What everyone should know about black families
Maurice Washington. Image provided.
By Maurice Washington
Africans were brought to the United States to work. Their enslavers never intended them to experience conventional family bonds. The early African population in the U.S. was predominantly male because most of the prisoners of war and others who were initially sold or traded into servitude for hard labor were men. The women who were sold into slavery worked as hard as men, and pregnancy did not relieve them from back-breaking farm and household work.
In 1794 the U.S. Congress prohibited any participation by American ships in the Atlantic slave trade. In 1808 the act prohibiting importation of slaves took effect, making any shipment of enslaved persons from abroad into the U.S. a crime. Because no new Africans could be brought to America, an interesting thing occurred: The native-born U.S. slave population skyrocketed. High birth rates among native-born black people became a matter of economic practice. The compulsory impregnation of black women (breeding) did not involve human bonds of commitment or romantic intimacy, nor did it sustain care. Indeed, most of the population growth was the result of rape and coercion by European American masters, their sons and male slaves. The wombs of black women became a commodity for driving the engine of capitalism by supplying it with a steady supply of new laborers.
These are uncomfortable facts, but they reveal something that is missing from today’s narrative about slavery: the resilience of Black Americans and black families. Although marriage between black female and male slaves was generally prohibited by law, this did not prevent the slaves from performing their own secret rituals of commitment, love and fidelity. Secret slave marriages occurred, often with the simple but touching ritual of “jumping the broom.” Although we are uncertain of the origin of the practice, following the exchange of vows, the bride and groom joined hands and jumped over a broom to signify “crossing over” to a new status and life together. America’s official public policy toward black adults was to prevent marriage while encouraging and rewarding sexual behavior and high rates of unwed pregnancy. The slave industry actively discouraged, and often punished, romantic commitment, permanent bonding and healthy relationships. This policy illustrates how the public sector could intervene and interfere with the intimate lives of black people.
Despite the frequent break up of black families on plantations, many fathers and mothers succeeded in maintaining lasting relationships. Still, they lived with the constant, terrifying awareness that their closest human bonds could be violated and severed at any moment without legal recourse. Marriage and family love survived against all the odds.
During some of the most difficult years of black life in America, marriage rates were high and adults took parenting seriously. In 1880, just 15 years after the abolition of slavery, years when lynching and harassment were commonplace, 56.3 percent of African American households were nuclear households and 23.5 percent were extended family households — truly inspiring commitment. Marriage rates were high and black churches and colleges actively encouraged an increase of committed, permanent relationships and responsible parenting.
But 100 years later, only 33.2 percent of African American children lived with both parents. In 1950, 78 percent of African Americans were married. But by 1996, that number had dropped to 34 percent.
For the last few decades marriage has been a declining institution among all Americans, and this decline is even more evident in the black community. In 2019 only 30 percent of African Americans were married compared to 48 percent of all Americans.
African American men and women have been pioneers in the marriage game. They were engaged in “modern marriage” long before their white counterparts. That is, marriages in which men and women both worked and cared for children were a necessity in black families before white women entered the workforce en masse. Ironically, many black women (my mom among them) left their homes and children to work as nannies and housekeepers in white households. Black families contributed some of their own nurturing energies to support the health of white families. I’m certain many fond and loving relationships were established as a result of this.
Black families are typically “extended” families rather than simply nuclear families, a family pattern that has helped African Americans to survive amid difficult and uncertain social conditions. Most black families include some people who are not biologically related but who regard one another as permanent and real family members. Grandmothers have played a significant role in supporting family members who are absent or disabled due to drugs, prison or other circumstances.
For families living in extreme poverty, the burdens on marriage, parenting and family life in general have been devastating. Until reforms in the 1980s, low-income single mothers faced numerous incentives for keeping fathers out of the household.
Black children, like all children, thrive best when their married biological parents rear them. But when that is not possible, they can do well in other family forms so long as they are loved, supported financially and given the safest, most nurturing environment possible. There is abundant research now available that reminds us of the importance of healthy relationships between fathers, mothers and their children. Of course, when the ideal is not available, the village and the public can and should support the healthy development of children as an investment essential to the health and security of the nation. Today, grandmothers, single parents, adoptive parents and foster parents are doing an extraordinary job of providing what it takes to make healthy children and citizens.
All of us, regardless of our politics, should be addressing the topic of reviving a culture of healthy relationships and restoring an ethic of commitment in our village. Healthy relationships that lead to healthy marriages, parenting, children and families are the building blocks of a healthy society. If our children and families are not well, larger and exceedingly expensive crises in the public arena will result, including higher rates of school delinquency and dropout, crime, suicide, incarceration, emotional illness and substance addictions.
Political science professor and author Wilfred Reilly identifies that in political liberal thought, “troubles in black families almost invariably are attributed to ‘the legacy of slavery,’ or to ‘racism’ more broadly.” The fact that these “troubles” have worsened only in recent years, rather than in the years immediately following emancipation, indicates this thinking is misguided.
Reilly references the work of conservative black economist Walter Williams to show that the prevalence of illegitimacy (out-of-wedlock childbearing) “within the black community is an almost entirely modern phenomenon. Back in 1925, in New York City and similar metropolitan areas, 85 percent of black homes were headed up by stable two-parent families, a rate that persisted into the 1950s. … The black illegitimacy rate today is 75 percent.” By contrast 75 percent of black children had the same mother and father even during the time of slavery.
Finally, the majority of African Americans want safer, stronger, more economically vibrant communities, better transportation systems, better broadband and connectivity. We demand safe and excellent schools, safe parks and safe community spaces. We want good, reliable-wage jobs that cover the rent or mortgage. We want to help create environments that foster better race relations, innovation and entrepreneurship. And yes, African Americans want an end to the political idea that is being promoted in the U.S. that paints people as either oppressors or victims based on racial categories. Victimhood and white guilt are destructive mindsets for people and are political ploys used to divide Americans.
Maurice Washington is chairman of the Charleston County Republican Party and former Charleston City Council member. He is president CEO of Trust Management, LLC, and is committed to a life of public service.