Slavery's Long Shadow. (Society)

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Slavery's Long Shadow. (Society)


"Slavery and the Black Family" by James Q. Wilson, in The Public Interest, 1112 16th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Did slavery weaken the black family? W. E. B. Du Bois, author of The Negro American Family (1908), was sure that it did, and so was E. Franklin Frazier, author of The Negro Family in the United States (1939). After all, slavery denied slaves the right to marry, denied them the fruits of their own labor, and casually put family members on the auction block. But when Daniel Patrick Moynihan summarized such arguments in his famous 1965 paper, "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action," the "roof fell in on him, and a revisionist historical movement began," notes Wilson, the distinguished political scientist now teaching at Pepperdine University.

In the eyes of the revisionists, slavery was not to blame for the high rate of single-parent families among blacks; contemporary racism and joblessness were. In The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (1976), historian Herbert Gut-man, relying largely on genealogies he had constructed, argued that the black family emerged from slavery in good shape, with two parents the norm.

But genealogy is not the same as family, Wilson argues. Every child has two parents; not every child lives in a two-parent family. Yet many scholars embraced Cutman's work as foundational. In Fatherhood in America: A History (1993), Robert Griswold claims that the black family remained intact until the 20th century, when blacks migrated in large numbers to big cities, where the lack of jobs forced fathers "to leave their families to find work. …

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