The Black family: battered, bruised but unbowed
Slavery is a curse whose vestiges still remain
“The ruin of a nation begins in the homes of it people”—Ashanti proverb
“To understand the Black family one must recognize the historical and socio-political environment of African Americans in this country beginning with enslavement and its devastating effect on the Black family. Current economic, political, social and health conditions continue to negatively impact the Black family.”—Faye Z. Belgrave, Ph.D.
The Black family has been the subject of numerous studies. From slavery through today, the Black family has existed in many forms, both by force and by choice.
Looking back to Africa, Faye Z. Belgrave, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, observes: “marriage and family and children are really the hallmarks of this culture, because the union of a family represents so much symbolically …. You can see how, culturally, the family has been so important when we think about (the period) from Africa to contemporary times, but then during the period of slavery the family could not by legal means exist.”
In March of 1965, Sen. Daniel Moynihan published a controversial paper called “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” better known as “The Moynihan Report.” At the time of publication, Moynihan was secretary of labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson but had a background as a sociologist. Political scientist James Q. Wilson, Ph.D., says that after the report became public, “the political and intellectual roof fell in on (Moynihan), and a revisionist historical movement began.” Revisionist historical views, at best “minimized (slavery) as a social force,” and at worst, claims that slavery “scarcely hurt families at all.”
Wilson, a Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, published an article entitled “Slavery and the Black Family,” which was reprinted on the National Affairs website [issue 147, Spring 2002]. In it, he quotes Nathan Glazer comparing slavery in America vs. Brazil.
“In Brazil, the slave had many more rights than in the United States: he could legally marry, he could … be baptized and become a member of the Catholic Church, his family could not be broken up for sale, and he had many days on which he could either rest or earn money to buy his freedom … In short, the Brazilian slave knew he was a man, and that he differed in degree, not in kind, from his master.
“In the United States, the slave was totally removed from the protection of organized society … his existence as a human being was given no recognition by any religious or secular agency, he was totally ignorant of and completely cut off from his past, and he was offered absolutely no hope for his future. His children could be sold, his marriage was not recognized, his wife could be violated or sold … and he could also be subject, without redress, to frightful barbarities … The slave could not, by law, be taught to read or write; he could not practice any religion without the permission of his master, and could never meet with his fellows, for religious or other purposes, except in the presence of a White; and finally, if a master wished to free him, every legal obstacle was used to thwart such action. This is not what slavery meant in the ancient world, in medieval and early modern Europe, or in Brazil and the West Indies.”
From Belgrave’s book titled “African-American Psychology: From Africa to America,” she notes that “Although enslaved families were able to function as adaptively as feasible given their circumstances, the consequences of slavery were nevertheless devastating on the African American family (Burgess, 1995).” Adaptation sometimes meant the inclusion of other slaves on the plantation into the family unit. She points out that although the family was regularly torn apart, one union that was normally allowed to remain fixed for a certain amount of time was the mother-child union, but even then only until the child was about 5 or 6.
Following emancipation, other factors began to shape and affect the Black family. According to Belgrave, separated family members tried to reunite, but because they were so widely dispersed, they didn’t know where other family members were. There was also an increase in two-parent households during this time. “Couples were certainly able to marry,” says Belgrave.
While researchers acknowledge slavery’s tremendous initial impact on the Black family other forces have also taken a toll in the later years.
Judith Blake has studied Jamaican families. As referenced in Wilson’s book, she states, “If the girl is seduced and has a child, her value to other men is reduced; they often have little interest in raising someone else’s baby … Some women tried to adjust to this [circumstance] by giving away their children to relatives so that someone else would raise them.” This is a condition mirrored to a lesser extent in the U.S. Blake’s interviews also noted that “this farming out of children was so extensive that by 1986 fewer than half of all Jamaican firstborn children were being raised by their mothers. The mother, lacking a husband, had to work. As a result, grandmothers, not mothers, and certainly not fathers, raised many Black Jamaican children.”
In the West Indies, men followed work to other islands. In Martinique and the Lesser Antilles, sugar cane and tobacco farming drew men to Cuba. Thus, because of the distance physically separating them, men and women spent less time with each other. The same is true of the Great Migration in the U.S. Between 1910 and approximately 1970, about 7 million Blacks moved from the South to the Midwest, Northeast, and the West, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Belgrave notes that the Great Migration had both positive and negative consequences for the family. Employment opportunities were greater, but they largely took Black men away from their families as they sought work.
By mid-century, Belgrave explains, “Social policies that included welfare and poverty programs were developed. However, many of these programs did not consider other factors that affected the African American community. For example, social policies were based on a “breadwinner” model that assumed that husbands would provide the basic needs for their families. This model did not consider the low wages and the high level of unemployment among African American men that made it impossible for them to take care of their families (Burgess, 1995). Consequently, some of the early programs that were intended to benefit families may have encouraged fathers to be absent from the home.” This phenomenon was the result of what was known as the “man-in-the-house” rule.
It can be argued that the meat of the Moynihan Report deals with the social programs and their effects on the Black family. Moynihan states in his paper: “The steady expansion of welfare programs can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States.” The report went on to say that what was needed was a coordination of federal government programs, “directed toward a new kind of national goal: the establishment of a stable Negro family structure.”
In 1950, 78 percent of Black families were households of married couples, according to a March 1993 U.S. Department of Commerce statistical brief. By 1970 that number dropped to 68 percent and continues to decline. Conversely, households headed by a single Black female “with no husband present” leapt from just 18 percent in 1950 to 28 percent in 1970. That number continues to rise. Today the single Black female-headed household figure is around 70 percent. Belgrave wonders “what the heck has happened? And I don’t think it’s just the incarceration rate.”
What is causing the continued decline of the Black family? Slavery ended a century and a half ago, yet the trends continue. While there does not seem to be one single solution, the answer may be in the way the situation is approached. Again, the Moynihan Report stated, “There is probably no single fact of Negro American life so little understood by Whites. The Negro situation is commonly perceived by Whites in terms of the visible manifestation of discrimination and poverty, in part because Negro protest is directed against such obstacles, and in part, no doubt, because these are facts which involve the actions and attitudes of the White community as well.” He adds, “It may be hazarded that the reason family structure does not loom larger in public discussion of social issues is that people tend to assume that the nature of family life is about the same throughout American society.”
Belgrave theorizes that some of the changes in the Black family are the result of adjustment to yet another environment. “In the South there were more resources, better support systems, better networks. In the ‘70s there were many more two-parent households.” During the Great Migration, Black families left these support systems for the promise of better prospects to the north and west.
Meanwhile, norms about single-parent households and African American families have changed.
Belgrave opposes the notion that single-parent households are as negative as the statistics would lead researchers to believe. What the statistics do not show are the church leaders, grandparents, uncles, etc., who, though they didn’t live in the single-parent-headed home, have a positive influence on the children in the home. President Barack Obama is an example of Belgrave’s statement. He was raised primarily by his mother but was influenced by his father, stepfather in Indonesia, and grandparents in Hawaii.
The effects of slavery, of course, continue to be manifested in many ways in the Black family. But the effects of more contemporary institutions such as Jim Crow and welfare cannot be ignored. “Given that (the Black family structure) is different (from the traditional model), that is neither good nor bad. And we have to look at what are the policies and supports in place that can help our families to thrive,” says Belgrave.
“The Black family,” concludes Belgrave, “has been able to be adaptive, regardless of the destruction that it has (suffered).”
The Black family has been the object of numerous studies, research projects, but most importantly, is the cornerstone of Black human survival.
Speaking about African family values, Faye Z Belgrave, Ph.D., professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, says “marriage and family and children are really the hallmarks of this culture, because the union of a family represents so much symbolically …”
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