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Family and Culture
Drug use/abuse attacks, at its core, the families of African Americans. Not only does drug abuse lead to a suspension of attention to the life-preserving mandates implicit in every culture (those learned from history and the life-in-context of a living culture) but it also undercuts drastically a family’s attention to the rudiments of communal life that can preserve it as a unit. A number of studies [Mondanaro 1989; Chasnoff 1988; Nobels 1985] report that the quality of family life and familial relationships are the victims of the plague of drug addiction.
According to Mondanaro , the substance-abusing family is “characterized by chaos, unpredictability, and inconsistency.” She also states that children from drug-dependent families tend to learn to accept and expect the unexpected. Thus, one can deduce that children exposed to drug abuse and other self-abusing behaviors will themselves mimic what they see, thereby continuing the cycle of destruction.
The obverse is also true: Positive role-modeling, mirroring [Comer & Toussaint 1976; Miller & Dollard 1941], empathie nurturing, parental interactions, and appropriate expectations [Bavolek & Comstock 1985] are essential elements in the nurturing and rearing of children and can lead to healthy, self-sufficient, and responsible adults.
Supporting this belief is one of the core tenets of African philosophy: the individual does not exist alone but rather cooperatively and collectively [Mbiti 1969]. Thus, whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the group has an impact on the individual [Mbiti 1969]. This core belief is stated in the adage: “I am because we are, therefore, I am.”
To treat addiction in the African American community, and especially among African American women with children, we must understand the spiritual context of African life. Addiction is a pattern of behaviors that undermine the physical and psychosocial well-being of the primary addict. It also creates a correlative and respondent secondary addiction that seizes and corrupts the entire family unit, as well as a tertiary addiction that multiplies itself in all the interactions that the addict and her family members have with the world in which they live. We must, therefore, look at “family” in a much larger context.
Family in the African American context does not necessarily carry a solely nuclear meaning; it may refer to whoever resides in the “household” as well as those who share an extended relationship within a given community. Family may include a number of fictive relatives — persons who are or become very close to a person or blood family and, to all intents and purposes, are viewed as family and treated as such even in essential features of family life.
Relationships within the nuclear and extended families are guided by ethical principles recognized by Sudarkasa  and others in their research into African kinship groups, discussed below. Here it is important, however, to make the point that in the African context, the meaning of family follows a design that, when overlooked, undermines the attempt to treat addicted women who come from this community.
Aphorisms such as “It takes a village to raise a child” and “If relatives help each other, what evil can hurt them” are not taken casually in the African context. They are indeed a constant reaffirmation of all belonging to all [Leslau & Leslau 1962]. Kuhn  describes a natural family as an observed cluster of similar objects, sufficiently important and sufficiently discrete to command a generic name, that is, family. Comparatively, Akbar  likens the African family to a spider web in that one cannot touch the least element of the web without causing a vibration of the whole.
The separation and the mutual exclusion between the “drug addict” and the significant others in close proximity is indicative of the lack of understanding of the true meaning of key concepts like kinship and collectivity in African philosophy. Many drug treatment programs are based upon intervention strategies that continuously treat the addicted mother as a monad, a single, singular being whose disease and cure are located solely in the ability of the program to clean her up and refocus her energies on the elements of life that bring her least obtrusively to the attention of society, its mores, and its norms. This orientation to treatment is inadequate to the needs of any person dealt with outside of her or his culture. Its inadequacy and misplacement are dramatic when applied to persons whose cultural orientation and instrumentalities derive from the collective.
Unfortunately, the intervention strategies of many drug treatment programs continue to compartmentalize interventions into separate boxes marked “addict,” “family,” “society,” and “underlying spiritual values.” These atomized notions are clearly not empowering for women coming from a cultural context in which strength, loyalty, oneness, and union are basic values. These women are apt to resist the sorts of notions that come out of the perspectives in which the African family is characterized as “weak, disorganized, and vulnerable” [Moynihan 1965; Frazier 1932].
Family is that entity in which the individual personality is nurtured and developed. It is the place where responsibility to the group is learned through observation and practice; where self-esteem/self-worth is developed; and where respect, restraint and reciprocity are observed and learned. These qualities, in addition to reverence and humility before elders, are internalized through observation and practice. Family is the place where obedience is learned and group expectations of the individual are continually clarified as the individual’s mission within the family and response to the family are made evident.
Family is also that place where children learn important life skills, such as compromise, negotiation, styles of showing belonging, and building intimacy. Family is that living organism in which are enshrined the vital teachings of the elders, whose wisdom and experience are the living endowment of the ages.
Familial relationships within the extended family must, therefore, be understood and made a part of the healing process called recovery. It cannot be emphasized enough that it is not the individual alone who must recover. It is that total world, in which the individual addicted mother has lived out the pathologies of addiction, that must be brought into the recovery process.
Culture is the way people are in the world. It brings together all things into what becomes for them “reality.” Amen  defined culture as a set of ideas used to influence and change behaviors in people into refined social qualities necessary to bring about a harmonious, stable, and prosperous society. Hence, it is only with a firm grasp on the living, moving, and motivating power of African culture that the addicted mother and her family can be moved to choose sobriety and ultimately familial, communal health.
It is to culture then that we should look for those healing elements that can be applied in the process of recovery for African American women and their families. These processes must be carried out in tandem and they must be animated and guided by a set of principles that are an age-old value articulation of African soul.
Relationships within the extended family are guided by ethical principles recognized by Sudarkasa  and others in their research into African kin groups in indigenous African societies. These principles are consistently identified from group to group and found among the seven principles of Maat[ 1] [T’Shaka 1995]. They are “principles of wholeness” from ancient Kemet (Egypt) to which many African historians trace the roots of more contemporary African indigenous groups. These principles are, as noted earlier, restraint, respect, responsibility, and reciprocity.
The traditional structure of African American families is obviously not what it was 40 years ago. Each decade within the past 40 years introduced some new challenge to the traditional family structure that persisted in some form through and since the Maafa[ 2] period [Richards 1989].
The 1980s and the 1990s have witnessed such a change in African American families that what were traditionally considered the family’s wealth, that is, the children, are now too frequently given over to the force of public assistance, which values neither the notion of family nor its need to endure as a self-sufficient, self-perpetuating articulation of African American humanity. We are witnessing the intergenerational transmission of antifamily values. We are witnessing two or more generations of families addicted to illegal substances. And we are witnessing two or more generations of families who, as a result of these addictions, are unable to pass down cultural wisdom. We are witnessing families that are so dysfunctional that disrespect between parents and children, between children and children, between both and the many articulations of an invasive social structure, are the norm rather than the minuscule variant.
The depth of dysfunction challenges, at its most profound level, the ability of significant numbers of African American people to pass on “core culture” or even to experience family in the manner ideally described above. It is balanced, perhaps, only by the powerful embodiments of African American values in culturally functional institutions in the community.
The call of Sankofa, an Adinkra symbol and proverb from the Ashanti people of Ghana, West Africa, has been sounded loud and clear, and responded to by many among Africans from every walk of life in the diaspora. Sankofa is represented visually as “a bird who wisely uses its beak, back turned, and picks for the present what is best [seen] from ancient eyes, then steps forward, on ahead, to meet the future, undeterred.” [Kayper-Mensah 1978]. Sankofa tells one that it is not taboo to go back and fetch what one forgot. It tells Africans in the diaspora to look to their traditions to correct challenges that face them today. This concept is applicable to the development of programs for women (and their families) who are recovering from substance-abuse.