Black Mothers/Black Sons: A Critical Examination of the Social Science Literature

Article excerpt

Can mothers teach their sons how to become men? In recent years that question has been discussed and debated on Black radio, in Black magazines, workshops and conferences, and Black households across this nation. However, the social science literature is relatively reticent about this issue. To this end, we will examine how the academic literature speaks to the participation of Black mothers in raising their sons to become men. This research is significant and critical given that, (a) 50 percent of all Black households with children under age 18 are headed by Black women, (b) Black women are held responsible in some academic literature and in the popular press for Black males' maladaptive characteristics and behaviors, (c) catastrophic conditions exist that cause some observers to view Black men as an endangered species, and (d) researchers have virtually ignored--irrespective of race, marital status, or age--the dynamics of mother and son relationships.

There is a significant amount of literature that addresses the many sociological variables that contribute to the construction of manhood, such as the role of sociohistorical events (Akbar, 1984; Grier & Cobbs, 1968; Majors & Gordon, 1994; Muhammad, 1965; Staples, 1978), families (Billingsley, 1992; Franklin, 1984; June, 1991; Sigel, 1986), the media (TV, music, film, and written material) (Comstock & Paik, 1991; Dines & Humez, 1995; Door; 1983; Flavell, Green, & Flavell, 1990; Mamay & Simpson, 1981; Stroman, 1991), religion (Billingsley, 1992; June, 1991; Steams, 1990), schools (Darder, 1991; hooks, 1994; Giroux, 1988; Ogbu, 1991), and peer groups (Franklin 1984, 1988). However, after examining the literature, it became strikingly evident that scholars have virtually ignored, irrespective of race, marital status, or age, the role mothers play in the manhood development process. Moreover, and more germane to the present article, discourse on Black women and their sons is almost nonexistent, thereby, underscoring the importance and significance of this literature inquiry.

Much of the literature and conversation around this issue focuses on Black single-mothers. The literature is saturated with suppositions of deleterious effects on children in single-mother households (McLanahan & Garfinkel, 1993; Moynihan, 1965; Parish, 1991; Parish & Taylor, 1979; Sampson, 1987; Steinberg, 1987; Zimilies & Lee, 1991). In addition, there is a significant amount of literature that suggests that these father-absent households have a more salient harmful effect on male than female children (Davidson, 1990; Hetherington, 1991; Rutter, 1987; Wright, 1991). However, there is an emerging sizable literature that is changing old pejorative views of single-mothers, especially in the case of the much-maligned single Black mother (Billingsley, 1992; Collins, 1990; Dickerson, 1995; McLoyd & Wilson, 1990; Zimmerman, Salem, & Maton, 1995).

Though it is the main purpose of this review to discover how the literature speaks to the ability of Black mothers to raise their sons to become men, we should understand that this issue is embedded in the larger context of the sociohistorical construction of Black womanhood. Therefore, the present review engages societal images of Black women because they ultimately influence one's view of Black mothers with respect to their ability to parent, and more specifically, rear Black males. Accordingly, we aim for this review to serve as the lens to examine the literature concerning Black mothers and Black mother/son relationships and the framework to conduct research with respect to these issues.

Images of Black Mothers

Patricia Collins, along with other scholars, provides critiques of suppositions concerning Black motherhood that should be considered as we construct research models for Black mothers and sons with the aim of avoiding misleading assumptions altogether. Collins (1990, 1994) concludes that most of what is written about Black mothers is stereotypical and inaccurate. …