Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from F-J

Families - BLACK IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT, FAMILY DIVERSITY

white interracial community literature

This essay focuses on the implications of race and racism for family functioning and family formation. Rather than attempting the impossible task of examining all aspects of race and racism as they apply to all racial-ethnic groups, the discussion here is limited to black families. Given both the historical significance of inequality for African Americans and the importance of research on the African American experience for the development of theory and concepts about race and racism, the focus on black families is easily justified.

The Negro Family (1965), often referred to as the Moynihan Report, is a foundational, if controversial, study in the modern literature on black families. The report, which emphasized high rates of teenage pregnancy, absent fathers, welfare dependency, and crime in the black community, concluded that the black family structure was weak due in large part to the disproportionate number of female-headed households, or a “matriarchal”family structure. This conclusion, not surprisingly, has stimulated an extensive body of critical research into the conditions of the black family. Two broad themes can be identified in this literature. First, without necessarily taking issue with some of the basic findings, many scholars argue that this conclusion ignores the impact of racism, classism, and segregation. That is, the black family is more fractured and less stable than the nonblack family for reasons linked to endemic structural and cultural conditions that disadvantage the black family. Second, others more directly attack the conclusion that the black family is somehow dysfunctional, and instead point to the strength of the black family structure, as evidenced, for example, by strong kinship networks.

This entry provides a brief historical overview of perspectives on the black family, then a brief discussion of the contemporary black family, with a special emphasis on motherhood and fatherhood. The final section focuses on differences and diversity within and among black families.

BLACK FAMILIES IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT

A major misconception in the early literature on slavery and black families, as written by white scholars, was that slave owners understood the economic benefits of a strong nuclear black family and therefore tried to preserve the family structure of slaves. Researchers later “discovered”what the descendants of slaves already knew, that about one out of every three slave marriages ended because of partners being sold. This discovery questioned the validity of the idea that slave owners cared about the well-being of slave families and, more importantly, provides an example of how research can be seriously flawed if it is informed by racism and a worldview fostered by privilege. More recent scholarship demonstrates that slave owners often used specific strategies (i.e., labor migration, interference in marriage, and sexual exploitation) to endanger the well-being of African American families.

It is now known that some of the characteristics of the black family that have been both criticized and praised have their roots in slavery. Predominantly female-headed households were the norm during slavery primarily due to the forced migration of male slaves but also to gender-segregated slave quarters. This forced black families to rely on extended kinship and/or community networks for support. Despite these difficulties, enslaved families demonstrated remarkable resilience and worked hard to maintain a strong family unit.

Although emancipation freed slaves from bondage in a formal sense after the Civil War, it was a hollow freedom for many. Political leaders were more concerned with repairing the fractured relations with the white South than fulfilling their promises to the ex-slaves (e.g., ten acres and a mule) and making it possible for black families to thrive in freedom. Only a small portion of ex-slaves managed to reunite with their families, and conditions were such that many new families had to endure long periods of separation due to economic troubles, military service, or the demands of work.

FAMILY DIVERSITY

Following the lead of E. Franklin Frazier and, later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, much of the twentieth-century research literature has focused on the conditions that impacted the black family uniquely and pushed it in different directions than the majority white family. More recently, however, researchers have started to pay attention to family diversity within the African American community, which requires taking into consideration the interlocking systems of oppression that impact the lives of all African Americans, albeit in different ways. Gay families, interracial families, and young families represent a growing number of families within the black community, and these new family constellations raise novel issues and bring new challenges for family members and scholars alike.

Teenage Parenthood . While there is a fairly extensive literature on teenage pregnancy, generally speaking this is not a literature grounded in family studies; rather, teenage parenthood is typically approached as a form of youth deviance, not as a legitimate family form. This is the case especially regarding African American teenagers, who get pregnant and have children at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. It is this particular family form that is so often referred to as a major cause of the vicious cycle of absent fathers and economic instability. Although there can be no doubt that parenthood brings hardship to many teenagers and that, generally speaking, children who live in two-parent households do better in many ways, the placing of the explanatory focus on the family form itself—a teenage mother with children—can easily distort a deeper understanding of the social forces that privilege some family forms and bring disadvantages to others.

Moreover, the pervasive assumption that teenage childbearing is essentially accidental and a result of poor planning, lack of information, inability to negotiate sexual encounters, and any number of other unfortunate circumstances has preempted research on teenage families in their own terms. At least some evidence suggests that black teenagers do not always view having a baby as stifling and/or debilitating; instead, they view it as a “rite of passage.”Moreover, rather than viewing a pregnancy as an unfortunate accident, some teenage girls are actively looking to replace something that is missing in their lives, whether a connection to a missing father or the prospect of a successful future.

Black LGBT Families . Much of the literature on black families has ignored the implication of sexual orientation on the structure of the family. Feminist scholars are currently working to remove the heterosexual bias that pervades the family literature. The use of the traditional nuclear family as a model for family research contributes to the marginalization and discrimination that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) families experience in social life, especially for black families. Not only are black LGBT families stigmatized in the white community, alongside their white counterparts, they are also stigmatized in the black community. Generally speaking, social institutions are structured to benefit those who conform to the nuclear family structure, which means that LGBT families have difficulties accessing those benefits. In addition, the traditional linkage of strong black femininity with motherhood, in conjunction with fragile but sexualized black masculinity, has placed black same-sex families in a particularly uneasy position in the African American community. And yet, while scholarship is still fairly limited, at least some evidence suggests that same-sex families are neither less functional nor weaker, despite the multiple systems of oppression they face.

Interracial Marriage . In the United States, interracial marriage was illegal in more than twenty states until 1967. The removal of the legal barriers against interracial families did not automatically eradicate social disapproval of such unions, however. Although the number of interracial couples has increased dramatically over the last few decades, the proportion of interracial families is still very small. People opposed to interracial marriage in the black community typically look at the union from the standpoint of the historical evolution of race and racism and conclude that interracial marriage is detrimental to the existence of the black community. In contrast, white unease with interracial unions is currently framed more in cultural rather than racial terms, even though traces of racial superiority are clearly evident. Moreover, both black and white unease is linked to concern for the children that might result from interracial unions.

Neither perceptions nor practices of interracial unions are gender neutral, which is not surprising considering the violent history of such unions (lynching for black men and forced sexual subordination of black women). Couples in which the man is black and the woman white are much more prevalent than unions with white men and black women. This is so for several different reasons. Marrying outside the race is a form of betrayal to many black women, whereas black men have more freedom in this regard. Moreover, the intersection of race and gender lessens the status differential between black men and white women, but increases it for white men and black women.

Families and Television - The Changing Family, The Changing Television, Family Use of Television, Do Television’s Families Affect Viewers’ Families? [next] [back] Fame Is the Name of the Game

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

over 5 years ago

Thank you for this most enlightening report the information is invaluable. Has sparked a deeper desire in me to do more research