Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, the erudite Tulane professor and host of her own MSNBC show, has come under fire for some of her recent comments. In a MSNBC promo, Perry dared to suggest that communities have a responsibility to support and educate children. Rather than acknowledge that in today’s society no parent can raise a child without the complementary and supplementary support of the community at large, critics seized upon the narrow literal definition of the word “belong” and “collective.” Perry may have clumsily stated her thesis but there is no doubt that everyday parents rely on the community to help raise their children.
In the promo, Perry says “We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children. Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of “These are our children.” So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it’s everyone’s responsibility and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.”
The right did not like this at all. They seized upon this and missed the big picture the same way they missed it when Obama said, “You didn’t build that.” Sarah Palin tweeted, “Apparently MSNBC doesn't think your children belong to you. Unflippingbelievable.”
Rush Limbaugh went on his usual rant, lumping liberalism, socialism, Marxism, and communism under the same tent. Limbaugh, along with Glenn Beck and Fox News, all tried to spin Perry’s comments to mean that your kids do not belong to you. They couldn’t be further from the truth.
Perry starts by saying, “Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility.” Perry is not advocating usurping parental authority any more than Obama was downplaying entrepreneurial spirit and individual achievement. What both Obama and Perry are stating is that in a global economy, it takes a village to raise a child and support from others to be successful.
When you send your kids to school, when they join the Boys or Girls Scout or when they join a little league team or book club, or even when they become a member of the church, they become part of a community. They belong to that community and that community has a responsibility to provide support for the parents. The community needs to make those kids feel like they belong there and that they are in a safe, supportive and nurturing environment. The community i.e. the state doesn’t replace the parent they provide ancillary, complementary and supplementary support to the parents. If these communities do not feel like the kids belong to them then they will not provide the type of service necessary to help develop them into responsible citizens. It is not enough to pay for the service. We don’t want our children to just be part of some exchange of goods or services. We need them to feel like they belong to the community and the community has to feel like they belong to them.
To her credit, Perry did not back away from her comments. She made the following comment in her blog, “I believe wholeheartedly, and without apology, that we have a collective responsibility to the children of our communities even if we did not conceive and bear them. Of course, parents can and should raise their children with their own values. But they should be able to do so in a community that provides safe places to play, quality food to eat, terrific schools to attend, and economic opportunities to support them. No individual household can do that alone. We have to build that world together.”
I understand entirely what Perry was saying. I grew up in a neighborhood where your neighbors and your friends' family felt like you belonged to them as well. They didn’t try to be your parents, but if you were caught acting up you could have run a gauntlet of caring community friends who would set you straight. They asked you about your grades and took an interest in your life.
If you are still confused by Perry’s message, maybe look to some culture outside of the narrow western world of "don’t tell me how to raise my children." From Wikipedia, “there are several African societies with proverbs which translate to ‘It takes a village.’ In Lunyoro (Banyoro) there is a proverb that says ‘Omwana takulila nju emoi,’ whose literal translation is ‘A child does not grow up only in a single home.’ In Kihaya (Bahaya) there is a saying, ’Omwana taba womoi,’ which translates as ‘A child belongs not to one parent or home.’ In Kijita (Wajita) there is a proverb which says ‘Omwana ni wa bhone,’ meaning regardless of a child's biological parent(s) its upbringing belongs to the community. In Swahili, the proverb ‘Asiyefunzwa na mamae hufunzwa na ulimwengu’ approximates to the same.”
Perry doesn’t want to break up the nuclear family, as suggested by Limbaugh. She recognizes as Obama did that when we achieve as individuals it is not only because of individual initiative, it also is because of the support received along the way. That support begins with a sense of community.