Broad Recognition

A Feminist Magazine at Yale

The Forgotten Fathers: Re-Examining Black Single Motherhood

While navigating the complex web of social media on Father’s Day, I came across a variety of posts. Some consisted of heartwarming quips and anecdotes about the special relationship between a father and his child, while others were touching eulogies to fathers and grandfathers gone but always remembered.  A few praised the single mothers who had assumed the role of both mother and father in their households. As I read through these numerous pieces written in honor of the day, I discovered a rather dark piece by James B. Peterson that plagued my mind.

In the article, Peterson reaches back into our nation’s annals to resurrect that terrible specter which perennially haunts America: slavery. By many accounts, slavery could be considered the institution that has shaped America’s history most dramatically. Aside from its economic function, slavery facilitated the propagation of racism and eugenics as well as the widening gulf of ideology between a liberal North and a conservative South that persists to the present day. To justify the subjugation of an entire race, white slaveholders purposefully created myths of inferiority and associated the color black and those who bore black skin with vice and evil.

Understanding the historical context of slavery is a critical step toward comprehending how the image of black female licentiousness began to pervade American society. Women’s bodies have been a popular battleground for policing morality within the state. While women of all races struggle to regain political and personal control over their bodies, black women have been subjected to the physical and intellectual dissection of their bodies for centuries in especially pernicious ways.

Today, popular media narratives of black womanhood typically fall along four main veins: the pitiful case of the single black woman, concern for black women’s health (particularly in relation to obesity), the offensive assertiveness of black women, and the cyclical nature of black single motherhood. All of these issues can be attributed to a national preoccupation with black women’s bodies that stretches back to the slavery era, when they were battered and traded like cattle.

Of these, the narratives surrounding black single motherhood are perhaps most frequently addressed in popular culture. While there are millions of well-adjusted children of single mothers across the nation, some segments of our population view single mothers as a sign of declining morals within our society. In this war to restore American “family values,” single mothers are often caught in the crossfire. By virtue of the color of their skin and their relative prevalence, black single mothers are often viewed as the archetype of this so-called moral degeneracy.

On a social level, these comments often take the form of joking references to “baby mamas,” while on a political level, they frequently inform discussions of the welfare queen. But can this phenomenon that admittedly affects the black community more than other communities be uniquely tied to black female sexuality and its inferred moral shortcomings?

I think not. The Peterson article suggests that a more insidious legacy will be forever tied to black single motherhood: the rape and assault of black slaves by their white masters.  While a small minority of such relationships may have been consensual, these men impregnated their slaves and, in the vast majority of cases, did not claim paternity, leaving their former slaves to continue lives of systematic oppression. Even Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s founding fathers, had several unacknowledged children with his slave Sally Hemings.

Black single motherhood is the product of a society that prizes incarceration over education, resulting in a system in which blacks only make up a little over 13% of the population, but black men comprise 40% of the prison population. Disproportionate arrests of people of color have taken children away from their fathers. While some of these men may be considered stock-character deadbeat dads, there may be an equal number who do not have a choice when it comes to being separated from their children.

From tales of plantation life to the Jim Crow society that lynched and victimized black men across the United States to the latest incarceration statistics, we can see how black single motherhood is not the result of some moral failing, but rather the product of living in a society that has yet to fully overcome its history of racism. Before legislators continue to bemoan the presence of black single mothers, of hardworking women who must struggle to combat the welfare-queen stereotype and a society that marginalizes their struggles, the historical and political contexts of this state must be fully addressed.

For some women, single motherhood is a happy choice, but for a large number of women it is not. Nevertheless, many of them have successful personal and professional lives. In this age of shifting cultures and ideologies, we must acknowledge that there is no one path to the American dream of home and the ideal family. While we applaud their commitment to their children, we should take care to remember to correct rampant, misguided criticisms of black single motherhood and to acknowledge the role that our societal shortcomings have played in constructing the false narrative surrounding it.

Kiki Ochieng is a sophomore in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.

Comments (5)

  • If you want people to take your opinions seriously, I strongly suggest providing citation of scholarly materials in support of your arguments. As is, I have trouble agreeing with your seemingly unjustified assertions. You have, after all, only completed one year of undergraduate study. Take caution that you do not always write so pretentiously.

    posted by Jordan Tucker      June 21st, 2012 at 11:50 pm

  • The article above was based on an article that appeared in Dominion of New York called “The Original Deadbeat Dads” by James B. Peterson. He is the Director of Africana Studies and an Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. My attempt to connect the state of black single motherhood to historical events like slavery, lynching and mass incarceration (which still plagues us) is based on this article (which I reference several times during my piece)

    The part of my analysis dealing with political and media narratives of black women are partially based on my readings of black feminist theory (e.g. Audre Lorde, bell hooks). Professor Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest book Sister Citizen also strongly influenced the direction of this piece.

    Although I am admittedly a young college student, I have tried my best to continue to read a wide variety of literature on various political topics. Those readings as well as my own observations from living as a black woman in America informed my piece.

    posted by Kiki Ochieng      June 26th, 2012 at 8:05 am

  • Kiki, what a wonderful piece. Thank you for commenting on the injustice of a society that through the prison system exacerbates the problem of unwished-for black single-parenthood while simultaneously questioning the ability of any single parents. Particularly powerful part is your comment on the persisting effects of slavery as black women’s bodies are still too often considered objects of public judgment and ownership.

    -Grace

    posted by A. Grace Steig      July 10th, 2012 at 4:11 pm

  • Kiki, I am grateful for this piece. I am actually conducting my own research on black single mothers, for a blog that I am about to create, and I came across your article. I appreciate the tone that you used to connect historical facts with present day statistics, because unfortunately as a human race, we are still affected by slavery and racism, and while some prefer to ignore the facts, and find it easier to place blame now, the facts remain the same and we can not change them. Furthermore, it was refreshing, because I am a single mother, and despite popular opinion, it was not a choice for me. I am not a welfare queen, nor was I raised in a single parent home. So it was nice to read your article which presents the dilemma that many young women and their children are faced with, from a different vantage point. You are a brilliant writer and researcher, keep up the great work, and thank you for your inspiration.

    Patrise H.

    posted by Patrise Henry      January 9th, 2013 at 8:29 pm

  • Phenomenal article Kiki. I am a graduate student at The Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, GA and I am greatly impressed. For you to produce a piece like this with such substance and being only at a sophomore level is outstanding. Keep up the good work.

    posted by Dietrich J. Carroll      May 10th, 2013 at 1:56 am

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