Lessons to learn, growing up black


Gwendolyn Davis (clockwise from top left), Saburah Abdul-Kabir and Howard Stevenson wth their book.

Photo by: Candace diCarlo

Saburah Abdul-Kabir’s son had a difficult time hailing a cab. The 18-year-old had left work in a rush after learning that his mother was in the hospital. Standing on the curbside with cash thrust in the air, he saw one cab after another whoosh by him. Even though he was aware of the existence of racial discrimination, the experience left him angry and hurt.

In the aftermath, his mother, Abdul-Kabir, who is a community research coordinator at Penn, encouraged her son to voice his frustrations. “Knowledge does not make it stop hurting,” said Abdul-Kabir. “You have to be able to let that child vent that kind of stuff or somehow rid himself of that.” The last thing she wanted was for him to internalize his feelings of inferiority.

In “Stickin To, Watchin’ Over, and Gettin’ With: An African American Parent’s Guide to Discipline,” Abdul-Kabir and her co-authors, Howard Stevenson and Gwendolyn Davis, give suggestions on how to help black children cope with situations similar to the one above. Targeted at any individual who is responsible for raising black children, their book is filled with “how to” strategies.

Based on more than a decade’s worth of research primarily conducted in Philadelphia, the book doesn’t focus on disciplining children in the traditional sense. Stevenson, an associate professor of education at Penn, explained the book’s approach. “Gettin’ with is sort of a black colloquialism for disciplining children. But stickin’ to is about nurturing. Watchin’ over is about supervision. Sometimes when people think about discipline, they only think about correction, but you have to have these other elements of nurturance and supervision in order for correction to have any root,” he explained.

More than that, the book emphasizes the role of community in child-rearing. “Children need something like a village of different personalities, different adults with different strategies, to manage the complexities of being black in this world,” said Stevenson. Davis, who is a Penn post-doctoral fellow, points out that this strategy benefits parents also. She says those parents who feel the most stress are also the ones who are most isolated.

While critics may ask whether a book specifically for raising black children is needed, the authors argue that in a society that doesn’t talk about race comfortably, such a work is long overdue. “We’re living in a society that doesn’t know how to help children manage racial hostility and doesn’t even allow you to talk about the fact that there is racial hostility,” said Stevenson. “It’s very difficult to raise your children under that environment so we give strategies about how it’s important for kids to know about these hostilities.”

But Davis says the book doesn’t just dispense “you got to watch your back” messages. “Some of them are very positive messages about who you are, your cultural heritage, and your gifts and talents. It’s not just, it’s a scary thing being a black person. There’s a richness in the difference,” she said.

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Originally published on October 25, 2001