Yout Should Read Black Ties That Bind
Saturday, October 9, 1976 You Should Read Black Ties That Bind THE IMPACT of slavery on black Americans has long been a source of controversy among U.S. historians. Prior to the civil-rights movement, some American history books-described the Southern plantation as a rather benign institution in which docile slaves learned the virtues of the wh'ite man's civilization. Then, in th'e early '60's, historians began to stress the brutality of enslavement, comparing America's "peculiar institution" to Nazi concentration camps. But either way, blacks were made to appear pawns who were unable to fashion a vigorous culture of their own. By 1965, nationalist-minded blacks were demanding from scholars a more dynamic account of their enslaved forebears. What they got instead was Daniel Patrick Moyhihan's controversial controversial report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action," which offended some blacks by pointing to the broken, mother- centered family as the root of their problems. Reflecting the scholarly consensus at the time, Moynihan argued diat slavery, reconstruction (which led to the humiliation of public segregation) segregation) and urbanization were the basic causes of what he called "the tangled pathology" of black family life. "It was by destroying the Negro family under slavery," the report said, "that white America broke the will of the Negro people." Now, after a decade of examining letters, plantation records, records, marriage applications and other quantifiable data, social historian Herbert Gutman has produced "The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom: 1750-1925," a massive study that contradicts contradicts what Moynihan— and most previous scholarship—said about the effects of slavery.' Without overlooking the destructiveness destructiveness of enslavement, Gutman argues for the vitality and distinctiveness distinctiveness of the post-bellum black family. Despite its title, Gutman's study focuses mainly on black- family relationships in the mid-nineteenth century. If slavery had destroyed the black family, Gutman reasons, then the havoc should have been manifest in the 1860's when emancipation and the Civil War had destroyed the plantation system. Indeed, Union. Army chaplains expected to find hordes of orphaned children and abandoned mothers among ex-slaves after the war. Instead, they were amazed to discover a right kinship network in which, as one white minister put it, "all indigent or helpless people are being supported by relatives, parents or friends." The basis of this network, Gutman believes, was the black emphasis on monogamous marriage and two-parent families. Drawing on military census data throughout the South, Gutman calculates that at least 75 per cent of ex-slave households contained contained both a husband and a wife. To be sure, many of these were second marriages; nearly one ex-slave .in six who registered with Union Army, chaplains in Mississippi reported a previous ; marriage. marriage. Yet few of their first marriages, Gutman concludes, had been severed voluntarily. Most had been broken when an owner sold or gave away one of his slaves. Premarital Sex MOST OF GUTMAN'S book is an effort to explain how this rightly knit pattern of domestic life developed and flourished .l. i;v.,. = ,.i; '.'¡li. f.n <.(: ijr-:i.-ii¡ li\liL-i:r~ '> 'A í! t QilMOd Hlfliol .despite the.constramts or slavery. Here Outman, who is a prores-, ';. j i»|. . ., -.10 ,...-...,, .... ' . | n;,., .,f;- .:,. 1 -.;.;•. ,.;. f . £ .(,,/ spr at the City College or INew York, breaks sharply with those, historians, both traditional and revisionist, who believe that die. values slaves placed on monogamy and parental responsibility, were learned from their white masters. On the contrary, Gutman argües convincingly that blacks developed kinship networks under plantation owners who were either ignorant of or indifferent to their slaves' domestic arrangements. ' '•'•;' Although masters prized female slaves for their ability'to produce capital gains (in the form of slave children) for the plantation economy, they displayed little concern about marriage between blacks. The fact that young slave women often had children before marrying only confirmed the white view of slaves as sexually permissive. However, Gutman's book shows that prenup'tial child-bearing was normally followed by a stable relationship relationship with a man. Unlike theit masters, slaves tolerated premarital premarital sex, but also zealously defended marital fidelity. Moreover, Gutman deduces from birth records that blood cousins rarely married — a contrast with the inbreeding of some Southern Southern white families. ' : . : Gutman suggests that this prohibition, like the extended family, was rooted in West African tribal mores. More important, the author demonstrates that slaves developed their own method of maintaining family identities. Through a unique analysis of slave birth records on six plantations, kept for business reasons by the owners, Gutman reports that slaves often named their sons; after the father or grandfather, thus contradicting the notion mat their families were essentially matriarchies. Hair WHAT HAPPENED to family ties when slaves were sold or given away? Some of the most affecting passages in Gutman's study are from letters written by — and often for — slaves to their separated spouses. "I would much rather you would get married to some good man, for every time I gits a letter from you it tears me all to pieces .. ." a remarried slave writes to his former wife. "I want to see and I don't want to see you. I love you just as. well as I did the last day I saw you, and it will not do for you and I to meet." Then he'continues plaintively, "Send me some of the children's hair in a separate paper with their names on the paper .-. . You know I am one man that do love my children." Families broken by sale did not lose their ideals of kinship, Gutman finds. Instead, they formed themselves into "fictive" family clans under which other slaves become substitute "aunts" and "uncles." In this way, Gutman argues, Afro-Americans reconstituted the family unit. Through this solidarity,- he concludes, concludes, each generation learned distinctively black rules for living and passed along a distinctive Afro-American heritage of music,stories music,stories and religion. When Gutman turns to his more limited analyses of census data from 1880 and 1925, he also finds the two-parent family solidly established among lower-class urban blacks. Although his book does not trace the generational links between slave past and- urban present, Gutman has at least soundly rebutted the theory that slavery shattered the black family unit. That, he suggests, was the work of the Great Depression and subsequent decades of hard-core poverty. ' Some blacks arc hailing Gutman's study as the answer to the Moynihan report. Roger Wilkins, the only black on the editorial board of The New York Times, welcomes the book as proof that' the black family is "a strong and resilient institution. Current black stagnation," he insists, "must be seen as a malfunctioning of the American economy." Social psychologist Kenneth Clark doubts whether the black family — even today — reflects more pathology than white families. "There is an increasing number of whites who live together without marri'age," says Clark, "but ho one has ever asked Moynihan to deal with that." . • — In NEWSWEEK'