America has always had a problem with revisionist history, from the ever-interesting debate on the reason for the Civil War to the recurrent fiction of a post-racial America. So it doesn’t surprise me that Black folk engage in a similar rampant fallacy about our own community. Let’s talk about the Black Family™, shall we?
I don’t think anyone would deny that Black families are a sore topic, especially with the “72% Black single mother” statistic having floated around over the past few years. We lament and theorize about what “killed” the Black Family™ and caused so many broken homes. And when the dust settles, I see so many reach for a comfortable culprit: Black women. We’re an easy target.
See Exhibit A, in all its grammatically deficient glory:
Usually, in tandem with a diatribe against feminism writ large, Black women receive the lion’s share of the blame for the loss of a golden era. It is an interesting thing, with the confluence of the war on drugs, Reaganomics, the rise of feminism, and the advent of student loans, that many Black men choose to focus on feminism as the catalyst for the change in Black family structure.
But rather than arguing until I’m blue in the face about feminism, I’d like to suggest that the Leave It to Beaver image of the Black Family™ is a revisionist construct we’ve created. We conjure this ideal of the providing wise dad who knew it all, the doting, apron-clad mother who stayed home, and well adjusted kids, right? Except, that never happened in Black America.
The Black Family™ was never that picture perfect American ideal.
Much of this is an inheritance from slavery and its play-cousin, sharecropping. Black men often worked manual labor jobs and Black women worked as domestics. Undoubtedly, the introduction of women to the workforce changed the home dynamic–for mainstream (read: White) America. I don’t know any Black household with a storied generational tradition of stay-at-home-motherhood.
A report issued by the US Census suggests that Black women have always worked outside the home in large numbers. Only, prior to the advent of many equal rights laws, we didn’t have “careers,” or security. There has hardly ever been a time in Black America when a Black woman didn’t work a full day, rush home, and then cook, clean, and launder her own drawers. Even if you consider segregated Black communities prior to integration, a time that is often hearkened back to as an ideal, who were the teachers? Who were the nurses? Black women. There was no mass abdication of the “feminine” role for Black women to enter the workforce.
I also think that we discount how the later age of marriage and economic downturns have affected the Black community. Previously, your God-given destiny was to get married, do it young, and raise children to take care of you in your old age. Talking to my peers, that’s an ethos that has changed for both men and women. More men I know project that they won’t feel confident about having enough resources to support a family until their early-to-mid thirties. (Furthermore, as a country, we no longer use kids as social security). I think that’s wise in many cases. I sometimes wonder how our forebears did it so young.
But if we talk about economics, we can’t leave out how the flood of Black women into higher education has changed our financial realities. Face it: many of our foremothers were married because that was the only way to secure a life. My own grandmother stayed in a physically abusive marriage for decades because she was trapped with little resources and 6 kids. This may not be true for all Black families but her story is less of an outlier than most would like to admit.
Given the staunch Judeo-Christian beliefs of much of the Black community, it surprises me that apologists for the Black Family™ ignore the social acceptance of divorce. In a time when divorce meant ostracization and often poverty for Black women, how many marriages held because of religiosity? Because of fear? Yet, so many wax poetic about how (and why) our grandparents kept it going. I am the first to applaud longevity in marriage, but I can’t wear rose-colored glasses about “the old folks” knowing how to stay married back in the day.
This sentiment is reminiscent of when White people lament the good old days of Jim Crow or praise slavery as a bastion of Black marriage. (P.S. That reality never existed). Black spouses stayed together, yes. But they also stepped out on each other. They had shotgun weddings with real guns. And they beat their wives. And they stayed, because the church said divorce was wrong in all circumstances, and they had little education and no resources to leave.
Were there ever really good times like we “remember?”
Literally, think of Florida Evans of Good Times. Black women are simultaneously accused of wrecking the Black Family™ and keeping it together. The trope of the hardworking, ever-enduring Big Momma includes her working to the point of exhaustion. I am happy to move away from that. We praise our grandmothers’ hardiness while we decry their granddaughters’ progress. You cannot tell me we should unequivocally be more like our grandmothers when they often had nothing but that secret stash under the mattress.
Black marriage in America is historically far too complicated to pin its statistical changes on any one gender. If anything changed with women, it was these three conditions: Black women lost pressure to 1) marry when pregnant 2) stay with abusive spouses 3) be financially dependent on men. But none of those equate the alleged perfidy of Black women, nor did they cause the dissolution of an ideal Black Family™ that never existed.
Black folk will get it right one day; I truly believe that. My children and yours depend on it. But until we stop pointing fingers, we can never open our palms to take each others’ hands and actually be the Black Family™ we so desperately need.
For more from wife, mama and word ninja Dara Tafakari, check out trulytafakari.com where you can find Dara’s writing on the crazy collisions of life, race, popular culture, and the occasional nerd activity–with an offbeat dose of humor and clarity.