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

Reflections: No instruction manual

Consuela Gaines
Photo by Travis Gauthier

Omwana ni wa bhone. Kijita (Wajita): Regardless of a child’s biological parents, its upbringing belongs to the community. 

My father used to always tell us, “Y’all didn’t come with instruction manuals, you know.” He was telling us that each of us was unique and that unlike appliances you purchase from a store, there were no instruction manuals to tell him and our mother how to raise us. 

Growing up in Eunice, my parents weren’t my only influences. I wasn’t with them 24 hours a day. I left them and went to school for eight hours out of those 24. Most of the time, when I returned home from school, one (if not both) of our parents was still at work. I was home with my older siblings, who made sure to let me know they were in charge and if I did or said anything I wasn’t supposed to, they would tell Mama.  

On Saturdays, my brother and I and several of my friends and cousins would gather together to walk a few blocks to our church for choir rehearsal. Along the way, we passed up at least four dozen homes where school teachers, principals, attorneys, school bus drivers and a lot of our friends lived. We would often see someone we knew, or even feared, along the way. When I say “feared,” I don’t mean afraid of someone like Freddy Krueger from horror movies. This “fear” means “respect.”  

There was always someone we feared outside of our households, not because we were told to fear them, but because they earned our respect. We instinctively knew that we must be well behaved as we walked past his/her house because he/she had taught us life lessons over a period of time by dropping little words of wisdom when in our presence.  

Mr. Tatman would say to my brother, “Young man, walk on the outside of your little sister on the street. Make sure she’s closest to the sidewalk. That’s how you’re supposed to walk with any woman you’re with. And hold her hand so she feels safe.” 

My brother did exactly what Mr. Tatman instructed. He pushed me to his right side so I wasn’t in the street, and grabbed my hand and held it tight until we were near the church. I could feel his palms sweating and saw the wrinkles spread across his forehead as he pondered the lesson he just learned. He didn’t question it. There was no back-talk. He just did it. And, as always, he learned a valuable lesson about how to treat women. He would carry that with him for the remainder of his life. Still today, he won’t allow me to walk near the street. He pushes me to his right side. But he no longer holds my hand.  

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

While at choir rehearsal, we had two choir directors, Mrs. Thomas and Mr. Dural, who were both full-time school teachers. They were strict in their teachings of new hymns and songs for us to sing. “You don’t come in God’s house to play! What we’re doing is for Him. You don’t play with God,” they instructed. They taught us how to sit, stand and walk straight up so as not to crush our diaphragms. We were taught how to work collectively at making our voices sound as one. 

This is how we should be everywhere we go — in unison and harmony,” Mrs. Thomas would exclaim. “It’s not just about music in here … it’s about life.”   

On our way home from choir rehearsal, we’d stop at a locally owned grocery store to purchase boudin and cracklins. Mr. Johnson, the owner, would greet us as we walked through the front door. 

“How much boudin and cracklins do you need today?” he’d ask no one in particular. We’d all start saying how much we wanted, talking over each other, to the point that Mr. Johnson couldn’t understand any of us. He’d hold up his hands like our choir director and say, “Wait, wait, wait! Only one at a time. This isn’t choir rehearsal, you know. Always let someone else finish talking before you start talking. That way, there will be no misunderstandings. OK?” In unison we’d say, “Yes, Sir!” Then, one by one, we’d tell him how much we wanted. 

I could go on and on about the many teachers of life’s lessons I learned throughout my childhood years, but I’m afraid this essay wouldn’t get published in time.

From the examples of interactions with neighbors throughout my community, you can deduce that my parents weren’t the only ones who raised my siblings and me. We had many influences, not to mention uncles, aunts, grandparents and cousins. They all imparted their wisdom to the children around them whenever possible. They were also disciplinarians when needed. Everyone, knowingly and unknowingly, played major roles in the upbringing of the children within our neighborhoods.  

Sometimes parents would sit with each other and talk about what their kids were doing in school, in sports or at home that either made them proud or upset. They would share solutions to problems from their life experiences. Some suggestions worked, while others may not have been as successful as planned. But no parent was left to raise their children alone. Without them realizing it, it was all a community effort that materialized to the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” 

Today, so much has changed. Children interact much differently than we did. Most of their time is spent on their cell phones, tablets or iPads. I rarely see children playing outside with each other, riding bikes, flying kites, playing hop-scotch, jacks or roller skating. Of course, these games are probably outdated, but I know you understand exactly what I mean. For kids now, it’s either too hot or too cold to play outside. They’re mostly content watching YouTube, TikTok, Snapchat. 

There’s no “fear” or “respect” for anyone anymore because most people are too busy or don’t feel comfortable talking to someone else’s child out of fear of being falsely accused of “getting in my business.” Unfortunately, this has placed our communities and our neighbors in their own worlds. People pride themselves with having small “circles” (only a few close friends and associates).   

I realize that the United States is an individualistic culture focused more on self-growth and independence than community. But what has this culture given us in return? Stress? Mental disorders? Isolation? High juvenile crime rates?  

I believe it’s past time for our society to get back to being a “village” again. This kind of solidarity seems like a far-reaching, utopian concept — especially today. Yes, times have drastically changed. We live in a world where we are constantly inundated by information; cell phones and computers replace people, and although the population continues to grow, our social interactions decline. 

A new “village” needs to arise and bring structure back to our communities — where we feel safe as our children play outside because we know our next-door neighbors are keeping a watchful eye. No parent knows everything there is to teach a child. 

I’m left to agree with my father by saying that children didn’t come with instruction manuals, but a “village” can certainly be helpful in the upbringing of a child. If we truly want a better world, we have to start where we live and create environments where children can learn, not only from their parents but also from the many people around them.