Do Black Families Still Live In Multigenerational Households?

As Black families have moved closer to the American Dream of personal independence, have we lost sight of the family connectedness that really matters?

Grandson and grandmother holding hands during conversation
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I miss having little cousins. Don't get me wrong—there is still an abundance of lively little cousins in my family, but things are different than when I was growing up. I vividly remember straightening up my bedroom one day in my early 20s and yearning for a nearby little cousin to take on the dreadful task for an exchange of $10. It would only be right because that was my job as the little cousin in the 90s.

As the youngest in an intergenerational house, I found myself doing most of the tasks my older cousins didn't feel like doing. I walked to the candy store to purchase too many bags of chips—that were properly priced at 25 cents a bag at the time. I also bought sunflower seeds, pickles, and Airheads for cousins who were more like the big sisters I never had and always wanted.

When they dreaded asking their mother a question that she was prone to answer "no" to, they would send me. Almost every time I'd come back with an easy "yes." Who could resist my baby face, big eyes, thick afro puffs and squeaky voice? It wasn't until recently—after I'd gotten married and had a child of my own—that I realized the value of Black families living together. Perhaps our quest for independence has done us more harm than good.

During the late 80s, my mother, father, and I lived in my great aunt's tiny, cozy basement on the South Side of Chicago. My aunt, who was recently widowed, found comfort in living among her family. She raised her teenage daughters and my parents had the opportunity to catch up on bills and take a mental break.

Living among family meant they didn't have to stress about the daily tasks that never leave a parent's plate. If my mother found herself working late with little time to prepare dinner, it wasn't a major concern because my aunt had already whipped up salmon croquettes, macaroni & cheese, and broccoli. There would always be enough to go around for everyone. If one of my parents needed to step out for a moment, there was no need to quickly find a nanny or go through the hassle of strapping a toddler into a car seat, because if my aunt couldn't babysit there were two teenagers floating around with no real responsibilities. This is a stark difference from what my life looks like.

For a long time, my husband and I dreamed of living in the historic community of Bronzeville. It was an unspoken symbol of success for Chicago millennials. That dream came true in 2020. While giving my mother-in-law a tour of our three-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment with high ceilings and an en-suite with a jacuzzi, she said, "Back in my day, a place like this would hold about three to four families."

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote a poem entitled "kitchenette building" that briefly described the living conditions my mother-in-law spoke of that existed in Bronzeville, and throughout Chicago, in the 20th century. While crammed in tiny apartments, Black families struggled with slumlords and poor living conditions.

I believe these conditions stirred up a desire for space and independence. As more job opportunities opened up and segregation was no longer a major factor, Black families began to spread apart. My paternal grandparents found their independence by leaving Mississippi to come to Chicago during the Great Migration. My husband and I found ours by moving to Bronzeville. We are living the "American Dream," but I can't help but wonder if we're doing my toddler, and ourselves, a disservice.

Dr. Trevon D. Logan, Ph.D., from Ohio State University, understands the need and benefits for some Black families to be in multigenerational households. "It is cheaper to live in a shared environment. Shared utilities can lower costs and add to savings. That was holding intergenerational families together," says Dr. Logan.

While independent living may be a common goal for modern families, there are many factors that contribute to multigenerational living today and in the past. Dr. Logan says that because of inflation, even families who have sought higher education are beginning to live in multigenerational homes again. "Today, an African American who has a college degree has less wealth than a white American that didn't finish high school," says Dr. Logan. "People who are wealthier are able to allow their children to live independently. If we don't have parents or grandparents who can translate wealth then we're going to be living together."

Dr. Joseph Butler, Ph.D., is a critical race and urban sociologist and says that having access to that kind of generational wealth provides a safety net for mistakes. He says that it's the difference between young adults starting independent lives burdened with issues like student debt and inherited bad credit, as opposed to starting lives without debt and with job opportunities." What would your life look like if all of your early life mistakes didn't cost you everything? What if you had the resources to not have to deal with the penalty of your actions? That's the impact of generational wealth," says Dr. Butler.

Intergenerational homes may be the key to building generational wealth for Black families today.

Additionally, studies suggest that people who live in intergenerational homes tend to lead longer lives. Along with long life, there are sacred treasures that can only be found while living together. Living with family gives us an up-close and personal view of all of the intricacies that define a person's character. We know how they drink their coffee, the tv shows they indulge in, the things that make them laugh, the things that make them cry, how they handle disappointments, and how they create joy. There are very few facades with the people you live with. You have the privilege to live transparently among each other.

I've entertained the idea of clearing out our office and asking my husband's parents to come live with us. However, I must admit I'm a millennial who cherishes her space. In 2017, Reggie Van Lee was featured in many news outlets for building a 20,000-square-foot family compound in Texas. His reasoning? "It keeps the family close-knit, without being too close," says Lee. He has perfected the art of being a multigenerational household while creating generational wealth. For me, he and his family are official "life goals" because the American Dream is fleeting, but family is forever.

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