Elders are not just senior citizens, Rainbow says, but wisdom-seekers. "Elders have gone through their lives in such a way that they have this sense of, 'Everything's gonna be all right. This is what I've learned.' They have this sense of knowing. They are connected to 'spirit.' " For Rainbow, elders are characterized by their inspiring faith that everything works out for the best.
Recently Rainbow turned her book, Standing the Test of Time: Love Stories of African American Elders, into a play. It follows the real-life stories of three couples who have been married 66, 54 and 40 years; the youngest couple seeks the advice of the older couples. "As the older couples state in play, 'This is a journey.' They are still seeking information, still seeking guidance about how to get through various stages and experiences in their relationship," she says.
Her goal was to portray long-lasting, authentic relationships on the stage. "What I hear often from people is, 'I don't know anybody who's been married 66 years or 54 years,' " she says. "People don't see enough positive images of African American elders working through relationships. They need that experience of seeing elder couples still working at being in love and committed to one another. The play gives people hope, and it gives them a visual and engages more of the senses than reading a book."
An avid reader and theater-goer, Rainbow invited actors and the original director to offer their reactions to the script and help her perfect it. Having no previous theater experience worked to her advantage. "When you don't know the rules, you're bolder," she says.
"Standing the Test of Time" is a community initiative. After each performance, audience members are invited to participate in a 45-minute dialogue with the actors, the director and Rainbow, during which they discuss their reactions to the play and the challenges and benefits of long-lasting relationships.
Rainbow also offers a six-week inter-generational marriage education program. "I think this is important for African Americans because kinship bonds are one way we transfer knowledge," she says. "Until recently, we're less likely to go to family therapists, and there wouldn't be enough African American family therapists to accommodate all those who are seeking therapists. So I'm trying to create a way that people can talk to surrogate aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors about relationships. That is how we transferred information decades ago, and less of that is being done now because individuals are more mobile and transient and are less likely to live in their community of origin, where these bonds are nurtured. I am creating a process-before people are in crisis-where they can talk about what's going on in their marriage."
Rainbow identifies three events in the '60s that negatively affected African American family life. The first, a report that informed public policy called "The State of the Negro Family" by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, concluded that African Americans were dysfunctional and pathological. But Moynihan's research was skewed because it used data only from African American families living in urban areas, though the majority of African American families lived in the South. Additionally, he seemed to focus primarily on families living in public housing. "Even at graduate school at Bryn Mawr," she says, "people would talk about the pathological aspects of African Americans. I was blown away to hear my colleagues still buying into this myth. I knew from my own experience that there was something faulty going on, and I wanted to dispel that."
Among the first African American family TV shows was "Julia," about an educated single mother. This male-less model of the African American family added to the perception of African Americans' dysfunction, Rainbow says.
The Civil Rights Act granted African Americans equal access to employment, but it meant that "we would become more assimilated and at risk of dropping our values, beliefs and cultural attitudes for mainstream America so that we could fit in," she says. "In the past we would assimilate to fit into work environments, but we could always come back to our communities and feel a sense of pride and dignity, sustaining who we were in our communities and families.
"Those three events led us to forget the strengths of African American families prior to the '60s," she says. "We've forgotten these ways."
The couples on whom "Standing the Test of Time" is based represent those ways. In order to incorporate elders into their everyday lives, "people have to be intentional, seeking them out and interacting with them," she says. "This is so important. The intergenerational process is phenomenal."
For more information on Rainbow and her research, see www.standingthetestoftime.com.
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