African Roots of the 4frican American Family

Joseph White
A professor of psychology and psychiatry, joseph White has written extensively about the mental health of African Americans and adolescents. Among his publications are the books Black Man Emerging, The Troubled Adolescent, and The
Psychology of Blacks: An Afro-American Perspective. The latter, published in 1984, is the

Source of the following excerpt on the Black family. Here White, proceeding subject by subject (instead of point by point), contrasts two models of the African American family to demonstrate that the African American family must be seen in relation to its African roots.

The Deficit-Deficiency

subject A thesis

The view of the core structure of the Black famil as an extended famil ouing is not shared by all observers. The traditional view of the Black family, which has evolved from the works of Frazier (1939), Elkins (1968), Moynihan (1965), and Rainwater (1970), is one of a disorganized, Single-parent, subnuclear, female-dominated social system. This is essentially the deficit-Cleficiency model of Black family life. The deficit-deficiency model begins with the historical assumption that there was no carry-over from Africa to America of any sophisticated African-based form of famjly life and communal living. Viable patterns of family life either did not exist because Africans were incapable of

point 1


Confrontation over decision making and family direction is usually not necessary because the Black male is either not present in the household on any ongoing basis or is regarded as ineffective by the female when he is present. The Black male in essence had been psychologically castrated and rendered ineffective by forces beyond his control. The Extended J. a kinship or kinli] other in confrontii model of family lif ity. economic. and sociopathic. hustler. second-class citizenship. and social positions necessary to become a dominant force within the family and community life. These value: ica. or they were destroyed beginning with slavery and the separalion of biological parents and children. resilience. Her unwillingness to share her power persists even when the Black male is present and willing to assume responsibility in the family circle.42 revelations:an anthology of expositoryessaysby and about blacks creating them. was largely ignored because of the rigid classification of psychosexual roles in American society. the master's sexual exploitation of Black women. i about the developr The Black exten 7 family and commu them through the I well-developed pal emphasizing collet interdependence. 1978) instrumental and e iors formerly consi Thus. and chronic unemployment. which are in conflict with the norms of the larger society. a matriarch who initially received her power because the society was unwilling to permit the Black male to assume the legal. with respect to mental toughness and emotional tenderness. reinforces the majority culture stereotypes of Black males as irresponsible. reality has been aC legitimate family s while reconceptual sis on exclusive be: cover the vast pool sex (Rogers. cousins. Having achieved this power by default the Black female is unwilling to share it. deprivation. g. The appearance of these roles in male behavior in the Black community. the Black male is likely to be inclined to compensate for his failure by pursuing roles such as the pimp. Black adults have not been able to develop marketable skills. assertiveness. willingness to take responsibility for others. They were rei slaves to have son own styles for far belongingness. As a result of this background of servitude. folkways. it is concepti parent to rear ps~ is interesting how I cans psychological child-rearing patte same behaviors wI pathological. self-sufficiency. the categorization of social role behaviors based on gen- point 2 point 3 der is not as inflex combination of aSI children of both se: With the reality ( 5 family headed by . 6 The extended fami sists of a related aI parents. He is absent within the family circle and unable to provide leadership and command respect when he is present. and occupational mastery. In the Black community. lazy. After generations of being unable to achieve the ideal male role in the family and in American society. and the accumulative effects of three hundred years of economic and social discrimination. shiftless. 4 The proponents of the pathology-oriented. ant cally destroyed by provided a vehicle . rather than being interpreted as a form of social protest. however. the Black male was portrayed as lacking the masculine sex role behaviors characterized by logical thinking. player. 3 The Black woman does not fare much better in terms of how she is portrayed in the deficit-deficiency model of Black family life. and planning and decision-making competencies. instrumental behaviors thought to be necessary for sustaining a successful twoparent nuclear family while guiding the children through the socialization process. She is regarded as the head of the household. since she is not confident of the male's ability to follow through on his commitments. 2 In a society that placed a premium on decisive male leadership in the family. future orientation. forced breeding. managerial skills. and sweet daddy. The notion that the mother could reflect a balance of the traditional male and female roles. achievement orientation. ' 1972). matriarchal family model did not consider the possibility that a single-parent Black mother could serve as an adequate role model for the children of both sexes. and I values.

1974. which seems able to capture not only the strength. grandparents. subject B point 1 . It is interesting how the sociology of the times makes available to white Americans psychological concepts designed to legitimize changes in the family. 1972). consists of a related and quasi-related group of adults. and responsibility for others (Nobles. exogamous mating. and togetherness protected the slave from being psychologically destroyed by feelings of despair and alienation and the extended family provided a vehicle to pass the heritage on to the children (Fredrickson. belongingness. begins with a different set of assumptions about the development and evolution of Black family life in America. emotionally integrated children. 7 The Black extended family is seen as an outgrowth of African patterns of family and community life that survived in America. such as tenderness. in child-rearing patterns. including aunts. and in relationships between the sexes. uncles. it is conceptually possible for a white. but also the essence of Black values. boyfriends. The Africans carried with them through the Mid-Atlantic passage and sale to the initial slave owners a well-developed pattern of kinship. The concept of androgyny has been introduced to cover the vast pool of human personality traits that can be developed by either sex (Rogers. A well-balanced person reflects a combination of both instrumental and expressive traits. caring. and girlfriends linked together in a kinship or kinlike network. It is conceivable that a Black mother could project a combination of assertive and nurturant behaviors in the process of rearing children of both sexes as nonsexist adults. 1976. mutual aid. They form a cooperative interface with each other in confronting the concerns of living and rearing the children. resilience. cooperation. and affection. Yet. interdependence. Blassingame. This reality has been accompanied by an attempt on the part of social scientists to legitimate family structures that represent alternatives to the nuclear family while reconceptualizing the social roles of males and females with less emphasis on exclusive behaviors. emphasizing collective survival. and androgynous female parent to rear psychologically healthy. These values became the basis for the Black extended family in America. folkways. and life styles. Thus. 1978). these same behaviors when first expressed by Afro-Americans were considered as pathological. in recent years the single-parent family headed by a woman has become a social reality in Euro-America. and communal values. A consciousness of closeness to others. This model of family life. mutual solidarity. 5 With the reality of accelerating divorce rates.african roots 43 2 :3 der is not as inflexible. single. vitality. The Extended Family Model 6 The extended family. cousins. The latter include feeling-oriented behaviors formerly considered feminine. in contrast to the single-parent subnuclear family. They were retained because they were familiar and they allowed the slaves to have some power over destiny by enabling them tq develop their own styles for family interaction. and continuity of the Black family. parents.

child real without being categ tion between social network the opporl and household man It could be argw 11 marily because Bla and social conditior oppressive class sy: his toricall y banded labor unions. 1978). breakup. or w that the Black exten socioeconomic lade pearing with rising mobile middle and does the extended nomic ladder but t and interconnected Being part of a 12 American life. mutual ai (Nobles.44 revelations:an anthology of expository essays by and about blacks Gutman. The growth of the individual nuclear family in Euro-America seemed to correspond with the competitive and individualistic values of the market place. mutual aid. Slaves in essence created their own communal family space. Once in the New World the African recreated a sense of tribal community within the plantation milieu through a series of extended kin and kinlike family networks that carried on the cultural values of responsibility for others. the extended family evolved through a series of cycles of formation. It was not essential for the survival of African conceptions of family life that biologicalor legal kinship ties be maintained. biological parents. 1974) Decisions are made ( mined by who is ava a given problem. and quasi-kin. Individual house- point 2 point 3 holds are part of a SOl The members band f concern (Stack. and collective survival. First. with its grandparents. it is necessary to depart from the traditional hypothesis that slave masters and their descendants exercised total psychological and social control over the development of Black family life and community institutions. especially if they work. persons who are not biologically or legally related can become interwoven into newly created and existing kinlike networks.American ex . Cultural patterns once established seem to endure. with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution after the Civil War. Much later. is an intergenerational group. regardless of whether the master was paternalistic or conducted a Nazi-like concentration camp. 1976}. older siblings. 10 The Black extended family. uncles. and reformation of the extended family continued as Blacks migrated farther north and west towards the cities at the turn of the century during the pre and post periods of the two world wars and into the modern age. 8 To understand the cultural continuity. The extended family survived because it provided Afro-Amencans a support system within the context of a shared frame of reference. breakup. The members of this three-generation family do not necessarily reside in the same household. The cycles of formation. The women to particip: resources. girlfriends.and second-generation American slaves who were separated from biological kin by continued activity at the auction block and newly arriving slaves who were sold to different plantations were incorporated into the extended family structures of existing plantations. 9 Once the philosophy of collective survival and interdependence was set into place as the foundation for community living. despite the emergence of the nuclear family among EuroAmericans. The slaves were much more than empty psychological tablets on which the master imprinted an identity. conjugal partners. and reformation as the slaves who were without the recourse to legal rights to protect kinship structures and conjugal unions were transferred from place to place. aunts. the famil by a shared experier pendence. stret fessional confereru information and re don't know what I pendence express( ric of the Afro-An family with its stre the traditional nuc Afro. anc ing. When a people share a philosophy of interdependence and collective survival. cousins. These early Blacks were able to find ways of creating psychological space and implementing African cultural forms that whites were unaware of and did not understand. This is likely to I within the extended they have the life eX] in the past. an African family identity was passed along to the children as the link between generations through the oral tradition. the pattern of Black family life based on combinations of kinship and kinlike networks continued. WhE be on predominant ternal groups. boyfriends. Along with other African customs and beliefs.

1974). share information and resources. they soon seem to form a quasi-family network.JLl. resilience. These values transcend sex roles and allow both men and women to participate in and contribute to the management of economic resources.h y 12R.~w~nl~ ·act: uVporrtllilty to emerge as decision makers. community activism. and interconnectedness also remain as the guiding ethos of family existence. influence molders. and interdependence expressed in sociofamilial groups is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the Afro-American ethos that it is not likely to give way to th nuclear family with its stress on isolation. and household managers. Wherever Blacks appear in numbers of two or more. . It would follow from this argument that the Black extended family would disappear as Black people moved up the socioeconomic ladder. McAdoo's (1979) work with upwardly mobile middle and upper-middle class Black families suggests that not only does the extended family model persist when Blacks move up the socioeconomic ladder but the Afro-American values of mutual aid. and other issues of family life without being categorically restricted on the basis of gender. competition. As in the past. and party.m.african roots 45 holds are part of a sociofamilial network that functions like a minicommunity. mutual aid. 1978). 12 Being part of a close-knit extended family group is a vital part of AfroAmerican life. Politically and economically oppressed people have historically banded together for survival. street corners. child and one's prior experience and track record in decision making. The fluid distinction between social sex roles offers both men and WOmf'D in ~b~ ll. and independence. Yet the extended family does not appear to be disappearing with rising economic fortunes. matriarchal or patriarchal. interdependence. The members band together to share information. the family is held together over time and across geographical space by a shared experience frame and a common set of values involving interdependence.b. automobile factories. that it exists out of necessity as a way of surviving in an oppressive class system. rap. whether it be on predominantly white college campuses. The idea of sharing closeness. the traditional nuclear family may be moving toward becoming more like the Afro-American extended family. or professional conferences. 11 It could be argued that the Black extended family exists and persists primarily because Black people face the common fate of oppressive economic and social conditions. communalism. resources. fraternal groups. labor unions. and communal concern (Stack. who has expertise with reference to a given problem. If anything. White folks don't know what to make of this. There is no central authority. storefront churches. or women's movements. Decisions are made on an equalitarian model with input and outcomes determined by who is available at a given time. git down. They are looked up to within the extended family network as resource people and advisors because they have the life experience that is highly valued in the Black community. whether it be in internment camps. This is likely to give some edge to the tribal elders. get together. professional baseball teams. and collective responsibility (Nobles.

"Black Kinship. 2. 27. John." Psychology Today. Alice Middle Class. pp. September New Gutman. Franklin. 1968. 3.C. New York: Oxford University Press. 1939.: Brooks/Cole. Dorothy. Chicago: Aldine. Observation: Doel Explain. 2. 110. McAdoo.: U. Herbert. Report. Its Role in Black Families. 67-69. George. Stack. University 4. Lee. Style: Notice the a ten terms derived J Frazier. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival York: Harper & Row. The Garland. Government Printing Office. June "Toward an Empirical and Theoretical Framework for Defining Black Families. ---. (auc ences) Rainwater. Nobles. Adolescence: A Psychological terey. Stanley. pp. Perspective. 1750-1925. Background Reading! Billingsley. 3. Synthesis: Apply' of her family. 1978. Calif.S. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. 1965. Janet Su Diverse Voices of G Coner-Edwards. pp. 2nd Edition." Critique: White ell tral authority. Carol. Andrew. pp. 679-688. E. and Intellectual Life. Daniel Patrick. Washington. C Family. Rogers. 79. May 1979. 1976. can you fit Elkins. in a Black Community. Harriet. Fredrickson. November 1978. 18-22. 1976. The Slave Community. (audience Moynihan. Suggested Topics 1. Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Family Life in a Federal Slum. mah ment? How does extended family c( The Black Scholar. D." The New York Review. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. 1993.46 revelations:an anthology of expositoryessaysby and about blacks Works Cited Blassingame. New York: CoIl. The Negro Family in the United States. "The Gutman 30. Wade." Journal of Marriage and Family. New Davis. Chicago: of Chicago Press. 1974. MonNew 4. Cynthia. 10-17. . 1970. 1972. Reading-to-Write Que: 1. Content: What typ Arrangement: Wit] models. "Africanitv: 1974. Slavery: A Problem in American Institutions Chicago: University of Chicago Press. York: Vintage Books. Richard A.

Observation: Does your family resemble the Extended Family Model? Explain. Corter-Edwards. 1993. Critique: White claims that in the Black extended family "there is no central authority. can you find another subject-by-subject contrast? 3. Style: Notice the academic terminology in this essay. Suggested Topics 1. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1988. Kathy Weingarten. (audience = students who wish to major in the social sciences) 4. Mothering Against the Odds: Diverse Voices of Contemporary Mothers. Cynthia. Janet Surrey. New York: Bruner/Mazel. Alice E." Are you persuaded by his argument? How does White's analysis of power relationships in the Black extended family compare to your analysis? (audience = White's readers) 3. eds. Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Future of the African-American Family. Richard A. New York: . ColI.1993. Underline at least ten terms derived from the field of psychology. Davis. 1998. eds. The Black Family in a Changing Black Community. Content: What type of evidence does White rely upon? Why? 2. and Jeanne Spurlock. Arrangement: Within the larger subject-by-subject contrast of the family models. Background Readings: THE BLACK FAMILY Billingsley.african roots 47 Reading-to-Write Questions 1. Garland. New York: Guilford Press. Is this useless jargon? 4. Andrew. (audience = your classmates) 2. matriarchal or patriarchal. Synthesis: Apply White's Extended Family Model to Naylor's description of her family. Black Families in Crisis: The Middle Class.

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