Monday, November 8, 2010

Black women are not the problem and marriage is not the cure for our community's woes

A few weeks ago, during a live online discussion hosted by Essence, I admitted being ambivalent about the No Wedding No Womb campaign, which focuses on getting black women not to have children out of wedlock. Even though my plan for my life did not include having children without being married; even though I am married with no biological children (but two awesome stepchildren); even though my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents were married, something unsettles me about the effort, though I understand the desire to help black women who are suffering and I respect founder Christelyn Karazin for attempting to do something in response.

Matrifocal families have been part of the African American community through history. Female-headed households did not come to be in the hip hop generation. And they are not the root cause of the community's problems. Unequal access to opportunity, healthcare, childcare, housing and education is the problem. The persistent attack on the middle class and the poor is the problem. Homophobia and unequal access to marriage is the problem. Racism and sexism are the problem. The constant focus on black women's role in families and in male-female relationships is a vestige of persistent sexism in the larger and black communities (and greed on the part of pimps like Steve Harvey who make a fortune shaming black women into changing themselves to better get a man so the babies don't starve.). And this focus on what women do is keeping us from attacking the real challenges of our community.

I consume a lot of books about slavery, emancipation, reconstruction and other black history to aid my genealogical research. Last night, while reading Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South by Sally McMillen, I came to a chapter about black women and marriage that piqued my interest:

The issue of matriarchy frequently arises when studying slavery. Some sociologists and historians have concluded that the African American family was and still is matriarchal, based in part on the husband-wife relationship that evolved during slavery. The controversial Moynihan Report, released in 1965, asserted that modern African American families were unstable and disorganized. Households headed by females, the report argued, seemed to symbolize the troubled state of black families. Some scholars looked to the past to explain this situation. They observed that slave fathers seemed either absent or powerless, causing enormous problems within families and the wider community. They concluded that slavery, weakened marital bonds, seemed to presage twentieth-century problems.

More recent studies have argued that the concept of matriarchy is an inappropriate one for defining the structure of African American families. Researchers have pointed to the egalitarianism between black men and women, a discovery worthy of attention because it did not parallel the white experience. The power and strength of black women were striking, especially in comparison to antebellum white women who held so little power. Like many others, historian Suzanne Lebsock, in her book Free Women of Petersburg, argues that "matriarchy" improperly describes slave families and a black woman's role:

It needs to be be understood from the beginning that the term "matriarch" would never have been applied to black women in the first place were it not for our culture's touchiness over the reduced male authority within the family. It is a telling fact that matriarchy has most often been used as a relative term. That is, women are called matriarchs when the power they exercise relative to the men of their own group is in some respect greater than that defined as appropriate by the dominant culture. Given this standard, women need not be the equals of men, much less men's superiors, in order to qualify as matriarchs.

Because white women had so little power over men, situations in which bondwomen seemed powerful, or at least the equal of their husbands, resulted in misapplication of the term. Scholars prefer to use the term "matrifocal" when describing slave families in which the mother had primary responsibility for the children.

Deborah White's study of slave women further explains how black women became resilient and strong and, according to her, lived free of the dominance of black men (though they were always dominated by white men). According to White, slave women's strength derived, in part, from African tradition. Lineal descent was often traced through the mother's side of the family in African cultures, and women customarily played an important role in family survival. (Pg 38 and 39)

and this...

Recent scholarship by historians Leslie Schwann and Brenda Stevenson paints a less rosy picture of female slave power within the black family. They argue that slave families lived under an inordinate amount of stress, and that black men and women resented the constant oppression and servitude they endured. Men might take out their frustration and anger on those colsest to them: their wives and children. A mother might lash out at her children after a particularly bad day. But complaints of domestic violence were not shared with others. black women usually suffered in silence, not wanting to expose their fragile lives to additional stress. They internalized such behavior and carried on with their lives.

Slave women, despite their strength and position within their family and community, were the most powerless group in the nation. They had no legitimate right to keep their children, to remain married, or to prevent physical or sexual abuse by black and white men. They faced discrimination, as women, as slaves, and as blacks. They could be punished and sold at whim. Yet slave women were not pawns, and they found means to protest their oppression without the aid of men. They also knew when to comply with a "Yes, Massa" and when to play dumb. Within the black community and in their personal relationships, black women could wield influence comparable to men. Their strength and resilience passed on to subsequent generations. (Pg. 39)

It's that last bit that strikes me most. Our families have often looked different from those of the mainstream and that difference has often been directly because of the virulent oppression by the mainstream. Black women have, through history, found ways to build strong families in spite of our constant marginalization. But that is not good, see. It is not good for women to be strong or resilient or to have the same power as men. So, we become the problem. We are the problem because we won't "let men be men." We are the problem because we are too educated or successful in our own right. We are the problem because we are "welfare queens." We are the problem because we choose to have children without benefit of marriage.

I wonder what my great-great-great-grandmother, Lucinda, would have thought of this idea.

Following emancipation, many of my ancestors cemented their marriage bonds. I found a Freedman's Marriage Declaration for Thomas and Jane Taylor, a set of maternal ancestors who went before the court after emancipation to legalize a union that had already resulted in two children. Constantine and Violet Winfrey did the same. I haven't yet found legal marriage documents. Perhaps they never filed them, but I know they lived together in bondage and in freedom, raising a large brood, gaining literacy and purchasing land that remains in the family to this day.

But Lucinda was different. In the 1870 census, Lucinda is living with her three children in the home of a white family. She and her oldest children are servants. Her oldest son and daughter were born in bondage at the W.H. Fortson Mill in Kentucky. Her son's father is unknown. Her eldest daughter's death certificate lists James Gorey as her father. Her next daughter, Georgia Anne, my great-great-grandmother, is said to be the daughter of Abe Holland. In freedom, Lucinda would have another daughter, Miney, whose father is also unknown. There is never a man living in the house with Lucinda. It must have been hard--very hard--raising children alone in rural Kentucky, as a fourth-class citizen, during the danger and uncertainty of the Reconstruction Era, amid racism and sexism and economic marginalization. Little did Lucinda know that her problems could have been solved had she just married one of the fathers of her children.

Of course marriage, or the lack thereof, was not Lucinda's biggest problem in the late 1800s. Similarly, it is not the biggest problem facing black women today (though the media would clearly disagree). Focusing on black women's marriage and reproductive choices keeps us distracted from the real challenges that face the black family, like ailing, underfunded school systems and the lack of decent, affordable childcare. Plenty of my married, middle-class friends (of ALL races) are bending under the weight of exorbitantly-priced and inconvenient childcare. Many of them fret over children in subpar schools or break their backs and budgets seeing private schools as the only alternative. The fact that they are married does not erase those challenges.

I wish for all women to make smart, responsible choices for their lives. I wish for black women not just to have a manifesto for their wombs, but a plan for their whole futures. We need to teach this to girls--that they can envision the life they want and that they have the power to work toward that. But let's not pretend that there aren't real societal forces pushing against the success of women and people of color and poor people. And let's not pretend that ultimately those forces are not the most important thing to address. It is much easier, though, to tell black women how to catch a husband or how to reproduce than it would have been, say, for the black community to lead the fight for real healthcare reform. Black women and our choices become the problem because our lives in this country have not and do not follow the patriarchal pattern that we are told is "right."

Please also know that I am not arguing against the importance of men in children's lives. The presence of strong men in my life tells me men and fathers are important. I'm simply noting that a family headed by a single mother with a stable job that pays a living wage and access to decent, affordable childcare, healthcare and schools for her children, and a support system that includes solid, male and female role models, looks very different than the picture of a struggling black mother with children in peril. And I am arguing that not all functional families look alike. One daddy/one mommy/2.5 kids/dog and cat is but one sort of family.

If we want to ensure the survival of black families, we need to take to the streets to make sure Republicans don't use their new power to roll back gains in healthcare; we need to vote more and be more engaged in the political system than any other group; we need to band together to create safe neighborhoods; we need to pressure city governments to make sure all children get decent educations; we need to pull back the curtain on misogyny in our communities; we need to push back on media and entertainers that offer our children a steady diet of bullets and bling.

We need to broaden the discussion beyond what men and the mainstream think black women are doing wrong. Because black women are not the problem.

Comment moderation note: I know the issue of No Wedding No Womb is controversial, but let's keep it civil in the comments section. Please discuss the issue at hand, which is the health of black women and black families. I will not approve any personal attacks on NWNW proponents or opponents. Nor will I approve comments about the moderation policies of other blogs. We don't all agree, but most of us do have the best interests of black women at heart. Remember that.


each1teach1 said...

I commend you for writing an excellent synopsis which focuses on the real issues, incorporating research and historical facts.
We really need people like yourself to create an agenda to help formulate realistic problems to some of the weakness of the black family.
We need to find a way to make the truth just as catchy and popular a bandwagon to jump on for our youth as the simplistic Steve Harveyesqe books & that other "movement" are.

CaitieCat said...

Thanks so much for this interesting and informative look at the issue from within. It makes a stark contrast from the externally imposed narratives.

RiPPa said...

*Standing Ovation*

I attended the Essence-NWNW live chat, and I've been engaged in this debate. I agree 100% that much of what black women are told they "should do" comes from a place that fails to recognize historical context; and circumstances of inequalities many people of color are born into.

To me, this is problematic because as you mentioned, it doesn't fix "the problem" (and why is it always black people with problems?), nor does it address the many issues which exacerbates many of "the problems" within the black community.

To fix a problem one must first be able to identify the problem. And often, what we see as a problem, is in fact the result of one (or a combination of many).

Thanks for writing this, Tami. I really enjoyed it most importantly because you took the time to put personal and historical context into the discussion. Yes, "the problem" that is the single black mother is nothing new. Which is funny because during slavery it sure wasn't a problem for "certain people" who feel the need to place them under a microscope today.

Carolyn said...

Again Tami you've written a well thought out and informative piece.

I've always been amazed and concerned about simplistic approaches or assessments made in re:to women of color and "what ails us". Elizabeth Alexander is one my favorite poets and I used to quote her "many things are true at once" statement when it comes to complex issues like this. There have been many proposed solutions and those that were enacted to varying levels of success and failure. Many were punitive in nature and riddled with class biases. I've also observed some of the same dynamics with low income and rural white women.

I, too, had some ambivalence about
this program and thanks for beginning the dialogue in critically thinking through this complex and complicated subject.
Some would justify extreme measures to handle or control
desperate circumstances.You are providing "another way to view".

Kelly Hogaboom said...

This is a great piece. Thank you for writing it.

No culture or subculture in this country is immune from the toxic forces of oppositional sexism and misogyny. Policing women's bodies in any way - no matter how well-intentioned the goals stated are - seems participatory if not complicit to these strictures.

Toshia "Writing Addict" Shaw said...

This piece had me nodding, and yelling out, "that's right!" Long after I'd finished the last sentence. What we find to be recent attacks on black women arent't recent at all. This piece proves that with grounded historic content.

I feel as if your post could have gone on and on, but you touched on some broad areas and streamlined them perfectly.

Misogyny, and blaming the black woman for community problems must not be tolerated. Well written indeed.

JamesVA said...

The reason I support NWNW is reducing the number of black children born out of wedlock is a problem we can fix ourselves without government intervention. Admittedly, our healthcare, childcare, and educational systems need a lot of work, but that's the proverbial icing on the cake when we have an entire generation being raised in single parent homes. In fact, I would argue that a 72% wedlock rate is straining our childcare and educational systems to the point we cannot fix them until more children are born to two working and married parents.

Christelyn Karazin said...

As the founder and organizer of the movement, I know that saying No Wedding No Womb is a very simplified phrase for a conundrum. I do not deny that.

However, I think the measure of PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY has been swished so much to the side, with scholars and politicians focusing more on government-sponsored "fit-its" which have fixed nothing for generations. We are worse off, despite gains in political power and civil rights. We are still struggling as a people, and I would agrue, the laughing stock of not just whites but every other race. Sadly I know Africans who will hiss at you for calling them AA. How humiliating that people from our homeland are ashamed of us that they would deliberately set themselves apart.

No other race of women in the U.S. tells their women that they "don't need a man," and to just have a baby. Conversely, no other race tells their men that it is okay for them to have multiple children in multiple households (by this I mean, allowing such behavior through glorification of it in media, music, etc), because that's what makes him a man.

Sex and procreation is something WE CAN CONTROL. Yes, I admit many social issues are out of our control, but not this. Let's stop acting like we're too discriminated against to wear condoms or partake in the more than 2 dozen other birth control options available.

So to answer, NO; it is not solely the fault of the woman. It is not solely the fault of the man. Does the legacy of slavery play a part? Hell yes it does. Does it mean we can remain on this road? Only if we want to die.

NWNW is not about blame. It's about our future, our bloodline, and what world we leave. Will it be better? Will WE be better?

Thank you for the opportunity to speak my peace.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

You laid that down, Tami. I've been seeing the NWNW stuff but I haven't had time to process it. Thank you for connecting the dots with reason.


Tami said...

Thank you, Christleyn, for weighing in. I meant what I wrote. I respect what you are doing, even as I disagree with it in several ways. I am thrilled to have a dialog.

I don’t disagree with you that everyone, black women included, needs to take proactive responsibility for their lives (and reproductive choices). And we need to support and guide young women and men in doing that.

My argument is that the media and others spend an inordinate amount of time talking about personal responsibility and black women, and scant time talking about the personal responsibility of men, or better yet, the larger issues that plague our community.

I worry that you dismiss tackling the larger issues too easily. I am not calling for more “government sponsored fit-ins” or social programs. For instance:

- A decent education isn’t some government handout to black folks; it should be the expectation of every blessed person in the most powerful country in the world. And the fact that all of our children are falling behind should be a sign that the system is broken, and for the least powerful (including POC) it is way broken.

- Ensuring that young people learn about birth control early, before they become sexually active, is important. We could end a lot of unplanned out-of-wedlock births if we pressured school systems to keep real discussions of sexuality in health classes AND gave Planned Parenthood some support from its enemies—the same people, by the way, who tsk at out-of-wedlock births in the AA community. I wonder if the same people who worry about black women’s wombs have donated to PP lately—an organization that makes affordable birth control available. In college, before I became sexually active, that is where I went for an exam, guidance and contraception I could afford. And now, it is getting harder for them to do that for other young women.

I worry that we are taking the easy way out. And I am not talking about NWNW only here, but the larger context of the discussion which seems always to work its way around to what black women are doing. It’s easy for some folks to sit back and complain about how black women handle reproduction. It’s harder to show up at the local school board meeting or mail a check for $10 to Planned Parenthood or, hell, vote in the midterm elections. And so, we focus on finger waving instead of real lasting solutions.

Tami said...
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Tami said...
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Tami said...
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Tami said...

Sorry, guys. My comments went wonky and posted a gajillion times.

Christelyn Karazin said...

Tami, I also THANK YOU for this discourse.

I am an advocate for easy access to birth control and education about using it. I don't want women to bear the burden of all the responsibility for birth control, as it takes both egg and sperm to create a baby.

I also vote at every election! ;-)

Tami said...


I'm glad you're a voter. I expected nothing less. Unfortunately, only 10 percent of the black community showed up for the midterm elections. And that lack of engagement hurts far worse and has more immediate consequences that what any individual black woman does with her body, y'know?

K. Michel said...

Excellent piece, Tami. It actually captures one of my strongest criticisms of the movement.

Even if we were to regain our 80% two-parent home statistics (which would be very nice for the African American community in this day), we'd still have children being born out of wedlock... it will always be this way in every society.

My issue is, why shame these children (or the parents of these children) instead of creating environments where any child in the African-American community can thrive? Because children being born out of wedlock (whether they make up minority or majority numbers) are going to happen, regardless.

Where I will agree with Christelyn (in the interest of all fairness) is that we need to drill safer sex into our children's skulls. So much more than getting pregnant can go wrong for everyone involved when people have sex without protection.

I heard from a blogger friend of mine that her grandmother found birth control pills in her room... and the blogger knew that her grandmother now thought of her as fast, or a slut. So, there's also shaming being done in that regard.

Parents and grandparents expect their children to be abstinent, so much so that so many AA parents don't have the "talk" with them. I know that I didn't get the "talk" from my dad at all. Parents should really converse with their children about sex, and past the point of just "don't do it".

The more information you provide your child about sex, it's the strongest case for abstinence because you take the mystery out of it. You answer their curiosity. I think that if more parents talk to their children... things would definitely turn around in terms of safe sex.

Even abstinence.

Once again, thank you Tami.

MB said...

Preach Tami!!! This post is so fierce and lays out a lot of my issues with NWNW. It amazes me that black people in particular think that those who are most oppressed are the ones who need to exercise the greatest amount of personal agency. I have to say that my energy regarding this discussion is wearing thin as I feel there doesn't seem to be any real desire to acknowledge the way that structural violence plays a role in our lives. People keep talking about personal agency and I don't understand how someone is not exercising personal agency by trying to raise their family the best they can in a society that privileges two parent households over others. Why women's agency? Why not men's? I think my deep critique of modern culture on the whole keeps me ambivalent about black families desire to look like mainstream white ones. We are so much more and we deserve so much more than the things that our world tells us to value. Thanks again for your words Tami!

MB said...

Preach Tami!!! This post is so fierce and lays out a lot of my issues with NWNW. It amazes me that black people in particular think that those who are most oppressed are the ones who need to exercise the greatest amount of personal agency. I have to say that my energy regarding this discussion is wearing thin as I feel there doesn't seem to be any real desire to acknowledge the way that structural violence plays a role in our lives. People keep talking about personal agency and I don't understand how someone is not exercising personal agency by trying to raise their family the best they can in a society that privileges two parent households over others. Why women's agency? Why not men's? I think my deep critique of modern culture on the whole keeps me ambivalent about black families desire to look like mainstream white ones. We are so much more and we deserve so much more than the things that our world tells us to value. Thanks again for your words Tami!


Before we can work on the issues, we need to first work on ourselves,if we have not yet mastered ourselves, how then can we as women teach another how TO BE, if we don't know how TO BE. Once the black woman has the real education, once she adopts the principle of "know thyself" then and only then will we see the transformation. A good place to began learning the true Knowledge of self would be to read, "Egyptian Cosmology,The Animated Universe" by Moustafa Gadalla. We know big words, we are very politically savvy, street smart and intuitive, but a lot of us don't know who we are.

Love Momauwi said...

A_Gallivant said...

I think I had heard grumblings of this movement when I was in NY years earlier. While I agree with your overall argument that there are larger social/political/economical issues at play in black women's lives, I think quite a few people feel disempowered by these processes and feel incapable of entering into that larger debate. Movements such as the NRNW focuses on personal responsibility which is seductive because it makes you feel as if you can take control of your life. Yes, we exist in a larger political context that should always be challenged and reformed, but where is the place for programs like this that is trying to take a more directed and personalized approach?


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