Thursday, June 15, 2017

Two-Parent "Nuclear" Family Households in US Slavery

In 2011, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann, along with many other GOP candidates, signed a "Marriage Vow" pledge that initially claimed that US slave children were largely raised in two-parent homes. In the article linked in this NPR/New Republic story by John McWhorter, he defends this claim. This claim recently reappeared in a student-faculty dispute, where the sociology professor's contract was not renewed, arguably due to posting threatening personal statements about the student on social media.

The professor in question apparently used a test-bank from a well-known marriage and family textbook, written by a well-established sociology researcher, Andrew Cherlin. While I could not find an online copy of Cherlin's textbook to quote, he has a trade book that makes the following claim: "Most slave children, [Gutman] contends, grew up in two-parent families" (2006, p102). As can be found elsewhere, for example on the blog of another marriage and family scholar, Philip Cohen, the test bank contained a question that asked about the structure of US slave families, and the 'correct' answer was "Most slave families were headed by two parents." The student objected to this answer, believing it to be untrue, and even created a presentation arguing her case that both the textbook and her professor were relying on outdated research (Cohen, above, quotes his own textbook, where he seems to affirm Cherlin's position, saying, about slave families "most children lived with both parents").

While I am not a marriage & family scholar, my reading of the recent peer-reviewed literature on this subject seems to confirm the student's position, contrary to Cherlin's claim in his textbook and the publisher's test-bank. What he refers to above has been deemed the "Gutman Thesis," since this revisionist perspective on slave families seems to come from Herbert Gutman's research (1976), and was supported by subsequent research by other scholars in the 1970s & 80s (Genovese, Blassingame, Jones, White, as referenced in Stevenson (1996)). However, by the 1990s, Gutman's ideas started to be challenged by a number of slavery scholars, and this more recent trend is not apparent in Cherlin's work, from what I can find.

An outline of this transition away from Gutman can be seen as early as 1995 in Stevenson's "Black Family Structure in Colonial and Antebellum Virginia: Amending the Revisionist Perspective." By this point, data had already appeared which contradicted Gutman, and a consensus had begun to form that the pre-Gutman picture of slave families was better supported, specifically, the position that since slave-owners did not recognize the legality of slave families, and typically did not even believe that Blacks could form emotional family bonds, there was no incentive to protect slave families. Rather, there was every incentive to break up slave families when it was profitable to sell fathers to other slave owners, or as soon as the children were considered old enough to be removed from their mothers care, often around 10-years old.

Cracks started to form early around Gutman's framing of slave families. A 1980 dissertation by Crawford (Quantified Memory), in an examination of narratives from interviews of ex-slaves, only 51% recalled being born into "two-parent, consolidated family households" (quoted in Malone, Sweet Chariot, 1992). Crawford finds that in smaller plantations (15 or fewer slaves), single-parent homes were closer to 75% of families. (Malone goes on to cite Fogle, who apparently had misrepresented Crawford's work, claiming far more two-parent families under slavery).

Similarly, in 1986, Kulikoff's, Tobacco and Slaves makes the following claims based on his research:

  • 357-59 "Because spouses of African-born slaves were usually separated, African mothers reared their Afro-American children with little help from their husbands. ... First, planters kept women and their small children together but did not keep husbands and teenage children with their immediate family."
  • 369 "Nearly half of all the Afro-Americans owned by four large planters resided in households that included both parents and at least some of their children. More than half of the young children on all four plantations lived with both parents."
  • 371 "Only 18 percent of the blacks on small units in Prince George’s County in 1776 lived in two-parent households. … More than two-fifths of the youths ten to fourteen years of age lived away from parents and siblings. … Although slave fathers played a major role in rearing their children on large units, they were rarely present on smaller farms. … Children under ten years almost always lived with their mothers, and more than half on large plantations lived with both parents.. Between ten and fourteen years of age, large numbers of children left their parents’ homes."
  • 373 "The fact that about 54 percent of all slaves in single-slave households in Prince George’s in 1776 were between seven and fifteen years of age suggests that children of those ages were typically forced to leave home. Young blacks were most frequently forced from large plantations to smaller farms."
These statements are supported by multiple data tables. Two different tables support Crawford's claim above, that large plantations had more stable two-parent families, hovering around 45%, while smaller plantations had far lower rates of two-parent households, only around 18%. Additionally, reiterating what was quoted above, the tables show that there were children who lived on their own in households, especially children 10-14 years of age, where 15% on large plantations lived in households with no other family members present.

These findings are supported by Malone, 1992, in Sweet Chariot. She explicitly contradicts Gutman, et al's, research, saying

  • 254 "Revisionist literature of the 1970s and 1980s on the slave family projected the supposition now frequently reflected in college textbooks that most slaves in the United States lived in families consisting of both parents with their children. This idea developed in part from a misreading of slave family-household studied that analyzed only the composition of simple families rather than that of the entire community. If one looks solely at simple families instead of the households making up the entire social body, then a majority of those slaves in families did live in two-parent nuclear units under normal circumstances. But such an approach obscures the fact that at many points in their lives slaves were not part of a standard nuclear family but functioned as solitaires or as a member of other household types. It also fails to perceive the holistic nature of slave society"

Stevenson (1996), in Life in Black and White, continues the attack on the Gutman Thesis with more contemporary data:

  • 161 "Even when the physical basis for a nuclear family among slaves—the presence of a husband, wife, and their children—existed, as it did for a significant minority, this type of family did not function as it did for free people, whether blacks in precolonial Africa or whites in the American South. Slave family life, in particular, differed radically from those of local whites of every ethnicity or class. … Virginia law, for example, did not recognize, promote, or protect the nuclear slave family or slave patriarchy. In fact, the only legal guideline for slave families did much to undermine these concepts …. Since ‘husbands’ had no legal claim to their families, they could not legitimately command their economic resources or offer them protection from abuse or exploitation."
  • 208 "Despite scholarly speculation to the contrary, even the largest local slaveholdings often did not translate into monogamous couples or nuclear core families who resided together on a daily basis."
  • 212 Regarding Stevenson's research on various slave-owning families in Virginia in the late 1700s-early 1800s, including George Washington, "as many as 74 percent of those slave families with children did not have fathers present on a daily basis—46 percent of the slave mothers had abroad husbands, while 28 percent were ‘single’ or had no identifiable spouses. ... 71 percent of his slave mothers lived with their children, but had no husband present."

Continuing to build on this research, Burke (2010), in On Slavery's Border: Missouri's Small Slaveholding Households, 1815-1865, the following conclusion is drawn from this state sample:

  • 226 "In the five counties studied, only 28 percent of slaveholdings in 1850 and 27 percent in 1860 comprised just slave women or slave women and children alone. In fact, a full 47 percent of slaveholdings in 1850 and 50 percent of slaveholdings in 1860 had in residence both male and female adults. … a great number of abroad and single women resided in slaveholdings with slave men who were not their husbands. Many of the men living with abroad women may have been related in ways other than marriage; they were fathers, brothers, and sons."

Finally, in a current textbook, Cole (2016), Race and Family: A Structural Approach, summarizes many of the researchers quotes above, saying,

  • 189-90 "[Kulikoff] in one account of interviews with former slaves, 82 percent mentioned their mothers' presence in their childhood, but only 42 percent recalled consistent contact with their fathers. Hence, the master, not the father, was frequently viewed as the provider for the family. ... 47 percent of families on large plantations were nuclear, as opposed to only 18 percent on small plantations. Crawford (1980) reported that single-parent families were 50 percent more prevalent on plantations with 15 or fewer slaves."

The most current research seems to contradict the claims of those who argue that slave families were largely composed of two-parent households. But beyond the specific data claims, there is also a question as to why the original claim was made. While, on the one hand, it may simply be a case of "following the data where it leads," an important principle of scientific research, the persistence of these claims, particularly the removing of these claims from their original research contexts, seem to derive from a perspective of wanting to minimize the devastation of slavery, and in doing so, would seem to lend credibility to those in society who want to argue positions that facilitate racist beliefs and claims.

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