Exploring the role of the Black family during Black History Month
January 29, 2021
The national theme of Black History Month this February is the Black family — an area of study in disciplines as varied as history, anthropology, literature, sociology and the arts. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which decides the theme each year, says the Black family has been “reverenced, stereotyped, and vilified from the days of slavery to our own time.”
USC professors weigh in on Black achievements that are cause for celebration, as well as challenges that still need to be solved by all Americans.
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Whose ‘family values’?
“American legislators run their platforms on ideas of ‘family values’ and the ‘sanctity of the family.’ But support for Black families has always been excluded from these imperatives,” said Alaina Morgan, assistant professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“Black families have always occupied a precarious social position, dating back to the antebellum period when Black men and women could not be legally married, Black children were not permitted the luxury of acting as such, and Black mothers and fathers never knew when they could be shipped to a different plantation. Today, with rates of mass incarceration ripping Black men and increasingly Black women away from children and COVID-19 killing Black people at disproportionately higher rates, the Black family remains under attack.”
Morgan examines institutional structures that destabilize Black families, as well as the ways Black people have attempted to strengthen their family structures, such as with religion, particularly Islam. She recently co-hosted a USC Facebook Live on the Black Family.
The importance of education and understanding Black achievements
“At a time of growing awareness about racial injustice and systemic racism in the U.S., the need to understand Black history has never been more important,” said Pedro Noguera, the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the USC Rossier School of Education.
“Throughout our history on this continent, Black people have been subjected to violence, degradation and unrelenting discrimination. Despite this adversity, we have survived and often thrived. If one thinks of just a few recent Black names in the news — baseball legend Hank Aaron, inauguration poet Amanda Gorman, director and actor Regina King and our new Vice President Kamala Harris — it is clear that despite the challenges we face, Black people continue to excel.
“Education is the key to continued Black excellence. While enormous challenges remain, due to systemic racial inequality and the corresponding racial disparities in academic outcomes and opportunities, education remains our best hope for a more just future.”
Noguera is a sociologist whose research focuses on how schools are influenced by social and economic conditions and demographic trends.
COVID-19 pandemic makes it hard to celebrate
“The Black family is feeling the weight of this multilayered pandemic, which includes racial injustice,” said the Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, program manager for the USC Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement. “Right now, Black History Month feels like a cheap consolation prize for all that Black families are enduring, including suspended grief — grief that they can’t actually process because there are too many deaths.
“At the same time, Black families are resilient. We will look to the narratives of our ancestors, the trailblazers and the legend makers, and we will find hope and create some new stories. We know that roses do grow in concrete, to quote Tupac Shakur. Black families are roses growing in the midst of concrete.”
Smith-Pollard combines her experience as a pastor and a community leader to run programs that train pastors to take on civic engagement work.
How might Black families thrive?
“How might Black folks not just survive but thrive in this pandemic of COVID-19 and enduring racial inequality?” asked Lanita Jacobs, associate professor of American studies and ethnicity and anthropology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “What will become of Black communities, corridors and the prospect of communion with so much devastation, job loss, death and despair?
“What lies underneath this screaming revelation about the disparate treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters versus those who stormed the Capitol? And what of whiteness, white privilege and white supremacy at this time? Who needs to intervene? Could it be white folks and not people of color this time around?”
Jacobs researches African American women’s discourse, anthropology of the body, and language and gender.
Racism continues to be a hazard to Black families’ health
“For centuries, Black families have shouldered the ramifications of discrimination and structural racism,” said April Thames, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
“This is glaringly evident when examining Black-white disparities in health, health care and racial trauma. Health disparities are tied to the biological impact of racism on health as well as blocked opportunities to access to equitable and optimal health care. Historic displacement, exclusion and segregation of Black families across the country continues to be a deadly threat to physical and mental health of Black Americans.”
Thames is a clinical neuropsychology who researches stress and adversity, including how racial discrimination may impact the way genes are expressed, leading to increased levels of dangerous stress hormones.
An unknown piece of Black, and LGBTQ, history
“William Dorsey Swann was the world’s first drag queen; the first documented person to use the word ‘queen’ to describe himself in the context of a ball or party that was described by participants as a drag,” said Channing Gerard Joseph, a cultural historian and lecturer of journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “He was as out as you could be in the 19th century. He was so out that the president of the United States knew about him. It was well-known in Washington DC, where he lived, that he was the leader of a queer community.
“Swann was born to enslaved parents in Hancock, Md. During his lifetime, he was sent to jail numerous times and faced beatings, losing a job and losing friends, all because of his effort to build a community around queerness and drag in the 19th century. My hope is that over time people could understand his contribution to creating this world and that we could all honor him by acknowledging the roots of drag in America.”
Joseph is an award-winning journalist and the author of the forthcoming House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, a book about the true story of a formerly enslaved African American man who became the world’s first self-described drag queen.
What do Black families need from white families?
“Someone once said a white family in the midst of a natural disaster was ‘looking for food’ but a Black family doing the same thing was ‘looting’,” said Kimberly Finney, a clinical associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and an expert in military mental health and racial trauma.
“Martin Luther King Jr. shared his dream that one day, Black Americans would be judged based on character and not skin color. This dream has not come true because the message in his dream was not for Black Americans. It was meant for the people who judge them.
“American Black families have survived slavery followed by decades of social injustice, including violent death by racist individuals or angry mobs, which continues to this day. Black families need white families to work on developing an unbiased level of awareness and accountability of unearned privilege based on skin color.”
Finney is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences (practitioner).
Photo by Nechirwan Kavian on Unsplash