Teaching the Classics in Family Studies: E. Franklin Frazier's the Negro Family in the United States

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Abstract:

This paper (a) reintroduces E. Franklin Frazier's 1939 book, The Negro Family in the United States, to family scholars and graduate students and highlights its importance as a groundbreaking and classic text, (b) provides both an introduction to the major thesis of this monograph and a reading of the text, and (c) discusses the challenges of reading classic works and suggests strategies that can be used to guide graduate students in a critical reading of classic works.

Key Words: Black families, E. Franklin Frazier, family sociology, graduate education, pedagogy.

As we look ahead to consider innovations in graduate education, it is also important to look backward at the intellectual history of the field and at the ways in which classic works continue not only to shape contemporary family studies but also to remain relevant for the training of new family scholars. Although minority family studies, in many ways, remains on the margins of graduate education, this position belies both the history of scholarship in this area and its relevance. The classic work by E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (henceforward, The Negro Family), published in 1939, is a pivotal text in family sociology and is situated at the bedrock of Black family studies. There is no single work that has been more influential in the field of Black family studies than Frazier's The Negro Family. In 2001, The Negro Family went back into print, making it once again widely accessible to family scholars and students. In response to the renewed accessibility of this text, the aim of this paper is threefold (a) to reintroduce this work to family scholars and graduate students and to highlight the importance of The Negro Family as a groundbreaking and influential classic text in Black family studies, (b) to provide both an introduction to the major thesis of the monograph and a reading of the text, and (c) to discuss the challenges of reading classic works and to suggest strategies that can be used to guide students in a critical reading of The Negro Family.

In the reading and teaching of classic texts, it is important (a) to locate the work historically, (b) to understand both the theoretical influences that informed the work and the intellectual, political, and cultural debates in which it is engaged, and (c) to understand both what makes the work innovative and groundbreaking and why it continues to be relevant for contemporary students of the family. To provide guidance for instructors who want to incorporate a reading of The Negro Family, I, first, locate the monograph within the context of early 20th century family sociology and highlight the ways that race relations and the politics of race shaped this work and Frazier as a scholar. Second, I summarize the major thesis of The Negro Family, position the work with respect to the major pillars of the field of Black family studies, and illustrate the ways this monograph continues to be at the foundation of contemporary studies of Black families. I also highlight the critical paradigmatic debates in which Frazier engaged during his day and the paradigmatic shifts after the publication of the monograph that now inform our reading of this text. Finally, I present strategies I have used to guide graduate students in the reading of The Negro Family.

Reading Frazier: Race, Social Theory, and Early 20th Century Black Family Studies

The Negro Family tackles the most fundamental questions of (a) who, culturally, the African became in America and (b) the social evolution of a people's most fundamental institution, the family. Frazier engaged the question of how the Negro condition is shaped by macrostructural forces, including economic institutions (e.g., slavery), social relations (e.g., race relations), and social stratification (e.g., racial inequality). In overlaying the theoretical models of social processes that explained transformations in other populations, Frazier made the implicit case for viewing the Black experience as part of the human experience. …