Living and working in Washington, it's not unusual to run in to famous people. No, not "movie star famous." At least not most of the time. But people who hold important positions or people whose work and actions have made history, and made a difference in the lives of countless others.
Dr. Dorothy Height was one who fit all of the above criteria. I never formally met Dr. Height, but in my one experience with her she impressed me with the depth of her understanding, and I came away knowing a bit more about how she could work so tirelessly for so long.
A few years ago, I was a guest on an NPR show, along with Dr. Height. The show focused on the question “What makes a healthy family?”, specifically where black families are concerned. The host asked Dr. Height for her thoughts about families like mine, with two same-sex parents.
CHIDEYA: So, Dr. Height, let's start with you. Every year, the National Council of Negro Women puts on the black family reunion celebration and the event focuses on what you call traditional values of the African-American family. What would you say those are?
Dr. HEIGHT: Well, I think the history will show that the African-American family has always been a family that values its faith and it also has been a family that has valued education because education was so long denied. And I would say we valued our, what I would call, kinship ties. We've taken kinship seriously. And the extended family often is made up of people who are not exactly related, but they have a sense of kinship. And of course, we're very much a family that has traditionally been forced into it, but also that we accept hard work. And I think we work harder.
CHIDEYA: So when you think about a family like Terrance Heath's - two, gay men raising a son - does that fit into the traditional values structure that you're taking about? Is it a structure that is open to families of different composition and it's more about the energy you bring to it or do you make a distinction between different kids of families?
Dr. HEIGHT: No, we recognize that in this country we accepted the nuclear family, but we also recognize many different kinds of families. And the important thing about it is the extent of which the family cares one for the other and that they take care of each other and that they have a sense of - a commitment to being a part of life together.
I thought about that, day and those words, when I heard of Dr. Height's passing. She has been remembered as a ceaseless worker for justice, and a giant of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, and others. Undoubtedly, she was and is. As I remembered that one moment with Dr. Height, I understood what made her all that and more.
Dr. Dorothy Height "got it." She understood the difference between justice and "just us." That's why Dr. Height — who is said to have attended the National Black Family Reunion every year — didn't hesitate or equivocate when ask about gay families and whether a distinction should be made. Because when it came to family, she knew her history; she knew our history.
It’s so not strange because it’s what African Americans have done since the moment they came to North America. Only then it was slavery that ripped apart families, when a mother or father was “sold off” and separated from family for any number of reasons. And, then as now, other family members or unrelated members of the community (the “village,” if you will) stepped in to care for those — old or young — who were left behind. Maybe later in history it was the violence of lynching, or economic necessity during the Great Migration that separated families, but the basic pattern of other stepping up and creating family bonds has stayed the same.
Like I said above, it ought to go without saying, because if we stop and think about it for a minute black folks already know that families come in many configurations. And whatever those configurations are, we know the important ways members of those those families benefit from the care and support they receive. We know the importance of protecting those families, and how our communities benefit by extension. When it comes to same-sex marriage we just need to act like we know, because we — your gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, etc. — are family too. We always have been.
So, thank you. Dr. Height, for your understanding and for dedicating your life to working for justice — instead of stopping at "just us."
I wish that we had more African-American leaders today with your depth of understanding. It's a shame that we don't.