I’ve seen many depictions of African American families through mass media, in literature, in music, on television, and in films over my 52 years. However, through my own childhood, varied experiences, and studies, I am pained by the absence of a consistent narrative highlighting how unremarkable and typical it was and has been to be a member of an African American family whose roots started on another continent, yet our generations survived horrific atrocities. We overcame enslavement and demanded our freedom.
My African American family as well as a multitude of others remained intact, praying to the God that we knew from our homeland, daring to love one another, to marry, to have children, and to maintain hope for a prosperous future. Though societal realities did not take shape for hundreds of years, that Love, rooted in our spiritual lives still lives on even in 2020.
I think of my parents, Wallace Wiley and Emma Jean Dorsey Wiley, my heroes. They were both born in northern Louisiana in the 1930’s. Though segregation was alive and well in America, they had a hope for a future of happiness. Theirs was a typical (not remarkable) African American Love Story.
They met in high school; my father was 3 years older than my mother; he escorted her to his senior prom. After my father graduated from high school in 1953, he and my mother lost touch for nearly 10 years. My father enrolled at Grambling State University in Grambling, LA and studied mathematics for over 2 years. Due to the need to financially assist his extended family, (his parents and 7 siblings), my father left college and joined the Navy. He became an airplane mechanic.
Meanwhile, my mother graduated from high school in 1956 and she too enrolled at Grambling State University with plans to complete her Bachelor’s Degree. Within a 2 year span, my mother dropped out of college due to an unplanned pregnancy. She, her boyfriend at the time, and my grandparents, welcomed my phenomenal sister Sonya Anita; however, the two parents decided not to marry.
In about December of 1962, as faith would have it, my mother was visiting a friend at her home in Grambling; when she walked into the living room, she saw my father asleep on the couch. As it turns out, my mother’s friend was my father’s cousin. Needless to say, they quickly became reacquainted. Their friendship and genuine affection for one another had never died.
By April 1, 1963, April Fool’s Day no less, my parents were married and my father adopted my sister (Sonya Anita Wiley). It was not long before they added to their family: my oldest brother, Wallace Dewayne (1964), my middle brother, Robert Chauncey (1965), me (Monique Machelle), 1968) and my younger brother, Shanon Dexter (1970).
My father stayed in the Navy a few more years until his term ended; however, his choices were to re-enlist and go to Vietnam, or retire. My father chose to retire. In the meantime, my mother finished Secretarial school and begin working as a Secretary.
My father had a major airplane mechanic’s job offer at a Naval Base in southern Louisiana; however, he decided to stay in northern Louisiana in an effort to be present for his extended family after being away for so many years and to support his young, growing family. He worked for the Coca Cola Bottling Company for over 25 years.
My parents decided to settle in Grambling, LA and raise their young family. Through the years both my father and mother worked hard to ensure that we were positioned for a “better life” financially and otherwise than they had. They instilled the values of faith in God, hard work, integrity, determination, and help toward our fellow man in each of us. No, everything was not perfect; we had deaths in the family, financial pressures, and differences of opinion; however, we always bounced back as a family unit to overcome our challenges together.
Though neither of my parents finished college, I’m pleased to report that I along with my 3 brothers earned our Bachelor’s Degrees from Grambling State University. 2 of my 3 brothers earned a Master’s Degree, and 1 became a Naval Officer. We lost my sister, Sonya, to illness in 1996; however, her legacy lives on in the work that each of us does in our chosen professions and our communities.
Wallace Dewayne and his wife Vivian are teachers in the Memphis Public School system; Wallace is also a Minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Robert is a Banker and Real Estate business owner; his wife Susan is an Educator at Grambling State University; Shanon is a Corporate Executive with International Paper and retired in the mid-2000s with the rank of Navy Captain; his wife Glenda is a homemaker and community volunteer, and my husband Christopher is a retired Accountant and a Reverend in the Baptist Church.
I am a Deaconess and have been working in the human relations field for over 15 years, and over the last 4 years at Goodwill of Greater Washington, where I serve students and graduates in the role of Lead Career Coach, as they seek to change their lives through education and employment.
We lost my mother in 2009 to breast cancer. Mother fought a good fight for 7 years before she passed away. 6 months before her death she wrote each of us a personal letter of encouragement. I have attached the letter that she wrote my father as a part of this article as well as a few family photos. In addition, my father passed away from a heart attack in 2017. My brothers’ and I have been adjusting to life without our parents’ physical presence; however, we believe that we will all be united again in the afterlife.
Had my parents lived they would have celebrated their 57th Wedding Anniversary on April 1, 2020. The legacy of Wallace and Emma Wiley is not remarkable, but is the legacy of a typical African American family. They have 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and 3 great grandchildren. They both lived a full life unto which their children are proud.
During this African American History Month, I salute my parents for their example, their love and commitment, and the beautiful memories that we share as a family. May God continue to bless us all keeping a hedge of protection around us and those that we love.