For decades, the existence of the black “matriarchy” has been studied, scrutinized and depicted in an effort to understand its causes and effects on the black family system. The term is contestable because while some schools of thought determine there is no black matriarchy, others who believe the matriarchy is the cause for the issues in the black community, and those who see no issue with a matriarchal family structure.
One prominent white anthropologist, Melville Herskovitz, believed there was no issue with the black matriarchy in his writings in the 1940s. According to Herskovitz, the black matriarchy was present during slavery as women and her children were less likely to be split apart than the father and his children. He also saw the matriarchal structure as a continuation from West African practices.
Contrary to Herskovitz, the black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier denied that African practices were retained during slavery. Frazier took this position with the belief that if blacks are seen as distinctly different from whites, segregation would seem appropriate. To some extent this makes sense to me, as Frazier was writing his essay on the Negro family in the 1940s. However, Frazier takes his ideas too far in his claim that blacks will remain “uncivilized” if segregated from whites. According to Frazier, blacks were successful during slavery because of their close proximity to white families. Thus, under slavery black fathers played a larger role because they tried to mirror the structure of the master’s family. He asserts that the Reconstruction period and segregation have allowed blacks to lose their way because they no longer have immediate contact with whites. In his 1940 writing, Frazier attributed these “bad” behaviors to the poor black class who lived in ghettos.
When first reading Frazier’s works I was astonished that such thoughts could come from such a distinguished, scholarly black man. The psychological study of black self hate seemed to apply to this Howard professor. But unfortunately, this was an accepted line of thought because of the southern white ideology that took precedence in the Reconstruction period.
In 1957, Frazier wrote The Black Bourgeoisie in which he criticized the black middle class’ matriarchal structure. Now, according to Frazier, the middle class is also to blame for black society’s matriarchal structure – an interesting shift in belief. According to Frazier in ’57, the black matriarchy can even exist in households where fathers are present. Frazier characterized these black middle class women as masculine, irresponsible and seemingly evil. They emasculate their husbands, leaving them unable to perform sexually, spend their money on extravagant luxuries, leaving their children without essentials, and indulge in poker and drinking. In other words, the black middle class woman is the real problem in black society: she “ruins” her husband, her children, and the family’s economic status.
In 1957, and in today’s society, Frazier and other sociologists blame the individuals in the black community rather than “blaming” the system itself! He follows the line of thought that because blacks are irresponsible and self-destructive, they are poor. However, the reality is that the system is organized so that those who live in poverty are not given the same opportunities as more privileged others. Education, housing and the job market affect the structure of the black family in general, not the other way around. To say this another way, blacks are not to blame for the situations they are in, but the system is to blame.
It may seem irrelevant to blog about the ideology of sociologists like Frazier but it is actually very important in understanding the way we view the black matriarchy today. This ideology has conditioned us to believe that a matriarchal structure is a negative thing, causing issues in today’s black youth. Analysts use information like the fact that most incarcerated black youth come from fatherless families, and automatically assume that mother only households caused their bad behavior. In actuality, these young men and women grow up in a society that tells them they cannot achieve greatness or overcome their circumstances unless they are part of the very small exception of black youth.
It is a reality that single parent households are not able to accumulate as much wealth as two parent households. That fact is undeniable. However, black women are subject to institutional racism in the job market and face discrimination in job positions and pay. Thus, she is less likely to make the same money as a white female, white male, or black male. So, this economic reality is not so much a result of her inability to provide for her family, but the result of a system that keeps her in that position.