Celebrating the Heart and Soul of the Black Home Through Legacy and Style

published Feb 28, 2023
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Credit: Patrick Cline
A vintage dining set inside the home of Ariene and Daren Bethea, whose North Carolina home is featured in AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home.

I grew up in a multi-generational Black household in the South. The four of us were pretty piled into my grandmother’s tiny three-bedroom ranch-style home, but it never felt crowded. I remember always feeling so safe, loved, and happy growing up there surrounded by those I loved most in the world.

All the magic happened at that house. Grandma’s kitchen was a sacred and special place to me when I was growing up. It’s where I watched her cook my favorite dishes night after night while she gossiped with my mom about “the going-ons” of the day. The smell of her delicious home-cooked meals filling the rooms could turn a bad day into a good one almost instantly. I sat in the cane-backed chairs that lined her counter countless times, hoping the hot comb she was running through my hair would keep its distance from the back of my neck when I would fidget too much or laugh too hard at her jokes. Her little round dining room table — that fit four at best — was just a few feet away. You could almost reach out and touch it from the kitchen. It was a very lived-in, simple wooden table with nicks here and there, but to me it was this wonderful place where our family felt whole and complete. That table was the setting for so many of my fondest childhood memories. It wasn’t just the place where we gathered nightly to share a meal and great stories about our days. I did my homework at that table. I blew out birthday candles at that table, surrounded by generations of family and elders. I learned how to wrap a present and hem a dress at that table. I played board games with my cousins every summer at that table — the same place where we were also told to sit in silence together when we got in trouble and had to have a “time out.”

That table was also where my grandmother entertained guests — or “company,” as she loved to call it — and I had to be on my best behavior while she served biscuits or had someone play a tune on the piano. I don’t know how she squeezed a piano into such a small living room, but, like everything else, it fit right in because it was a part of her story, of our story.

It was in that very living room that I began to dream of one day having my own home to bring family and friends together. And almost 30 years later, I did become a homeowner — and from the moment my husband and I put the keys in the door, we became focused on filling our new space with the little things that add that same warmth and comfort to a home, piece by piece. I both wanted and needed to recreate the magic that uplifted and supported me as a child. I wanted us to celebrate life’s moments — big and small — there. I wanted to see my family members’ (my father, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunts and uncles) faces light up while they shared time together in our home. Just as I had watched so many others do at my grandmother’s home.

“When we talk about the things that make our homes our homes, celebration is really one of the things right at the top of the list,” explains Bryan Mason, co-author of “AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home,” which he wrote with his wife and business partner, Jeanine Hays. “It is where we celebrate our ancestors.”

In their latest book, Mason and Hays take readers on a tour of 16 different visually stunning Black-owned homes — including chef Alexander Smalls and actor Danielle Brooks. It’s a powerful celebration of Black homeownership and style and interior design, and in telling each story they also explore the home as the soul of the Black family. A fitting analogy that rings so true for me as a Black woman who felt both fostered and supported to become who I am today by the love and safety I felt inside the walls of many a family home.

Celebration is one of the key themes found throughout the storytelling in the book, because, as the couple reminds me, in the history of the Black community in America, we weren’t — and aren’t – always able to be joyful outside of our homes.

Credit: Patrick Cline
Chef Alexander Smalls' dining room is central to his interior and was designed to host intimate dinners with family and friends. His Harlem home is featured in AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home.

“In our home, we have family photos around us where we celebrate our culture,” shares Mason. “It’s where we celebrate all the things that we feel like we’re not always able to celebrate when we go out. It’s something that a lot of us face on one level or another, but when we get home, that’s when we can celebrate who we are. That’s when you don’t have to argue about it. It’s not militant. It’s not political, it’s just your home. And so being able to do that at home — celebrate your Blackness — it was one of the things that we found connected every home that we feature in the book.”

My grandmother celebrated her Blackness by decorating her home with all of the chapters of her story. Every single surface of her home was covered in family photos and keepsakes — vintage family photographs, school photos, ribbons I earned making the honor roll, and portraits of family members long gone but never forgotten. So much of what I know today about the lives of my great grandmother, “Bannie,” and my grandfather, “Papa Dear,” both of whom passed away before I was born, came from the stories I was told when I asked my grandmother about a framed recipe, a necklace on her dresser, or a piece of fabric used to make a scarf.

“One of the things that I think Black people do so beautifully in our interiors is we’re carrying the history with us,” says Hays. And it’s that very history, she adds, that comes together on the walls, in the fabrics, and on the tabletops in a way that begins to tell a unique story in every single Black home.

“We really do think about how we design our spaces,” Hays continues. “When we talked to these homeowners about how they grew up, it was a celebration of what home has always been for Black families — a place to be safe and feel comfortable. I think that is unique and interesting in Black culture that the history is not something we look back on always as necessarily a negative. Knowing our history is part of what keeps us resilient and able to move forward. And it does have a way of fitting into the home decor in our spaces. We celebrate those memories and carry them with us. It was exciting to tell these stories in a home decor book.”

Credit: Patrick Cline
The dining room inside the home of Shawna Freeman in Charlotte, North Carolina. Freeman's home is featured in AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home.

Just like my own experience, that celebration begins for many Black families with the start of homeownership. The idea of having a space you own and embarking on a journey to use interior design and style to decorate and personalize it to tell your own history is both powerful and inspiring.

“We buy homes as spaces to build upon and continue to build our story,” explains Hays. “And I see those spaces being that comfort and that cocoon and that being extremely important.”

Images are reprinted with permission from AphroChic: Celebrating the Legacy of the Black Family Home. Copyright © 2022 by Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason, published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House