Saturday, August 17, 2019


Vernellia Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

Article Index

.Politicizing Black Parenthood

It would be this image of the delinquent Black father that influenced political action toward the Black family. In this picture, Black mothers occupied a space of victimhood (abandonment and neglect) where they and their children survived in spite of Black fathers' indifference. "Indifference" was the father's inability to care for a child financially, not the father's expressed desire to parent his children or include them as members of his household. Slavery imposed upon Black fathers the reality that they live away from their children, though as the stories of Oscar Walker, Moses Livingston, and Harry Pope indicate "living away" did not mean that they were absent from their children's lives. However, when viewed through the lens of the patriarchal structure of the plantation family, a familial structure that was normalized and socially divested of its economic benefits to White men, women, and their children, Black fatherhood became pathological insomuch as Black fathers were not heads of household in the same manner as White fathers. In studying fatherhood generally, social scientists Toni Tripp-Reimer and Susan E. Wilson argue that "traditional" (western, White) ideals of fatherhood encapsulate numerous functions: (1) the endowment function--legitimating children and passing on a surname; (2) the provision function--assuming the role of provider through the financial care and emotional support of family members; (3) the protection function--protecting children; (4) the caregiving function--caring for children physically, emotionally, and contributing to their educational development; and (5) the formation function--aiding children to develop into fully formed adults. Black fathers were unable to legitimate their children until after 1865, and even then that right was dependent upon whether they had cohabitated with the mother of their children at emancipation. They were also unable to pass along their surname to their children, because children born in slavery were the property of the slave owner. Further, if the father was not living with the mother of his children at emancipation, then he had no legal right to give his surname; likewise, the children's mother had no obligation to accept it. Slave owners were responsible for the care and maintenance of slaves until they transferred their financial obligations to Black fathers after 1865. Although the devastation of slave sales underscored that Black patriarchy would be no protection for Black families, Black men endeavored to be present in their children's lives as much as the institutional requirements of slavery and postbellum apprenticeship laws would permit. All in all, the lived experiences of Black fathers assured that their relationships with their children would not be formed and maintained in accordance with Western (White) norms.

In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, sociologists and reformers engaged in study after study of Black family units to determine how well Black people were integrating into American life in the four decades following slavery. The main repository for information on African American life after slavery was in the reports compiled by renowned sociologist William Edward Burghardt Du Bois during his time at the Atlanta University Center. Du Bois convened a series of conferences for the social scientific study of African Americans after slavery and reported on the same. In the thirteenth of these reports, The Negro American Family: Report of a Social Study made principally by the College Classes of 1909 and 1910 of Atlanta University, under the patronage of the Trustees of the John F. Slater Fund; together with the Proceedings of the 13th Annual Conference for the Study of Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University on Tuesday, May the 26th, 1908, Du Bois knitted together the contributions from the conference devoted to studying African American families in four parts: Marriage; The Home; The Economics of the Family; and The Family Group. Du Bois' goal for this report was simply truth; in his words:

The object of these studies is primarily scientific--a careful research for truth conducted as thoroughly, broadly and honestly as the material resources and mental equipment at command will allow; but this is not our sole object: we wish not only to make the Truth clear but to present it in such shape as will encourage and help social reform.

That "reform" was in studying the barriers Black families faced in adhering to the perceived Western ideals of marriage and family. This brand of family was the means to endow Black men with patriarchal privileges, which depended on giving them the ability to be financial contributors to their households and the protector of women and children. It was also the vehicle to cultural assimilation and respectability for Black people. As Du Bois reported:

Without a doubt the point where the Negro American is furthest behind modern civilization is in his sexual mores. This does not mean that he is more criminal in this respect than his neighbors. Probably he is not. It does mean that he is more primitive, less civilized, in this respect than his surroundings demand, and that thus his family life is less efficient for its onerous social duties, his womanhood less protected, his children more poorly trained. All this, however, is to be expected. This is what slavery meant, and no amount of kindliness in individual owners could save the system from its deadly work of disintegrating the ancient Negro home and putting but a poor substitute in its place. The point is however, now, what has been the effect of emancipation on the mores of the Negro family.

It was slavery that introduced to Black people what Du Bois termed "the monogamic family ideal," which in his view was designed as a moralizing force to temper the sexual immorality of slaves and their masters. Though imperfect in practice on the plantation, as it was subject to the whims of the slave master, marriage was integral to the economic security and cultural "normalization" of Black people. The key to social equality lay in economic opportunity for Black men, which would allow them to marry at an earlier age; late marriage was not ideal "for a folk in the Negro's present moral development." African American migration patterns into cities were skewed in favor of women because more work opportunities existed for them there. This left the majority of Black men to languish in the country without economic or physical access to a wife and children within a nuclear familial structure. Such disproportionate numbers were viewed as problematic for White people as well as Black people, but especially so for Black people. As Du Bois would summarize:

Preponderance of one sex over the other forebodes nothing but evil to society. The maladjustment of economic and social conditions upsets the scale where nature intended a balance. The argument of [one reformer] is as correct as it is courageous: "Where women preponderate in large numbers,' she says, there is a proportionate increase in immorality, because women are cheap; where men preponderate in large numbers there is also immorality because women are dear."

The proposed solution was to give Black men access to greater earning potential, thereby allowing them entr‚e to the societal norms for marriage. The hope for Black people's successful integration into the postbellum United States lay in "a respectable class [of African Americans], and this class is increasing, where married parents live virtuous lives, guard the sanctity of their homes, and strive to bring up their children in the path of virtue."

Du Bois' report was not without its critique of the Western marriage ideal, although that critique imported stereotypes about the morality and industry of Black men and women. He wrote:

One thing further may be said, with diffidence but hearty conviction. The marriage mores of modern European culture nations, while in many respects superior to those of other peoples, are far from satisfactory, as Prostitution, Divorce, and Childlessness prove only too conclusively. Much has been written as to remedies and improvements, chiefly in the line of punishing prostitution, denying divorce and stressing child-rearing as a duty. It seems to the writer that here the Negro race may teach the world something. Just as [one scholar] has pointed out that what is termed Negro "laziness" may be a means of making modern workingmen demand more rational rest and enjoyment rather than permitting themselves to be made machines, so too the Negro woman, with her strong desire for motherhood, may teach modern civilization that virginity, save as a means of healthy motherhood, is an evil and not a divine attribute. That while the sexual appetite is the most easily abused of all human appetites and most deadly when perverted, that nevertheless it is a legitimate, beneficent appetite when normal, and that no civilization can long survive which stigmatizes it as essentially nasty and only to be discussed in shamefaced whispers. The Negro attitude in these matters is in many respects healthier and more reasonable. Their sexual passions are strong and frank, but they are, despite example and temptation, only to a limited degree perverted or merely commercial. The Negro motherlove [sic] and family instinct is strong, and it regards the family as a means, not an end, and although the end in the present Negro mind is usually personal happiness rather than social order, yet even here radical reformers of divorce courts have something to learn.

However, his critique would go largely unnoticed in the next major study of the Black Family, E. Franklin Frazier's The Negro Family in the United States.

Writing thirty-one years after Du Bois, and citing him heavily, Frazier picked up the theme of Black familial pathology as an inherited trait of slavery. In Frazier's study, slavery enhanced the animalistic, sexual appetites of Black men and women, which were only mediated by the slave's choice of monogamy and the slave master's concession to slave marriage. Frazier argued that accepting the Western marriage ideal was part and parcel of a slave's development beyond animalistic tendencies to human tendencies. Emancipation brought the breakdown of much of the patriarchal assimilation that slaves learned on the plantation. In freedom, "stable" families, most likely those where contubernal husbands and wives cohabitated together with their children at the end of slavery, strong patriarchal tendencies remained. However, for the most part, newly freed slaves roamed the countryside or migrated to cities and jettisoned their morality along the way. The result was a high incidence of children born outside of marriage, abandoned wives and mothers, wayward children, and delinquent fathers. As it had been in slavery, the monogamic family ideal would be the healing salve for Black immorality and poverty.

Black men, according to Frazier, were destabilized by the ever-shifting economic landscape below their feet in their attempts to become heads of households. Though the Freedmen's Bureau attempted to provide some land grants of abandoned plantations and farms to newly freed slaves in 1865, its plans were soon thwarted by the Johnson administration as it sought to restore political and economic power to the former leaders of and cosigners to the Confederacy. By 1870, all efforts to provide for newly freed people had been largely abandoned, the effect of which was to capture the Black family in the whirlpool of pathology. For Frazier, Black men reached the Western family ideal when they acquired land, a wife, and children. Landlessness and joblessness made this goal largely unattainable within the confines of the nuclear familial structure, although Black familial ties were formed and maintained in different ways. Frazier's study is replete with examples of men and women who eschewed the formal bonds of marriage, yet nevertheless worked land, lived near one another and raised children together. In instances where the father did not live in the same home with the children, he provided for their maintenance and support. This was not evidence of familial stability and resilience for Frazier. On the contrary, Black fathers absent from the physical home of their families were simply absent, leaving Black women to fend for themselves and their children.

Thus, Frazier marginalized the role of Black fathers in The Negro Family in the United States; his major focus was on Black women as female heads of household, the physical structure where they and their children resided. Picking up, in part, on Du Bois' theme of "Negro motherlove," Frazier argued that Black mothers were more dependable parents than the fathers of their children. These women were also not likely to submit to male authority, a fixture of the patriarchal Western familial structure, as their status as heads of household made them self-sufficient. Using the Western familial ideal as a measurement for these women's choices with whom to partner, how to partner with them, and when to have children, Frazier framed Black women's sexual relationships outside of marriage as sexually loose and irregular couplings, effectively placing those choices outside of the moralizing structure of the nuclear family. Although Frazier did reference the disruptions of slave sales and emancipation as contributors to family disorder, his main point was that circumstance should not be elevated over the conscious choice to assimilate Western family and marriage ideals. As Frazier explained:

That the Negro has found within the patterns of the white man's culture a purpose in life and a significance for his strivings which have involved sacrifices for his children and the curbing of individual desires and impulses indicates that he has become assimilated to a new mode of life.

Missing from Frazier's analysis was that varied Black familial combinations were quite "normal" and functional; fictive kinship networks (aunties, uncles, godparents) and "away" fatherhood were necessities borne of the slave auction block and human trafficking that served as mechanisms for the survival and cultural continuance of Black people.

Du Bois and Frazier were among the foremost sociologists of their time; Du Bois was the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, while Frazier became the first African American to head the American Sociological Association in 1948. Both men conducted their research on Black family life from the context of university appointments at Historically Black Colleges and Universities ("HBCUs"); Du Bois was at Atlanta University and Frazier was at Howard University. Through his work on the Black family, each man desired to explain contemporary problems in Black communities by using sociological methods of research and analysis. As Du Bois mentioned in his preface to The Negro American Family, his goal was truth and a desire for social reform to aid Black people in advancing beyond perceived pathology. Du Bois' work was not without his own critique, as evidenced by his challenge of Western familial, marital, and sexual norms as being the only valid measure of Black family health and Black advancement. Frazier too desired to contribute to the scholarly literature on Black families. However, in contrast to Du Bois, he accepted in his interpretation of data on Black family life the Western familial and marital ideals as the defining measurements for Black pathology and Black progress. It is important to note that despite the impetus for each work, both was subsequently read through the "white gaze," an implicit analytical framework that normalizes whiteness and compares all non-whites to widely held White cultural norms and postulated beliefs. In particular, Frazier's work on the Black family was read and interpreted through the white gaze of social scientist and Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Lyndon B. Johnson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Moynihan, along with fellow social scientist Nathan Glazer in their text Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City, described Frazier's work as:

[O]ne of the most important books written on the American Negro, [in which he] has traced the history of the family, from slavery, to the Southern postslavery [sic] situation, to the Northern City. What slavery began, prejudice and discrimination, affecting jobs, housing, self-respect, have continued to keep alive among many, many, colored Americans. This is the situation in the Negro community; it will be the situation for a long time to come.

Moynihan's distorted gaze of Black familial relations would form the foundation of the infamous Moynihan Report and influence policies toward Black men, women, and children into the present day.

After assessing the long history of Black familial relationships in slavery, Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared "[a]t the heart of the deterioration of the fabric of Negro society is the deterioration of the Negro family." For Moynihan, the route to salvation for Black people was to embrace patriarchy with its attendant roles and relationships. Citing revered historians, sociologists, politicians, and educators such as E. Franklin Frazier, Whitney Young, and Dorothy Height, Moynihan constructed a thesis to explain the Black male and his failings as a husband and father. The high unemployment rate for Black men and the prevalence of Black female headed homes in the mid-twentieth century led Moynihan to conclude that Black women lacked strong leadership in family matters, and that Black children were simultaneously illegitimate and the products of the proverbial "broken home." In an almost eerie reverberation of courts' interpretations of post-emancipation apprenticeship laws, Moynihan's conclusion was that the absence of male headed family structures led to Black women and their children being a drain on state resources. In his words, "The steady expansion of this welfare program, as of public assistance programs in general, can be taken as a measure of the steady disintegration of the Negro family structure over the past generation in the United States."

Moynihan adopted historian Stanley Elkins's thesis that slave families were female centered or matrifocal as a result of slave sales and/or prohibitions on legal slave marriage. Absent from Moynihan's analysis was an examination of the laws that legalized marriage and legitimated children, and how they served to undermine Black fathers' attempts to support their families even when separated by slave sales or forced couplings by the decree of slave masters. Instead, Moynihan looked to nature to explain restrictions on Black male patriarchal rights: "[t]he very essence of the male animal, from the bantam rooster to the four-star general, is to strut. Indeed, in 19th century America, a particular type of exaggerated male boastfulness became almost a national style. Not for the Negro male. The sassy nigger' was lynched." Accordingly, a Black male's inability to assume his proper place as head of the Black family led to the "family [pathologies]" of "divorce, separation, and desertion, female family head, children in broken homes, and illegitimacy." Moynihan's study gave no credence to the thesis that perceived Black familial pathology was not a natural occurrence, but rather by design. His solution was to focus national attention on "fixing" the Black family, primarily the failure of Black fathers to parent their children and head their households as husbands to Black women.

Moynihan's critique of the Black family, particularly the insistence that patriarchy was the cause of its ills, looks only at parenthood and Black fatherhood within the confines of nuclear families. However, as previously discussed, fathers separated from their children in slavery and through legitimation laws sought to be involved in their children's lives and to parent them even though they did not live with the mother. Sociologists studying Black families in the early to mid-nineteenth century noted high incidences of mothers and children who lived with extended family, and fathers who lived away in separate residences and remained involved in their children's lives. This phenomenon was again noted in a study of Black families in the 1980s. The reasons for Black fathers to live away are myriad, ranging from their search for employment, the type of employment and its demands, and their children's mothers' current relationship status. Although census data recording births and different configurations of family have been somewhat unreliable, sociological studies that were conducted as late as the turn of the twenty-first century have noted that away parenting for Black fathers is common. Interviews conducted with children growing up in such homes reveal that many Black fathers contribute financially to the household when they are able and spend time with their children when their work schedules allow. Regardless, these fathers' absence from their children's primary residence as financial heads of households has rendered them invisible as fathers and failures as patriarchs for those who have subscribed to Moynihan's assessment of Black family life.

While Moynihan's The Negro Family: The Case for National Action has been widely criticized in the years since it was made public, legislation attempting to address poverty and crime in Black communities has adopted its fundamental premise. The study's legacy was to cement in the public imagination the seemingly incongruous existence of Black motherhood as victimhood (the absence of an in-residence male head of household) and Black motherhood as heroism (the persistence of Black families despite the absence of a patriarch). It would be through this lens, which normalized White familial relations as rooted in and thriving because of patriarchy, that Black motherhood could be politicized. Leaders of the nascent national movement for Black civil rights would focus this lens, crafted and polished by the scholars and activists Moynihan quoted to advance his thesis, to bring national attention to extrajudicial violence against Black men.