I decided to start the series with what I feel is the root of black culture and that is the black family as a unit in America.
From the earliest decades of their existence in the colonies, black families have not always followed the typical “nuclear family” structure. This is due to the fact that slavery and even for the free black population, indentured servitude and overt oppression, created barriers for black Americans in creating what is thought of as traditional two parent homes. Slave families, as many are aware, were routinely broken apart. For the free/indentured families in early colonial American history, many could face punishment as a result of a pregnancy due to the subsequent disability and being unable to work and inability to fulfill their service requirements. Black indentured women who became pregnant could also potentially be sold to another master as punishment, which could end the relationship with the father of the child. “Free” children born to a black indentured mother could also receive an indenture period of up to 28 years and to be bound out to serve a different master other than that of his/her parents, sometimes very early in life – toddler or preschool aged.
As a result of these sorts of experiences, black families have always been based on both the traditional couple when those relationships could be maintained, along with an extended familial community, inclusive of, grandparents, aunts/uncles, and extended cousins who have always taken a heavily active role in family activities and especially child rearing throughout black American history.
Along with blood relationships, black Americans have a tradition of adopting non-related blacks into their family, who take on the role of additional kin. Children who were separated from their mothers would be adopted by this extended community, one created based upon the oppression faced by the demographic and the need to bind together and assist each other in difficult circumstances. Together the biological family and the extended kin form the basis of what is commonly called “the black community.”
I frequently state to people in conversation in real life and online that there is not one single”black community.” The family and extended kin faced similar and different obstacles depending on the laws and attitudes about race in the geographic areas of where they were settled. However, universally, both before and after the Civil War, no matter the area of which they settled black Americans faced intense race based discrimination all over the country. This shared experience is what I believe constitutes the phrase “the black community” being used in a more generic form. The community, is an extension of the family, and as a result, many black Americans feel a familial connection to the entire demographic based on this shared history and the culture of binding together to be strong in the face of adversity shown to them based on race/ethnicity.
As stated in the introduction to this series, on the role of Family in black America I wanted to focus on some of the defining events of the demographic. The Great Migration began around 1910 and didn’t end until around the the 1970s. The vast movements of black Americans from the agricultural south to the urban industrial centers in the northern and western parts of country did not weaken the traditional aspects of the black family as described above. During this time period parents would potentially have to be split up for a period from their children other family members or extended, unrelated kin would readily volunteer to fill the gaps left by those seeking better opportunities. An example of this cultural phenomenon is evident in the childhood of my own great grandfather Talmadge Traynum. Below is a picture of him as a little boy in approximately 1912-1914.
Talmadge TRAYNUM (approximately 1912-1914)
The Traynum family participated in the earliest wave of the Great Migration. Talmadge’s grandfather – Robert Traynum Sr. (also shown below in 1916 with his second wife Annie Williams and younger sister Mary Traynum) and his daughter Naomi moved from Anderson County, South Carolina to Toledo, Ohio around 1918-1919, not too long after these pictures were taken.
Robert TRAYNUM, Mary TRAYNUM, and Annie WILLIAMS TRAYNUM (1916)
In 1910 Talmadge, his mother, his grandfather, and his aunt and uncle – Gertrude and Fletcher Dixon, along with his cousin Mary, lived in the same household with each other. By 1920 Talmadge was living with his Step-Grandmother – Robert Traynum’s second wife – Annie shown in the picture above (his first wife Elizabeth Greer died around 1900) and with his aunt, uncle, and cousin mentioned above. He also lived next door to the Greer family headed by Willis Greer aged 68. I believe that Willis Greer was Talmadge’s maternal grandfather. So as a child of 12-13 years of age, his mother had moved north. The extended family tradition, which was already established within his family unit came into play. He was in the care of a step-grandparent, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin to play with and potentially another set of his grandparents next door to look after him. This tradition of the extended family looking out for children of the community is an important, longstanding cultural aspect of black America.
Between the end of the Great Migration and the new Reverse Great Migration, which has seen a huge amount of black Americans moving back down south due to, again, economic opportunities along with the country’s evolution on race and the end of legalized racism, many social conditions have been studied within the demographic that has allowed various people to assume that black Americans are not “family oriented” as a demographic in America. One of the main statistics cited to prove that black people are not “family oriented” is that of “Out of Wedlock Birthrates” of blacks in America versus white Americans. Since the 1960s there have been numerous studies and media stories about the damages of single parent homes and especially of female led single parent homes in the black community. A sense of nostalgia is shared and claims that “black people were better off” before the 1960s, and especially before the rise of feminism, are frequently mentioned in conversation, and online by both black and non-black individuals.
These people overlook the fact that marriage rates and out of wedlock births have always been higher for black Americans, usually three times higher, for blacks versus whites based in part, on the social conditions of black Americans starting in the early colonial period shared above. A review of census information from 1850 per reference (1) below indicates that nearly half of black children enumerated lived with only one parent and that those children had a higher rates of living in an extended family situation versus white children. Talmadge Traynum born in 1907 was born out of wedlock, yet his mother had a rather large support system of extended family, including both male and females who served as care takers and role models in his life as a child. Due to living with his aunt and uncle, Talmadge benefited from that traditional nuclear family. He also benefited from the relationship with his mother and grandfather. Steven Ruggles in his work “The Origins of African American Family Structures” showed, based on historical research, that black families starting in the 1880s, were much more likely to have single parents and live in an extended family situation in comparison to white families.
What is now called the “Reverse Great Migration” began almost immediately after the Great Migration ended in the 1970s. Due to the defeat of Jim Crow and better economic opportunities, black Americans began moving back to the southern United States in large numbers, primarily to growing, major metropolitan areas. This Reverse Great Migration started in an era where focus on out of wedlock birthrates began to be seen as a major factor in a variety of social ills. I’m sure many have read about all of the negatives that children born to single parents are “at-risk” for including being a criminal and imprisoned, having high drop out rates, being a teen parent, having psychological problems, trapped in a cycle of poverty, and the list could go on and on. This statistic is used primarily to show that there is a “breakdown” of “the black family” even though historical research shows that single parenting and extended families have always been around in black America and are an embedded part of black culture.
The representation of black children suffering from single parent home, many times overshadows the role of the extended family in the lives of black children. Per the reference (2) a high degree of extended family and non related kin networks seen in black families causes black single parents and and even married black couples, over all economic classes, to have much better coping mechanisms with dealing with the stresses of raising a family. Even those who are poor and in an inner city community are much more likely than white single parents to have a large extended family support system that helps with child rearing responsibilities. This extended family situation in many ways diverts the “at-risk” lists that are frequently written about in media.
Many times, statistics regarding poverty, educational achievements, and crime rates are used as “proof” that black Americans are not focused on family or that family is not an important part of our culture. Yet people who make these claims fail to realize that poverty for black Americans was nearly 70% in 1960 – today poverty rates are about 25%. They have declined by nearly 50%. Educational achievement and high school graduation rates have increased dramatically for black American youth. In the 1960s only about 50% of blacks had a high school diploma, today young black females graduate at a rate of 86% – equal to that of white America as a whole. Black males graduate about 68% of the time. Over 50% of black high school graduates go on to college. In 2014 over 70% of black high school graduates went on to attend college. Crime rates have fallen to historic lows since the 1980s and 1990s and especially have within the black demographic. If the black family was declining or had lost its cultural tradition of upholding the value of an education, then all of the above trends would be worse than they are today. The strength of the black family over the centuries, including parents, all of our aunties and uncles (shout out to my aunties and uncles who had a huge, positive impact on my own life) and our grandparents and great grandparents and cousins and “play” family have greatly contributed to the upward trajectory of black America since the end of the climax of the Civil Rights Movement.
In the decades since overt oppression and discrimination were lessened to a substantial degree, and this did not occur by any large amount until the 1970s and the enforcement of Fair Housing laws, the black community and the black family have done well on most statistical factors. Is there room for improvement – of course, I believe there is always room for improvement. But the fact that the above statistical factors have improved for black America – even amid the trials of increased out of wedlock birthrates, the final fight to end of a majority of institutional discrimination, the crack epidemic, and the ongoing drug war are a testament to the strength of the black family and the cultural importance of extended familial relationships in black America.
(1) Ruggles, Steven. “The Origins of the African American Family Structure” American Sociological Review, 1994, Vol 59 (February :136-151)
(2) Wallace Gorum, Jacquelyn. “Black Single Parent Families: Coping and Functioning.”