"The Strengths of Black Families" Revisited

By Hill, Robert B. | National Urban League. The State of Black America, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

"The Strengths of Black Families" Revisited


Hill, Robert B., National Urban League. The State of Black America


Two perspectives have dominated the long-standing debate about the viability of black families. One position, the "Moynihan (1965) thesis," holds that the low-income black family structure is "weak and pathological," and characterized by high rates of single-parent families, out-of-wedlock births, welfare dependency and crime. An opposing view, however, contends that the majority of low-income black families are resilient, self-reliant, work-oriented, have strong kin bonds, and aspire to high educational goals for their children. But the alarming levels of female-headed families, teenage pregnancy, joblessness, youth violence, drugs, and crime in the black community today appear to provide more support for Moynihan's position. Upon this 30th anniversary of the National Urban League study (Hill 1972), The Strengths of Black Families, it is important to make a critical assessment of the strengths perspective. Thus, this chapter will revisit the issue by addressing the following questions:

* How has the black family controversy evolved from an historical perspective?

* What are the pros and cons of the Moynihan Report?

* Which social forces and policies have affected black family stability?

* What changes in the social and economic status of black families have occurred over the past three decades?

* How have various family strengths contributed to the resilience and mobility of contemporary black families?

* What policies and self-help initiatives are needed to strengthen black families throughout the 21st century?

Historical Overview

The controversy over black family strengths is exemplified by the debate between the anthropologist, Melville Herskovits and the sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier during the 1940s and 1950s. Frazier (1939) held that, since slavery destroyed the vestiges of African culture among enslaved blacks, their cultural patterns were derived mainly from their American experience. Based on his cross-cultural studies of blacks in Africa and the Caribbean, however, Herskovits (1941) argued that American blacks retained some important African cultural strengths, especially those relating to religious beliefs and practices, the functions of extended families, and the informal adoption or "fosterage" of children by relatives. Contemporary scholars have assembled an abundance of evidence to support Herskovits' position that Black Americans have retained many positive cultural patterns from their African ancestors (Gutman 1976; McDaniel 1994; Nobles 1997; Ruggles 1994; Stack 1974; Sudarkasa 1981; Valentine 1968). It should also be noted that as a result of his research among blacks in Brazil, Frazier was more receptive to the notion of the retention of Africanisms than he has been depicted conventionally. Herskovits, a colleague of Frazier, took note of Frazier's conversion when they were both attending an international conference on anthropological research in the West Indies in 1955 (Herskovits 1966:132).

The works of early black scholars exhibited much balance by focusing on both the strengths and weaknesses of black families. In his study of black youth growing up in the rural South, Johnson (1941) described their illiteracy, poverty, illegitimacy, and antisocial behavior, but also discussed their strong work ethic, emphasis on education, and occupational goals. Similarly, after detailing the high levels of family instability, loose morals, gambling, etc., among poor black families in Chicago, Drake and Cayton (1945) also examined their work orientation, kinship bonds and class mobility. W. E. B. Du Bois (1898, 1908) also reflected this balanced treatment of the black community and families in his works. For example, in his five-week series on The Black North" in The New York Times Magazine, Du Bois (1901) described at length the pervasiveness of poverty, unemployment, single-parent families, slum dwellings, disease, and crime in three Northern communities: New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. …

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