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From teen pregnancy and single parenting to athletics and HIV/AIDS, myths about African American families abound. This provocative book by two acclaimed scholars of race and ethnicity debunks many common myths about black families in America, sharing stories and drawing on the latest research to show the realities.

African American Families Today examines the wellbeing of African American families around topics including marriage, health, education, incarceration, wealth, and more. Authors Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith show that even though the election of the first African American president, Barack Obama, has been symbolically important for African Americans, his presidency has not had a measurable impact on the daily lives of African American families. As the book shows, racial inequality persists—we’re clearly not in a “postracial” society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781442213968
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 10/18/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 210
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Angela J. Hattery is professor and director of women and gender studies at George Mason University. Her books include Interracial Relationships in the 21st Century.

Earl Smith is the Rubin Distinguished Professor of American Ethnic Studies and director of the American Ethnic Studies program at Wake Forest University. He is the author or editor of several books, including Race, Sport, and the American Dream.

Read an Excerpt

African American Families Today

Myths and Realities
By Angela J. Hattery Earl Smith


Copyright © 2012 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4422-1396-8

Chapter One

Marriage and Divorce

Why Are All the Black Men Marrying White Women?

His story is the American story—values from the heartland, a middle-class upbringing in a strong family, hard work and education as the means of getting ahead, and the conviction that a life so blessed should be lived in service to others.

He was raised with help from his grandfather, who served in Patton's army, and his grandmother, who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle management at a bank.

After working his way through college with the help of scholarships and student loans, he moved to Chicago, where he worked with a group of churches to help rebuild communities devastated by the closure of local steel plants.

He went on to attend law school, where he served as the president of the Harvard Law Review. Upon graduation, he returned to Chicago to help lead a voter registration drive and teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

She grew up in a brick bungalow on the South Side of Chicago. Her father was a pump operator for the Chicago Water Department, and despite being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at a young age, he hardly ever missed a day of work. Her mother stayed home to raise her and her older brother, skillfully managing a busy household filled with love, laughter, and important life lessons.

A product of Chicago public schools, she studied sociology and African American studies at Princeton University. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1988, she joined the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin, where she later met the man who would become the love of her life.

In 1996, she joined the University of Chicago with a vision of bringing campus and community together. As Associate Dean of Student Services, she developed the university's first community service program, and under her leadership as Vice President of Community and External Affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center, volunteerism skyrocketed.

The couple married in October 1992. They are raising two daughters.

* * *

Who is this mystery family? This description was written based on the official White House biographies for Barack and Michelle Obama. When you read the description did you automatically assume the family was white? If so, why? Because they attended Ivy League universities? Because they held prestigious jobs? Because they are married?

This chapter will address the myth that African Americans don't marry anyone and especially not each other. We will explore marriage and divorce patterns in African American families across the first decade of the twenty-first century. In addition to providing the facts on marriage and divorce rates, we will examine the myths and realities and consider the lives of well-known African Americans who have chosen to marry and stayed married despite the overall trends in lower rates of marriage in the United States overall, and among African Americans in particular.

Myth: African Americans don't marry because (1) slavery broke the African American family and it has never been repaired, and (2) they are of a lower moral character.

Reality: Though African Americans have the lowest rates of marriage of all racial or ethnic groups in the United States, half of all African Americans do marry, and because of the history of beliefs and laws that discouraged or prohibited interracial marriages involving African Americans, when they do marry, they are most likely to marry each other.


It is a commonly held belief that lower rates of marriage among African Americans can be traced directly to the experiences of slavery. Specifically the argument goes that because African Americans did not marry during slavery that they did not develop a strong sense of the sanctity of marriage as it is defined in Judeo-Christian traditions. Furthermore, this perception that African Americans have a lack of respect for marriage, deeply rooted in a religious understanding of the purposes and goals of marriage, expanded like a helium balloon into a deeper and more damaging myth that African Americans did not marry—or do many other things—because they were less morally developed than white Americans.

In 1787, while serving as an ambassador in France and just a few years before he was to begin his term as secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson wrote of enslaved African Americans:

In general their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.... [I]n memory they are equal to whites, in reason much inferior.... [and]in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.... I advance it therefore ... that the blacks, whether originally a different race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites.... Will not a lover of natural history, then, one who views the gradations in all the animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of Man (sic) as distinct as nature has formed them.

In fact, though slavery did disrupt the families of those who were captured in Africa and enslaved in the colonies and early United States, there is no evidence that it led to a decline in the moral character of either slaves or their descendants. Much like the debate over gay marriage in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the primary causes of the disruption of slave marriages and families were institutional: (1) slaves were legally prohibited from marrying, and (2) members of slave families were bought and sold at the will of the plantation owner and as a result they were often separated despite their desire to live together.

There are many reasons why slaves were not allowed to enter either legal or religious marriages: they were considered to be less than fully human or as Jefferson notes; they were of limited intellectual capacity; and, they were prohibited from entering religious marriages, which rely on the individuals' abilities to comprehend the covenant they are making with God and with each other. Legally, their status as 3/5ths of a human (as laid out in the Dred Scot decision of 1849) and the patronizing mentality of planters—including Jefferson—which led to the perception that the enslaved were childlike, with limited intellectual capacity, prevented them from meeting the requirements for entering into legal contracts. On these grounds they were denied the access to the legal institution of marriage, as well as any other contractual relationship, including landownership.

But, beyond all of these legal and religious justifications for preventing slave marriages, many plantation owners opposed slave marriages for practical reasons, namely they did not want to encourage the development of strong bonds that would lead to problems when slaves were sold, and they wanted to be able to control the breeding of slaves, both with each other and with the plantation owner himself. As one can imagine, no plantation owner who is raping or engaging in nonconsensual sex with his female property, for the purposes of pleasure or reproduction, would want the drama that would ensue if she were married. Furthermore, plantation owners had to constantly manage the issue of security and the probability of slaves running away to reconstitute families after a sale substantially increased this risk.

All of this did not mean that enslaved Africans and their descendants did not enter into permanent unions and form marriages. Nor did it mean that Africans arrived, as many colonists and early Americans believed, to this continent without a concept of permanent relationships.

African Family Structure

As the reader is well aware, but it is worth a reminder, Africa is a continent that is both enormous and diverse. Ranking second in both landmass and population (Asia leads in both categories), Africa is comprised of fifty-three countries—the most of any continent—and like many colonized areas, the majority of countries include a variety of distinct ethnic populations. Thus, to speak of Africa as a monolithic place is to render invisible its diversity. That said, there are some features of Africa and West Africa in particular, where the majority of the people captured or sold into the colonial slave trade originated. Most notable for our discussion here is the fact that the vast majority of Africans during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries lived in subsistence or agricultural economies that did not lead to accumulation. This is important because economic systems structure family form. For example, families in subsistence and nonaccumulating agricultural economies tend to be large for two reasons: (1) the labor inputs necessary to hunt, gather, plant and harvest are enormous, and (2) mortality rates are high—both infant mortality and child mortality—and life expectancy is low, and thus people expect that more wives will have to be taken and more babies born in order to build a family with enough members to function and survive. All of this is to say that enslaved Africans, coming to what would become the United States, across nearly 200 years, did not come deft of morality or "family values"; rather they came with notions and beliefs about family that were functional and utilitarian for the economic system in which they lived. Once they were embedded into the plantation economy of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century US economy, which revolved centrally around accumulation, enslaved Africans and their descendants sought out family structures that were similar to those that the white Americans they were owned by and worked for held. Not, contrary to "popular" belief, because these family structures were superior, but because they were more utilitarian in an agricultural economy that was based on accumulation. And, not only the ability to accumulate bumper crops from year to year, but the ability to amass huge landholdings through a process of inheritance that depended upon having fewer, not more, family members to inherit the land and wealth and thus keep it relatively concentrated. Despite the intent of enslaved Africans and their descendants to adopt the monogamous model of family that developed among western Europeans and the colonists they sent to the early United States, as noted, legal marriage was prohibited among slaves. They were, however, allowed to develop and engage in other symbolic rituals designed to recognize marriages.

Though slaves could not marry legally, they were allowed to do so by custom with the permission of their owners—and most did. But the wedding vows they recited promised not "until death do us part," but "until distance"—or, as one black minister bluntly put it, "the white man"—"do us part." And couples were not entitled to live under the same roof, as each spouse could have a different owner, miles apart. All slaves dealt with the threat of forcible separation; untold numbers experienced it first-hand.

Jumping the Broom and Other Rituals

Most notable in the previous quote is the fact that slaves recognized the structural limitations to marriage—that to get married required the master's permission and the marriage was not recognized legally—yet this did not deter them from engaging in a ritual that symbolized the commitment between two loving partners. We argue that the desire to engage in a symbolic marriage, despite its lack of legal support, demonstrates the depth of the belief that slaves had in marriage and commitment and signals their strong desire to pursue this family form despite the barriers and risks—namely the risk of separation—that it carried. That the lack of legal marriage has been interpreted by some white Americans as signaling a lack of moral commitment to marriage on the part of slaves, demonstrates the lack of knowledge and understanding many in the United States have about the history of slavery, economic systems, and family form. "Jumping the Broom" is one of the more well-known rituals that is associated with the public ritualizing of slave marriages. In 2011 a Hollywood film by the same name represented the controversy that the tradition has in many contemporary African American couples and their families as they design modern-day weddings. African American Roots, Inc., is a website that caters to couples who seek to incorporate various traditions associated with traditional slave weddings, including jumping the broom, into contemporary wedding ceremonies. Their website offers tips, accessories for purchase, and nearly all of the services any wedding site offers, including invitations, cake toppers, and flower girl dresses.

Search to Reconstitute Families

Another indicator of the value of family life to enslaved African Americans was the search for family members that had been separated, sold off, run away or fought in the Civil War. The story of Henry "Box" Brown provides an excellent illustration:

Among the best-known of these stories is that of Henry "Box" Brown, who mailed himself from Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia in 1849 to escape slavery. "No slave husband has any certainty whatever of being able to retain his wife a single hour; neither has any wife any more certainty of her husband," Brown wrote in his narrative of his escape. "Their fondest affection may be utterly disregarded, and their devoted attachment cruelly ignored at any moment a brutal slave-holder may think fit."

In the years immediately following the Civil War, there is evidence of thousands of ex-slaves going to incredible lengths to find "lost" family members. For example, the famed historian Herbert Gutman examined firsthand various slave registers and marriage records during Reconstruction and later census data, and based on these sources he was able to document that when they were allowed to form marriages, slaves did just that.

Gutman's most important contribution, based on his analysis of the records of the Freedman's Bureau in the National Archives, was the indisputable evidence that at the point of freedom, during and immediately after the Civil War, slaves—both those who escaped and those who were freed—journeyed north, west, and throughout the South in the desperate search for wives, husbands, children and loved ones.


It has been well documented by historians, including both Gutman and Tara Hunter that marriage rates among African Americans increased immediately after the Civil War. In short, once they were legally allowed to marry, African Americans did. We should note that this pattern is similar to and predates the sharp rise in interracial marriages after the historic US Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which in 1967 made it illegal to prohibit marriages between blacks and whites, as well as the rush to marry by gay and lesbian couples that we see in each and every state that passes same-sex marriage laws. As Hunter's research demonstrates, and we will discuss in the next section, African Americans and whites had similar rates of marriage from the end of the Civil War until the height of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.


Prior to the 1960s, most Americans married and there were very few differences by race. As the data in Figure 1.1 reveal the marriage rates of whites and African Americans first begin to diverge in 1970, and just ten years later in 1980 there is a fifteen-percentage point difference.

Role of Welfare in the 1960s

Critical to understanding marriage in the African American community is to understand that prior to the 1970s, African Americans and whites married at extraordinarily similar rates; indeed the rates of marriage in the 1950s and 1960s differed by only a few percentage points. So, what happens around 1970 that leads to the precipitous decline in marriage rates among African Americans? Some competing explanations include:

• African Americans no longer had an interest in marrying.

• African Americans lost their commitment to the institution of marriage.

• Marriage no longer served a function in the African American community; in other words, the needs of the family could be met without a legal marriage.

• Marriage became dysfunctional to African Americans; for example, being married prevented them from accessing other resources that they needed.

There is no research or other evidence to support the first two competing explanations. As we have demonstrated, African Americans had been legally marrying for the previous 100 years, ever since they were allowed to, and marrying at rates almost identical to whites. Based on research and polls on church attendance, beliefs in God, and other measures of religious commitment, African Americans consistently come out as more religiously committed, more likely to express a belief in God, and more likely to attend church regularly. Thus, there is no reason to assume that African Americans have lost their commitment to marriage. Finally, as all the data on poverty reveal, the best defense against being poor is not getting an education, it is getting married. In every configuration, from dual-earner households to two-parent families, when two adults are married and are present in a household the household is significantly less likely to be poor. In fact poverty rates for married-couple households are in many cases half of what they are for the majority of single-parent households and families, and this holds across all race and ethnic groups.


Excerpted from African American Families Today by Angela J. Hattery Earl Smith Copyright © 2012 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ROWMAN & LITTLEFIELD PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1: Marriage and Divorce: Why are all the Black men marrying White women?
2: Raising Children: Do Blacks use corporal punishment more than Whites?
3: Transition to Adulthood: Why not have a baby I have nothing else to do with my life
4: Intimate Partner Violence: The Dirty Little Secret
5: Education: What about affirmative action? Where are the guaranteed seats for White students?
6: Sports: The Ticket Out of the Ghetto?
7: Poverty and Wealth: Look at Oprah, Obama and Jay-Z, the playing field must be level
8: Incarceration: Blacks commit more crime than Whites
9: Health, Nutrition, and Chronic Disease: Why is there a MacDonald’s on every Martin Luther King Drive in every U.S. city?
10: Politics: Will African Americans now dominate government like they do the NBA?
11: What Can be Done?: A challenge to lawmakers

Recommended Readings and Films
About the Authors

What People are Saying About This

William Julius Wilson

This insightful book is a must-read. Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith provide a compelling and refreshing analysis of the complex forces impacting the contemporary African American Family.

Joe R. Feagin

With convincing evidence Hattery and Smith destroy white myths about black families, efforts, and opportunities, including stereotypes of marriage, athletics, and a post-racial America. Central to white-created institutions, unjust enrichment for whites and unjust impoverishment for blacks are shown to still generate racial inequalities in health, mortality, education, incarceration, and voting.

Vernon D. Johnson

Hattery and Smith have shown us that the prism of the family can be a particularly revealing way of chronicling the conditions of African Americans across a broad spectrum of issues.

Jennifer Hochschild

African American families are crucially important to society in the United States, and African American Families Today is an important exploration of their condition and behavior. All readers will find something to disagree with, and a vast amount to teach, enlighten, and move them.

Timothy McGettigan

Is Barack Obama the first post-racial president? If you think so, then think again. In African American Families Today, Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith systematically shoot down every major falsehood associated with the erroneous claim that Barack Obama is a post-racial president. With an accessible narrative, the book provides readers with the tools to develop a powerful and incisive new perspective on race, racism, and contemporary US society. Every well-informed American should read African American Families Today before they cast their vote in the 2012 presidential election.

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