By John Lewis Jr.
I admit that I had deep reservations about writing this essay. I had doubts, uncertainties, and insecurities. Would I be able to clearly and concisely capture my strong opinions and emotions about a sensitive subject and its relevance in history? After much deliberation, I decided I had no choice but address this topic that merited my attention. Ultimately, my subject chose me as a conduit to reveal both unpleasant truths (past and present) and hope for the future.
Writing about issues of race is challenging. As much as our society has evolved, most people are uncomfortable with the realities of slavery in America and its aftermath. I suspect this is one of the reasons J. H. Plumb neglected to make any references to the black family in America or its unique history in his essay, “The Dying Family” (Plumb 6-10). Hundreds of years of slavery killed the original African family unit. However, contrary to Plumb’s assertions regarding the fragmenting of family life in general, the black American family is reinventing itself and becoming more cohesive.
It is impossible to consider the plight and future of the black American family without first considering family life in sub-Saharan Africa before slavery spread throughout the Western world. Nathan Irvin Huggins, a professor of history at Columbia University states, “the traditional family in Africa extended itself beyond the nuclear group, linking in mutual obligation much of the village itself” (Huggins 162). An African village thrived when its families fulfilled specific needs of the collective group. There was little sense of individualism or autonomy. Each family in a village benefited from the success of other families in the village. Likewise, if the village suffered economic or social hardship, all of its families were affected. For instance, if there was a severe drought, the entire village was susceptible to famine. Therefore, the families of the village cooperated with one another to secure food from other sources. If a family stored food in preparation of a natural disaster, it was shared with the other village families without expectation of payment in return. The village was the extension of family. This type of organization worked because every family made contributions to benefit their neighbors. Within individual families, the hierarchical arrangement meant that each family member fulfilled an important, valuable role. Ownership of property was collective. This concept is difficult to fathom because we live in a world where the entrepreneurial spirit is prized and individual success is valued. However, traditional family life in Africa was successful within a very different social dynamic, and had been successful for centuries, perhaps millenniums, in Africa (Huggins 162). Unfortunately, the slave trade permanently disrupted this way of life for about ten million Africans sold into slavery (Blassingame 5).
The Western concept of ownership could not have been fathomed by most Africans. Africans sold into slavery became property. Lack of ownership of their very bodies made traditional family life impossible. They were no longer members of a collective village. In fact, the family unit itself was destroyed. John W. Blassingame, former professor of history at Yale University, asserts “the most brutal aspect of slavery was the separation of families” (Blassingame 173). Some owners of slaves prohibited marriage between slaves. If slaves were permitted to marry, they faced the reality that they would not be able to care for and raise their own children. They lived in constant fear of separation from their offspring; the weight of this real threat no doubt haunted them. A miserable condition of the absence of a cohesive, permanent family lasted “between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth century” for enslaved Americans (Blassingame 5). But would the destruction of the traditional African family permanently disable blacks in America from creating a new family model? American history reveals that they eventually were able to reestablish family life.
Reestablishment of the black family structure did not happen immediately when slavery became illegal and blacks were granted freedom. Sometimes, newly freed blacks traveled hundreds of miles to reunite their families and search for relatives. Usually, their searches were fruitless, leaving them with no choice but to begin new lives, forever separated from relatives (Huggins 239-240). Huggins even argues that “the loss of communality” continued to have disastrous consequences on the black family over seven decades into the twentieth-century (Huggins 246). This account of black history is painful, but it is a story that would not be hopeless.
In recent years, historians have observed the resilience of the black family unit despite media depictions of desperation. Stephanie Coontz, an historical author at Evergreen State College, notes that “young African Americans receive less material aid from their families and contribute more income to their families than do white youth” (Coontz 189). Coontz also relates other positive trends among black families in comparison to their white counterparts. For example, African-American women have made “the largest income gains relative to men of any economic group” (Coontz 254). Black high school seniors are setting the trend for the decline in drug use in schools. Black husbands do more to support their wives in housework and childcare than white husbands (Coontz 254). This is just a truncated list of reasons why one can be optimistic about the future of the black family. There is more powerful evidence than these facts.
During the early 1980’s, blacks discovered a new way to “redefine and rebuild the family social system,” according to M.H. Zoll, a national free-lance journalist (Zoll). They began a tradition of annual family reunions. Extended families began to meet during summers over three-day weekends. Reconnection with family guided those who spearheaded the reunions. Now, every year, thousands of American black families unite in celebration of their kinship and heritage. Ancient African traditions are “revitalized” (Zoll). The youngest members of families are exposed to the history, stories, and legends passed down from the oldest family members. Together, extended families are able to trace their family roots using census data, property records, and real estate deeds through access of public records now available on government information internet sites (Zoll). Hard work and ingenuity have resulted in the organization of sustainable reunions, often resulting in complex webs of extended families linked across the country.
Despite this marvelous progress, it would be inaccurate to depict family life among all black Americans as being utopian. Single parenthood, unemployment, and poor housing are still problems that adversely affect maintaining a nuclear family among blacks. These same issues are faced, not only by blacks, but by other poverty stricken ethnic groups. These are not racial problems. They are socio-economic problems that plague modern society as a whole (Coontz 253).
Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community–Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1972.
Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc. 1992.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin. Black Odyssey–The African-American Ordeal in Slavery. New York: Random House, Inc. 1977.
Plumb, J. H. “The Dying Family” The Little, Brown Reader. Ed. Marcia Stubbs, Sylvan Barnet, and William E. Cain. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 6-10.
Zoll, M. H. “Modern African-American Families Gain Strength from Tradition.” 19 Aug. 1999. American News Service. 19 Feb. 2008 <http.//berskshirepublishing.com/ans/HTMView.asp?parltem=S031000102A>.