This is not information that’s not known about black women and mothers, but sometimes people need to be reminded on how great we are and what we have gone through and continue to face every day. We are not perfect by any means, but the negative stereotypes that are attached to us needs to be dispelled and not used to form “uninformed” opinions about our sisters, aunts, and daughters who are mothers. – AcademicHustler1975
Although African American mothers are in many ways no different than other mothers, particularly with regards to the love they feel for their children and the goals they have in raising them, they have been and continue to be faced with enormous and unnecessary barriers to mothering. From slavery up to the present drug and prison epidemic, African American mothers have struggled to keep their families together and to raise healthy children to become productive citizens.
In North America, mothers are caretakers of their homes, their partners, and their children. In many ways, African American mothers are no different from mothers of any other ethnic group, race, religious background, or class. They struggle, like all mothers, to raise healthy children who will grow up to be productive citizens. Yet, in the contemporary United States, African American mothers have a history and challenges that are unique. From their arrival on American shores in 1619 through today, the African American woman has been the bedrock of the African American family. Several particular, key markers—slavery, civil rights (the Jim Crow era), and the prison epidemic—have shaped the experiences of African American mothers.
Although African American women were not legally able to form family unions during slavery, there is evidence that they performed the role of “wife” under the slave mode of production. Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, in his magnum opus on the African American family, demonstrated empirically that the unjust system of slavery that African Americans lived under for over 300 years did not fundamentally break their belief in and reliance on family for survival. The research of historian Herbert Gutman verified Frazier’s work, wherein he showed that at the first point of freedom, the most consistent act among African American men and especially women was to set out to find their love partner.
To describe the system of chattel slavery in the United States as antifamily would be an understatement. The system of chattel slavery, which allowed people of African descent to be bought and sold as cattle or hogs, was antifamily by design. African American women worked to create families within the system of slavery, overcoming severe barriers to doing so. For example, slaves were not legally able to marry; thus, they created the tradition of “jumping the broom,” which signified their commitment to each other. However, this commitment was not recognized by their masters, and it was not uncommon for slave masters to sell one partner to another plantation. Slave masters not only refused to respect familial relationships between slaves, they also frequently detested them, because these relationships had the potential to make it more difficult for them to rape and impregnate these slave women, thus increasing their slave holdings. Yet, African American women, despite being raped by their masters, continued to forge relationships with their partners. Additionally, they raised their children, often the progeny of these rapes, as best they could. Noted African American orator Frederick Douglass writes of this experience. As noted, there is strong evidence that when the institution of slavery finally ended, there were many intact African American families who did everything they could to reunite with relatives who had run away or been sold off.
Jim Crow Era
Immediately following emancipation, many newly freed slaves continued to work as sharecroppers on the plantations where they had spent their whole lives. Just as during slavery, African American women continued to work in the fields alongside the men as well as to work in the master’s house doing cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, and even wet nursing. This tradition, coupled with the intense rules of segregation that barred African American men and women from most social, political, and economic institutions, created a widespread pattern that persisted well in the middle of the 20th century: the role of African American women as domestics.
During the 20th century, unlike many white women, the majority of African American mothers were employed, especially after they became mothers. African American families depended on women’s wages primarily because there were so few job opportunities for African American men, and those that did exist often paid salaries that were much too low to maintain a family. And, although those who were able to be educated could work in the professions as nurses and teachers, which were set up by African Americans in an attempt to service their own segregated communities, the majority of African American women found work as domestics. As Judith Rollins and Patricia Hill Collins document, these women would work six and sometimes seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day in other people’s homes—usually white homes. In some cases, these women, even when they were married and/or had children, lived with the families for whom they worked. If they were married, they might “live in” all week long and be allowed to return to their own homes for a visit on Sunday. If they were unmarried—with or without children—and with no home, they “lived in” permanently. Janet Langhart Cohen, wife of former Senator from Maine and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, writes in her memoir From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas about her experiences living with white families in Indianapolis in the early 1950s while her mother was a domestic. Gregory Howard Williams, President of City College of New York, recalls in his autobiography Life on the Color Line: The Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black, watching the woman who raised him—Miss Sally—trudge home, her shoulders weighed down by stress and her legs heavy from exhaustion after working very long days as a domestic in a white home on the other side of segregated Muncie, Indiana.
This labor-intensive work often resulted in neglect in their own homes. Many black women writers recount their mothers coming home after long hours of domestic labor and somehow, miraculously, finding the energy to prepare hot meals for their own families and braid their daughters’ hair. As adults they understood, but even as children, they remember knowing that the burden of caring for other people’s homes and children somehow robbed them of the attention that their mothers should have been paying to them.- Andrea O’Reilly
Black feminists have long argued that the backbone of the Civil Rights movement was really women. Many women, including Coretta Scott King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis, Dorothy Height, Daisy Bates, and Ella Baker played key roles in the Civil Rights Movement. For example, the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 was engineered almost entirely by women. Many of the famous leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Reverend Shuttlesworth had wives at home whose dedication to their homes and the raising of their children allowed these men to crisscross the country giving fiery speeches and being jailed for acts of civil disobedience. The women of the Civil Rights Movement—many of them mothers—have not only been neglected by history, but have often been rendered invisible.
Why are African American women facing motherhood alone? There are many reasons, including some that are not unique to African American women. First, overall, rates of marriage are declining, and rates of single motherhood are rising across all populations. That said, African American mothers face challenges that are unique; namely, the lack of marriageable men—what William Julius Wilson refers to as the “marriageable pool”—which is a result of two key factors: unemployment and incarceration. Unemployment rates for African American men are double the national average at nearly 20 percent. And, in some of the hardest-hit communities like Detroit, the unemployment rate for African American men nears 50 percent. Unemployment tends to lower marriage rates; however, with unemployment rates so high, it is unlikely that marriage would improve these mothers’ economic conditions.
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing African American mothers today is the overincarceration of African American men. The latest Bureau of Justice statistics reveal that of the 2.3 million Americans who are incarcerated in any given day in the United States, half—or more than 1 million—are African American men.
Mirroring the trend in declining marriage rates among African Americans beginning in the late 1960s, beginning in the early 1970s with the passage of the Rockefeller drug laws, incarceration rates began to soar to the heights we see today. There are serious racial disparities with regards to sentencing. For example, in March 2009, Human Rights Watch released a comprehensive state-by-state analysis that demonstrated that although rates of drug use are similar across racial/ethnic groups, rates for incarceration for drug possession—which account for 80 percent of all drug sentences—were 5.5–11.3 percent higher for African American men between 2000 and 2008. Today, approximately one-third of all African American men will be incarcerated, as compared to fewer than one in 10 white men. The impact of incarceration on African American mothers and their children is devastating.
Effects of Incarceration
Clearly, incarceration brings financial challenges to families; a breadwinner or potential breadwinner is removed from the household. Or, in the case of single mothers, a source or potential source of child support is removed. Additionally, incarceration is expensive for families. In addition to court costs, there are the costs associated with legal defense, as well as the expensive collect calls from prison—often $3-$4 per minute—that mothers may feel are essential. Similarly, the cost to travel to visit partners and children’s fathers can be extraordinary, as most inmates are moved far from the high-population areas of their residence to the low-density areas where many prisons are built. The cost to stay in physical contact with lovers, husbands and children’s fathers, therefore, may become prohibitive. For example, in New York, the vast majority of incarcerated African American men had been living in New York City at the time of their incarceration, but the majority of state prisons are in upstate New York. Thus, most African American men incarcerated in New York are locked away hundreds of miles from their families.
Another side effect of overincarceration on African American mothers is the increasing role they play in raising their grandchildren. As they are often the only stable person in the families of incarcerated men, the burden of raising their children increasingly falls to their own mothers. Just as they are entering retirement, many African American mothers find that they are left to mother their grandchildren.
A recent study by Devah Pager showed only 3 percent of African American men with felonies are likely to find employment, which also increases the likelihood of domestic violence. Living with domestic violence and escaping from its grasp is a yet another hurdle—and a very high one—facing many African American mothers.
The war on drugs has added a unique and difficult struggle to the role of mother in African American families. Removing African American men from their families and communities leads to lower rates of marriage and higher rates of divorce, and creates an overall instability in both African American families and communities. And, of course, it is African American mothers and grandmothers who are left to pick up the pieces.
Inevitably a new system of racialized social control will emerge … No task is more urgent for racial justice today than ensuring that America’s current racial caste system is its last.” – Michelle Alexander
Edited by: Andrea O’Reilly, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412979276.n13, 2010.
Publisher: Oxford University Press Print Publication Date: 2009, http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-African-American-History-Present/dp/0195167791