This essay [The Negro American Family] is an attempt to study the family among Negro-Americans—its formation, its home, its economic organization and its daily life. Such a study is . . . faced by a lamentable dearth of material . . . For past American conditions the chief printed sources of information must be sought in the vast literature of slavery. It is difficult to get a clear picture of the family relations of slaves, between the Southern apologist and his picture of cabin life, with idyllic devotion and careless toil, and that of the abolitionist with his tale of family disruption and cruelty, adultery and illegitimate mulattoes. Between these pictures, the student must steer carefully to find a reasonable statement of the average truth.—W.E.B. Du Bois (1910)
It is difficult to love your home and family if you be outcast and despised by them; perplexing to love humanity, if it gives you nothing but blows; impractical to love your country if it denies you all the rights and privileges which as a citizen you should enjoy.—Alice Dunbar Nelson (1915)
The African-American family, as described within the domain of American literature, especially African-American literature, is a peculiarly vexed entity. Again and again throughout the slave narratives, for example, we witness scenes in which the slave “family,” at the pleasure of the master, is dismembered, and fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters are placed upon the auction block of slavery. That this image of the disruption of the African-American family recurs so frequently throughout slave narratives should not, however, be surprising. As Claudia Tate notes, the “economy of slavery demanded . . . [that] slave families existed outside legally secure and institutional constructions of marriage, motherhood, family, and household or home.” 1 In introducing his novel, Clotel, William Wells Brown reports, “The marriage relation, the oldest and most sacred institution given to man by his Creator, is unknown and unrecognized in the slave laws of the United States.” 2 Thus, as Brown notes, access to the relationship upon [End Page 226] which the family is founded, marriage, was largely denied to slaves of the American South. The rape of slave women by white masters further bastardized the slave family. This recognized, if not officially authorized Southern custom, marked the “father” as an absent term within a significant number of African-American domestic groups and designated such families as “illegitimate,” as poor imitations of the ideal. 3 The civil status of free African Americans, while permitting them to marry, severely impaired their participation in the dominant constructions of parenthood and family. Employment discrimination ensured that maintenance of the free African-American family was burdensome, even when all family members combined their meager incomes. Seldom, if ever, did the antebellum African-American family follow the form of the “average” white family. 4
Like the whipping scene and the depiction of the rape and concubinage of slave women by their white masters, the image of the (mutilated) slave family is symptomatic of the structure of relations that defined slavery as a system, a system in which the “free” North participated. If the whipping scene operated upon the slave as an initiation into the (symbolic) economy of slavery, the maiming of the family served a similar purpose. 5 While the whipping scene reduced the slave to a “purely” physical presence, the dis-memberment of the slave family re-coded African-American family members as “public commodities of exchange whose market value [was] exclusively indexed as the production of material wealth.” 6 It was through this symbolic and commercial exchange, through trading upon, and in, the (mutilated) African-American family, that the cultural logic of the antebellum era articulated itself and (de)limited African-American identity. The destabilization and devaluation of the African-American family afforded the image of the (white) nuclear family its universal value.
Almost forty years after the emancipation of African Americans from slavery, the (racial) family, a privileged trope in antebellum America, retained much of its earlier cultural value. In using the term “(racial) family,” I mean to designate neither the African-American family nor the white American family (nuclear or otherwise). Instead...