Effective Coping Strategies of African Americans

Article excerpt

What are the coping strategies that have enabled African Americans not only to survive but also to achieve against all odds? Are they shaped, at least in part, by cultural patterns and characteristics that have survived from life on the African continent to the present? If so, what does this suggest for social work practice and social welfare policies and services? This article discerns successful coping styles among African Americans that reflect the transmission of African belief systems and cultural values.

This article identifies several studies that explored the Africentric orientation to coping and resolving problems. These coping mechanisms are reviewed across system levels: individual, family, community, and organization. Implications for social work practice with African Americans are discussed and future research efforts are suggested.

Traditional African Cultural Patterns

Despite their unique experience during and after slavery, African Americans have been viewed and judged by most social scientists with the same worldview applied to the dominant culture. Differences from established dominant norms have been interpreted negatively or, at best, neutralized. Herskovits (1935) was among the few American scholars in the first half of the 20th century who described the highly developed political and legal systems, literature and art, and arrangements of interpersonal and family relations on the West African coast, the major area from which slaves were brought to America. Possibly among the first American theorists to discuss distinct worldviews and values of African Americans were Kluckhorn and Strodtbeck (1961) and Parsons and Shils (1967).

More recently, Houston (1990) pointed to the structure, content, and practice of religion in African American churches as evidence that African culture survived the African diaspora. He described the large number of African priests who were among slaves brought to America as providing some of the means through which this cultural adaptation took place. These priests provided a degree of stability, affective experience, and group cohesiveness through which some of the coping strategies, based on their cultural past, could emerge. Houston stated, "Because of the many covert, subliminal, nonverbal, and otherwise seemingly innocuous means of culturally transmitting and conditioning personality from parent to offspring, it is possible that personality represents the most profound and intense of all African survivals" (p. 119).

Nobles (1972, 1980), Ak'bar (1984), Baldwin (1985), and Asante (1988) are among contemporary scholars who have identified an Africentric approach to philosophy and human behavior and contributed to the development of what has come to be known as the Africentric paradigm. This paradigm proposes that in African culture humanity is viewed as a collective rather than as individuals and that this collective view is expressed as shared concern and responsibility for the well-being of others (Ak'bar, 1984; Ho, 1987; Houston, 1990; Schiele, 1990). In fact, most African languages did not have words for "alone" and "ownership" at the time of initial contact with Europeans.

The Africentric paradigm acknowledges feelings and emotions as well as rational and logical ways of thinking equally. Materialism and competition are supplanted by spiritual awareness and by cooperation with others (Ak'bar, 1984; Baldwin, 1985; Ho, 1987; Turner, 1991). A belief system that recognizes and appreciates the rich heritage and experiences of African Americans, including the devastating impact of oppression as manifested by racism and discrimination, emerges from this perspective (Everett, Chipungu, & Leashore, 1991). Scholarship using this perspective identifies positive aspects of African American life richly embedded in spirituality and a worldview that incorporates African traits and commitment to common causes (Grier & Cobb, 1968; Hill, 1971; Houston, 1990; Nobles, 1972, 1980; Miller, 1993). …