“The Black Family”: The Ongoing Myth of Family Destruction via Single Black Mothers

Recently I read an article in the NY Times by Orlando Patterson. It was titled: The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities“. The article did what a lot of people do when concerning the effects of racism on Black people: center in on single mothers and deflect racism’s role.

Ahistorical Deflection:

“In tackling the present crisis, it is thus a clear mistake to focus only on police brutality, and it is fatuous to attribute it all to white racism. Black policemen were involved in both the South Carolina and Baltimore killings.”

He mentions single mothers & lack of fathers about 3 times in the article:

“This culture is reinforced by contemporary conditions like poverty, racial discrimination, chronic unemployment, single parenting and a chemically toxic, neurologically injurious environment, like the lead paint that poisoned Freddie Gray.”

“We see it also in the maternal rage of Toya Graham, the Baltimore single mom whose abusive reprimand of her son, a video of which quickly went viral, reflects both her fear of losing him to the street and her desperate, though counterproductive, mode of rearing her fatherless son.

“Its consequences are grim: greatly increased risk of prolonged poverty, child abuse, educational failure and youth delinquency and violence, especially among boys, whose main reason for joining gangs is to find a family and male role models.”

As the the author speaks on environmental causes that are out of the control of the Black youth and adults of Baltimore he then focuses in on this hetero-normative construct of a family. Financially it’s more sound to have a two parent home in an impoverished neighborhood because, duh, more working parents equals more money that can come in to the household.

This is not the first time when Black kid’s problems have been linked with what many have deemed “broken families”. What a judgement! But we will get back to that later. The Moynihan Report came out in 1965, and there was a particular section in the report called “The Negro Family”. This rattled off the number of unmarried Black mothers, emasculated unemployed Black fathers, and the results of their children. This report helped define policies and attitudes that last until this day.

The portrait that gets painted is that the Black family is “broken” and that’s the reason for our economic decline.

“This “new consensus” about black families and poverty is hardly original. In almost every decade, for 200 years, someone has “discovered” that the black family is falling apart…While nineteenth-century whites had bemoaned how quickly the restraints of slavery dissipated, 1920s reformers depicted black families as “vicious” and “depraved” because of the persistence of slave traditions. In the 1930s, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier theorized that slavery and migration had destroyed any natural order in the black family, leaving a vacuum that blacks had not yet learned to fill. Welfare workers in the 1950s warned of a threat to social order posed by the “immorality” of black mothers. In 1964, Daniel Moynihan described black families as a “tangle of pathology” In 1986, Bill Moyers said they were “vanishing.”” – The Way Things Never Were by Stephanie Coontz

It ignores families who have Black and Queer parents (who couldn’t get married legally and still can’t in many places). It ignores Black women who left abusive and deadly relationships (A leading cause of death of Black women is homicide). It ignores the Black men that are present but still have struggling families. It ignores that marriage doesn’t really provide an economic solution but a band-aid because the problem is not “the Black Family”. It’s systemic attack through bad policies and violence through institutions. This implies that Black families forgot what it means to be a family. Our construct of what a family is pre-America was much different. It was community, your clan, multiple marriages, the elders, and matrilocal most times*. “It takes a village to raise a child” is specifically an African Proverb. So that shows that a family’s only definition is not really just Man, Woman, Children.

*Of course not all tribes were matrilocal but pre-colonization many in W. Africa were

Let’s take it a step further. Moynihan and all reports that follow him to this day claim that Black men feel emasculated due to the working Black mother of their kids. They are told in order to feel like a man again, they need to follow typical gender roles.

Question: When in the history of the U.S.A has the Black woman ever been able to stay home? When? I’ll wait. Since we got off the boat we have been working. We have been working parents along with Black men. Women worked in agriculture traditionally in many African tribes. So who told us that working Black women emasculates our men? Think about it. Who told us that? Apparently they were okay with us when we did it in the motherland, so why is this the issue now? We need to claim our definitions as we are and not enforce false ideals of gender roles on our sons and daughters.

“For an institution that has been “deteriorating” for 200 years, the black family has taken a remarkably long time to curl up and die.”  [S.Coontz]

Economic mobility is a huge issue, but to tie it in to toxic forms of masculinity has resulted in many abusive relationships and erodes the way Black communities have always operated: as a unit. In many cases the neighbor knows your mom and is your stand in parent when you misbehave in front of their house. Every Black person you have known in your childhood is introduced as your cousin. Your parents friends are Uncles and Aunts. The barbershop and salons are a space of laughter, elders preaching, and check-ins. Of course not every Black community is the same, diversity is what makes this conversation more complex across cultures. However we already have what it means to be a family in us. We can’t let white supremacist patriarchy destroy that and base families on which gender is accounted for in each nuclear family.

Telling Black kids that they are “illegitimate” and determining a prognosis of an unbalanced sense of self on whether or not they have their biological father is asinine. Black kids face horrors such as the school-to-prison pipeline, racist vigilantes, and lack of educational opportunities. That has ZERO to do with whether or not they have a biological father. It’s true they need positive role models. However matching genders do not necessarily affect the amount of positive nurturing they can get; unless we tell them that it does. A grave error many commit.

Black boys can look up to Black women and Black girls can look up to Black men. A whole community consists of many different people so the worry that there won’t be a specific gender accounted for isn’t really in the list of my worries.

What is in my list of worries is that we continue to think that heteronormative families are the cure for our economic plight when perpetual and engineered poverty is the root. The cure is making sure that the attacks on their lives be prevented and stopped. We need better funded schools. Better health care systems. An overhaul of the “justice” system. A deconstruction of privatized ownership over public resources. More open access to economic mobility. As well as healing within our communities and teaching our kids to un-apologetically love who they are.

Our families are suffering but stop fitting the bill on Black Mothers and Fathers like they have some sort of misunderstanding of what a family means. If anything we know more than most.


2 thoughts on ““The Black Family”: The Ongoing Myth of Family Destruction via Single Black Mothers

  1. i read some of his work when i was in college…he makes me sick to my stomach with his over-reaching patriarchal bullshit…then and now…i’m happy to see your analysis here that mirrors much of my own in my academic work. thank you!

    • I’m sorry you had to go through his work. Gross. However I’m glad it resonated with you. He really needs to take a few seats and go study history and sociology again.

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