Black America's Family Matters

Article excerpt

Families, no matter how they are configured, are the foundation of every ethnic group, the bedrock of any people's society. It should be no surprise then, that the topic of the "Black Family in America" should be simultaneously so delicate and so contentious a topic. For the health and strength of black families en masse-their ability as a collective to form vibrant, relatively crime-free communities, to demand respect and services from the federal, state and local political power structures, and to better capture economic assets they can pass on to their children-has become to an even greater degree a critical component of African Americans' push into the American mainstream, without a stronger and broader superstructure of stable families, African Americans won't stand a chance of meeting the rigors imposed by the forces swirling in the 21st-century global arena.

This is true for every ethnic group, of course. But, no other ethnic group has African-Americans' American history. Unlike every other population group that came to U.S. shores, African Americans had to withstand during two and a half centuries spent in slavery a fierce, unrelenting attempt to destroy the foundation of their sense of themselves as human beings: a fundamental principle of American Slavery was that African Americans were never to have a family in the human meaning of that word. From 1619 to 1865 African Americans' attempts at the normal human activity of falling in love, marrying and starting and raising families were relentlessly and horribly disrupted. The wrenching individual tragedies that caused it is no better limned than in a brief letter of 1864 from "Ann, A Missouri Slave, to her husband, Andrew Valentine, on duty in the Union Army.

"I r'ecd your letter dated Jan. 9th also one dated Jan'y 1st but have got no one till now to write for me," the letter, which is in Pamela Newkirk's recently published A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African-American Love Letters, said, "You do not know how bad I am treated. They are treating me worse and worse every day. Our child cries for you. Send me some money as soon as you can for me and my child are almost naked. My cloth is yet in the loom and there is no telling when it will be out."

And yet, "Ann," trapped in a brutal bondage, ends her letter with powerful words of determination: "Do the best you can and do not fret too much for me for it wont (sic) be long before I will be free and then all we make will be ours. Your affectionate wife, Ann. RS. Send our little girl a string of beads in your next letter to remember you by. Ann"

Ann's words exemplify the strengths and endurance African Americans forged despite Slavery and the era of Jim Crow that followed. Because they were human beings, the full range of emotions common to all human beings could not be extinguished in them.

Although this edition of The State of Black America focuses its consideration of the "Black Family" on the near-past, the present and the future, it is vital to keep the long-ago past in mind-not only to recall how far African Americans have come and the odds they had to overcome to do it, but also to use the past as a prism to deepen our understanding of the forces of the present.

The breadth of vision, and, one may say, the fearlessness to look squarely at some disturbing realities or realities others seek to look away from is fully evident in the collection of essays presented here. …