Aunties cackling in the kitchen into the early hours of the morning. Weekly sleepovers with cousins – all five of them. The annual Independence Day celebrations where the doors and dishes are open to everyone wearing black, green or gold. The enduring beauty of Black family, both chosen and biological, is its versatility and unconditional presence.
During the pandemic, we all had to consider what we can easily obtain within our households, and carefully decide how and when to reach outside of them. Many households now have whole other households as friends, including support bubbles and mutual aid networks.
Black families have always known about the sustenance of multi-household networks. Any occasion – birthdays, anniversaries, losses – necessitates an inter-household gathering. The great-grandchildren of friends who shared lodgings when they arrived in England can count on their friends’ houses as being extensions of their own. Houses bought with the help and trust of pardnas (a type of communal savings agreement) are an extra roof over your head, places of solace, the spot for Sunday dinners.
We spoke to three groups of people who exemplify the beauty of family that stretches beyond four walls, especially when it comes to times of need.
MARCIA, 57, MELANIE, 41, AND KAMELIA, 27, FROM LEICESTER
VICE: How has the way you support each other changed over the course of the coronavirus pandemic?
Kamelia: Although wider support has understandably dwindled, my immediate family has remained close. Trying to support each other while staying safe has meant that we’ve gone wild with the stockpiling. The fear of the nappy shortage meant that every trip to any supermarket involved picking up at least two packs of nappies and a bottle of Dettol. Luckily, my mum has been stockpiling toilet paper and paper towels since before I can remember, so there was no fear of that ever running low!
Marcia: This coronavirus pandemic has been an eye opener for the family during lockdown. I had a grandson born a few days before lockdown and a great-granddaughter born during lockdown. As we weren’t able to see each other physically at the beginning, we were able to do video chats, which helped enormously as we were worried the babies wouldn’t bond with us!
Do you see these forms of support as intergenerational? How were they passed onto you, and how will you pass them on yourself?
Kamelia: I do see these forms of support as intergenerational. Most of my childhood memories took place at my grandma’s house with my 20-plus cousins, and now my nieces and nephews spend at least half the week at my mum’s house. I take my nephew to school twice a week and collect him most days. As we speak, me, my mum and my older nephews are spending the half-term break in a caravan in Skegness! When I do have children of my own, they will understand the importance of a good support network through friends and family.
Melanie: I have always known how close the Black community is. My grandparents had their lifelong friends who they travelled with from the Caribbean, and their children – including my mum – all grew up together. When they had children, we all similarly grew up together and now raise our own families to be friends. Leicester is quite small so we do have a very tightknit Caribbean community here, which I love – and I always tell my children to respect their elders as they’ll definitely be someone we know!
Is there a specific memory that comes to mind when you think of the significance of your networks?
Kamelia: Five years ago, my sister passed away after a short battle with cancer. Towards the end, the hospital waiting room was filled with people. When we returned home from the hospital at 9 AM, my mum's house was filled to the brim with family and friends. Pots on the fire cooking food so we weren’t hungry; others cleaning the house.
Everyone rallied together and planned every fine detail of the funeral so that we as a family wouldn’t have to. They took the kids for days out so they weren’t surrounded by sadness. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget. Being thrust into a situation like that is never easy for anybody, but to have that kind of support from the people of your community makes it that little bit more bearable.
Marcia: There is one memory that sticks out in my mind. I had a best friend who passed away some years ago, and I still remain really close to her children. When I came home from the hospital after my daughter passed, my best friend's son sat on my bed while I slept just to make sure I was okay. I know he did the same for my granddaughter too, as he understood what it was like to lose a parent. When my own mother unfortunately passed away, my community came together and did it all again. No questions asked!
DEANNA, 21, NUSRA, 21, AND SAUDA, 22, FROM LONDON
VICE: What has it meant to have a network of Black family and friends in your life?
Deanna: To have a network of Black family and friends in my life has been a massive influence on the way I carry myself, observe the world around me, the things I consume whether that be shows, movies or books and my expressions – for example, how I vocalise things. It’s an amazing feeling when you’re able to laugh, joke around and relate to people who are so close to you and are so special. You feel understood and know you can be yourself around them.
Nusra: It means having a community of people that relate to your experiences and understand them, so we’re able to learn from one another and create a safety net. It also means good music, top-tier banter and good food!
Sauda: The ways Black communities support each other is so versatile. Generations of bonding through shared cultures, history and experiences have paved the way to a beautiful cycle of passing down lessons on love and support. To me, the beauty of this is whether it’s through Black Twitter banter or showing solidarity during protests, the connection we share with our brothers and sisters around the world continues to grow.
How has this support changed over the pandemic?
Deanna: We’ve found different ways to support and see each other such as video calls, letters and cards. The digital movie nights that me and my friends in particular try to do at least once a month have become the most effective in making us feel like nothing has really changed and that we’re all still reachable.
Nusra: It has always been vital for our Black communities to stay connected and share resources- each one teach one. As we’ve pivoted to more digital ways of supporting each other, social media is even more so a way of staying up to date and initiatives like Black Pound Day have been able to grow!
Sauda: This support has been elevated, our bonds growing stronger in times of hardship. We seek comfort in each other and show up whenever we are needed.
Is there a memory that comes to mind when you think of about your family?
Deanna: A significant memory I would say is having sleepovers with family members: being up all night talking about life or laughing about something that happened that day are one of the most memorable moments. The sense of closeness and black joy creates a beautiful sense of a safe network of support.
CLAUDETTE I-W, 63, CLAUDETTE R, 62, AND SANDRA, 63, FROM LONDON
VICE: What has it meant to have a network of Black family and friends in your life?
Claudette R: We make good use of the skills and resources within our networks of family and friends. We recently created a network of Black nurses and teachers, for example. Younger family and friends coach each other academically and in football!
Claudette I-W: I count on my networks for emotional support – we have WhatsApp groups and call each other when we’re feeling lonely or need support during hard times.
Sandra: Amongst my immediate family and lifelong friends, we have found creative ways of supporting each other. My brother has organised our own family produce, growing fruit and vegetables, and during lockdown we started to make our own natural skin and hair products.
Did it change over the course of the pandemic?
Sandra: I write daily affirmations and poems to send out to my networks every morning, so I started to send more during lockdown. As a family, when we weren’t able to meet up we shared materials for educating ourselves on Black history and recommendations of things we’d recently read or watched. We are now able to book in advance and go on excursions – like the lavender fields.
Claudette I-W: Last week we had a nine night [a typical Jamaican wake] for a work colleague on Zoom, with 150 people!
How was this idea of a family network passed onto you? How will you pass it on?
Claudette I-W: Our parents had a network of friends that they could call on for help – we would have many aunties and uncles. But I don't think anything was passed down as such, you just watched and learned.
Claudette R: We are continuing to make memories during lockdown by making keepsakes for the younger generation to look back on, like making cushions or blankets from great-grandparents’ clothes, keepsake photo albums with messages from family and friends, and saving traditional recipes.