Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Marriage among African American Women: A Gender Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Marriage among African American Women: A Gender Perspective

Article excerpt

Analyses of single-mother families stood at the center of Black family scholarship during the twentieth century, with social scientists and policymakers alike theorizing the causes of such families, debating their ability to adequately perform family functions, and expressing concern over their economic and moral implications. Single-mother families became prevalent among Black people during slavery, yet after the abolition of slavery such families were seen as proof that gender disorder, sexual immorality, and family dysfunction reigned among African Americans. By the 1920s, a handful of liberal social scientists had begun to challenge biological explanations of Black families by contending that social factors such as slavery, racism, segregation, and economic exclusion were instrumental in their development (Frazier, 1957 [1939]; Queen and Habenstein, 1967). These social theorists, however, accepted the dominant theoretical paradigm of the day, structural-functionalism, and thus saw single-mother families as inherently flawed.

Structural -functionalism held that a family's structure shaped its ability to function effectively, and that a nuclear family composed of a male breadwinner and female homemaker was best suited to meet the needs of family members and the new industrial economy (Parsons and Bales, 1955). Embracing the logic of this theory, early social scientists like E. Franklin Frazier unwittingly initiated a social deficit perspective on Black families by arguing that the legacy of slavery had left many of them weak, disorganized, and female-dominated. From his work sprang the 'matriarch thesis' which, when reiterated by Senator Moynihan at the height of the civil rights movement, became the most politically-charged Black family issue of the century.

By the end of the 1960s a spate of revisionist scholars had begun to challenge the social deficit perspective on African American families. The revisionist perspective criticized narrow, racially-biased approaches to understanding families, reclaimed the cultural heritage of African Americans, and rejected that notion that viable families had to conform to the male/breadwinner-female/homemaker structure. They described the adaptive nature and functionality of Black families (Billingsley, 1968) and documented their strengths and survival strategies (Hill, 1972; Stack, 1974). Meanwhile, revisionist historians analyzed archival data from large plantations and argued that enslaved Black families often enjoyed relatively vibrant and stable family lives, that men participated in and contributed to those families, and that Black people embraced the two-parent, patriarchal family ideal as much as they could (Genovese, 1974).

Unfolding in the context of the civil rights era, the work of revisionist scholars served to shift attention away from Moynihan's claim of weak Black families and refocus it on the issue of racial segregation in American society. It also challenged racial stereotypes of African American families and seemed to deal a final blow to the legacy of slavery thesis of social deficit theorists. However, I argue in this paper that their insistence that two-parent families were the historic norm among African Americans implicitly endorsed patriarchal families; moreover, while ostensibly directed at rejecting the 'black matriarch' thesis, its underlying focus was dispelling notions of emasculated Black men. By drawing on data from large plantations, revisionists also presented a fairly monolithic portrayal of enslaved Black families and, perhaps unwittingly, a much more 'humane' picture of slavery. Indeed, based on revisionist work one might surmise that slavery was more conducive to stable, two-parent families than freedom. Most importantly, I contend that the work of revisionists has ignored the agency of Black women in making marriage and family decisions that were in their best interest, which often meant rejecting marriage and patriarchal families. …

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