The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 Analysis

Herbert G. Gutman

The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 is a study of the Afro-American family and the origins and early development of Afro-American culture. Herbert Gutman, a professor of History at City College of New York and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, spent ten years preparing this work. The study reaches back into the eighteenth century and moves forward to the Harlem tenements of 1925. Chief focus is on the Afro-American family in the decades just before emancipation and in the few years following. The volume was stimulated by the public and academic controversy surrounding Daniel P. Moynihan’s The Negro Family in America: The Case for National Actions (1965). Moynihan argued that American blacks were caught in a “tangle of pathology” resulting from the deterioration of the black family. This deterioration was historically rooted in slavery, and in Moynihan’s opinion, in the destruction of the black family and the will of black people. Slavery had disrupted the mother-father family organization and replaced it with the mother-child family. This pattern continued into the twentieth century, depriving black children of the complete family life that would give them the psychological strength to reach success in a hostile world.

It is interesting to note that similar views had been argued thirty years before Moynihan’s book by E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (1938). Frazier believed that widespread disorganization of family life among blacks had affected their ability to adjust to the larger white world. He spoke of the lack of stability in black family life, its resulting lack of traditions, and a casual, precarious, and fragmentary life. Interestingly, Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy in America, 1835) put it similarly a century earlier. He believed that every motive which compels a free man to a “lawful union” was lost to the slave by the simple fact of his slavery.

Herbert G. Gutman uses quantitative records from the United States census intermixed with qualitative materials such as letters slaves wrote each other, testimony given to Government Commissions, and observations of foreign travelers to assure us that the black family was never disorganized by slavery. He aptly refutes the theory that the slave experience resulted in broken black families. He insists that the black family has always been an effective means for transmitting a black cultural heritage.

E. Franklin Frazier wrote that slave families went to pieces in the general breakup of the plantation system; he felt that promiscuous sexual relations and constant changing of partners were the rule among demoralized blacks. Gutman finds that the familial condition of the typical ex-slave differed greatly from that emphasized by Frazier and others; he finds evidence of long marriages in all slave social settings in the decades preceding the Civil War. Gutman notes that young slaves learned about marital and family roles from whites and free blacks, but also had the opportunity to learn from other slaves. This fact is in part confirmed by the nearly twenty thousand North Carolina ex-slaves in seventeen different counties who registered slave marriages with county clerks and justices of the peace in the spring of 1866. Couples gave their full names and told how long they had lived together as husband and wife. Marriages were recorded that had lasted from ten to thirty years. Similar evidence used by Gutman reveals that men...

(The entire section is 1437 words.)