Highlighting the Strengths of African American Families: The Family Center's Approach

Article excerpt

Abstract: Studies in the past have chronicled more pathological aspects of African American family life than the strengths they have generated to cope successfully with the economic and social ills they have faced. As we move into the new millennium, Family and Consumer Sciences professionals must be a driving force in using strategic ways to highlight strengths of African American families that have enabled them to sustain, survive, and thrive in a world that doesn't appear to support their well-being.

African American families have thrived in spite of the countless devastating conditions they have experienced since being brought to the United States in 1619 as slaves. Nevertheless, the literature fails to adequately document the unprecedented strengths African American families have generated to adapt, achieve, and succeed in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds. The purpose of this article is to highlight the strengths of African American families from a variety of family forms.

African Americans have faced economic and political challenges with extraordinary fortitude and adaptability. Their traditional values and customs have produced a solid foundation for generating the strength they need to face economic and other external challenges (Billingsley, 1992; DeGenova, 1997; Mosley-- Howard & Evans, 1995). Hill (1992) defines family strengths as traits that facilitate the ability of the family to meet the needs of its members and the demands made upon it by systems outside the family unit.

As we seek to devise innovative strategies to help families, particularly African American families, become more self-sufficient, we cannot continue to overlook what families have learned in their efforts to surmount, tolerate, or struggle with internal strains and external demands and transitions (Germain, 1994; Mosley-Howard & Evans, 1995). We must understand clearly how families have responded to the challenges that have obstructed their path (Wolin & Wolin, 1993) and seek with them a more responsive context for their lives. This involves not only getting families' stories out to those who need to hear them but searching the environment for natural resources (people, organizations, and other families) that offer sustenance, support, instruction, and respite to beleaguered families (Littlejohn-Blake & Darling, 1993; Sullivan, 1992). These are the driving assumptions of a strengths approach to improve the quality of family life.

Too often, the literature promotes the stereotypical view that African American families are poor and headed by uneducated single mothers. Contrary to what many people seem to think, there is no such thing as "the" African American family. African American families are as diverse as White, Hispanic, Asian, and other families in the United States today. Black families are not all headed by single women, nor are they predominantly poor. There are indeed many Black families headed by women, but there are more Black families headed by married couples. Far too many Black families are certainly poor, but the majority of Black families are not poor (McAdoo, 1990).

In discussing the new generation of African American sociologists and their views of the African American family, Giddings (1992) observes that "where a previous generation of scholars saw deviation and weakness, the new scholars saw resourcefulness and resilience... for looking at the African American family through the lens of what it has done, against all odds, to sustain its coherence, brings one to a very different conclusion [than looking] at it merely from a deficient model." Concomitantly, Parker (1991) maintains that successful self-help activities and models are rooted in the premise that solutions can be found by capitalizing on the strengths and weaknesses of African Americans. Walsh (1993) offered support for this view when he pointed out that a challenge model of family resiliency corrects the tendency to think of family strengths and resources only in a mythologized problem-free family. …