Voices from the local Black community explore the meaning of the African proverb 'it takes a village' in the 21st century.

Reflections: Black elders extend the village of Black youth, care and freedom dreams

Dr. Theodore Foster
Photo by Travis Gauthier

This short essay is dedicated to the memory of Black Freedom movement veteran elders Curtis Hayes Muhammad, of Mississippi, and Lafayette’s own Fred Prejean, who both died recently. I want to uplift their names as we think about what it means to be in community and how Black elders play a distinct role in extending ancestral care to Black youth and freedom dreams. Intergenerational exchange and relationship building continues to thrive in the villages where we find and recreate notions of Black family that sustain us for our earthly journey and beyond. May we honor the fullness of the lives of both of these Black men who dedicated so much to Black futures.

The first book my name was ever published in was Lifelines: The Black Book of Proverbs, by my African American Studies professor, Dr. Askhari Hodari. I conducted research for it as an office assistant, and it remains a ground for me in moments of grief, struggle and challenge. When I revisit it, I think about how African proverbs resonate and evolve within Black communities in the diaspora, and how in each repetition of them orally or by paper, their meaning is renewed, resignified and repurposed.

To explore the relevance of the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child,” we have to consider the many distinct villages that make up the Black diaspora and the ways Black family and community cohere differently today than in the recent and distant past. One proverb from Lifelines that resonates in the wake of so many Black Freedom Movement elders from Bob Moses to Gloria Richardson reads: 

“Every time an old man dies it is as if a library has burnt down” — West Africa

This proverb is an injunction to remember, recollect and repurpose the wealth of knowledge of our Black elders through oral histories, critical memorial practices and Black youth exchange against the long history of silencing ancestral relation.

Because of the unimaginable terror of racial slavery, Black communities have always been forced to create fictive kin in the face of an institution that required family separation for the promise of future increase of profits. The survival of Black communities depended upon Black women and mothers caring for communities of children and men who were not their own by blood nor family by any traditional African custom. The ingenuity and creativity of Black culture is often rooted in the seeding of families, villages and communities anew. Thus, as a Black diasporic practice, the village as a metaphor for notions of Black family will change as the conditions on the ground shift in this post-slavery, post-civil rights and post-Obama moment. How have elders been a crucial aspect of the renewal of community and focused their labor and vision for Black youth to thrive?

Coming of age during the Black Freedom Movement of the 1960s, Muhammad and Prejean were but youth radicalized by their environment and the care of Black elders like Ms. Ella Baker who believed in the power of Black youth organizing. Baker’s method of organizing eschewed the familiar charismatic leadership of a Martin Luther King Jr., whose top-down approach ran contrary to Baker’s proverb, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.”

About Reflections on the Village

For generations, Black neighborhoods were communal. Everyone had a role to play, and everyone understood the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child. They also understood that their neighborhood, like African American communities across the country, was a village bound by their African ancestry and the bloodline that begat them.

Can you imagine this happening today?

We asked a spectrum of commentators to weigh in, using this prompt:

Has the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child become irrelevant and obsolete in today’s world? Why? Or why not? And what can we as African Americans do to ensure that our Black children succeed against the odds?

Ruth Foote, collection editor

Her patient, leaderfull approach convened one of the most radical Black organizations of the Black Freedom Movement, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. In 1961, Muhammad met the “river of no return in the movement” when he met legendary SNCC organizer Bob Moses and became among the first Mississippians to work full-time as SNCC field secretaries supporting their voter registration drive.

This moment sparked a lifetime of struggle for Black liberation from Chicago to Liberia and back to Mississippi. The fullness of Muhammad’s contribution can be witnessed in an educational context, geared toward Black youth, called The International School of Bottom Up Organizing. The role of a Black elder like Ella Baker transformed Muhammad’s life completely, and in turn his decades of struggle positioned him much like Baker, a Black elder seeking to establish a village in search of Black liberation. This orientation to a struggle eternally rooted in Black futures is summed up by Muhammad in a recent documentary where he states, “I don’t think we choose, I think we get chosen, I think the movement recruits us somehow, it just finds us.” Indeed, there is an intergenerationality to the Black Freedom Struggle that is neither time bound nor embodied in the individual but bound to the villages that receive and recreate community through that spirit.

The movement found Fred Prejean when he decided to attend the 1963 March on Washington as a teen, which he credited with radicalizing his orientation to Black freedom dreams. From that date to his last hours on this earth, Prejean was tirelessly committed to realizing a dream of Black freedom beyond what Lafayette and this world has ever experienced. Locally he is remembered as a crucial founder to a family he helped organize called Move the Mindset that set out in 2016 with a mission to not only remove the white supremacist Jim Crow statue from Downtown but educate the broader public about the danger of common acceptance of violent symbols, practices and laws. After seven years of public pressure and education, that statue came down, and Prejean’s defiant fist raised in the air is an image that should inspire Black youth in search of pride in their village and heritage.

Beyond Lafayette, historian Martha Biondi immortalized Prejean’s contributions to the Black Student Movement on Southern University’s campus in 1972 in her 2014 book The Black Revolution On Campus. Prejean played a crucial role in organizing a group called Students United that demanded equitable Louisiana state funding to that historically Black university and in the process was arrested and criminalized by police as a threat. While students largely practiced non-violent direct action, state troopers were brought in on behalf of Southern University President Leon Netterville to crack down on protestors, resulting in the death of Denver Smith and Leonard Brown. Prejean insisted that this history be remembered and memorialized with his Black grandchildren’s future in mind.

I spoke on the phone with Fred the Monday before he passed on Jan. 27, and he lamented being forgotten, not out of a vain sense of personal ego or self importance but out of fear that the causes he committed his life to, those of racial equality and Black freedom, would be lost. We talked about projects he wanted me to be involved in to critically remember Lafayette’s rich Black history. Somehow we landed on Black lawyer, philosopher, Episcopalian priest and freedom movement legend Pauli Murray’s words on failure that I think is fitting for today’s Black youth and the villages in need of Black elder wisdom and ancestral sustenance. Murray wrote, “In not a single one of these little campaigns was I victorious. In other words, in each case, I personally failed, but I have lived to see the thesis upon which I was operating vindicated. And what I very often say is that I’ve lived to see my lost causes found.”