About a year ago my sister called me with some distressing news about one of our cousins. While she was more than willing to share, she let me know that my aunt and uncle wanted the incident to be kept secret. And not secret from friends and associates, secret from our other family members. I understand that you can’t share everything with everybody but far too often, in black families specifically, there’s an all too common practice of sweeping painful, embarrassing, hurtful information under the rug.
And apparently my family’s not the only one, many of you remember when Mo’Nique went public about the molestation she suffered at the hands of her older brother. (You can watch her interview with Joy Behar here. There are two parts. Part 1 and Part 2.) Even after she told her parents what happened, her brother denied it and her parents didn’t really address it. For years she carried that burden until her role as Mary Jones in “Precious” where she portrayed a child molester. Through Mary Jones she was able to empathize with her brother and even able to forgive him.
You’ll note her honesty lead to the most successful period in her professional life thus far. I’d argue that wasn’t a coincidence . Her healing only came after she acknowledged it.
Then there’s Tyler Perry. And as much as people have to say about his films, if you’ve seen any of them you can’t help but notice that there’s often the “family secret” component to his work. Whether you like the way he conveys this information or not you can respect the fact that he’s creating space for black families to talk about their own drama. That’s admirable.
If I had to link this propensity to hide back to a certain period I’d say slavery is a good place to start. Many of our ancestors coped with the brutal inhumanity of this period by consciously or subconsciously repressing life changing events and memories. And it makes sense. What father wants to tell his children he was owned, beaten, or degraded by another man? It’s not exactly a memory you want associated with the family legacy.
Or is it?
For me, knowing that my ancestors endured incomprehensible hardships would not only make me less likely to complain about trivial issues like not being able to buy a new pair of shoes after I pay my bills, it would serve as a sense of pride, knowing that I come from the type of people that who could make it through all types of mental and physical hell.
When you know a person’s full story you have one of two choices, you can respect them for their authenticity and learn from their example or you can learn from their mistakes and try not to repeat them. Either way you’ve learned and you’re better for it. And you can do that same thing for someone else simply by being honest about who you really are.
Truth is, no one learns anything by keeping secrets and pretending to live a picture perfect life. You remember the cliched saying, “knowledge is power”. Well it most certainly applies when it comes to your own family. There are lessons we all could stand to teach and learn. Start talking.