Class Looks at the Roots of the Black Family

August 12, 2008 — As people of African descent became dispersed all over the world — mostly to the Americas and mostly through forced migration as slaves — the definition of "family" by necessity took on different meanings.

"Black families have been known to incorporate people and create wider associations," said Todné Thomas, a doctoral student in anthropology at the University of Virginia who taught a summer course called "Kinfolks, Families and Relating in the African Diaspora."

Black families, she said, can be seen as resilient and flexible in their cooperation and continuity. A family "is a socially recognized unit" that is not only biological but also social.

"'Kinfolks' is a vernacular term for expressing relationships," Thomas said.

In the course, students read anthropology, history, sociology and public policy to look at how Africans who moved or were moved to South America and the Caribbean, as well as North America, found ways to maintain an extended family structure. At the time, Western norms of family arrangement were foreign to them, Thomas said.

Coincidentally, CNN provided a real-time exercise with its two-part series, "Black in America," highlighting some of the issues the class delved into in more depth and breadth.

The class decided to write a letter to the television network critiquing the documentary — which, for starters, split the episodes into "The Black Woman and Family" and "The Black Male."

Although it presented a large family reunion and told the stories of some of its members, it still relied on the assumption that the patriarchal nuclear family with mother and father is the normative family structure.

Another point they discussed was that the show did not capture the diversity within the U.S. population of black people. Thomas, for example, is conducting field work on the West Indian Brethren Church in Atlanta, which comprises people from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana.

"The students had great insights," Thomas said of their reaction to the CNN show.

She had her 10 students study not only how slavery hampered that family unit centuries ago, but also how later social policies unwittingly undermined that model.

Jumping to the 1960s, the class read about policymakers who based their welfare programs on the norm of the heterosexual nuclear family and immutable gender roles. If there was a male in the household, it was assumed no assistance would be needed, so only women with dependent children received aid. The stereotype of "welfare mothers" developed, and the prevalence of female-headed households still is usually portrayed in a negative light.

Kendall Nicholson, a rising third-year architecture major, said, "I wanted to take this class because I think it is important culturally to understand what, socially, people often tend to misunderstand."

The small group allowed for lively discussion of several related topics and group projects, Thomas said. In addition to readings, the students were also exposed to different perspectives through visual media, including other documentaries.

Chelsea Green, a fourth-year psychology major in the early education master's program in the Curry School, said, "Now that we have delved into some readings and I have learned more about past West African and African-American families, this class forces me to look at my present idea and conception of family."

Myah Marshall, a student in the Rainey Academic Program for incoming first-years to get acquainted with the University, decided to "test the waters" with the class.

"It is very interesting to see the different structures of black families, along with seeing the different ways in which these structures are made possible," she said. "Since the class is smaller, the discussions are much more intimate."

The class also looked at the emergence of genetic ancestry testing and what it means for racial heritage and identity.

The students' final project involved using digital media to compare traditional genealogical research with the new industry of genetic ancestry testing.

In the past, science was misused to determine or describe racial identity, Thomas said. She wanted her students to think about the compelling personal reasons for researching one's past and to consider a wide range of social, cultural and ethical implications.