Movement to Repair the Black Family is on Hope Road
By Rachel Miller-Bradshaw
The statistics are bewildering: Seven out of ten Black children are born out of wedlock and live in single-parent homes; and the marriage rate for birthing African-American women is at an all time low. Complicating the matter, 70 percent of black women in the United States between the ages of 25 and 29 have never been married, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009.
Many people look at these numbers and presume that the Black Family is in such hopeless disarray that it can never be fixed, but it’s heartening to note that there is a surging movement to rectify this problem by targeting a figure absent in 90 percent of Black households, the father.
The notion that family structure for Blacks in America can ever be as stable as it is for the majority white population is justifiably debatable, in large measure because it got off to an unhealthy start. During the slave era, a husband was easily separated from his wife and children on his owner’s whim, if he was sold, for example. A male slave needed his owner’s permission to marry, and if his love interest was from a different plantation, her owner had to consent to the marriage, as well. Many marriages were arranged, and not based on love or even attraction between the man and the woman. Then there was the “bucking” process, where male slaves were used to breed with various female slaves to increase the plantation’s slave population, and the owner’s wealth in the process.
In the aftermath of emancipation, President Abraham Lincoln’s Freedom’s Bureau was quickly defunded; this eventuality, coupled with pressures from a still racially oppressive South, compelled many black men to leave their families and migrate north in hopes of finding a better life, after which they would send for their wives and children. But what they too often found were a lack of jobs and restricted living conditions in ghettos in northern cities, which undermined their dreams of reuniting with their families.
By the 1920s, the percentage of single parent homes in Black communities had soared to about 20%, but that statistic would be dramatically eclipsed as the twentieth century wore on. In 1965, sociologist and then Assistant U.S. Labor Secretary (and later New York Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his landmark report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Moynihan concluded that erosion of the nuclear family among African Americans had resulted from continued racial oppression in the aftermath of slavery and Jim Crow, and warned of devastating social consequences if the federal government did not intervene.
In his 1939 book The Negro Family in the United States, sociologist Edward Franklin Frazier presaged Moynihan’s conclusions by positing essentially the same causes of absentee fathers in Black families, and suggesting that a high percentage of unemployment and high incarceration rates among Black men were additional contributing factors. In the 1970s, the welfare system threw up yet another barrier between African American couples by discontinuing benefits to mothers if it was proven that they associated with the fathers of their children (or any other interested male suitors). However, the roots of this devastating behavioral pattern remain traceable to plantation life and the bucking system of the slavery era (the 1970’s Temptations hit "Papa was a Rolling Stone" addressed this phenomenon).
However there is cause for optimism, and to believe that Black men will eventually reincorporate into the family structure, if for no other reasons than they are desperately needed, the Black community is struggling horribly without them, and – oh yes, it’s just the right thing to do, and they know it. For my documentary ON MY OWN, I interviewed numerous black mothers, who spoke with angst and frustration about the difficulties of raising children without their fathers present. The film explores the problem, its genesis, and its debilitating consequences in a quest for solutions, and I believe that some noteworthy progress is being made.
Fatherhood organizations like the Father Knows Best program founded by legendary New York Knick basketball star Allan Houston, and the Forestdale Fatherhood Initiative, formerly headed by former pro-football player Scott Leach, are aggressively taking to the streets to teach fathers the importance of being active in the lives of their children.
On the legislative front, President Obama’s “Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood” funding initiative, as well as Mayor Bloomberg’s “Young Men’s Initiative” help shine a national spotlight on the tireless work fatherhood organizations are doing. Other politicians are following suit. For example, on March 29th of this year, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz held a “Bronx Fathers Taking Action” forum to talk about fathers and their position in the family, excerpts from which appear in the film.
Teenage women are contributing significantly to the decline in black single motherhood. According to the non-profit, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy black teen pregnancy has declined by 52% among 15 to 17 year-olds and 36% among 18 to 19-year olds, a historic low, that displays great promise for the Black Family in The United States.
And for their part, men – who have often been criticized as emotionally vacant – are starting to open up about their feelings and motivations. At the Bronx fathers’ forum, it seemed that some men sincerely wanted to be active, responsible fathers, but that their good intentions are being thwarted by social forces such as unemployment, imprisonment, disproportionately high early death rates among African American males, and psychological damage resulting from social and political disenfranchisement. One single father said he attended the forum to get insight from other fathers and the panelists to “better parent his two sons.”
Researching and producing this film afforded me a level of confidence that this long despairing condition can be reversed, and that absent Black fathers can and will find their way back home. For that to happen, dialogue on the subject must be continued, outreach must be expanded, and one by one, men must be welcomed back into their families to love and nurture their spouses and children. In the opinion of this Gen-Xer, the negative stereotype of the absent Black father needs to be retired, and a positive glow of acceptance must replace it. The future of the Black family in America depends on it, and the rest of American society will benefit from it. It’s often said that no man is an island; no group is an island either, and African American males must be encouraged to reinsert themselves into their families’ lives.