Even now, months later, we see reports of families struggling to locate their loved ones.

It would help if we could blame Mother Nature for the situation. Unfortunately, we created this system. Those responsible for the evacuation of New Orleans could have been more sensitive about the need to keep family units intact. But it seems that America has again failed to recognize the value of the Black family’s role in our society. The comparisons to the slave trade are terrible but unavoidable. Is the Black family “invisible” in the eyes of society? It certainly appeared to be as far as the media was concerned.

I live in the Houston area, and I have seen the strength of the Black families who were evacuated to this area. Many of my co-workers, like so many others in the city, took in entire families, sometimes totaling 30 people. In many cases, their first concern was keeping the family together. Even in the middle of catastrophe, there was joy to be found within their family units. And almost as soon as they were out of harm’s way, many of these families were trying to attend to the educational needs of their children. We sit in our ivory towers and propose that the family is no longer involved in the education process, but these families exhibited total support for education. There was enormous concern for where their children would go to school and how the disaster would affect their education.

It seems to me that racism is the root cause of the apparent invisibility of the Black family. America as a whole doesn’t understand the nature of the Black family, and so chooses to ignore its role. The tapestry of the Black family is quite often different from the Western European dynamic in that it does not consist only of the patriarch, matriarch and children. Historically, the Black family has had a very strong extended network. In many instances, the family is made up of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and even individuals who are not actually blood relatives.

Could it be that those tasked with evacuating New Orleans’ citizens did not recognize the existence of the family unit because the numbers exceeded their definition of an American family? If so, then Black families in this country are truly invisible.

— Dr. Lillian B. Poats is a professor in the Department of Education Administration and Foundations and Director of Certification at Texas Southern University.

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