Everyone knows that African Americans have very high rates of single-parent families, but they disagree about why this has occurred. And this is where the trouble begins, not simply because the issue is a difficult puzzle but because so much appears to hang on the answer. If you think African Americans have "always" had a lot of out-of-wedlock children, you risk being called a racist, unless you quickly add that families are not important to children, in which case you may be called either a progressive or a fool. If you think slavery caused the problem, you will be reminded that post-bellum American society put endless roadblocks in the path of black family unity. If you think welfare caused the problem, you must deal with the charge that illegitimate births appear to have risen much faster than welfare payments, and, in any event, you are insensitive to the economic problems African Americans must face. Answering this question is a quick way to earn an ideological label.
The issue is puzzling, and no easy answer will quite suffice. But let us begin with two important facts. First, there are a lot of people who come to America who are poor, remain poor for a long time, and face great barriers to their acceptance. Latinos now make up about one-eighth of the nation’s population, one-third that of California, and nearly half that of Los Angeles. Having grown up near Los Angeles, I know how Mexican Americans were once treated. Called "pachucos," they were denied access to homes in many neighborhoods, made the object of the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, and thought to be inferior beings. Many of them did not speak much English and a lot were in this country illegally. Even today, when some of the worst forms of discrimination have abated, undocumented Latino men wait on street corners miles from their homes in hopes of being hired for a day by someone who is willing to ignore the law. In 1990, Latinos had the highest percentage of families living in poverty of any ethnic group in California, and their per-family income was about the same as that of African Americans.
But the proportion of Latino children living in California who are raised by a single mother is only about 20 percent, less than half the rate for African Americans. Controlling for income, the rate at which Latinos take welfare benefits is only about one-fifth the rate at which African Americans do. They are poorer and less educated than blacks, and many are certainly in a risky legal situation, but they are not nearly as likely to be raising children in a single-parent home. In 1990, only 16 percent of all Mexican-American households were headed by a single female (it was much higher for Puerto Rican families). In 1997, for the nation as a whole, the proportion of births to unmarried women was 41 percent for Hispanic women and 69 percent for African-American ones. The high rates of out-of-wedlock births for black women cannot be explained by intelligence, for holding IQ constant, black women are three times as likely as Latino women and five times as likely as Anglo white women to have out-of-wedlock children. There is, of course, an explanation for this difference - culture. Exactly. But what is the cultural difference?
The case of the West Indies
In many nations in the Western Hemisphere - in Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, Martinique, Suriname, Trinidad, as well as in the United States - black children are likely to grow up in a single-parent family. Most of these places acquired independence from an imperial ruler many decades ago (in Haiti, two centuries ago). In almost every West Indian nation, black leaders responsive to black electorates came to power. Yet the out-of-wedlock birth rate in these places is very high. In Barbados, at the time of its 1990 census, only 30 percent of mothers between the ages of 15 and 49 were married. Of the unmarried mothers, a few - roughly 3 percent - were divorced, but the vast majority had never been married. Much the same story exists in every West Indian nation where the illegitimacy rate ranges from 35 to 72 percent.
There is, of course, a convenient way to minimize the tragedy behind these statistics. Americans, especially white ones, may think marriage is decisive, but critics point out that other cultures have a different view. Some people have argued that a child can as easily be raised by an unwed mother or by a man and woman living together in a common-law union as by a married pair. A common-law marriage provides all of the benefits of a lawful marriage while being as stable as a formal one. But none of those who make this argument can demonstrate that a common-law union has the same effect as a formal marriage, and none deal with the fact that many children are raised by mothers who lack not only a husband but any consensual mate.
Judith Blake, who has studied Jamaican family life in great detail, has noted that one-third of all mothers had no male partner at all, married or unmarried. In a nation as poor as Jamaica, this ack of a father must surely have produced grave child-rearing problems. There would be little money or help.
But the circumstances are worse than what follows from poverty. Even defenders of consensual unions note that priests and middle-class Jamaicans condemn them, that unwed mothers must deal with sharp criticism and sometimes beatings from their parents, and that unmarried mothers are at a social disadvantage. In time, most Jamaican women (and most residents of other West Indian nations) do marry, but they marry quite late in life, after most of their children have grown up. As sociologist William Goode put it, the ancient principle that legitimate births are preferable to illegitimate ones remains true even in societies where the latter are common.
Depending on where she lives, the black West Indian girl is at risk. If she lives in the city or among itinerant cane cutters, her own mother is likely to be unmarried, and so there is no father to protect her. She may have brothers, but often they will be half-brothers with little familial interest in her well-being. The risk arises from her natural desire for sex and acceptance, a desire that many black West Indian boys can grant on their terms because there is no father or brother to challenge them. As Blake suggests, for many Jamaicans there is no such thing as a shotgun marriage: "The sexual exploitation of young girls therefore both results from family disorganization and contributes to it. Men are provided with a far wider range of sexual partners than they would be if girls were protected." If the girl is seduced and has a child, her value to other men is reduced; they often have little interest in raising somebody else’s baby (or possibly any baby at all).
Matters may be different in West Indian peasant communities. There, a child may be born out of wedlock, but the father is more likely to marry the mother and to play a stable paternal role. And among middle-class West Indians, there is a strong interest in intact, married families. But most West Indians now live in big cities or on plantations, not on individually owned farms, and there men and women spend relatively little time with one another. Their friendships, hobbies, outings, and games are segregated by sex. Men meet at bars, in small stores, or on street corners; women meet in churches, homes, and at the market. Economic conditions in Jamaica (and probably other West Indian countries as well) contribute to this pattern of casual sexual unions. Much work, such as cutting sugarcane, is seasonal, and some work requires migration to other islands.
But the forces at work are not just economic. As historian Edith Clarke made clear, "A woman is only considered ‘really’ a woman after she has borne a child" and "the proof of a man’s maleness is the impregnation of a woman." The woman, having proved by giving birth that she is fertile, needs a husband, but the father, having proved by impregnation that he is a real man, often has little interest in accepting any responsibility for the mother or the child.
When Blake interviewed Jamaican women, she found that they were often deserted by the men who had fathered their children. And having had a child by one man, their chances of marrying another were greatly reduced. Some women tried to adjust to this possibility by giving their children away to relatives so that someone else would raise them. So extensive was this farming out of children that by 1986 fewer than half of all Jamaican first-born children were being raised by their mothers. The mother, lacking a husband, had to work. As a result, grandmothers, not mothers, and certainly not fathers, raised many black Jamaican children. Of course, a few common-law unions did lead eventually to marriage, but most did not.
West Indian countries have the same ethnic divide that separates many poor Mexican Americans from many poor African Americans. East Indians, mostly from the Ganges River basin in India, were brought to the West Indies by planters eager to maintain a supply of cheap labor. They often came as indentured servants who confronted, during their years of agricultural work, a great deal of discrimination both from white planters and black workers. But unlike most black West Indians, the East Indians living among them lived in families. They married young, they worked hard to control the behavior of their sons and daughters, and they formed community kinship groups. Most important, they formed families at a much higher rate than did blacks. Blacks and East Indians disliked one another, with much of that dislike expressed by rival attitudes toward family life. Creoles (a common but ambiguous word that often refers to blacks or to persons born in the region who are not East Indian) often think that East Indians are avaricious, stingy, and secretive, while the East Indians think Creoles are feckless, childish, and promiscuous, shameful in allowing their women so much sexual freedom and in tolerating unwed mothers. Why would African Americans differ from equally poor Latinos, and West Indians from equally poor East Indians?
Slavery and the revisionists
The black people of the West Indies and of the United States had one thing in common: Their ancestors had been slaves. There are deeply poor people living in every part of the world, but only among some of the poor - chiefly, forcibly transplanted Africans - is the family weak. Surely, slavery must explain a large part of this difference.
For many decades it did. American scholars, especially African-American ones, assumed that slavery weakened or destroyed families just as it impoverished and oppressed individuals. William E. B. Du Bois made this claim in his 1908 book, The Negro American Family, and E. Franklin Frazier enlarged upon it in his 1939 book The Negro Family in the United States. But when Daniel Patrick Moynihan summarized these arguments in his famous 1965 paper, The Negro Family: A Case for National Action, the political and intellectual roof fell in on him, and a revisionist historical movement began. Du Bois and Frazier would surely have been astonished by the extent to which slavery was rehabilitated - well, perhaps not rehabilitated (most of the revisionists had nothing good to say about it), but certainly minimized as a social force. Slavery may have been unpleasant, but it did not destroy the African-American family. That family system, the new critics suggested, had been weakened by contemporary forces in American life, chiefly racism and joblessness.
Slavery, in the view of some of these revisionists, scarcely hurt families at all. One writer claimed in his book on slave communities that "the Southern plantation was unique in the New World because it permitted the development of a monogamous slave family." Another writer remarked on the "impressive norms of family life" among slaves that provided them with a "remarkably stable base."
A few were prepared to add that, though the evils of modern American society had hurt the black family, its members had found valuable replacements in the form of extended kinship systems or gifted single moms. Given what we now know about the poor prospects of children in single-parent families, it takes one’s breath away to read statements such as this, written in 1992: "Black women have a strong tradition of economic independence and collective childrearing that makes them less dependent on men than are many white women.... These are healthy, not pathological, qualities."
The revisionist history of slavery, much of it devoted to proving Moynihan wrong, offered several arguments, each implying that the African-American family was not seriously weakened by slavery. Robert William Fogel and Stanley Engerman, in their original and probing analysis of the economics of slavery, said that though marriages were forbidden by the slave code of the South, they nonetheless survived under "plantation codes." Slave owners, they claimed, had a monetary incentive to encourage family life. Families reduced the incentives of individual slaves to flee and encouraged the production of children and, hence, of more slaves. But the authors supply no evidence for these claims. These material motives were supplemented, Fogel and Engerman argue, by "Victorian attitudes" that emphasized strong, stable families. However, Victorian attitudes, to the extent they arrived in the South at all, did so more than two centuries after the slave trade had begun and after at least 80 percent of all American slaves had been imported. If these attitudes affected slavery, they did so long after its main features had been established. The authors were certainly correct to say that the extravagant claims about black family life made by many abolitionists were unsupported by facts, but no new facts were supplied in their place.
Perhaps the best-known study of African-American families during and after slavery is The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, by the historian Herbert Gutman. Relying in large part on the genealogies he constructed, Gutman argued, contrary to Moynihan, Frazier, and others, that black family life was not chiefly shaped, if shaped at all, by slavery. Upon their emancipation, ex-slave families "had two parents."
But as one generally sympathetic scholar observed, genealogies are not the same as families. The former merely states who were the parents (or grandparents) of a child and what offspring the child would later produce. All this does is describe sexual patterns; everyone, in or out of a family, has a genealogy. But a family means a mother and father living together and caring for their children, whether or not the mother and father are formally married. Gutman had little to say about whether a genealogy amounted to a family, but despite this gap his views exerted a powerful influence on American writers. William Julius Wilson, perhaps this country’s most influential student of race, argued in 1987 that Gutman had proved that slavery had not affected black family structure. And to the extent black families were female headed, this was in great part due to the mothers’ being widows. To Wilson, the chief problem facing blacks was the lack of jobs in the big cities. In his 1993 book, Fatherhood in America: A History, Robert Griswold argued on the basis of Gutman’s work that even during slavery "marriages were remarkably stable" and "the great majority of slave families were headed by two parents." Slave fathers "played a vital role in black family life." Moreover, these intact black families persisted through the darkest years of Jim Crow and right on down to the time that they moved to big cities, where unemployment forced fathers "to leave their families to find work."
At this point one is brought up short. Slavery - that vast, cruel system of organized repression that denied to slaves the right to marry, vote, sue, or take an oath; withheld from them the proceeds of their own labor and the opportunity to move about freely; auctioned their children on the slave block; exposed them to their owner’s lash and the chance that, if they married, they or their spouses would be sold to a new owner; refused them the right to buy property - this inhumane bondage apparently had little or no effect on family life, but moving as free people to a big city did. This is an extraordinary claim. The greatest social disaster ever to befall a free society did not weaken families, but urban migration did.
Evaluating the evidence
Unsurprisingly, recent research shows this argument to be wrong. Based on a careful analysis of census data, historian Steven Ruggles concluded that single parenthood was two to three times more common among African Americans than among whites in 1880. The gap widened after 1960, but it was only a widening, not a new event. One can argue that this early difference was the result of greater African-American poverty, and no doubt that may have been part of the story. But it was far from the whole story, or even most of it, because in 1880 one measure of social standing, literacy, had the opposite effect. That is, literate black mothers were less likely to live with a husband than were illiterate ones. Moreover, single parenthood was more common among blacks in counties with a high per capita wealth than it was in those with less wealth. The relationship was reversed for white families; among them, illiteracy and poverty increased the rates of single parenthood.
Urban life probably contributed to family breakdown, but it was hardly decisive. A group of scholars at the University of Pennsylvania has painstakingly recreated family data from 1910 census manuscripts to discover how community characteristics affected family life. We learn two things. First, African-American children living in rural areas were roughly twice as likely as neighboring white children to be raised by a single mother. For them, avoiding a city provided little benefit. Second, when blacks who live in cities were compared to those who live in rural areas, single-parent families were more common in the rural areas of New York and New Jersey yet more common in urban areas in most other states. City life may make some difference, but it cannot explain the gap in 1910 between whites and blacks in rural areas or explain all of the differences between urban and rural blacks.
There are several reasons why writers such as Gutman may have gotten this wrong. Many writers relied on some misleading census tabulations. A century or so back, many women reported themselves as widows in order to explain why they had a child but not a husband. In fact, as the University of Pennsylvania group learned, many of these "widows" were in fact never-married mothers. Suppose that in 1910 unmarried mothers were as willing to reveal to the census enumerator that they lacked a husband as unmarried women are today. Some part, perhaps a large part, of the recent increase in single parenthood would disappear as we realized that the proportion of single moms in the past was much higher than we now think. The legendary power of the 1960s to create fatherless households would be substantially reduced.
Another difficulty arose when scholars tried to define a family under conditions of slavery. A man, woman, and child might live together at the moment they are counted, but it is not clear that they are a family in any meaningful social sense. The man may have begat the child, but in what sense was he a father and a husband? He had no exclusive sexual claim on the mother, he could not provide for her materially, and he had no right to prevent a slave sale from ending their union or from wrenching their child from them. Even Gutman’s own statistics suggest that many slave children were raised in single-mother families. In 1865–66, Gutman found that between 21 and 28 percent of all black households containing children were headed by an unmarried mother. After slavery ended, Gutman’s 1880 census data shows that in urban areas such as Mobile and Richmond, around one-fourth of all African-American families were headed by females. Many of these women described themselves as widows, but many claimed that status only to avoid the criticism that was attached to being unmarried.
As the distinguished historian Orlando Patterson argued, slavery prevented a black man from being either a father or a husband; he could offer to the mother and the child "no security, no status, no name, no identity." The male slave was placed in an impossible situation, "one bound to reduce him to a state of chronic jealousy and insecurity about women." And even if he managed somehow to overcome these legal barriers, he often had to live apart from the mother of his child. On George Washington’s farms, for example, only one-sixth of the slaves lived together as man and wife, and two-thirds of those who considered themselves married lived apart from their spouses. Historian Brenda Stevenson has reconstructed these data and used them, and other findings from her research on Virginia, to support the view that there was a great variety of household arrangements, including, most predominantly, families headed by mothers with no husband and some headed by men who had several wives in various locations.
An additional problem has been the distortions resulting from the fact that detailed records were often produced only by the largest slave plantations - a point forcefully made by Patterson. Eugene Genovese and Herbert Gutman, by concentrating on large plantations, underestimated the effect of slavery on families. On the big plantations, there was at least a chance that a male and female slave could find one another and act as if they were married. ("As if" because, of course, no formal marriage was possible.) But in the smaller plantations, there were few choices and much less stability. And most slaves lived on small plantations where single-mother families were the most common kind. As Allan Kulikoff was to find, on large plantations about half of the slaves lived in nuclear households whereas on smaller ones, less than one-fifth did.
This is what other scholars have found to be the case among slaves in Brazil. Nuclear families were the most common form of slave life on the large plantations around Santana de Parnaíba, but the great majority of slaves did not live on these big estates. On these smaller farms, "families," if that is what they can be called, were headed by women with no husbands present. (The polite anthropological term for this arrangement is "matrifocal.") As a result, more than half of the slave children baptized in the Parnaíba parish had unknown fathers. And this low marriage rate existed despite the fact that Brazilian slave owners were more tolerant of marriage than their American counterparts.
A uterine society
The problems of the African-American family during and after slavery were probably made worse by a low sex ratio. That is, there was a shortage of eligible young men. In 1850, the number of nonslave black men for every 1,000 nonslave black women aged 20 to 29 was 857; in 1870, after slavery had ended (but just as Jim Crow was being imposed), the male-to- female ratio for African Americans in this age group was 866 to 1,000. Assuming the census numbers can be taken for granted (a large assumption, given the inaccuracy with which some were tabulated), there were not enough young men around, especially freed men, to marry every woman. And so women would have to work harder to find a mate, do without one, or become involved in uncommitted sexual relationships.
The shortage of marriageable men in many places was compounded by the fact that a slave woman knew that, even if she had a husband, he could not protect her. He might be sent to work at a distant location or sold to a new owner. And a man sent away, married or unmarried, was put in a situation where casual sexuality with any available woman was the only sexual release available. Patterson has written feelingly of growing up in the sugar-belt area of Jamaica, where young men worked hard all day and caroused all night with whatever young women were available, departing after the crop had been collected with a legion of broken hearts and pregnant women left behind. This pattern of working away from home made men sexually more predatory and women sexually more casual.
What was left behind in such families as existed was a strong belief that the chief bond of a child was with its mother. Patterson calls this a "uterine society," one that some slave owners reinforced by a policy of separating more sons than daughters from their parents. As a result, slave women turned to their own mothers and their mothers’ female relations rather than to their fathers for help. And were children to seek help from the father’s side of their family, they were more likely to turn to the father’s mother, sister, or aunts. This was true for boys as well as girls. In Jamaica, a boy had little contact with, and less interest in, his father; his chief obligation, he was told, was to his mother, to whom he might give money even after leaving her care. These attitudinal consequences of slavery were probably intensified during the era of Jim Crow because of the continued difficulty men faced in finding worthwhile employment and gaining social standing. Even in the cities, the most common employment for former slaves was as domestic help, and women supplied most of this work. In most cities, the number of black women exceeded the number of black men.
The effect of Jim Crow, and racism generally, on the black family legacy is a difficult matter to unravel. It is not enough to say that blacks were the objects of discrimination and so their families were weakened. In America, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Jews, and many others have experienced racial and ethnic hatred, yet their families stayed together. In India, the Untouchables have suffered centuries of discrimination, but family life, though impoverished, was not weakened.
Yet racism cannot be dismissed as an explanation. Patterson has suggested that in the postslavery period, antiblack racism took an especially sinister form by making black male sexuality an object of hatred. African-American men were lynched, often for (allegedly) making sexual advances to white women. Black men were also the victims of sexual exaggeration (they were supposedly insatiable) and sexual rejection (for a white woman to have a black lover was much worse than for her to have a Chinese or Japanese one). This unique form of racism may - no one can say for certain - have created a sexual standard for black men that made the display of nonmarital sexual prowess important. Though African-American men were not told to be fathers, they were expected to be lovers. Sharecropping may have compounded the problems of the black family after slavery. In England and among white Americans, getting married usually meant buying land. But after the end of slavery, there was little land available for blacks to purchase; instead, black men could work land owned by other men and get a share of the crops as their reward. Sharecropping made black men into marginal members of society who were rewarded not by profits earned from land but for labor extracted from their families. Sharecropping provided an incentive to have a lot of children (in 1900 the average black rural family had about eight) but no incentive to educate them. And since the land children farmed was not owned by their fathers, the labor never led anywhere. It is likely, as Patterson suggests, that sharecropping meant that many blacks (and not a few whites) were excluded from the customary means of economic advancement - owning land, making progress, and having fewer children. Aggressive sexuality coupled with no capital assets put black men at risk.
The African legacy
It is possible that some of the patterns of family life that I have ascribed to slavery were in fact rooted in the experience slaves had in Africa. West Africa, from which most slaves came, had three features that might have made a difference. Slavery was widespread, children were sent out ("fostered") to be raised by people other than their parents, and agriculture was based on a very different system of land ownership and human labor than existed in Europe. It is, of course, impossible to say with any confidence whether these experiences had any lasting effect, though some anthropologists, including Melville Herskovits, have tried to make that argument. Consider people who came here freely. Americans whose ancestors came from England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries may now retain some linguistic habits and possibly a few songs or poems from England, but the idea that they were "formed" by that country in any meaningful sense seems farfetched. It would seem no more likely for people who endured slavery in Africa, a terrifying Middle Passage to America, and the oppression of Southern slavery to retain any links at all to their African past.
But more may be preserved than people think. Individual property ownership, the Protestant religion, a belief in personal liberties, and government by consent came to this country with our first English settlers, and they put in place here institutions based on these ancient commitments. By contrast, slaves came here from a region with much less in the way of individual property ownership, very different religious traditions, and a history of tribal and military rule. Though their chances to recreate institutions here based on this heritage were sharply limited, their customs may have lingered on in other ways. And so the African legacy issue must remain open.
For our purposes, the key is a people’s collective sense of how a family ought to be organized. The English who came here had been shaped by at least three centuries of nuclear families sustained by agriculture on separately owned, intensively cultivated plots of land. Many slaves came here not with a tradition of independent nuclear families, but instead with an attachment to broad kinship groups. Marriage was possible only after the payment of a bride-price, and family life involved fostering out the children and separating men and women during much of the year. As the anthropologist Meyer Fortes once pointed out, the central question in much of West Africa has been not so much "are you married?" but "do you have any children?" It is, Fortes continued, "parenthood not marriage that is the primary value associated with the idea of the family."
No one can say with confidence whether such differences shaped in a lasting way how people adjusted to life in America. But we cannot rule out the possibility that they had influence, if only by supplying a familial system that affected how free whites adapted to the frontier and how slaves adapted to oppression.
African family values
It is impossible to generalize about so large and diverse a continent as Africa, but a few central facts of family life seem to apply to most of its cultures. The chief one is that marriages are carried out under the influence of kinship considerations. As Robin Fox has noted, kinship connections in much of the world, and certainly in most of Africa, are more important than marital ones. There people are more concerned about who their clansmen are than who their father is. Because of this, marriage in Africa may follow after some delay the beginning of a residential sexual union. The couple may live together for some time before they are married, an event that may not involve any ceremony and may occur only after a child has appeared or the husband has paid bridewealth to his wife’s family. Among the Nuer of the Southern Sudan, it may take quite a while for the husband’s family to supply enough cattle to meet the bride’s price. In the meantime, the man and woman are already sexually quite intimate. Unlike the norm among clan-based marriages in Eastern Europe or the Near East, no one attaches much value to the bride being a virgin. Even after a formal marriage, the Nuer husband often continues to live a bachelor life with his male friends until after the wife gives birth. Then he can move into her house. The man may marry other women as well, if he can afford to. All of these marriage arrangements are worked out by kin, and each person’s identity is largely defined by his or her position in that larger kinship system. "The whole society," Evans-Pritchard has written, "is one great family."
But of course to a European or an American, "one great family" is no family at all. Here we derive our identity from our parents; there they derive it from their kin. In Africa, having a child is important to both mother and father, but this parenthood only defines one partially. Who one is is also determined by one’s tribe. Of course, Americans and Europeans are interested in genealogy, but much of this is a hobby. We do not identify ourselves by talking about the people who lived before us; we do so by naming our mother and our father, especially the latter, since it is from him that we take our last name.
Children in West Africa are often raised by people who are not their parents. In some communities, more than half of all of the children spend much of their young lives away from their parents, often living with close kin but sometimes with adults who are not related to them at all. This practice is called "fostering." In some ways it is similar to the English practice, going back to the Middle Ages, of sending children away as apprentices. So far as we can tell, fostering in West Africa is a centuries-old tradition. It occurs for many reasons, but mostly because one parent is dead or missing. If the husband is dead, the mother may find it difficult to remarry, especially if she tries to bring another man’s child into the new household. And if the mother is gone, the child may not be well received by the other wives in a polygynous family. But sometimes fostering occurs when both parents are alive and at home because they think it is in the child’s best interests: He or she will learn new skills and find new opportunities. Whatever the motives, many West Africans regard fosterage as a perfectly acceptable means of raising children. Families there approve of delegating parental roles to other people, often beginning at a quite early age, especially if the mother is unmarried or is part of a polygynous family.
But even when they remain at home, children in much of Africa, especially south of the Sahara, grow up pretty much on their own. They learn for themselves the habits of life, taking lessons from the games, songs, and routines of daily existence. Today, as in the past, they are overseen by the people who live around them, and these, especially the women, keep an eye on them. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy refers to them as "allomothers," that is, all of a child’s caretakers other than the mother. But mothers and allomothers give much less face-to-face instruction or conversation than American mothers, especially those in the middle class. American mothers talk to their children, teach them lessons, and exchange jokes with them. They play not only a protective but a pedagogical role. But though African adults certainly protect their children, they are much less active as teachers. In many African societies, it is striking how little parents and children interact, especially fathers and children. Among the Gusii people of Kenya, a team of scholars carefully measured how much time other people spent in the presence of an infant or toddler. The mother and sisters gave the child the most attention; the father was scarcely present at all. The absence was partly cultural and partly the result of the father working away from the village.
These findings refer to Africans in the modern world; things may well have been different in the eighteenth century, and so we cannot be confident that how children are raised today corresponds precisely to how they were raised more than two centuries ago. But imagine how these conditions - assuming, as I do, that conditions like them were in effect centuries ago when the slave trade was under way - might have affected the slaves who came to America and the West Indies. Families were much less important than kinship groups. And as Patterson has noted, these kin groups were broken up during the Middle Passage and by the sale of slaves in the West. Even worse, the slaves who were brought to the West had already been slaves in Africa and their kinship alliances were already in grave disrepair. When they arrived here, "they did not belong in their own right to any lineage."
In Africa, women had been economically active as farm workers and produce gatherers. In America and the West Indies, being born to a slave mother made the child a slave and gave to the mother and her child a customary role - working the fields. This fact, combined with the absolute biological and cultural centrality of the mother-child bond, meant that women, despite the horrors of slavery, would find it easier to adjust than would the men.
Men had a tougher time. In Africa, fathers did not have a strong role in their youngsters’ development; other people, especially nearby women, took over many of these tasks. Not only were they often not available for child-rearing tasks, many had to divide their attention among several wives. In America and the West Indies, slavery created more barriers - the absence of a marriage bond and any chance at acquiring bridewealth - for any father hoping to play such a parental role. It is hard to imagine men would adapt to their new environment by suddenly acquiring what they rarely had - namely, long experience in child rearing and devotion to a single wife. This is true especially since slave work, like their work in Africa, took them away from wives for long periods of time.
Life in Africa prepared women to be agricultural workers, but it did not prepare men to be attentive fathers. Kinship was of central importance; under slavery, whether African or American, it became meaningless. As Patterson put it, a slave here or in Africa could have children but no legitimate kin. "They were kinless," and this meant that they were "socially dead." And here, even more than in Africa, the children would chiefly know only their mothers. And slave men often resorted to physical violence to control the wives they might have. Whether this reflected past African habits or the mimicking of the brutality of many plantations no one can say, but the relations between husbands and wives were often marred by physical force.
A legacy of beliefs
It is hard to believe that two or three centuries of slave life followed by a century or so of Jim Crow left no lasting impression on African Americans, even though proving such a connection is impossible. But let us for a moment conduct a mental experiment. Given what slaves endured, what can we imagine would be the legacy that their children and grandchildren inherited? We would suppose that boys would grow up without close identification with their fathers, but with some interest in repeating the youthful sexual exploits that transient work and long absences from home made possible. Few would recall many happy experiences associated with a two-parent family. Girls, on the other hand, would grow up thinking that men were irresponsible and that women would have to make their own careers out of whatever opportunities presented themselves. Children would expect to be raised by their mothers or grandmothers and possibly by other women, perhaps distant ones, and would not be surprised if there were no fathers present. They would expect physical, sometimes harsh, discipline. Of course, these predictions must be stated cautiously, for it is obvious that among millions of African Americans there would be a great variety of adaptations; some would struggle to conform to white American marital patterns, others would try to create a unique marital system of their own, and still others would be largely unaffected by anything that happened in the past.
But what is striking is that these predictions accord with reality for a large fraction (albeit a minority) of African Americans today. And not only is this true today, but it was true several decades ago when liberal scholars such as John Dollard studied a Mississippi town in the 1930s. "African patterns of sexual control," he wrote, "were abandoned probably because of their futility in the new slave milieu." Not abandoned, he added, because blacks were, as some observers thought, childlike, but abandoned because they did not work. Black men had no access to white women and only limited access to black women, and with the latter the man could offer neither food nor shelter nor protection - the essential requirements of the male social role. The man could dominate but offer little protection to the woman, not only during slavery but for at least a century afterward. And since marriage depends on protection more than domination, it got off to a rough start among African Americans.
Patterson has tried to bring this argument up-to-date. African-American men, in his view, sought to embrace the very role that slavery had forced upon them and against which no strong African culture defended them. Sexual predation against black women and violence against black men "would appear to idealize what once dehumanized them," and so "Little Black Sambo became a ‘badass’ dude." And polls suggest that African-American men do not think that marriage will bring them happiness.
The result is a low rate of marriage among African Americans. Among people aged 25 to 34, more than two-thirds of all white men and women but less than one-third of black men and women are married. What is especially troubling is that educated, affluent African-American men are no more likely to marry than their poorer counterparts. And women who get married after they turn 34 confront a pool of available males - that is, those who are the same age or a bit older and have promising educational and economic attainments - that has become quite small. This is one of the troubling legacies of the well-known fact that black women greatly outnumber black men in universities. And even were educational attainments the same, the African-American sex ratio falls after the age of about 40.
Many African-American women get pregnant, often without planning to, and a lot would like to get married, but many fathers are not interested. Both men and women want babies, but the men are much less likely to think that getting married and helping take care of the infants makes much sense. And if they do get married, they are much more likely than their wives to be unfaithful and to be a punitive parent.
The lesson this leaves in the mind of the child is not hard to imagine. The father is absent, and thus fatherhood is unimportant; the father is present, but infidelity and harsh punishments are the result. To children for whom these things are true, the conclusion is clear: Do not identify with your fathers. And many do not. One study of African Americans found that men who rejected their fathers were more likely to do better in finding jobs than those who identified with them.
One implication of this argument is that single-parent families are likely to be a bit more normal among black than white Americans. By "normal" I do not mean widely accepted or generally endorsed; I mean instead that they will involve people who are less different from other members of their race or ethnicity. Given the high rate of single-parent families among African Americans, this must surely be the case; such families are much too common to be limited only to deviant persons. And scholars have found this to be true. Robert Lerman discovered that young, unwed African-American fathers are much more similar to married black men than unwed white fathers are to married white ones. For example, the reported use of hard drugs and alcohol among young unwed black fathers is roughly the same as it is among young married black men, and is much lower than among young white unwed fathers. White unwed dads are three times more likely than black unwed dads to use hard drugs or to be charged with a crime in an adult court, and half again as likely to have an alcohol problem. Today, white unwed fathers are clearly deviant, though at the rate at which single-parent homes are growing, that may not be true much longer.
All of these facts are about people with acute family problems, but of course most people do not have these problems. About half of all African-American families are part of the middle class, a group for whom the legacy of slavery, at least with respect to income and family structure, has been overcome. In 1995, the income of married black families was 87 percent of that of married white families. It is difficult to write about any social issue without appearing either to overstate the problem, and thus neglect people who have done well, or to exaggerate these accomplishments, and thus understate the problem. Let me put the matter in language that was endorsed by several African-American as well as white students of family life at a 1998 conference at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The report, "Turning the Corner on Father Absence in Black America," stated that the average black child born in the early 1980s would spend about 11 years, well over half of his childhood, living in a one-parent home. The authors differed as to what caused this situation. If slavery has indeed played a significant role, that fact gives a further indication of how deeply rooted are the problems of the black family. Searching for clever language to take into account the remarkable level of African-American progress while at the same time recognizing the magnitude of the problem may be a waste of time.