Black women are not the problem and marriage is not the cure for the black community’s woes

written by Love Isn’t Enough co-editor Tami Winfrey Harris; originally published at What Tami Said

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. We will not approve any personal attacks on NWNW proponents or opponents. Nor will we 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.
Share and Enjoy:
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Current
  • email
  • Google Bookmarks
  • NewsVine
  • RSS
  • StumbleUpon

About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>