Ensuring Inequality: The Structural Transformation of the African American Family / Edition 1

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There is a crisis today in the American family, and this crisis has been particularly severe in the African American community. Black women are more likely than ever to bear children as teenagers, to remain single, and to raise their children in poverty. As a result, a staggering number of African-American children are growing up without fathers and living in destitution. In this insightful new book, Donna L. Franklin offers an in depth account of the history and development of the African American family, revealing why the marriage and family experiences of African-Americans differs from those of white America, and highlighting the cultural and governmental forces that have combined to create this divide and to push the black family to the edge of catastrophe.
In Ensuring Inequality, Franklin traces the evolution of the black family from slavery to the present, showing the cumulative effects of centuries of historical change. She begins with a richly researched account of the impact of slavery on the black family, finding that slavery not only caused extreme instability and suffering for families, but established a lasting pattern of poverty which made the economic advantages of marriage unattainable. She provides a sharp critique of the policies of the Freedmen's Bureau during Reconstruction, and demonstrates the mixed impact of the new pattern of sharecropping. On one hand, tenant farming allowed greater autonomy than the older gang labor system, and tended to consolidate two parent families; on the other hand, it reinforced male authority, and bound African Americans in debt peonage. The twentieth century brought a host of changes for black families, and Franklin incisively examines their effects. First, black women began to move to cities in search of jobs as domestic servants, while men stayed behind to work the fields, dividing the families. Then, two world wars sparked the great migration north, as African Americans pursued employment in booming factories. When the white soldiers returned home, however, many blacks found themselves out of work, shunted to the least desirable, lowest paying jobs. Roosevelt's New Deal offered limited help: in the North, it tolerated the red lining of urban neighborhoods, making it difficult for blacks to obtain home mortgages; in the South, blacks found that, as agricultural laborers, they were exempted from most labor laws, while agricultural subsidies were administered in favor of white farmers. And the distinction made between programs paid for by beneficiaries (such as social security) and those based on need (such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children) stigmatized the poor. Most blacks found themselves living an ever more tenuous, socially isolated existence.
Franklin brings her comprehensive, nuanced study right up to the present, showing the impact on the urban poor of changes in the economy and society, from the dramatically shrinking pool of good jobs to the rise of the new right. "The increasing reliance on welfare by young black mothers," she writes, "corresponded to the erosion of opportunities for young black males." More important, she offers new approaches to solving the crisis. Not only does she recommend federal intervention to create new economic opportunity in urban ghettos, but she also stresses the importance of black self-help and proposes a plan of action. In addition, she outlines social interventions that can stabilize and strengthen poor, mother-only families living in ghetto neighborhoods. Exhaustively researched and insightfully written, Ensuring Inequality makes an important contribution to the central debate in American politics today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Donna Franklin provides the reader with a very important lesson in how to understand current stresses in family life by studying the ways in which early experiences and circumstances led logically and inevitably to the present depressing, even alarming, state of family life at the end of the twentieth century. This is an important work."—John Hope Franklin, author of From Freedom to Slavery: A History of African Americans

"Why are so many African-American children growing up in mother-led families? From a nuanced historical perspective, Donna Franklin offers no-holds-barred answers to this question.... She brings a provocative new perspective to America's pressing debates about poverty, fatherlessness, and how to (really) reform welfare."—Theda Skocpol, Professor of Government and Sociology, Harvard University

" Ensuring Inequality is a well-crated, closely reasoned, and well-documented narrative that challenges conventional understanding of the plight of African American families."—Martin Rein, Professor of Urban Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"Franklin's book is a well-informed, thoughful and insightful synthesis, demolishing a number of destructive fallacies as it proceeds through its highly readable chapters. It should be useful to all concerned with family, African American history, social policy and many others." —Linda Gordon, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin

"No meaningful future discussion of the problems of the black family or of the American 'underclass' can occur without taking account of Donna Franklin's powerful insights, meticulous scholarship and acute analysis. This invaluable scholarly work ought to dispel many of the ideological myths surrounding these subjects."—Professor Roger Wilkins, George Mason University

"One of the most important contributions to the study of the black family in recent years."—Joyce Ladner, The Washington Post

"Ensuring Inequality, along with Wilson's When Work Disappears, may be among the leading intellectual salvos in a public policy battle in which it might be said that the liberals are striking back."—Gerald Early, Chicago Tribune

"For years, it has been within the University of Chicago sociological tradition to study factors influencing the development and transformation of immigrant and migrant families. This volume, developed and written by a former faculty member of that institution, illustrates the best of that tradition applied to African-American families."—Contemporary Psychology

An account of the history and development of the African-American family<-->from slavery, to the Reconstruction, from the New Deal to the present<-->revealing why the marriage and family experiences of African-Americans differ from those of white America, and highlighting the cultural and governmental forces that have combined to push the black family to the edge of catastrophe. The author's recommendations include federal intervention to create new economic opportunity in urban ghettos, and social interventions that can stabilize and strengthen poor, mother-only families living in ghetto neighborhoods. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195100785
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/28/1997
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 928,230
  • Lexile: 1630L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.50 (w) x 6.31 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Donna L. Franklin was appointed the John Milner Professor at the School of Social Work, University of Southern California, 1994. Prior to that, she was on the faculty of the University of Chicago for eleven years. She is currently on a leave of absence from USC to devote more time to her writing.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I shall forgive the white South much in its final judgment day: I shall forgive its slavery, for slavery is a world-old habit; I shall forgive its fighting for a well-lost cause, and for remembering that struggle with tender tears: I shall forgive its so-called "pride of race."... but one thing I shall never forgive, neither in this world nor the world to come: its wanton and continued and persistent insulting of black womanhood which it sought and seeks to prostitute to its lust.

W.E.B. DuBois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil

Eliza Grayson was a former Mississippi slave whose husband had died while fighting in the Union Army. In 1893 she applied to the federal government for a widow's pension. A portion of the interview Julius Lemkowitz conducted with her in the Pension Office is as follows:

"Elisha Grayson and I were Mr. Montgomery's slaves before the war," Grayson told the interviewer. "We were married by Jerry Benjamin some time before the war; I cannot say when." "Who is Jerry Benjamin? ... Was he a preacher?" Lemkowitz inquired. "He was no preacher; but being the head man on the plantation and a member of the church he married me and Elisha." "Whose permission did you get to marry? ...

Could Jerry Benjamin read and write?" They had their master's permission, she answered, and the headman was literate. The Graysons' first son had died three months after birth but a second son, Spencer, survived. "How many children have you had before your marriage to Elisha Grayson, and who is their father?" "I hadone by my master's son, Frank Montgomery," Mrs. Grayson stated, without further comment.

"After the birth of that child" and before marriage, the interviewer continued, "have you lived or cohabited with any man?" "No sir," she assured him. "I never lived with any man after that until I took up with Elisha Grayson."

"How long after your marriage to Elisha Grayson was Spencer born?" "I do not know," Mrs. Grayson replied, "but we did not `get' him till after our marriage." Hadn't she cohabited with Elijah Hall, a married man, before Elisha enlisted in the Union Army? "No, sir." Only several years after her husband left the plantation did she "commence cohabitating" with Elijah Hall. "I was a faithful wife as long as Elisha Grayson was at home."

In answer to a query about her other children, Eliza Grayson listed four with Hall's last name, and of the remaining two, she explained, "I have had to do with several men and I cannot say really who their fathers are." Since the birth of her last child by Hall, over ten years ago, she swore, "that no man has ever touched me." The inquiry closed with the question, "By whom can you prove that your first child was by your master's son?" "By Hanson Clay, if he is living."

In the aftermath of slavery, the case of Eliza Grayson is one of the first public records to disclose the effects of racial and sexual exploitation on the marriage and family patterns of African-Americans. The dialogue also reveals the complexity of concepts such as "illegitimacy," "infidelity," and "rape" when applied to the sexual conduct of former slaves and their masters.

Contemporary Debate

Four central questions have influenced the scholarly discourse on slavery: Was there a distinct slave culture in which slaves shared common views of various aspects of their lives? To what extent was this culture influenced by whites? By the slaves' African heritage? Finally, did distinct family formation patterns emerge from this culture?

Current debate has focused mainly on recent social forces as causes of weakened marital ties among African-Americans. For example, William J. Wilson, in interpreting the history of the African-American family, has written that "[historical research] demonstrates that neither slavery, nor economic deprivation, nor the migration to urban areas affected black family structure by the first quarter of the twentieth century." Wilson constructed his argument by citing Gutman's landmark work. Gutman concluded that the black households he studied from 1725 to 1925 had two-parent families and a majority of the children were born into two-parent households.

Not only have historians challenged Gutman's analyses but also social scientists—such as Andrew Cherlin, who recently asserted that "too little attention [has been given] to the historical roots of recent changes" in the family patterns of African-Americans. Preston, Lim, and Morgan concurred with Cherlin's assertion when they analyzed a public use sample from the census data of 1910, made available in 1989:

Frazier's account of more fluid and less formal marital arrangements in the rural south at the turn of the century, based on ethnographic observations and a skeptical use of census and other data is more accurate. Accordingly the role of slavery and its aftermath, and perhaps also the legacy of West African family traditions, deserve more than a footnote in histories of the evolution of the black family.

After presenting the early historical research, I will reexamine more recent formulations that provide divergent perspectives on the culture that emerged among slaves and shaped their sex mores and family formation patterns. And, while the slave families in the antebellum era were remarkably stable, this chapter explores various historical analyses of why the family patterns of slaves differed from whites during the period are significant.

Some of the significant analyses in the literature on slavery have categorized scholars as "traditional," "revisionist," or "neorevisionist." In my view, these rudimentary groupings obscure some crucial nuances found in the scholarly discourse. I focus, accordingly, on certain ideas set forth by DuBois, Frazier, Stampp, Elkins, Fogel, Genovese, Gutman, and Blassingame, and some of the counterviews that have emerged to challenge their scholarship.

Early Explanations of the Effects of Slavery

In writing The Philadelphia Negro at the turn of the century, DuBois dated nearly all of his analyses from the arrival of people of African descent in the city and in a section on family structure, he drew on the African experience. In 1909 he observed that although black slaves could not "trace an unbroken social history from Africa" he insisted there was a "distinct nexus existed between Africa and America." He then urged that the study of historical evidence might uncover "the unbroken thread of African and American history." It was Carter G. Woodson, however, who argued forcibly that it was the African heritage of black Americans that most influenced their beliefs and practices.

Melville Herskovits carried this analysis further than other scholars in The Myth of the Negro Past. When Herskovits discussed the causes underlying the "matriarchal Negro family," he traced this phenomenon to the polygynous West African societies. In his view, this social organization had important implications for understanding kinship groups and the strength of the bond between the black mother and her children. In polygynous African societies, he said, the "responsibilities of upbringing, discipline, and supervision are much more the province of the mother than of the father." Numerous other scholars have recently reaffirmed the general unity of African culture and the fact that it influenced the family systems of blacks in America.

In The Negro American Family, however, DuBois moved away from the emphasis on African heritage of blacks to provide a balanced picture of family life, in reaction against invectives that were being directed at the sexual mores of many blacks. The book's objective was to "show a greater internal differentiation of social conditions" among blacks; he asserted that the failure to recognize class differences is the "cause of much confusion." He described the family lives of thirteen rural and urban families in order to portray the emergence of the "better classes." DuBois reflected his generation's view of social class in his description of poor families as the "lowest type of a country family" and of two of the most stable families with larger incomes as the "higher type of Negro families."

Slavery was DuBois's explanation for the "disorganization" he found among the poorest black families. He pointed to sharp differences between the family patterns of house servants and those of field hands during slavery. Among the former, "religion and marriage rites received more attention and the Negro monogamic family rose as a dependent offshoot of their feudal slave regime." Among the latter, especially those who survived a ruthless overseer, "there was no family life, no meals, no marriages, no decency, only an endless round of toil and a wild debauch at Christmas time."

DuBois also noted that slavery had a crippling effect on the slave father, who lacked the authority to govern or protect his family. In DuBois's view, "his wife could be made his master's concubine, his daughter could be outraged, his son whipped, or he himself sold away without being able to protest or lift a preventing finger." He asserted that the position of the mother was also undermined. Whether field hand or house servant, she could spend little or no time in her own home, so "her children had little care or attention." According to DuBois, she was "often the concubine of the master or his sons," and she could be separated from her family at any time by the "master's command or by his death or debts."

In DuBois's view, a weakened black family emerged from slavery with a dual set of sexual mores. One pattern, which emerged from the house servants, was monogamic with stable two-parent families. Another set of sexual mores was associated with field hands, and these family patterns were described as single parents and children born to unwed mothers. DuBois attributes these differences in sex mores among blacks to the institution of slavery: "[T]he great body of field hands were raped of their own sex customs and provided with no binding new ones."

E. Franklin Frazier, examining family formation patterns among rural black women, extended the formulations of DuBois. He focused on the high rate of nonmarital births among blacks, but replaced DuBois's concept of the monogamic family and dual sex mores with the concept of a dual family structure (two-parent and single parent). In making this transition Frazier borrowed DuBois's idea that such differences emerged from the occupational structure on the plantations: field hands were more likely to be single parents; artisans and house servants had a more stable two-parent family structure. Frazier went beyond DuBois to describe black women emerging as a more controlling force in the slave household—self-reliant, self-sufficient, and lacking a "spirit of subordination to masculine authority."

The Emergence of the "Sambo" Thesis

Kenneth Stampp and Stanley Elkins have more recently produced two major histories of slavery that are consistent with the analyses of DuBois and Frazier but emphasize the demoralizing aspects of slavery with little attention to the strengths reported by DuBois and Frazier. Like Du Bois and Frazier, Stampp moved away from emphasizing the slaves' African heritage when he described the social disorganization created by the institution of slavery:

In Africa, the Negroes had been accustomed to a strictly regulated family and a rigidly enforced moral code. But in America the disintegration of their social organization removed the traditional sanctions which had encouraged them to respect their old customs ... The slaves had lost their native culture without being able to find a workable substitute and therefore lived in a kind of cultural chaos.

With the destruction of family life and the rigid moral code that had prevailed in Africa, the consequences were "an air of impermanence" in the typical slave family. This ephemeral status was further exacerbated by a custom employed by a great majority of slaveholders, who, according to Stampp, gave preference to business over sentiment and broke up families when under financial pressure. Stampp did agree with Frazier that the slave family was matriarchal and that "the male slave's only crucial function within the family was that of siring offspring." Slave parents, in Stampp's view, regarded their children with indifference; "sexual promiscuity was widespread." He argued further that a slave would be assured of his master's affection only if he conformed to the rules of conduct that governed his relations with his master and carefully observed "the fine line between friskiness and insubordination, between cuteness and insolence"; a slave had to adopt the pose of a "fawning dependent," a relationship that robbed slaves of their self-confidence and promoted "infantilization."

Building on Stampp's description of the repressive power of the masters, Stanley Elkins argues that this power was so great that it reduced the slave to an infantile dependence on the master. His book, Slavery: a Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life, infused new life into the debate on the black family by introducing the "Sambo" proposition: Slavery not only emasculated the black man and undermined his parental and spousal authority, but his personality was also altered and he was reduced to a docile and dependent "Sambo."

For the Negro child, in particular, the plantation offers no really satisfactory father image other than the master. The "real" father was virtually without authority over his child, since discipline, parental responsibility, and control of rewards and punishments all rested in others' hands; the slave father could not even protect the mother of his children except by appealing directly to the master. Indeed, the mother's own role loomed far larger for the slave child than did that of the father.

In this view the African slaves could have resisted the forces that were embedded in the institution of slavery only if they had had "some sort of alternative force of moral and psychological orientation." However, slaves lived in "social isolation," and the "problem of the Negro in slavery times involved the virtual absence of such forces." Elkins's implicit characterization of the slave as docile, emasculated, and compliant has continued to shape the stereotypical images of African-American males in popular literary descriptions.

The Moynihan Report and the Emergence of a Counterview

In 1965 the Moynihan Report set off an extraordinary series of critical reactions to the "class-culture" thesis it contained. Moynihan's analysis of the mid-twentieth-century black family had a colossal impact on the generation of scholars who were emerging at that time. Moynihan quoted Frazier and described a "lower-class" subculture found in the African-American community. Moynihan expressed concern that marital dissolution, out-of-wedlock-births, and reliance on welfare were increasing among African-Americans. It was the content of this report that provoked the next series of scholarly investigations into the impact of slavery on the African-American family. (Chapter 7 gives a comprehensive analysis of the Moynihan Report.)

A group of historians emerged during the 1970s catalyzed by the Moynihan report to challenge many of the ideas set forth by scholars who had studied the aftermath of slavery and its effect on the African-American family. In carefully constructed and persuasive arguments on slave survival strategies, they criticized earlier scholars for underestimating the extent to which slaves were able to shape their own culture and for minimizing the extent to which the African heritage was incorporated into that culture. For example, Frazier, Stampp, and Elkins had argued that the institution of slavery had destroyed the African heritage (DuBois changed his position over time). Fogel and Engerman, Gutman, Blassingame, and Genovese challenged this paradigm and instead viewed the slave culture as a synthesis of the slaves' African heritage and the whites' culture. These historians utilized differing methods, however, when analyzing slave culture. Fogel and Engerman incorporated methods from the disciplines of economics and history, whereas Gutman, Blassingame, and Genovese employed conventional historical methods.

Econometrics and the Analysis of Slave Culture

Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman were some of the first scholars to apply economectric practice to the study of slavery. Their book, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, provoked considerable controvery with its new conclusions about slavery, which constituted "an entirely new portrayal of slavery's past" and challenged "virtually every assumption that has been made about the management of slaves, their work habits, their domestic welfare."

In an attempt to challenge one of the major ideas set forth by Moynihan, one of the myths this book attempted to dispute was the belief that slave breeding, sexual exploitation, and promiscuity destroyed the black family. Fogel and Engerman argued instead that the family was the basic unit of social organization under slavery and "it was in the economic interest of planters to encourage the stability of slave families and most of them did so."

Fogel and Engerman, examining a sample of records from thirty plantations around New Orleans and a small census sample, agreed with other historians studying the slave family that it was not "merely a copy of the white family" but was, in addition, influenced by their African heritage and their "particular socioeconomic characteristics." The result was a family life with characteristics that were, if not restricted to, at least more frequent among black than white families." They also asserted that "it is not true that the typical slave family was matriarchal in form ... and the male slave's only crucial function within the family was that of siring offspring."

According to Fogel and Engerman, planters recognized husbands as heads of families. In an attempt to challenge the prevailing ideas about slave women as the more controlling force during slavery, they presented evidence from the city of Charleston as an example that it was slave men, not slave women, who occupied virtually all the managerial positions on the plantations.

According to Fogel and Engerman, the family was the main instrument for promoting the increase of the slave population. Planters believed that fertility rates would be highest when the family was the strongest. Planters promoted the stability of the slave families by combining a system of rewards for marriage and sanctions against adultery and divorce. Although slave marriages were explicitly denied under legal codes, they were promoted and recognized under plantation codes.

What emerges from Fogel and Engerman is a portrayal of planters as moral individuals with humanistic values who conducted good business practices; and this characterization of the planter has come under vociferous attack. The authors have defended themselves in two ways: They have asserted that not all planters lived by the moral codes of their day and that slave women were not exploited sexually by white males because only 9.9 percent of the rural black population were mulatto in 1860. Critics have replied that it is impossible to quantify sexual exploitation.

On a related issue, Fogel and Engerman considered the role of planters in the destabilization of slave families by using 5,000 records of the interstate sale of slaves in New Orleans. Many historians had argued that many slave families were separated and sometimes obliterated when they were sold by slaveholders who chose business over sentiment when they were experiencing financial strains. While the authors concede that the records "contain no statements regarding whether or not slaves were sold without husbands (or wives) or were separated from their spouses as a consequence of being traded," they nevertheless assert that slave families were rarely separated. Blassingame argues that such an assertion is like "flipping a coin and ignoring all the times it comes up tails."

Qualitative Historians' Counterview on Slave Culture

Another group of historians shared Fogel and Engerman's disenchantment with the existing paradigm on the slave family but launched their challenge using a descriptive rather than a quantitative approach. John Blassingame, Herbert Gutman, and Eugene Genovese agreed that historians and sociologists had misunderstood the slave family and argued that the black family emerged from bondage with a remarkable degree of stability.

Writing from a Marxist perspective, Genovese used sources that included use of fugitive autobiographies and the interviews of thousands of former slaves conducted in the 1920s and 1930s by scholars at Fisk University and the WPA Writers' Project. He asserted that the slaves "created impressive norms of family life, including as much of a nuclear family norm as conditions permitted, and that they entered the postwar social system with a remarkably stable base." Many families became "indifferent or demoralized," Genovese argues, "but those with a strong desire for family stability were able to set norms for life in freedom that could serve their own interests and function reasonably within the wider social system of a white-dominated America."

In Genovese's view, the masters understood the strength of the marital and family ties among their slaves as "a powerful means of social control." He introduced the idea of paternalism as a way of discussing the influence the planters were able to exert over their slaves. Genovese believed that religious tenets rationalized paternalism but at the same time for the slave defined specific limits to white hegemony.

Southern paternalism may have reinforced racism as well as class exploitation but it also unwittingly invited its victims to fashion their own interpretation of the social order it was intended to justify. And the slaves, drawing on a Christian religion that was supposed to ensure their compliance and docility, rejected the essence of slavery by protecting their rights and values as human beings.

Primarily utilizing published autobiographies of runaway slaves, Blassingame's was the first major reinterpretation of slavery to follow Elkins's book. Blassingame accepted Elkins's Sambo as realistic, but would give us two others—Jack, the trickster, and Nat, the rebel. He argued that slaves were not devoid of institutional support, and he recognized the influence of masters. Blassingame's major departure from Elkins was to place more emphasis on the role of the white church in promoting sexual fidelity among married slaves and in attempting to restrain masters from breaking up families. He maintains that the African slaves' beliefs and practices were transformed by their Christianization and that the slave family served as a buffer to the harsh realities of slavery. In Blassingame's view, although the slave family was frequently broken, it was able to survive on the plantation without becoming totally dependent on and submissive to the master.

Blassingame's initial descriptions of the slave family reflected the influence of Frazier's ideas about the dual family structure. Departing from Frazier, though, he did not limit the development of the male-absent families primarily to field hands, but found monogamous families among all occupational slave groups. He also pointed to the strength of the monogamous family in the autobiographies of former slaves.

Blassingame agreed with other historians that the black family had been weakened by the institution of slavery, but attributed this destabilization to the master's intrusive sexual exploitation of the slaves. According to Blassingame, the white man's pursuit of black women frequently destroyed any possibility that "comely black girls could remain chaste for long." Frederick Douglass likewise declared that the "slave woman is at the mercy of the fathers, sons or brothers of her master." One of the reasons that these interracial unions were so destructive to family life is that there were legal prohibitions against black-white marriages.

In contrast, Gutman, who did not analyze the role of the masters and the white Christian church in the slave family's development, portrayed the slave family based on records of six large slaveholdings located mainly in black counties, selected because they had exceptional records. Through a careful analysis of plantation birth registers, marriage applications received by Union officers following emancipation, and documents containing the direct testimony of former slaves, Gutman reconstructed the slave family and kinship structure and showed an adaptive African-American culture that was created without any significant influence by slaveowners. African-American slaves developed independently with distinctive kin and family arrangements that fostered a new culture of social and communal obligations, which provided the social basis for the African-American community over time and across space.

The Impact of Slave Culture on Family Formation Patterns

The issue of the distinct family formation patterns found among slaves was also analyzed by scholars during this period. Gutman viewed family formation patterns as shaped by enslavement, stating that "much indirect evidence suggests a close relationship between the relatively early age of a slave woman at the birth of a first child, prenuptial intercourse ... and the economic needs of slaveowners. Genovese seems to agree with Gutman on how the early childbearing patterns emerged among slaves, but views them within the context of marriage: "Many slaves, if not most, married in their mid-teens or later, possibly earlier than most well-to-do whites.... Most masters let the slaves pick their own partners at their own pace and relied on natural desires to accomplish reasonably early mating."

Although Genovese did not comment directly on this matter, my inference from his writing is that he perceived these early childbearing patterns as emerging out of a "paternalistic compromise." Paul Escott captured the major thrust and complexity of Genovese's argument when he stated that Genovese "asserted the moral independence and cultural unity of the slaves, yet always emphasized more strongly the pervasive and controlling influence of the masters."

Gutman carried this argument further, maintaining that slave births were viewed differently by slaves and their owners. The owner viewed the birth of a slave child primarily from an economic standpoint; for slaves it was more reflective of social and familial beliefs that bound slave men and women together in affective kin groups. Gutman nevertheless asserted, "Doubtless they realized that if they had children early, their owners would have both economic and ethical reasons to allow them to remain together."

Within the institution of slavery, the slaves developed their own standards of morality and sexual propriety, standards that deviated from those prevailing among influential whites. For example, Genovese noted that even the "more conservative parents who married their daughters off young did not get hysterical if their unmarried daughters got pregnant.... A slave girl's chances to get the man she wanted did not slip much because she had an illegitimate child." Whereas European and American values focused on establishing paternity, distinct norms among slaves emphasized marriage while refraining from stigmatizing women who gave birth outside of marriage.

According to Genovese, the objective of the slave women was to live respectably and happily with one man; virginity at marriage carried only small prestige. Slaves also had a clear prohibition against postmarital philandering, which ranked as a serious offense. Leon Litwack lent support to Genovese's observation when he quoted the owner of a Georgia plantation as stating, "The Negroes had their own ideals of morality, and held to them very strictly; they did not consider it wrong for a girl to have a child before she married, but afterwards were extremely severe upon anything like infidelity on her part."

Gutman has provided one of the more incisive analyses of why prenuptial intercourse, which was common among both indentured servants and slaves, survived much longer among slaves:

Reproducing the slave labor required only the simple biological dyad "mother and child." The social dyads "husband and wife" and "father and child" were not essential. Neither was the completed nuclear family. But many owners, who did little to discourage prenuptial intercourse among their slaves, nevertheless encouraged the formation of completed slave families....Slave women mostly counted in the calculation of their owners as mothers, and slave men counted as laborers.

Drew Faust provided support to this observation and elaborated on how the slaveowner used the family unit as a means of social control, commenting that the correlation between positive family ties and a reduction in escape attempts did not go unnoticed by the slaveowner.

Thomas L. Webber summarized the viewpoint shared by most of the historians who studied slavery during this period:

American slaves fashioned a new culture from both the culture fountain of African past and the crucible of their experiences under slavery in the South. Slave culture had at its heart a set of cultural themes, forms of artistic expression, a religion, a family pattern, and a commonly structure which set blacks apart from whites and enabled them to form and control a world of their own values and definitions.

In Webber's view, the plantation owners used all the instruments of power at their disposal to shape slaves into their image of a "good" slave.

The difference among the historians of this period are the degree to which they believed that the culture that arose among slaves was a form of resistance to their environmental conditions. Blassingame, Gutman and Genovese disagreed on the role of external forces in producing the family norms and sexual mores of the slaves. Blassingame recognized the influence of the planters and viewed them as avaricious but emphasized the role of the white church in restraining planters from breaking up families and in promoting marital fidelity among slaves. Genovese, on the other hand, perceived a stronger impact of plantation owners and overseers on slave family life than did Blassingame. While he agreed with Blassingame that families were broken up by the slave trade, Genovese argued that such sales were either delayed or avoided, not because of the good will of the planters but because of the resentment that such sales would cause among the slaves. Genovese viewed planters as mainly concerned about undermining the "morale of the labor force." Genovese described the sexual mores of slaves as rather contemporary regarding sexual freedom for single female slaves and more Victorian regarding such freedom for married female slaves. Gutman presents the clearest portrait of slaves who were not influenced by the planters, and he found more stability and uniformity in the slave family than did Blassingame or Genovese. He also downplayed the interaction between planters and slaves and emphasized the fusion of the experiences of the slaves in the New World and their African heritage.

Variability in the Slave Family Structure

Disparities in the findings of historians who have studied slave culture have demonstrated that the methodological approach is an important factor in the conclusions that are generated. An econometric analysis conducted by Stephen Crawford is one of the more definitive in asserting that the plantation's size, not the slaves' occupation, as proposed by DuBois and Frazier, primarily determined the quality of slave family life. This study is viewed as rigorous in that when Crawford applied statistical analyses to the interviews with former slaves conducted by Fisk University scholars in 1929 and the WPA Writers' Project in the 1930s, he was able to demonstrate that the views of the two groups were quite similar. Constructing a distribution of households in which 742 slaves under age thirteen were raised, Crawford found that on such matters as the stability of the family, the occupation of the slaves, the usage of leisure time, and the severity and type of punishment, the experiences of slaves on smaller plantations differed significantly from that of slaves living on large ones.

Crawford initially did not control for plantation size, reporting that 66 percent lived in two-parent families, 24 percent in single-parent families, and 10 percent lived alone or in the master's quarters. When he controlled for the size of the plantation, however, Crawford found that single-parent families were 50 percent more prevalent on plantations with fifteen or fewer slaves than on large ones. He found that about 60 percent of the single-parent households had been created because families had been separated by slavery, in particular by the slave trade.

Studies controlling for plantation size have shown how earlier historians might have conceptualized experiences of the slave family differently, even when using similar sources such as the narratives of former slaves. Orville Burton's investigation of the narratives of the experiences of nineteenth-century black and white families in Edgefield, South Carolina, confirmed Crawford's findings: Small slaveowners were more susceptible to economic crises that resulted in the separation of slaves through sale or rental. Also, whites who had one or two slaves might have had sexual relations with them, whereas on large plantations the "slave communities served as a buffer against white oppression."

Richard Steckel analyzed a larger and more representative sample of data and likewise controlled for plantation size. He discovered that the proportion of women who bore children was substantially lower on plantations with 100 or more slaves than on those with just a few. Steckel explained that although the masters encouraged marriage, they also insisted on maintaining the rigid labor discipline of the gang system. But on slave plantations too small to sustain a gang system, slaves were permitted to fraternize with slaves on other farms and to marry slaves belonging to other owners. As a result, slave women on small farms typically married younger, had longer childbearing periods, and were less likely to remain childless than the women on the big gang-system farms.

Crawford's earlier analysis had provided an alternative interpretation of the way plantation size influenced the slaves' family patterns. He found that in one out of every six of the single slave mothers, the father was white. He also found that the probability of having a white father was also higher on small plantations. When Steckel analyzed data in the manuscript schedules of the 1860 census, his findings were consistent with those of Crawford. Using a more powerful statistical technique and a larger sample than could be obtained from the interviews with former slaves used by Crawford, Steckel found that on average, one out of every ten slave children was mulatto. He also demonstrated that this proportion likely to be was seven times as high on a farm of ten slaves engaged in mixed farming than it was on a cotton plantation of seventy-five slaves in the deep South. According to Steckel, the proportion of mulatto children was highest on small slave units in large predominately white cities and lowest on large plantations in the rice-growing region where the density of whites was low. The findings of Crawford, Burton, and Steckel show us why single parents were more prevalent and two-parent families under greater pressure on small plantations.

The experiences of Jane Peterson, a slave women on a small plantation, illustrate the slave woman's vulnerability to sexual exploitation by the planter:

Aunt Jane Peterson, old friend of mine, come to visit me nearly every year after she got so old. She told me things took place in slavery times. She was in Virginia till after freedom. She had two girls and a boy with a white daddy. She told me all abut how that come. She said no chance to run off or ever get off, you had to stay and take what come. She never got to marry till after freedom. Then she had three more black children by her husband. She said she was the cook. Old Master say, "Jane, go to the lot and get the eggs." She was scared to go and scared not to go. He'd beat her out there, put her head between the slip gap where they let hogs into the pasture from the lot down back of the barn. She say, "Old Missus whip me. This ain't right." He'd laugh. Said she bore three of his children in a room in the same house his family lived in. She lived in the same house. She had a room so she could build fires and cook breakfast by four o'clock sometimes, she said. She was so glad freedom comes on and soon as she heard it she took her children and was gone.... Part white children sold for more than black children. They used them for house girls.

Slavery and Early Childbearing Patterns

In discussing the sexual practices of slaves, Gutman asserted that the essential value of adult women rested on their capacity to reproduce the labor force. The institution of slavery put a premium on females who began to bear children early, both inside and outside marriage. The issue of whether or not slavery produced the early childbearing patterns found among slave women is a thorny one, and the calculations of the age at first birth of slave women have varied. The strongest evidence for the earlier childbearing patterns found among slaves comes from Richard Steckel when he compared slave fertility behaviors with those of whites during the same period. He found that slaves' mean age at first birth was lower than whites' by 2.1 years in probate data comparison and 1.3 years in plantation record data comparison.

At the same time, Steckel challenged Gutman's generalizations about sexual mores among adolescent slaves. He argued that slave women who eventually bore children abstained from sexual intercourse for a substantial period after they became fertile. The average age of slave women at the birth of their first child was about twenty-one, while the average age of menarche was about fourteen and a half. If adolescent slave women had been having sexual intercourse regularly from the onset of menses, as Gutman suggested, they would on average have had a child by the age of sixteen or seventeen. According to Steckel's calculations, the average interval of adolescent abstention from sexual intercourse lasted at least three years. It follows that a substantial proportion of slave women must have abstained from sexual intercourse during much of their adolescence.

Steckel and Gutman also disagreed about whether there was a relationship between marriage and fecundity. Steckel has suggested that for many adolescent and young adults marriage or the anticipation of marriage precipitated the beginning of sexual intercourse. To provide evidence for this, he shows that first births were correlated with the seasonal pattern of marriages, which were concentrated after the harvest and in the slack period between the end of cultivation and the beginning of harvest.

To support his reasoning further, Steckel has also noted that there was more abstention from sexual intercourse among unmarried adult slave women than Gutman inferred. The proportion of slave women living through their childbearing years without ever bearing a child was higher on large plantations (19 percent) than on small plantations (10 percent), and higher on the cotton farms of Georgia and Louisiana (16 percent) than on the tobacco and wheat farms of Virginia (8 percent). Steckel concludes that such high rates of childlessness could not be attributed to physiological sterility alone and estimates that roughly 10 percent of slave women avoided births throughout those years by either abstaining from sexual intercourse until they reached the end of their childbearing lives or by practicing effective contraception.

Steckel addressed another important issue: the extent to which slave women were monogamous in their sexual relationships. When he analyzed the birth records of 525 pairs of births of slave women, he found that women tended to be linked with only one man. In another sample of 413 slave marriages obtained from Civil War pension files, Steckel found that "there was not a single case of more than one woman applying for benefits from a given man."

Steckel's more recent analyses demonstrate that slave culture differed from one plantation to another and that the degree of the slaveowners' influence on slave practices and beliefs was determined by the size of the plantation. These studies also support the ideas set forth by Gutman, Genovese, Blassingame, and Fogel and Engerman that the black family emerged from slavery with remarkable stability.


Reexamining the impact of slavery on the African-American family, contemporary scholars of slave culture argue that it developed as an adaptation to the slaves' environmental conditions. In addition, all of them recognize at least the indirect influence of whites on this culture. The historians also agree that, regardless of both the idiosyncratic policies of individual slaveowners and the specific plantation culture, most slaves shared some rudiments of an African heritage, placed a priority on relations with kin, accepted various components of Christianity, and sought varying degrees of independence from their masters. In that slaves were not allowed legal marriage and all births during slavery were out of wedlock, what emerged out of this slave culture was a value system that refrained from stigmatizing the offspring of women who gave birth outside of marriage. In addition, two distinct types of family structures emerged from slavery—single parent and two parent families.

What accounts for much of the variance in the different analyses is the failure of some historians to take into account the size of the plantation. Studies have shown that the dual family structure found among African-American families that emerged from slavery was based on the size of the plantation in which those families resided and not the occupational structure on plantations, as Frazier had suggested. On the smaller plantations, slave families were more likely to be separated by sale, and slave women were more likely to have sexual relations with the planters and more likely to become pregnant as teenagers (even though early childbearing patterns, when compared to whites, were found on both large and small plantations); these factors contributed to the much larger proportion of mother-only families. While Frazier argued that single slave mothers were more likely to be field hands, these more recent econometric analyses have demonstrated that single slave mothers were those most likely to have had close contact with the slaveowners who had the smaller plantations. These slaveowners were more intrusive and had a more disruptive influence on the lives of these mother-only slave families.

Gutman, who found so much more stability and uniformity in the slave family than did other historians, based his findings on the records of six plantations with large slaveholdings. He chose these particular plantations because they had exceptional birth registers that permitted him to investigate the intergenerational patterns of marriage among slave families. These types of records were not usually generated on small plantations. Gutman's findings are consistent with the work of other historians who found that these plantations had the least intrusion from whites. In that most slaves were on large rather than small plantations, this factor is the clearest explanation for the stability of the majority of black families following emancipation.

A reexamination of the historical literature on slavery draws attention to the fact that the marriage and family patterns of African-Americans are related to a distinctive set of experiences they have had in this country. These experiences have been created as the cultural expectations of African-American families have interacted with societal institutions, and it is the combination of these factors that has generated changes in family structure over time.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 Slavery: A Reexamination of Its Impact 3
Ch. 2 Sharecropping and the Rural Proletariat 27
Ch. 3 The African-American Family in the Maternalistic Era 50
Ch. 4 The Arduous Transition to the Industrial North 72
Ch. 5 World War II and Its Aftermath 99
Ch. 6 The Calm Before the Storm 124
Ch. 7 The "Matriarchal" Black Family Under Siege 153
Ch. 8 Family Composition and the "Underclass" Debate 182
Ch. 9 Where Do We Go From Here? 215
Index 245
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