Understanding the Black Family:
A guide for Scholarship and Research
Wade W. Nobles & Lawford L. Goddard
(Foreword by William E. Calvil, III)
Brief History of Black Family Scholarship
In the early 1920s Marcus Garvey told his following of over six million Black Americans to be sure to develop a race of scientists. The Black Moses believed that the only hope Black people had in withstanding and resisting the evil designs and consequences or modern materialism was to be found in science and in religion. He cautioned us to never forget our God. Fifty years after Garveys warning it is clear to many thinkers that the evil design of modern materialism extends far beyond obsessions and devotions to power and material wealth. It is in fact true that in the modern world the acquisition and maintenance of power and wealth is directly related to one's ability to manufacture and control the dissemination of ideas and information. Given this condition, it is equally obvious that in modern times the evil in modern materialism includes the production of ideas which prevent the growth and development of human communities and therein the growth and development of human beings. Clearly, he who controls the ideas, controls. Accordingly, the domination and exploitation of Black people are guaranteed by the production of information and ideas which justify and give legitimacy to Black Oppression.
The history of the social scientific examination of Black reality is probably the best example of this fact. A cursory review of socio-behavioral research reveals that the study of the Black experience in the United States has been one of the most widely researched areas in the field of social science and that, within the field, the study of Black family life has probably been the most intensely studied area of the Black experience. One can simply note, for example, that paralleling the eighty-year history of the Black family being a topic or subject of scientific investigations has been the consistent offering, by scientific investigators, of evidence, information, and analyses which revealed and/or documented the so-called problems inherent in Black family systems. This trend has been consistent in White scholarship (and some Black scholarship) from the 1900s till this present time.
As early as 1908, DuBois, and later Frazier (1932, 1939) focused on the economic and societal conditions of the Black family which they related to the problem of family disorganization. More recently, investigators have claimed that the root cause of the deterioration of the Black community was to be found in the Black family structure (cf. Moynihan, 1956). Similarly, if not consequentially, the Black family has been studied as a pathological form of social organization (cf. Aldous, 1969; Bernard, 1966) with the so-called problems in the Black family being identified as responsible for poverty, educational failures, and unemployment in the Black community. Rainwater (1966) even went so far as to suggest that the functional autonomy characteristic of the Black family reflected mostly destructive features which in turn, expressed themselves in violent, repressive, depraved, and debased lifestyles.
In continually building upon the problem-oriented analysis of Black families, many researchers and behavioral scientists argued that Black families were no more than simply sick White families (Scanzoni, 1971; Liebow, 1967; Willie, 1970) and that the cause of the observable differences between the two was the impoverished status and previous history of servitude on Black people.
Given this general nature or orientation in the literature and one's innate sense of balance and justice, one is almost compelled to ask the question why. Why is the literature so overwhelmingly negative and one-sided when it comes to the examination of black reality? Is it because, he who controls the information, controls and; therefore, the most efficient way to keep Black people oppressed and powerless is to provide society with ideas which justify and certify the inferior status and condition of Black people. This question is the real analytical issue. This is the Gordian Knot of the Black family literature.
Historical Background of Scholarly Interest in the black Family
The initial scientific interest in family came about during the late nineteenth century with the beginning of a hybrid discipline known as Family Sociology. The late nineteenth century also witnessed the popularity of Social Darwinism and most of the scientific thinking around family was influenced by the Darwinian legacy. Similar to the evolutionary theories of Darwin, the development of family research, likewise, has evolved through several distinct phases (cf. Billingsley, 1968). During the first phase the emphasis was on earlier primitive family life forms. The guiding assumption, of course, was pure Darwinian. That is, the belief was that current family forms were evolutionary descendants of earlier forms. The analytical framework thusly attempted to place in evolutionary order different family forms. Thinkers of that time attempted to trace the evolutionary order of , for example, patriarchal, matriarchal, monogamous, and polygamous family forms. For the most part, since the Black family was not viewed as an institution or a family form, it was not a topic of interest during this time.
The late 1800s and early 1900s witnessed the second phase of family research. During this time family research and its various conceptualizations were stimulated by the conditions of mass migrations, the American Industrial Revolution and the rise of the urban metropolis which together resulted in, amongst other things, human poverty and degradation. Family research during this period found itself focusing on the life conditions of contemporary families being faced with the circumstances of the 1900s. During this phase survey research was conducted to document the conditions of working-class people living in urban areas. With the notable exception of the classic work conducted by Dr. W.E.B. DuBois (1908) the Black family, during this period, was still primarily ignored and/or did not qualify as a contemporary family form according to the scientific community.
Paralleling the short-lived prosperity that preceded the Great Depression was also a short-lived interest in the middle-class family. Influenced by both the prevailing social and psychological theories of the time and the current societal conditions, the third phase of family research focused on issues of individual happiness, sexual adjustment, personal actualization, and life satisfaction. In this phase (circa, 1920) as with the preceding two, the Black family was all but totally ignored.
However, a strange thing occurred at the end of this short-lived focus on the middle-class family period. Professor Billingsley suggests that for almost two decades, beginning in the 1930s, this society as a whole began to recognize that the family systems of Black people were in trouble and needed both close scientific examination and remediation. It was during this period that a number of Black scholars, with the support and guidance from White institutions and occasional White scholarly collaboration, produced what we consider today to be some of the classic studies of Black family life. During this singular period, Davis and Dollard (1940) researched and produced Children of Bondage, Drake and Cayton (1945) published Black Metropolis, E. Franklin Frazier (1939) researched and produced The Negro Family in the United States; Charles Johnson (1934) published Shadow of the Plantation and Growing up in the Black Belt (1941); and Ira Reid (1940) published In a Minor Key: Negro Youth in Study and Fact.
Clearly the emphases on Black family life during this period came from; first, the emergence of Black scholars; secondly, the training and analytical frameworks/assumptions they inherited, and lastly, the nature of the societal conditions in which they were to examine Black family life.
The period from 1940 to 1960 was essentially void of family research (cf. Billingsley, 1968). However, with the advent of the New Frontier, the Great Society, and the War On Poverty, Americans witnessed both a resurgent interest in American poverty and rekindled interest in the family. Thusly, the 1960s brought about renewed interest in family research. Only, this time, the resurgence was aided by an increase in the number of Black scholars and their pressing need to examine the contradiction between the myths and facts of American reality (equal opportunity vs. Uneven distribution of resources; racism vs. the melting pot; Black genocide vs. World humanitarianism). The clarification of the real condition in American society and the recognition that an overwhelmingly large disproportionate share of Black people were amongst the victims of the above mentioned juxtapositions prompted the growing number of Black scholars to: (1) struggle with developing an analytical framework which was more appropriate to explicating the complex Black family phenomena; and, therewith, (2) examine the Black family reality within a broader context of societal factors, issues, intents, and purposes.
The Analytical Issue
Beginning in the late 1960s more and more Black scholars began to recognize the need to be critical of the treatment of Blacks in the social sciences (cf. Billingsley, 1968; Hill, 1972; Ladner, 1972; Staples, 1971). The history of the negative study of the Black family is indeed interesting in recognition of the thesis that the nature of a society influences the kind of knowledge to which its people are exposed (Mannheim, 1936). The apparent epistemological dilemma is more succinctly recognized in Kuhns (1963) teachings. He notes that man is always limited in what he can know, by what he does know, even though he may not know what he knows.
In recognition of the social relativity of information concerning the Black family, Staples (1791) argues that the imposition of ethnocentric (White) values on the analysis of Black family life precludes the application of much, if not most, of the previous and current research and theory concerning the Black family. In his discussion of The Black Family Revisited (1974), Professor Staples critical analysis of the major orientations historically characterizing the research on Black families illustrates the problems imbedded in non-Black scholarship. Similarly, it has also been noted (Nobles, 1976) that having accepted the time and space limitations of White social reality as well as the consistent definitions within those time and space references, American scholarship and research on the Black family has been bound only to an analysis of the existential development of Black family life in America. That is to say, the study of the Black family has been primarily a comparative analysis of Black family experiences and White family experiences.
Unfortunately, in comparing the Black family to the reality of White families, invariably the Black family has been viewed as the White familys illegitimate soul-brother. The consequence of this false comparison has been the depiction of the Black family as a dark-skinned White family which is disorganized, pathological, victimized, and/or impoverished. In accepting the White family as the standard family or conceptual family, researchers and their research on the Black family have been inextricably bound to an inappropriate comparative model and locked into an inaccurate analytical framework. Not only is this the epitome of conceptually incarcerated research, but we also recognize this depiction of the Black family as an illegitimate White family, to be both a misconception and unscientific.
A primary concern for this discussion is ultimately to offer a method for critiquing the literature on the black family which therefore will provide us with a systematic way to refute destructive conceptualizations of Black family life found in the literature and to suggest the initial guidelines for guaranteeing an accurate and authentic characterization of the Black family.
The Paradigmatic Shift
As a general background to the objectives of this discussion, it must be pointed out that some scholars are ready to contend that the what, how and why of Black scholarship will be judged by history as a paradigmatic shift in the social sciences. In agreement with this perspective, it is further suggested that Black research on the Black family will be seen as a shift from an a priori pathological paradigm to a more accurate and representational one. In this regard, it is believed that the paradigmatic shift in Black family research will be more than just a shift in perspective. Over the last twenty years the Black family research done by Blacks has gone virtually unnoticed, and yet all indicators seem to suggest that the research programs of the 60s, 70s, and 80s are providing an altogether different picture of the Black family as well as forcing revisions and modification in the fields of social science in general. Unfortunately, there has not been an exclusive and comprehensive review and analysis of this important shift in the social sciences. In recognizing that human development and human relations are, in part, governed by the ideas which dictate what is normal and/or appropriate, the ultimate rationale for this text is in the potential it has for aiding us in understanding (1) the relationship between Black family life and the development of human beings; and (2) the way in which information and ideas about our institutions (i.e. the Black family) impact on the ability of scientists to understand those institutions. Accordingly, in providing a critique of the Black family research, one simultaneously provides a tool for exposing the value and/or utility (or lack thereof) of the ideas which purport to shape our understanding of Black reality. It is, consequently, through our ability to critique and refute destructive and erroneous ideas that we are able to defend ourselves from the behavior and conditions which are the consequences of those ideas. Similarly, it is through our ability to create and develop ideas conducive to our own growth and development that we are able to reinforce those behaviors and conditions which affirm and protect our well being. Hence, the value of this work is directly embedded in its ability to, in part, assist in the development of a perspective and attitude of criticism and creativity which is requisite to the development of authentic and accurate information and ideas about Black family life.
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