Parents were in one room listening to a chldren's story about the Great Spirit and why he gave some men black skin.
Their children were in another room telling why they think they're special -- "because I'm intelligent," "because I go to private school," "because I'm friendly." They also told what their parents are good for -- "giving allowance," "helping with homework," "making decisions for you." Both groups were part of a conference for black families held Saturday by the National Capital YMCA.
Nourishing and cultivating black culture, rather than smothering it, was the first order of the day.
"I believe pork chops taste better than caviar," said keynote speaker Andrew Billingsley, president of Baltimore's Morgan State University.
Youngsters and parents laughed, appreciating the black versus white comparison. It was a remark the youths repeated throughout the day.
But Billingsley painted no rosy picture of the state of the black family as an institution.
"Our families are not as strong as they used to be," he said. "Parents need help in trying to teach their kids to stand up and walk tall. A family can't be strong unless its members are working and have a decent income, housing, health care and positive relations with their neighbors."
When Billingsley recommended regular family conferences as a means of settling differences and developing an atmosphere of mutual respect, one woman raised her hand to make a point which was obvious to everyone present.
She said she saw a lot of mothers in the room. She wanted to know why there were only a few fathers. Why, she asked, is this the case in black families in general? She then threw out a question to the whole room: Can a family be a family without a man?
Dr. Hazel Swann, one of the conference organizers and the chief of the tuberculosis control division at the D.C. Department of Human Resources, interpreted the absence of black fathers in terms which black mothers could put to use from day to day, by encouraging interaction between daughters and sons, between boys and girls.
"Little boys are taught to play with little boys," Swann said.They compete with each other on the playing field. And when they grow up, men are found in places with other men. They're not here. They're in bars. They're at basketball games. And they're not expected to manage money. Women do this, and therefore assume more authority and do more decision-making."
Swann told several women at the conference, "When I meet 13-, 14-, 15-, year-old girls who are wanting to have children, I want to say to them, Do you really want to be someone's mama for the next 20 years? Is that what you really want?'"
The women in Swann's discussion group nodded in agreement.
Meanwhile, the youths were in their own workshops, talking about themselves and their parents, fingerpainting, giggling and whispering. Sometimes there was more giggling than discussion, interspersed with the nervous "umms" and "aahhs" that come when called upon to speak in front of peers.
One little girl, when asked by the group leader why she was special, was silent. She eyed her audience with caution, her lips pressed tightly together. Finally she said, "There's nothing special about me."
The adult leader persisted. Surely there must be something. But his persistence could not match hers. There was absolutely nothing special about her, she insisted.
Anothr black child, recently adopted by a white woman after several unsuccessful stays in foster homes and an orphanage, painted a picture of himself and his mother. She was white, he was brown. They were both smiling. Next to his face he wrote, "I feel super."
When the discussions were over, everyone went to the gym for a few rounds of freeze tag and pass-the-nickel. Then the gym leader introduced a new game. One person was "it." "It" laid down on the floor and tried to tag the people running in a circle around "it." Whoever got tagged had to lie down on the floor and be "it," too, until everyone got tagged.
Parents and children were laughing hysterically by the game's end.
One observer noted, "Any parent who is willing to come down here and roll around on the floor with a bunch of kids has to be all right."