IN PROPAGANDA against the Negro since emancipation in this land," W.E.B. Du Bois said, "we face one of the most stupendous efforts the world ever saw to discredit human beings, an effort involving universities, history, science, social life and religion."
Nowhere is this more dearly visible than in the pervasive and continuing effort to discredit Black fathers, mothers, and children. And it is scarcely possible to understand the problems and enduring strengths of the Black family if we do not at the least make an effort to understand and dispel the misconceptions, myths and outright lies men and women have invented to hide themselves from Black reality and American racism. There are, of course, scores of misconceptions about Black sexuality and Black kinship networks, but the vast propaganda campaign against the Black family is generally organized around ten major myths.
1. Raw and uncontrolled sex, according to the biggest and most pervasive myth, is at the root of the Black family problem.
THIS is the most enduring of all lies about Blacks, and sociologists and historians froth at the mouth and strain at the leash of synonymity ("riotous debauchery," "unbridled passions," "wild and primitive emotions") in passionate attempts to express this academic and political voyeurism. For most, if not almost all, critics of the Black family, there is always at the back of the mind this myth, this image of Black America as Babylon, where the Studs and Sapphires are always making babies, where--in the words of the myth-- "They do it, honey, right out in the middle of the streets." And one of the most challenging problems we face is confronting scholars, journalists and politicians, who have repeatedly used the Black family to exorcise the demons of their own sexuality and the guilt of their complicity in oppression. What makes this so difficult is that we are dealing here with a magical idea that is impervious to "facts." There are, in fact, no facts in this area, for there has never been a systematic analysis of the sexual differences between American Blacks and American Whites. And the few facts we have (see Robert Staples, "Black Male Sexuality," EBONY, August 1983) contradict the supersex theory of Black history and suggest that the differences between racial groups are relatively small, especially when you correct for economic and historical differences. More to the point, Blacks, according to the statistics, are not even in the running in the areas of wifeswapping and other experiments of the Sexual Revolutions.
2. The root cause of the problem, according to the second most widely disseminated myth, is loose morals.
THIS myth has a thousand lives and has surfaced repeatedly in the last 300 years. It has even seduced some Black writers, male and female, who have created a new and curiously popular literature based on the idea that Black America is a vast emotional wasteland popnlated by hustlin' men and maimed women,
In this instance, as in the preceding one, we are dealing with explosive emotions that exist in areas of the psyche that cannot be reached by the light of evidence, Some Blacks, for example, have children out of wedlock, but so do millions of Whites, including stars who are celebrated by the same media which browbeat and humiliate poor Blacks, The mythmakers know this, but they cannot be convinced by "facts," for their knowledge precedes the facts and makes the facts. And when they say that Blacks are immoral, 'they mean that there is a Black way and a White way of making babies and a Black way and a White way of being immoral,
A case in point is the controversy over illegitimacy, For a common impression to the contrary notwithstanding, Black America has always condemned unrestrained sexual expression and has insisted--with a singular lack of support from the Amer ican government and White insitutions--on stable and responsible mating patterns between knowledgeable and economically qualified parents. But Black America has refused to follow White America in the barbarous practice of condemning infants. It has said, to its credit, that there are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents and, it must be added, illegitimate societies which make it impossible for parents to find the work and wherewithal (the day-care centers and the network of supporting images and institutions) to become responsible parents.
Another important point is that there have been marked changes in the last 15 years in the marriage and childbearing patterns of both Black and White young women in the United States. In a letter to the New York Times, Constance A. Nathanson, a professor of population dynamics in the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, said: "These changes, however, have been more profound among Whites than among Blacks; in 1983 there were, for the first time, more births to single White than to single Black teenagers." She added: "The tradition of finding the causes of social ills in the victims of those ills, and particularly in their supposed inadequacies as spouses and parents, has a long history in America. The true causes, however, lie deeply imbedded in our social and economic structure."
Assuredly, and this is the point we want to make: the real moral problem is our failure to deal with those causes and not some mysterious self-perpetuating "pathology", in the Black family or the Black community.
3. Blacks lack a family tradition and came to America without a sense of morality and a background of stable sexual relationships.
FAR from harming Blacks, this myth maintains, Whites did them a favor by transporting them from an oversexed land to a hospitable climate of cottonfields, chastity, and nuclear families. Cottonfields apart, there is not a word of truth in this. In fact, Blacks came from an ancient culture where there were stable and non-European marriage patterns and where men and women were not cursed by the sexual demons that pursued the Puritans and the sexual demons that pursue the sons and daughters of the Puritans. Two other points are relevant. The first is that polygamy was sanctioned in some of these cultures, although in practice the poor, like the poor everywhere, contented themselves with monogamy. The second is that this non-Puritan, non-uptight eths was the basis of the great synthesis Africans made of African and European forms. This synthesis began with a revealing family pact that seems to have bound together all slaves who came over on the same ship. For, according to scholar Orlando Patterson, "it was customary for children to call their parents' shipmates 'uncle' and 'aunt,"' and for men and women to "look upon each others children mutually as their own [my emphasis]."
Thus contrary to the myth, the African-American adventure began not in chaos, but in love and in a higher morality. And it began in a way with the story of Antoney and Isabell, two of the first Black immigrants to English America, who married in Virginia in 1623 or 1624. Isabell was soon brought to bed with what was probably the first Black child born in English America. In 1624, the child, a boy named William, was baptized in Jamestown. And since his parents were for all practical purposes free, the Black family in America was born not in slavery but in freedom.
From all this it is clear that the Black American family is the product of a particular history and that we must explain the family by the history and not the history by the family.
4. The bonds of the Black family were destroyed in slavery.
CERTAIN scholars, Daniel Patrick Moynihan in particular, have argued that the problems of the Black family are rooted in the slave experience and a 300-year "cycle of selfperpetuating pathology." But Moyniban and his followers misread the plantation records and the tracks of the Black spirit, and pathfinding studies by Herbert G. Gutman (The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom) and other scholars, Black and White, have destroyed that myth and established three major points:
1. Most slaves lived in families headed by a father and a mother and "large numbers of slave couples lived in long marriages," some for 30 years or more.
2. In slavery (and afterward), Blacks were more open and honest about sex, but they did not condone indiscriminate mating and begetting. And although premarital sex was fairly common, the slave community expected a pregnancy to be followed by marriage.
3. In slavery (and afterwards), slave marriages were buttressed by extended family groupings that seemed to include most members of Slave Row. Slave children, according to numerous sources, were taught to respect and revere older persons whom they called "aunt" and "uncle." It was customary for adult slaves to call each other "brother" and "sister."
The implications of Gutman's massively documented study are extensive and require a total revision of the traditional picture of matriarehal families and unstructured sexual relationships. Gutman's data also demolish superficial "cycle of pathology" studies which say that the "problem" of the Black family--the "problem," to be precise, is not the Black family but the society that oppresses the Black family--is almost insoluble. For, as Professor Gutman said, "a vast difference exists in dealing with a problem rooted in 'three centuries of exploitation' and one caused by massive structural unemployment."
5. The Black family collapsed after Emancipation.
IN DEALING with this myth, we have to notice first that it offers a theory of history and a theory of race. For we are asked to believe that the "fragile" roots of Black familyhood, nourished by nearness to ol' marsa and Searlett O'Hara ("Lawdy, Miss Scarlett, I don't know nothing' 'bout birthin' no babies. ") withered and almost died after the "mean" Northerners separated Blacks from the guiding model of White families and the guiding light of White morality. This, of course, is preposterous, for White morality was the problem; and once that obstacle was removed Blacks exploded in a postEmancipation festival of family building. According to almost all witnesses, the roads of the South were clogged in 1865 with Black men and women searching for long-lost wives, husbands, children, brothers, and sisters. The in-gathering continued for several years and began in most communities with mass marriage ceremonies that legalized the slave vows. This was a voluntary process, for husbands and wives were free to renounce slave vows and search for new mates. Significantly, most freedmen, some of them 80 and 90 years old, decided to remain with their old mates, thereby giving irrefutable testimony on the meaning of their love. No one understood this better than Albion Tourgee, a North Carolina Reconstruction judge, who said: "Let the marriage bond be dissolved throughout the state of New York today, and it may be doubted if as large a proportion of the intelligent White citizens would choose again their old partners."
6. The Black family collapsed after the Great Migration to the North.
ACCORDING to this myth, urbanization and the defiling lights of Chicago and Harlem destroyed the last vestiges of Black institutional life and doomed the Black family. The evidence does not support this view. The hard fact is that the Black family was an unusually strong institution for several decades after the Great Migration. According to Gutman and others, the overwhelming majority of Black households (85 percent in New York City in 1925) were headed by fathers and mothers until the 1930s. It has also been established that Black families were at least as stable as the households of Northern White ethnics.
7. The Black family is a product of White paternalism and government welfare.
THIS theory turns Black history upside out, like a glove, and gives missionaries and government agencies credit for the heroic efforts of Black men and women. For it was internal giving, it was communal sharing and caring, that ensured the survival of Black America. From the very beginning of the Black American adventure, Black people, slaves and quasi-free people, assumed responsibility for one another and for the young, the weak, the halt and the blind. After Emancipation, the first Black schools and welfare institutions were rounded not by White missionaries, as we have been told, but by Black men and women. Many, perhaps most, of the large number of Black orphans, were taken in by Black families, and Black churches and lodges raised thousands of dollars for indigents. The most significant fact about this period is that the Freedmen's Bureau assisted only 0.5 percent of the four million freed Blacks. The Black tradition of self-help spilled over into the 20th century with the work of Black club women and Black churches and fraternal organizations. If Blacks are alive and reasonably well today, it is not because of missionaries and welfare agents--it is because of the extended Black family and house rent parties and church suppers and Black schools and Black churches.
8. The Black family has always been a matriarchy characterized by strong and domineering women and weak and absent men.
THIS is a half-truth which hides and distorts and lies. For it is true that Black America has produced a long line of strong and beautiful Black women, and there is no need for anyone to apologize for it. Because of repeated and continuing attempts to destroy the economic foundations of Black manhood, these women played crucial and pioneering roles in the history of Black people and the history of women. But 'all this must be seen in proper perspective. For Black America has also produced a long life of extraordinary fathers, and Black fathers and mothers working together and loving and living together ensured the survival of Black people. Anyone who doubts this need only read the records (plantation records, Freedmen's Bureau records, census records) which tell us that the Black family was a whole in spirit and in fact until the beginning of the fiftyyear Depression (except for World War II and the Korean War) in the 1930s. For some reason, it is not fashionable to celebrate that wholeness in popular plays and movies. Among the notable exceptions are Sounder and Nothing But a Man. Nor can we overlook the great scene in A Raisin In The Sun, when the allegedly matriarchal Mama Lena Younger remembers the strong Black man, now dead, who gave the family the Dream.
9. Black men cannot sustain stable relationships.
IN SIMPLE and insulting terms, this myth asserts that Black men are nogood philanderers who were not made for monogamy. Although the factual lies of the present may appear to give some validity to some aspects of this myth, it is a perversion of the truth. What is so egregiously lacking in these assertions is a sense of social structure and a sense of the dynamics of oppression. For in every oppressed group, certain men (and women) destroy themselves--with drugs, with knives, with guns, with impotent rage--in vain attempts to destroy the loathsome images the oppressors have installed within them. In other cases, in every oppressed group, certain men (and women) use alienating means, including sex, to affirm themselves and to make themselves real in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. These aberrations, inevitable in any situation of oppression, are expressions not of Black sexuality but of oppressed Black sexuality. And it should be borne in mind, in dealing with this myth, that although enforced unemployment and lives of harrowing insecurity have corrupted some men and reduced others to despair and macho futility, most Black fathers are still in their homes, and the Black center is still holding, despite poverty, despite drugs, despite everything. There is additional evidence which seems to indicate that middle-class Black fathers are oftentimes more family-oriented than middle-class White fathers.
10. The history of the Black family is a history offussin' and fightin' by hard-hearted men and heartless women.
THE IMAGES and tones of this myth are part of the national fantasy life. In movies, books and plays, in newspaper stories and TV documentaries, Blacks made in the image of this fantasy are always screeching at each other and playing the marital fool. Rarely if ever do they speak in civil and loving tones. Like archetypes, frozen in time, they seem to be destined to play prefabricated roles in portable and prefabricated Catfish Rows.
"For the vast majority of Negroes," author Charles Keil wrote, "the battle of the sexes is no mere figure of speech. In the ghetto, men and women are considered to be separate and antagonistic species ....
Common sense, the Black birthrate and census figures contradict this idea, which would be funny if it did not carry so much weight in the myth of the Black love deficit.
So persuasive is this myth, so intimidating is its constantly repeated themes, that even Blacks who know better, even Blacks who were raised in the center of an overpowering love, are apologetic and say that there must be something wrong with us.
There is nothing wrong with us. And we must avoid the hyperempiricist fallacy of constructing theories of Black biology and Black history on the basis of the economic dislocations of today. For when all is said and done the most significant social and sexual fact of our history is that we survived and that the overwhelming majority of Black men and women lived and loved in twoparent households until the 1930s and 1940s. There can be no understanding of the character of Black men and Black women without some understanding of this crucial and still undefined moment in their adventure together. For if, as the statistics say, the overwhelming majority of Black men and women were still living in double-headed households after 200 years of slavery and 80 years of segregation, if after all that time, after the hunger and the cotton and the lies and the blood, they were still together in their hearts and in their homes, then the true story of the Black family is the precise opposite of the myth, and Black men and women deserve credit for creating one of the great love stories of our era.
Far from being ciphers, then, we are and always have been dreamers, witnesses, and lovers. The most persuasive evidence on this score is that we endured and created out of the miracle of our survival jazz and the blues and the cakewalk and Little Sally Walker and For Once In My Life and Fine and Mellow and Satin Doll and When Malindy Sings and When Sue Wears Red.
When Susanna Jones wears red
A queen from some time-dead
Walks once again.
Blow trumpets, Jesus ! And the beauty of Susanna ]ones
Burns in my heart a love-fire
sharp like pain.
Sweet silver trumpets,
Jesus ! THESE and other pieces of evidence, conventional and unconventional, tell us that we have been sold a false bill of goods in this country and that we are greater, more loving and more giving than White media say. And to understand the trumpets and the love-fire of our experience, to understand how we got over and what we must do now to overcome, we must forget everything we think we know about Black women and Black men and go back to the rich soil of our tradition and dig there for the spreading roots of a love that slavery and segregation couldn't kill.
It is on this deep level, and in the context of personal family responsibilities, that the crisis of the Black family assumes its true meaning. For given the 300-year war against Black manhood and Black womanhood, and given the circumstances under which most Black fathers and mothers are forced to live, the mystery is not that some have fallen--the mystery is that so many still stand and love.
Sweet silver trumpets,