By Mary Alice Miller
We all know the headlines: single- parent households, high dropout rates, incarceration, the new face of AIDS, police shootings, domestic violence, foster care, absentee fathers, stunted wealth accumulation, unacceptable crime and murder in our communities. The list goes on and on. We can blame institutionalized racism, political leadership, poor education, inadequate housing, globalization, post- traumatic slavery syndrome, you name it.
What are we going to do about the deteriorating condition of our families?
Who can we blame for the selfishness, adolescent adults, inability to delay gratification, misogyny and irresponsible behaviors we impose on one another? How can we blame white folks for our broken familiesyet run to their institutions (police, schools, children’s services and welfare) for solutions?
A healthy community is comprised of stable families. Kidnapped and brought to these shores, 244 years of chattel slavery denied our human right to family formation. The first thing we did upon Emancipation is look for sold-away family members. We got married and established homes as a basis for the formation of business, political, religious, professional and educational institutions. Our success (based upon strong families) inspired the creation of the Klu Klux Klan during Reconstruction as a means to destroy our thriving enclaves. Remember the race riots of Rosewood, Florida and Black Wall Street in Oklahoma?
In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the problem of the 20th century was the color line. He was correct: Jim Crow laws and rampant lynching were evidence. The problem was we focused solely on the enemy without, ignoring the enemy within.
We denigrated and ostracized former sharecroppers as “country bumpkins” instead of embracing them into the social fabric of northern city life. It was us who imposed the “paper bag test” upon one another. We tolerated and entertained the antisocial aspects of crime and nightlife.
While we were focused on marching and sitting in for civil rights, social conditions among us deteriorated.
In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson commissioned Daniel Patrick Moynihan (former U.S. Senator from NY) to study social conditions in black America. The resulting report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, was pilloried by mainstream black leadership at the time for its graphic, negative portrayal of our families. After reading it, anyone could see how black people would be ashamed.
Moynihan described the Negro family 40 years ago in stark terms: “the family structure of lower-class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers it’s approaching complete breakdown. nearly a quarter of urban Negro marriages are dissolved. nearly one quarter of Negro births are illegitimate.almost one-fourth of Negro families are headed by females. the breakdown of the Negro family has led to a startling increase in welfare dependency.”
Moynihan acknowledges “three centuries of sometimes unimaginable mistreatment have taken their toll on the Negro people”, through slavery, reconstruction and urbanization. He marvels “that the Negro American has survived at all is extraordinary-a lesser people might simply have died out.”
The mid-1960’s were the height of African-American social action. Our quest for civil rights went from the streets and the voting booth to the U.S. Supreme Court and the White House. Our fatal flaw was (and still is) that we do not apply enough energy to civil rights among one another. Moynihan told us “. the expectations of the Negro American will go beyond civil rights. Being Americans, they will now expect that in the near future equal opportunities for them as a group will produce roughly equal results, as compared to other groups. This is not going to happen. Nor will it happen for generations to come unless a new and special effort is made.”
Moynihan essentially states the quest for the American Dream by blacks will be thwarted by “the deterioration of the Negro family. It is the fundamental source of the weakness of the Negro community at the present time.” Moynihan cites “the tangle of pathology” including “matriarchy. the failure of youth. delinquency and crime.alienation.”
When released, The Negro Family was derisively dismissed by black leadership. How dare Moynihan tell us how to conduct our personal affairs?
If we didn’t want to listen to “the man”, we could have heeded DuBois, who wrote in Souls of Black Folks 60 years earlier, “.the chief problem in any community cursed with crime is not the punishment of the criminals, but the preventing of the young from being trained to crime.” Intact families with both mother and father in the home are necessary to properly guide our young. We did not need Moynihan to tell us “Negro children without fathers flounder-and fail”. We did not need him to cite “five critical factors in the home environment that made a difference in whether boys would become delinquents: discipline of boy by father, supervision of boy by mother, affection of father for boy, affection of mother for boy, and cohesiveness of family.” Boys who do not have a father in the home miss this nurturing, and much more. With the father absent, boys never get the opportunity to learn from observing father and mother in partnership for the good of the family unit. These same boys are likely to grow up and never marry.
The African-American Healthy Marriage Initiative (a department in the federal Administration for Children and Families) cites data from the 2000 census, including: 68% of African-American births are to unmarried women and 62% of African-American households are headed by a single parent. African Americans are less likely than any other group to marry. 54% of African-Americans have never married.
Under our watch, the condition of the black family has gotten progressively worse since the 1960’s.
Many of us blame the unemployment and underemployment of black men (due to racism?) as a reason for the absence of men in the black family. Moynihan acknowledges this as a reason for and perpetuator of black-female headed households.
Due to sustained agitation, economic opportunities have drastically improved for black men and women since the 1960’s when careers were limited to shining shoes and domestic work. We all know single black men who are working (with benefits) for whom marriage is not a goal. Men are needed to step to the plate and do their part for the survival of the black family. Visitation and court-enforced child support are not enough. Pimping and being a “playa” contributes to our destruction. We are the “new”face of HIV/ AIDS because we spread death among one another through the act of love.
The most revolutionary thing a black man can do is form and maintain a stable family.
The African-American Healthy Family Initiative helps couples who choose marriage for themselves develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages through premarital and marriage education.
This effort is nice; however, we do not need the federal government to teach us how to maintain stable marriages.
In 1999, the African -American Fathers Project at the Morehouse Research Institute, produced a report entitled, Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America. This report states “.a key goal of the fatherhood movement within the African-American community must be strengthened relationships between mothers and fathers that lead, wherever possible, to strong, healthy marriages.”
We also have jewels walking among us. A few of our treasures have been married 50 years or more. Among them are former Mayor David Dinkins and his wife Joyce, married 54 years. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis were married 57 years before he passed. Vice Chancellor of the NYS Regents Dr. Adelaide Sanford has been married over 50 years. We can learn much from them, including what personality traits we need to develop within ourselves in order to be a partner in a healthy marriage.
As a matter of fact, during last summer’s Brooklyn Empowerment Convention, keynote speaker Sanford bragged about her marriage and being 80 years old. She told us if we form an Institute on Premarriage, she would spend the next 20 years of her life sharing her knowledge of appropriate “courting” and picking the right mate. We need to take advantage of her offer and wisdom.
We also need a doctoral study of African -mericans who have been married to the same person 50 years or more. They are a valuable resource. We need to know how they did it so that we may follow their example. Considering how few of us get married, or get married young enough to eventually be married 50 years, we may not have many of these couples available to learn from in the future.
DuBois told us 100 years ago that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colorline.” The problem for the 21st century is our personal development and responsibility to our families and the community. We have every creature comfort and technological advancement available to us. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass accomplished much more with much less. If they came back today, they would be supremely disappointed in us.
Each one of us needs to do our individual part to ensure our survival. If not, we may find ourselves extinct. It will be no one’s fault but our own.