There is a crisis in the Black family, that truth cannot be denied. The only thing the Black community disagrees on is its source. There is a particular widespread belief held by Black men that the Black woman’s “independent mentality” is at fault for the near disintegration of the traditional “Black family.” They vehemently blame feminism and point to Black female expressions like “I don’t need a man” or “I can pay my own bills” to bolster that belief, misunderstanding and misinterpreting the origin and emotional/historical context of such words.
In reality, because of the precarious situation African-Americans have existed in, true dependence on Black men has always been out of reach for the average Black woman. We know and understand that when enslaved Africans were first brought to the United States, both men and women were property of their White slave masters. Men could do very little to protect themselves, or Black women from enormous heinous atrocities imposed on their physical, psychological and emotional beings. The rape of the Black woman was very commonplace. Thousands of mixed-race children were born of such “unions”– including Sally Hemings six children fathered by Thomas Jefferson who was 30 years her senior. She gave birth to her first child by him when she was only 14. Black men often witnessed the rape of their own mothers, children and even spouses, without the ability to protect them or fight back and were often times torn away from their families and sent to other plantations.
That Black male helplessness continued throughout much of the duration of American history where Black men– as a population– were socially, economically, and politically disenfranchised, criminalized and discriminated against in ways that rendered them unable to live up to society’s White patriarchal standards of “manhood.” Thus, long-term generational economic or financial dependency would have been made practically impossible.
For example, Post-Emancipation, freed African-American men were quickly becoming a highly skilled labor force marrying and starting families at staggering rates. Within decades, southern states implemented discriminatory laws, known as Black codes, in order to exploit, control and subordinate recently freed slaves that disproportionately affected Black men. These codes made it illegal to be unemployed, restricted Black ownership of property, prohibited free Blacks from keeping firearms and cohabiting with Whites and gave harsher penalties to Blacks compared to Whites for the same crime, landing thousands of men in prison or into the legal system leaving Black women, once again, unprotected and vulnerable.
When we consider the reality of slavery, post-emancipation sharecropping and the criminalization of black men, there is very little evidence to support the narrative that Black women have ever truly been able to be financially or economically dependent on Black men.
Historically, Black women not only worked the field as slaves and freed persons, but were also forced to compensate for the Black men who were absent from the community because of America’s unfair legal practices. This history is eerily identical to today’s predicament where discriminatory legislation and the “War on Drugs” has spawned an era poignantly called “The New Jim Crow” by academics, with Black men making-up 60% of the total incarcerated men despite only being approximately 6% of the population.
Today, many Black men have come to view Black women through the lens of “White” female history, where women were limited to household spheres and disallowed access to the outdoor “working world.” From that point of view, it is easier to correlate Black women’s success with higher education attainment, the availability of certain work opportunities and their “independent mindset” with the breakdown of the Black family. However, Black women have always had to work and continue to work; not much has changed where that is concerned, so that could never be a primary contributing factor to today’s Black family crisis.
Though feminism has allowed Black women access to spaces typically closed to female participation, that reality is independent of Black male oppression that happens whether women make any “advancements” or not. It cannot be denied that a Black college educated woman will less likely marry or start a family with a man who has been to jail, but it is also less likely that a man who has been to jail will be able to support a family if he were able to start one. This poses a difficult conundrum that must be critically discussed in order for solutions to be conceived and implemented. No party is culpable except the institutions that allow for such injustices to continue.
A solution requires empathy from both Black men and Black women for one another. It is pertinent that Black men not admonish women for their accomplishments that, to a large extent, allow the Black community to stay afloat. The statement: “I don’t need a man” so frequently verbalized by Black women speaks to a reality that they have never been able to need one. It speaks to a history of hardship and denial of basic protections. It is a mantra for survival that allows for progress, despite the most dire circumstance. And for that alone, Black women should be commended, not diminished.