Let the Circle be Unbroken

Let the circle be unbroken is an African American spiritual principle expressing beliefs about life, death, god, family and love. The principle adjures us that when a family member, that is, a loved one, passes to the other side, they are dead but not gone.

Let the circle be unbroken is an African American spiritual principle, honoring the indigenous family ways that we maintained after we were kidnapped and forced into one experience from many, and therefore into one nationality from many mostly West African peoples. This indigenous family way, which is extended family, and the communal village family of the peoples from West Africa, is woman-centric, matrilineal, non-hierarchical, and egalitarian.

Let the circle be unbroken refers specifically to West African indigenist beliefs about death. In contradistinction to Western and Christian beliefs, our ancestors and African Americans carrying on these traditions, understand that the spirits of the dead are here with us, that they do not leave and go to some far away place, that they are in the ground below us, in the trees above us, and in the wind around us, helping us, guiding us, and sustaining us. When someone dies, the principal of let the circle be unbroken directs us to honor, respect and particularly listen to the guidance of our forbearers.

In the exercise/meditation we call “Let the circle be unbroken,” a group of workshop participants — they may be a group of entry level health care workers in our community, a youth organization, the staff of a community agency, a women’s or men’s group — form a circle. Each individual has a turn divulging who it is that forms her/his “inner circle,” or family. This exercise not only affirms our family ways, but debunks the ideology of the nuclear family.

As we have performed this exercise in our communities over the last 20 years it is uniform that the large majority of people in the circle will not be living a nuclear family — mommy, daddy, and their marriage certificate, three kids, two cars in the garage, white picket fence, Fido the dog and Patches the cat.

First, we go around the circle and each person defines family for themselves. The usual result is a variety of family forms, but with these specific aspects imaging a break with nuclear family values: (1) a significant amount of people will name family members who are not blood; (2) invariably, in other words, every time we have performed this exercise, at least a few people in the group will refer to the recovery circle they are in as having an association to family for them — either they will say that recovery has led them to redefine family, or they will claim that their primary family is their recovery circle; in youth circles, or circles which include youth, some of them will refer to their crew or posse as their inner circle, as their most important group of intimates; (4) ancestors, relatives who have passed, will be named in the inner circle of some participants; (5) identification of “significant other” will always draw responses which are manifestly non-nuclear family forms.

Second, the facilitator draws from the responses those which represent the large majority experience in the circle; in other words, those family forms which are distinctly non-nuclear family, and which in fact honor the way the peoples actually create and maintain family for themselves. A discussion is opened up about customs, prejudices and most importantly, laws which discriminate against the peoples for not living in nuclear family structures.

Third, we then go around the room and identify family members dead but not gone who each of us listens to for guidance in times of stress and trouble. Some in the circle will name blood relations such as grandmothers or grandfathers. Some will name revolutionaries or leaders of their people who inspire them and sustain their confidence and commitment to carry on the liberation fight of their peoples.

The workshop ends with an open discussion of what it means to let the circle be unbroken and maintain our commitment to our family ways.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken

I went back home, the home was lonesome
Since my mother, she was gone
All my brothers and sisters crying
What a home so sad and alone

Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky

We sang songs of childhood

Hyms of faith that made us strong

Ones that mother Maybelle taught us

Hear the angels sing along

Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home awaiting