by Will P. Jones
In his 1939 study, The Negro Family in the United States, black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier argued that slavery had prevented black men from leading their families. After the Civil War, men began to gain what Frazier saw as their proper role, but poverty and discrimination continued to condemn black children to "broken," female-headed homes. Black America's only hope, according to Frazier, was to restore the "House of the Father," where black males could, once again, be "real men."
In an October 25, 1996 address at the University of North Carolina, political scientist Adolph Reed reminded his audience how much Frazier's thesis continues to dominate discussions among both blacks and whites, the left and the right, about poverty, welfare, and the black family. From the publication of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report on The Negro Family, to last year's Million Man March, commentators seem to accept uncritically the notion that black men are better suited to lead black family and community life than are black women. During the Civil Rights Movement, men were often placed before women in leadership roles. Even Rosa Parks, who came to symbolize female activism, was reputedly chosen to play that role over another woman who had mothered a child out of wedlock. In 1972, black nationalists criticized black congresswoman Shirley Chisolm's campaign for president on the grounds that her victory would have prevented a man from being the first black president. More recently, according to Reed, has come the lack of organized opposition to attacks on welfare. Seemingly in agreement with the idea that women should not be raising children without husbands, Americans of all races failed to defend Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and other support for single mothers.
Reed traced the disdain for female leadership and single motherhood to black political thinkers' acceptance of nineteenth century ideals of republican citizenship. Early black nationalists Alexander Crummell and J. Milton Turner criticized American racism, but they endorsed the exclusion of women from public life. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas lamented that slavery prevented men from heading black families, and in his turn of the century study of the Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois opposed female employment because it supposedly undermined nuclear families. Reed also exposed the elitist bias of such arguments. Anna Julia Cooper for example, argued in her 1892 A Voice From the South: By a Black Woman of the South, that Jim Crow laws forced middle class blacks to associate with less educated working class "ruffians." Black leaders during the Victorian 1890s condoned a republican view that male land owners were the proper masters at home and representatives of their wives and children in public.
By failing to criticize these early thinkers, contemporary black leaders have perpetuated ideas that undervalue black female work - both in and outside of the home. Reed urged progressives to defend welfare as a means of aiding single mothers of any race or ethnicity, and challenged us to explore alternative models of family and gender roles. He also denounced the Democratic Party for caving in to Republican attacks on social spending, and praised the recently formed Labor Party for defending welfare in their first public statement. Only by acknowledging and overcoming the conservative biases of early anti-racist thought, Reed concluded, can black as well as white progressives begin to break the right wing siege of our nation's political arena.
Will Jones is a graduate student in history at UNC-CH and an activist with Internationalist Books, Carolina Socialist Forum and the NC Committees of Correspondence.
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