- Black Love after E. Franklin Frazier:An Introduction
E. Franklin Frazier had no idea when he published The Negro Family in the United States in 1939 how long lasting the book's influence or public policy would be. Frazier was an illustrious scholar and a giant in the field. From 1934 until his death in 1962, he taught and chaired the Department of Sociology at Howard University. He published nine books. His first, The Negro Family in Chicago, based on his University of Chicago PhD dissertation, was published in 1932. However, the 1939 publication of The Negro Family in the United States, which expanded his earlier publication's discussion of slavery and migration's impact on black households, sent his career into another orbit. The publication of this second book made him academically renowned, though no all-white institutions offered him a professor's chair. Nevertheless, in 1948, he became the first African American to be elected president of a majority-white academic organization, the American Sociological Association. In 1957, he published The Black Bourgeoisie, originally published in France two years prior under the title Bourgeoisie Noire. This respected yet reproached book was a critique as much as it was a research monograph about the stratified lives of the black middling classes. Yet it is The Negro Family in the United States, with its pioneering subject matter and methodological intervention, that stands out in Frazier's legacy.
Frazier was a fearless scholar who fought the prevailing religious pieties in black academic life that circumscribed intellectual inquiry.1 Frazier's impressive skills as an academic reflected his "Chicago School" training, inspired by the small group of faculty members at the University of Chicago who saw themselves as dedicated to the scientific study of urban sociology in the period 1915–35. It emphasized gathering, using, and interpreting quantitative data to create a science of cities. The University of Chicago's faculty followed [End Page 108] the lead of W. E. B. Du Bois, though they never acknowledged him or his 1899 seminal volume The Philadelphia Negro, despite his prolific professorship at Atlanta University (see Morris 2015). Nevertheless, Frazier refined the methodologies he acquired as a student while a faculty member at Howard and prompted his students to be careful collectors of data before making judgments on their subjects.
When Frazier wrote The Negro Family in the United States, he never intended to be dismissive of black family life. He, in fact, believed himself to be making a vital contribution to black people by examining the harsh conditions in which they coped throughout different phases of United States history, beginning with slavery and into the epoch of postemancipation. From his perspective, he was doing the hard work of social science by quantitatively showing how black American family structures morphed from the era of the bullwhip to the Great Depression. The study is big and wide, and it holds numerous assumptions about the multiple familial ties black Americans had with one another (Ownby 2018, chap. 1). Yet, in Frazier's estimation, black Americans' kinship ties with the African continent had been severed due to slavery's brute force. Further, the emotional and physical toll racism continuously took on black families left them completely disorganized to deal with modern urban life.
What is odd in Frazier's assessment is that his own family, who lived in Baltimore, appears the opposite of what he describes in his classic text. His parents, James H. and Mary Clark Frazier, were models of bourgeois rectitude. His father worked as a bank messenger, and his mother was a housewife. Given the hard economic and social times for the black working poor, this was enormously important to Frazier's outlook. His parents struggled to provide bourgeois stability and keep a marriage, as well as send their most inquisitive son to Howard University in an era when not even a tenth of black youth attended high school, let alone college. Despite this fact, Frazier does not question the variety of ways a black family might organize around class and values. Throughout his study, he assumes all domestic spaces should look like the home...