Black matriarchy appears to have caused the downfall of the Black family, depending on who you ask. This particular myth results from scientific racism about Black family life. This belief aims to blame the disenfranchised for the way their families are arranged.
Origins of the Black Matriarch Myth: Scientific Racism
Scientific racism tends to blame Black women for Black men’s life outcomes, like other myths about Black sexuality. For instance, historian Philip A. Bruce held many assertions about Black people that helped provide the cover for lynching in the postbellum America.
The assertions Bruce made about Black women relied on the Jezebel stereotype, which portrayed Black women as hypersexual:
In Bruce’s eyes, Black women who saw no “immorality in doing what nature prompts,” who did not “foster chastity” among their own daughters, were not only responsible for their own denigration but for that of the entire race. Even the Black man’s alleged impulse to rape was the Black woman’s fault. Historically, the stereotype of the sexually potent Black male was largely based on that of the promiscuous Black female.1
Simultaneously evoking the stereotype of Black men as hypersexual, this myth helped to cover up consensual interracial relationships between Black men and White women as well as the rape of Black women by White men.
This trope played a role in the political system in the modern era too. Daniel Patrick Moniyhan published The Negro Family: The Case For National Action In 1965 in 1965 while acting in the capacity of Assistant Secretary of Labor to Lyndon B. Johnson.
Moniyhan observed a majority mothers tended to lead Black households independently. He argued family structure explained poverty in Black households. While Moniyhan later insisted his report focused on class, the backlash suggested his report evoked stereotypes of dysfunction in Black families, particularly at the expense of Black mothers.
Consequences of the Controlling Image on Black Family Life
Public perception of Black motherhood gets manipulated through various negative stereotypes. Some of these portrayals vary according to historical era. For instance, during slavery, Black women faced the Mammy stereotype as the raised White women’s children.
One particularly destructive perception of Black motherhood emerged during the 1970s. The “Welfare Queen” got associated with Black single mothers after a woman by the name of Linda Taylor committed tax fraud. Ronald Reagan later used the story as a flashpoint for his campaign promise to cut back welfare programs.
People perpetuate this stereotype to this day, often asserting Black people should get off welfare and get a job even though most recipients of food stamps identify as White. As a result of this paradox, those who benefit most lose out on access in a failed effort to disenfranchise those who have the least.
Black Family Life: The History and Reality
Some West African cultures from which Black Americans came did practice matrilineality. Therefore, women did possess some influence in society and family life. Nevertheless, patriarchy dominated the economy, ideology, and government in precolonial Africa too.
Slavery perpetually disrupted Black families. While the nation recognized the marriages of free Black people, slaveowners viewed enslaved marriages as mostly ceremonial. They often sold families apart. After the end of the slave trade, breeding programs centered on Black women intensified. Thus, historically slavery forced Black people to conceive of family through extended rather than nuclear ties.
Even when marriage increased among Black people after the Civil War, Black women traditionally worked outside the home. Later on, economic policy and law enforcement eroded the fortunes of Black men. This left Black women the primary breadwinner in many households.
Nevertheless, people should read statistics Black marriage and motherhood with a grain of salt. A number of databases categorize women as single even when they live with their child’s father. Historically, surveys have not adequately captured non-married families, which Black people have resided in for the better part of their time in the Americas.
Therefore, starting with myth of Black matriarchy, society tends to mischaracterize the the experience of Black single mothers in America. Think twice before spreading this disinformation too!
Resources for Further Reading
- Staples, Robert. 1970. “The myth of the black Matriarchy.” The Black Scholar 1(3-4):8–16.
- Wallace, Michele. 1990. Black macho and the myth of the Superwoman. New York: Verso Books. I
- Hine, Darlene Clark and Kathleen Thompson. 1999. A shining thread of hope: The history of black women in America. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
- Giddings, Paula J. “When and Where I Enter.” (122 -3) iBooks. ↩