In my last post, I was blogging for the online blitz No Wedding, No Womb organized by blogger Christelyn Karazin. I admit it was something I decided to do at the last minute however my decision to participate was questioned by a few real life friends and after much thought I have decided a second post was in order. Since the online campaign hit the internet and now the airwaves, there have been many who have questioned the idea that Black folks getting married will solve the out of wedlock issue that affects the Black community. In some ways to merely say get married is a rather simplistic response to a rather real and serious problem. One of the questions being tossed around in the twitterverse after this online blitz has been what do we do next? In order to answer that question though and truly come up with meaningful solutions I think we must go back and look at what are the issues that have brought us to the point where the vast majority of African American children are born out of wedlock.
To attempt to answer that question, I decided to pull out one of my favorite books by Black sociologist William Julius Wilson “When Work Disappears: The New World of the Urban Poor” this book was published in 1996 and I think that much of what Wilson discusses remains just as salient now as when this book was published. Much of his research in this book was focused in Chicago which regular readers know happens to be my hometown so in using his text to discuss the issues I also feel a personal connection having been raised in Chicago.
In the first chapter of this book Wilson records the voices of Blacks on the city’s south and west sides where the vast majority of Blacks in Chicago live (note, its an area that I am personally familiar with as my Grandmother lived on the south side for over 40+ years until her death several years ago). A question was posed to respondents in his study of whether or not their communities had changed? Most said yes and that the change was for the worse. The biggest change being around the fact that there was a lack of jobs in the community which resulted in a rise of poverty in these same communities. (p. 15 In sum, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a sharp growth in the number of census tracts defined as ghetto poverty areas, an increased concentration of the poor in these areas, and sharply divergent patterns of poverty concentration between racial minorities and whites.)
Let’s think about that for second it’s a known fact that going back to the 1970’s and 1980’s there was a surge in poverty concentrated among minorities specifically Blacks. When did we start to see an increase in out of wedlock births among Blacks? Now I am not about to look it up but thinking back I am almost certain the out of wedlock rates started to increase around the same time. I also know that in the 1980’s in the Black community we also saw an increase in drug usage and sales particularly with the introduction of crack cocaine. We also know that eventually we would see drug laws put on the books that would effectively send Blacks who dabbled in crack cocaine to prison for much longer terms than whites who dealt in just cocaine. See where I am going? A frame work going back as far as the 1970’s and specifically the 1980’s was laid that would impact us now in 2010.
As I am not trying to write an academic piece here I will say that Wilson goes on in deep detail in his book to capture the impact of joblessness on the Black community. In Chicago it meant seeing good jobs move from the city where the high paying were accessible to having them located in suburban areas where they were not always accessible for a number of reasons. I saw it in my own family, my Granny’s company relocated from downtown Chicago to the suburbs and eventually moved out of state. She took another similar manufacturing type job in the suburbs that required a daily commute of two hours a day and paid substantially less, she worked that job until about two years before her death at age 77.
Something as seemingly small as lack of work has the ability to change the entire structure of a community. The community effectively creates its own way of operating that differentiates from the greater community and norms, I think in the past decades this is what we are seeing with the rise of out of wedlock births. The reality is people are not going to stop being sexual beings yet the reality is in the Black community we often have issues talking openly about sex. Many women grew up with mothers, grandmothers, and aunts whose idea of sex education was to tell you to keep your panties up and your skirt down. I suspect that we are still not doing a great job even in 2010 of talking sex when we have women like Oprah Winfrey who still refers to vaginas as va jay jay’s. My mother did a better job of talking about sex with me than her mother but the truth is it was not enough. I think that due to historical imagery of Black women as loose wanton women, many of us find it hard to have real discussions about sex for fear that we play into racial stereotypes about Black women.
I see the issue of out of wedlock births in the Black community as being about many issues, lack of meaningful employment, and lack of hope….most of the bloggers who took place in this piece of online activism are solidly middle class. There are some such as myself who admit to coming from backgrounds that were not middle class but by and large we have folks who are quite disconnected from the people who they hope to help by giving a one size fits all solution which rarely works. Marriage can be a wonderful institution but it is not for everyone and marriage alone will not cure all that ails the Black community. If Mama and Papa are married but dysfunctional who the hell does that help?
I see real help coming in the form of knowledge, for most folks reading this the very idea that knowledge is not available is hard to fathom. Yet as someone who works with the poor granted in Maine I work with poor whites I can attest to the fact that there are still millions upon millions of Americans who lack access to knowledge. People who have outdated libraries, poor schools and basically no help in breaking the cycle of generational poverty. Most of the so called programs to help the poor are little more than band aid solutions and I speak as someone with 15 years of working with the poor in Maine and in Chicago. We give a Mama a Pell grant to go to school yet no access to childcare or transportation. In some states we have rules that you can’t go to school and receive TANF assistance as you need to be working.
If someone were to ask me on a practical level how can we create change with the younger generation and reverse the cycle of out of wedlock births, I would suggest get involved in your community. Become a Big Brother or Big Sister, mentor, and financially support organizations that are working to affect change. If you are in the position to hire folks give folks a chance who may not have college degrees, pay them a living wage. How can a man be there for his child if he cannot earn enough money?
Think about the fact that we have national policies that are not parent friendly, especially if a parent happens to be poor and more so if they are a poor parent of color. Let us be mindful in the language we use, I recently saw many folks on line using disparaging language to refer to out of wedlock children…that’s not cool. I also think in the Black community we need to see the village coming back together. I was thinking back to the fact that the year I stayed with my Granny, the same lady who babysat my brother as a child babysat my son. We need more of that. In some ways the Black community is deeply fractured and needs to come back together and while online campaigns are great ways to raise awareness we must do more. The work that is required will demand that to be frank we get off our asses and literally do something, we either give our time or we give our money.
In closing I don’t think there is a single answer to this issue but as I opened this post with I do think that finding the solutions will require deep examination of how we got to this point. To look for an answer without a historical perspective of what got us to this point is foolish at best and actually has the ability to be quite damaging at worst. Black folks in general are not good at talking class issues but I do think that for those leading the charge that is a discussion that will need to be had.
ETA: I think perhaps we also may have to look at how we define a family. Right now our official view point is one man, one woman and kids. Yet for many that is not their reality and perhaps we need to be mindful of that. If Black women are outnumbering Black men that means to me it’s not even possible for every so called Baby Daddy to marry the mother of their kids. Am I saying we need to institute laws for polygamy? No but acknowledge that from a strict number perspective even if wanted to see all these folks married it’s not possible. So again we need policies and procedures that allow parents to be there for their kids and create a healthy family in whatever form that takes.