Debating the Black Family: A Survey of Recent Articles

Debating the Black Family: A Survey of Recent Articles

A conclave on the state of the African American family at the dawn of the 21st century produced sharp disagreements.

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The charge was to explore,
in the words of
Salmagundi "text4">(Win­ter–Spring 2002) editor Robert Boyers, “the
situation of Afro-America,” or, in Harvard University sociologist
Orlando Patterson’s more specific ones, “the gender, family,
and sexual problems of African Americans,” at the dawn of the 21st

The ultimate issue was the plight of black children, 60
percent of whom grow up in fatherless households. Patterson, whose
class="text57">Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American
Centuries (1999) was assigned reading for
the 18 panelists gathered by the journal, acknowledged that he had changed
his outlook since a similar roundtable almost a decade earlier. Then he had
stressed unemployment and the absence of available jobs as the reason
marriage was so unpopular among blacks; but now he suggested the reverse:
“Men do not have jobs because they’re not married.”

At the root of the contemporary black reluctance to
marry or cohabit in a stable union, said Patterson, is “the most
profound tragic experience in Afro-American history, namely slavery and its
aftermath.” Slaves did not even own their children, and fathers were
especially irrelevant. Jim Crow and “the nightmare of lynching” carried on the emasculation, he said. The whole experience “was
devastating culturally and psychologically.” This past, he said,
“gave us the [gender] attitudes which largely account for our present

Kendall Thomas, a law professor at Columbia University,
protested that “black people of all classes” in America today
“continue to be menaced, threatened, subjected to violence of all
sorts”—victims of “the ideology and the institutions of
white supremacy.” He objected to the idea of “normative
masculinity and normative heterosexuality” as a solution to
“the perceived gender crisis in the black community.” Patterson
was also faulted for slighting gay and other unions.

But Jacqueline Rivers,
executive director of the Boston-based National Ten Point Leadership
Foundation, which seeks to combat violence among inner-city youths, pointed
out that homosexual unions are not the issue. “Clearly, what we have
in the inner city are mostly short-term, heterosexual unions without any
affiliated commitment to raising the product of those unions. That is what
we have to deal with.”

Speaking “as a black woman and as a
feminist,” Jill Nelson said she felt “ambushed” by
several panelists’ alleged implication “that black
women’s commitment to feminism has to somehow be subverted to save
the black man and the family.” Nelson, a journalism professor at New
York’s City College, also said she was offended by “the whole
notion of the so-called ‘nuclear family’. . . . I think
we’ve got to expand and become inclusive about family.”

Most unmarried black women struggling to raise their
children undoubtedly regret the absence of support from the fathers,
observed Kendall Thomas. But “many young black men have not one, not
two, not three but as many as four children by four different young African
American women. They can only go home to one of them, if any, which leaves
the rest of these kids with nothing.” He suggested that black
churches and community centers should do more to help mothers.

“In most lower-class, working-class
neighborhoods” there is a correlation between church attendance and
marital stability, noted the Reverend Eugene Rivers, pastor of Azusa
Christian Com­munity in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood (and
Jacqueline Rivers’s husband). Any practical program to aid the black
poor, he said, will require a fresh appreciation of the functional role
religion plays in their lives.

“It would be the height of bad faith,” commented James Miller, editor of Daedalus class="text4">, for individuals without religious convictions, such as
himself, “to suggest to other people that they should hold a
religious belief . . . because it is sociologically convenient.” He
wasn’t sure what can be done. “I suppose that if you’re
fully committed to the principle of dyadic coupling, you might favor a
state policy making it punitively difficult to divorce once you’ve
coupled to raise children. But beyond something as drastic as that I
don’t know where you’d go.”

Patterson, however, maintained that cultural attitudes
often can be changed more readily than economic realities. “Over the
past 50 years, America changed significantly from the system which we know
as Jim Crow. Peoples’ attitudes do change.” It’s not
enough, he admonished, to just “keep on saying it’s jobs,
it’s jobs, it’s jobs.”

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