Case Study

Unyago: An African-American Initiation into Adulthood Philadelphia, 1991

(From an interview with Fasaha Traylor and Camara Corbett by Pamela Nelson and Elizabeth Holland, Philadelphia, 1992)

In recent years, some African-American community and religious groups have created African-based coming-of-age rituals to address the contemporary needs of their youth. One such coming-of-age process has been developed by the Black Humanist Fellowship, a non-denominational organization dedicated to addressing the cultural and spiritual needs of African Americans. They called the process Unyago, a Swahili word that refers to tribal ritual. The first group of teens (ages 13-17) were all children of Fellowship members, but the Fellowship has already begun forming the next group of initiates and intends to sponsor annual programs for all families willing to participate in the process. Two of the parents, Fasaha Traylor and Camara Corbett describe their experience:

African Americans have been faced with an almost continuous need to invent cultural expressions to affirm our lives, our aspirations, and our existence in a land that has been hostile to our presence from its inception. From our distinctive church services, to the development of many different hybrid musical forms, to a distinctive literature we've had to invent ways to deflect the hostility of the larger society and create positive expressions of our essential humanity.

One area in which very little comprehensive work has been done has been the development of community processes for considering what adulthood means, or in welcoming young people to adult responsibilities and roles. For along time, many of us have made do with cotillions, fraternal rites, high school graduations, or the transition from the junior to the senior choir at church. But none of these "markers" addressed the comprehensive nature of the transitions from childhood to adulthood, and many of us increasingly felt that our young people need much more. This is, of course, a problem for all Americans, but we believe that the need has reached crisis proportions among our youth, because they have so much more to contend with and, too often, our young people engage in "adult" activities before they have fully considered what adulthood ought to mean.

So we set about devising a comprehensive way of introducing our young people to adulthood. And we realized that this was something that we--parents and families and community--ought to do. This is not the sort of thing you can expect a school, or a church, or even an individual family to do. We felt that we needed a process that was bigger than religion, but that included it. A process that would include religion, and politics, and history, and sexuality, and personal finance, but that presented these topics as issues in the life of a committed adult. We talked about it, and the talking led to countless meetings, discussions, and research. It was a step-by-step process; we did not go about it haphazardly.

There are two points we'd like to make for any group that decides to do this. First, is that the kids were not enthusiastic at the start. We had to say to our children, "You are going to do this because I'm your parent, and I'm telling you to do it." Once they got into the process, we were astounded by how much they gained from it.

The second point is more philosophical. In the rites of traditional African societies, as well as in many modem rites of passage, young men and women have undergone separate processes. We decided against that. We believe that most of what our young people will face will be faced together: male and female. Even issues of sexuality, relationships, and family-building are concerns that men and women share. We opted to have all of our young people go through a single process.

The kick-off ceremony was a pot-luck at Fasaha's house. We began with the notion of naming, which has tremendous resonance among African-Americans. Black people have been called so many things in this country, and we have responded with continuing efforts to redefine, to counter the negative. At the personal level, the process of naming ourselves and our children has also been an extremely serious matter. So we began the opening ceremony with each parent(s) talking about the child's name; about what it meant, or who the child was named after, and about the hopes that the parents had had for the child when he or she was born. That was really fascinating, because many of the kids had never heard a public expression of what was expected for them. It was like watching a plant perk up when you water it. They seemed surprised, even, that their birth and their name referred and connected them to a community of people beyond their immediate biological family.

Following the opening ceremony, we had two weekend retreats. During the first retreat, we dealt with identity, interpersonal relationships, spirituality and sexuality. In the second, we dealt with personal finance, African-American history, and the complicated nature of leadership. We wanted the topics to have a sort of logical progression from self, outward. We parents served as chaperones, drivers, and cooks, as well as workshop leaders for topics which took advantage of our own expertise.

We had weekend retreats, because we felt it was important for the young people to get away. This did prove to be important, although at first they were hanging on the phone, trying to maintain contact with whatever action they had at home. By the second retreat there was much less of that. They were much more focused-in on the group and on each other.

We decided early on that parents should stay away from certain workshops, especially sexuality. We invited BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues) to run those workshops. We wanted the young people to be free to explore some issues without being intimidated by the presence of their parents. While we parents were not physically present, we did our best to make sure that our values were. The peer educators were excellent at helping the young people connect sex with life. They helped the kids think about their feelings about themselves; about how their bodies feel. In school, what people call sex education is very biological, mechanical. But what fascinates young people isn't the mechanics - it's the power of sex. They got a chance here to put the power of sexuality into the context of their own growth and development

Glen Berkins, the personal finance writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer (newspaper), was another outside resource. He hooked up one kid with another and said, "O.K., you're married," gave them Monopoly money, and had them manage their finances. Not many young people have an opportunity to explore what it means to set up a household before actually taking the plunge.

A particularly revealing discussion centered on leading, teaching, following, stewarding, and mentoring. We tried to introduce the young people to the responsibilities inherent in each of these; to get them to see how much of what we do is dependent upon the integrity with which we exercise these responsibilities. We learned a lot from the issues the young people brought up. One girl related "leadership" to her decision to move away from a group of her school friends in order to stay on track with her own goals. It is probably true among most young people, but I certainly think it's true among black young people, that they do not have nearly enough opportunity to discuss serious things. They rarely get the opportunity to think deeply about, "Where am I going?" Or to really focus on the future in a constructive way within a community context.

We planned to have the final ceremony during Kwanzaa, because it falls during school vacation and because it is a time of celebration. We, as a community, were welcoming the young people as new adults, but they had responsibilities as new adults. Each of the kids had to prepare a statement of commitment to the community which they delivered to the assembled guests. Since there were about a hundred people attending, this was a real public speaking exercise. Also during the ceremony, one of the kids played the trumpet, and another sang. We were very adamant that the kids not be dictated to, or preached to. We wanted the ceremony to be as interactive as possible.

After reading their own statement of commitment, and hearing a statement from their parents, each young person stepped forward while two of the adults - representatives of the "community," draped a strip of kente cloth over his or her shoulders.

I think that if we had known in June how much work we would have had to do by December, we may not have taken it on. It's one thing if you have a staff person, but to do all this in addition to your job, and your other commitments, was really a lot of work. But at the conclusion of that ceremony, we really felt that it was worth it. People connected with it. People were saying, "Yeah, we need to do this for all our kids. This is important."

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