Black Children and the need for their innocent childhood

SURVIVOR: Five-year-old Jazlin, of Lavender Hill, was shot in the back and left paralysed.

Throughout my life it puzzled me how is it that black children survive the heart wrenching conditions that black families are subjected to in our communities, and still find the will to survive and prosper? 

At the environmental level, township life is filthy beyond the desirable human habitation standards. But still, black children are born and raised out of these conditions and grow up to live through to their adult lives. How does this happen was my frequent thought. 

In the “Developmental Psychology of the Black Child”, Dr. Amos Wilson writes that the black child is born with natural abilities second to none. These natural abilities propel him or her to carefully navigate his or her environment from a young age. It is these inherent abilities in black children that see them through life’s most undesirable circumstances. It is further the natural abilities that need to be protected and nurtured for a holistic development of black children’s healthy psychologies. African-centred childhood development programs are mandatory if the benefits of the potential of black children are to be realised. 

To this effect, I often think about my childhood games as some of the most significant childhood development programs for black children during my time. 
Out of self-made playing dolls, with my friends, I imagined myself into the future and managed to complete my primary and secondary school into higher education. It was all thanks to the power of the imagination when I was a young girl. 

I can never forget my play times with my friends when we began creating our dolls from wooden sticks, old clothes, wool and black pantyhose. In retrospect, I would not ask for a different childhood experience. 

With my friends, we lived our childhood dreams through self-made doll houses from boxes and beds and couches made out sponges. From old clothes, we designed and created our dream and designer clothes and acted out our imagined future lives through the dolls. Barbie was available at Pep-Store but only for those who could afford her. But still, she could not overpower the power of the handmade dolls who we dressed like our aunts, neighbours, favourite social celebs and mothers. 

The empowering effect that came with designing and creating the dolls from wooden sticks or wires was magical. I was not a fan of wire structured dolls though. There was something amiss about them even with their two legs. Although one legged, the wooden stick dolls had beauty that surpassed the two legged wire dolls. They were curvaceous and big-breasted resembling the reality of most black women in our community. I designed killer clothes for my dolls that made them look so beautiful I sneaked my doll house under the bed when it was time to go to sleep. I could not afford to lose them to anyone or the puppies that bit and pulled their heads off.  

To make the dolls, we carefully cut and chiselled wooden sticks from tree branches to make a structure. We wrapped and covered the carefully chiselled wooden stick with clean white cloths. My favourite material for this was old school shirts because they would not cause lumps on the leg and the neck. After covering the stick, we used white cotton or a sponge covered with black pantyhose to make the head. Then a second layer of white material was used to attach the head to the stick. For some of my friends, one layer was enough. Out of old white linen, we designed the arms and tied them together with sponge or cotton designed breasts. This was followed by a careful design of the backside to resemble the older women we saw as role models in the community. 

We designed their clothes from all kinds of materials to reflect different social roles we were mimicking. We had limited access to television and no computers at all, never mind cellphones. Our imagination was influenced by our immediate surroundings and images of black women we saw in magazines. Some days I dressed my dolls to resemble some of my favourite teachers at school. At times I just imagined them as nurses. These are the professions I imagined myself following, especially nursing, in my adult life. My everyday imaginary conversations through the dolls were either a reflection of my teaching or nursing ambitions. Those days, it was hammered in school that we can never be anything without completing our education first; and my conversations through the dolls were a reflection of the school lessons. 

If I have to put it differently, I cannot undervalue the value of a protected and innocent childhood for black children for their futures. At times I look at my childhood and thank my grandparents for a job well done in protecting my innocence when they could afford to give it to me. Today I observe with grief the destruction of the innocence of black children with the deteriorating living conditions their families are subjected to. And the one area in which systemic racism has successfully challenged black children is the destruction of the black family life and its potential for their futures. The effects this has on black children should be understood from the current challenge of nyaope and other substance abuses by black children.

I still have the memory of the events that led to my family’s disintegration to a point where I no longer understood why we no longer had to live together. My family was constituted of the large family unit that included grandparents and the whole family of aunts and uncles. This family structure provided an immeasurable value of a network of immediate support structure. When it disintegrated with the uncles and aunts leaving for cities to look for work opportunities, it had an unspoken effect on us so much so it took personal resolve to retain my sanity and will to be happy. One of my friends tell me that for years he lived with the same pain without knowing how to cope with it, so much so, he now drowns himself in his work. He no longer overworks himself because he is happy but to remove the thoughts that stream into his mind when he is motionless. 

Such is the mass pain of black children whose childhoods were and are still taken away with the systemic breakdown of black people. Who will be their superheroes?   

Lindiswa Jan is a researcher & masters candidate and the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cape Town