Leanor Boulin Johnson had to hold on to the bookcase, she says, the day she read her first sociological study on black families. She was upset.
The study seemed clearly biased - calling black families pathological because they didn't fit a white researcher's notion of normal.Now Johnson is a sociologist herself. She teaches at Arizona State University in Tempe and has received a Ford Foundation research grant.
As the featured speaker at African-American month celebration at the University of Utah, Johnson spoke this week about black families.
"In 1986, 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to salute black families," she said. "Not to protest. To celebrate.
"What's there to celebrate?" Johnson asked her audience.
In the past, she said, scholars have told us there is nothing to celebrate. They cite higher teenage pregnancy rates, higher crime rates, higher poverty rates and higher rates of single mothers as proof that there is no such thing as a strong black family.
Johnson calls the early sociological studies, studies made from 1910 to the 1970s, "faulty scholarship."
Those early researchers thought they could suppress their own values and biases, she said. "Much of their scientific study was assumed to be value-free."
And Johnson had to grip the bookcase when she read the 1910 "scientific" conclusion that, "Negroes' bestial sexuality drives them . . . (without exception) . . . to be immoral."
Later researchers also made mistakes, she said, even though they didn't condemn a whole race as genetically immoral and even though some of them were black themselves.
E. Franklin Frazier was the father of black-family sociology, said Johnson. He too urged his blacks to accept white values. If they didn't, however, Frazier blamed poverty rather than genetics.
Frazier drew concentric circles on a map of the city of Chicago. His studies proved that his fellow blacks who lived in the suburbs were more like whites than were blacks who lived in the central city.
"He assumed that slavery had destroyed their own culture," Johnson said. By urging blacks to accept white values, Frazier arrived at the same conclusion as earlier researchers, Johnson said. The conclusion: Black families are pathological.
In the past 10 years, more and more sociologists have been studying black families from a position of "cultural relativity," said Johnson. They have taken into account linkage to African culture. They have taken into account the unique adaptation African-Americans have had to make throughout history.
And they have found, among the depressing statistics, reason for hope and celebration.
Recently, Noel Cazenave, Johnson said, found evidence that blacks retained African values in spite of slavery. "Just after slavery, in contrast to Southern whites, black cousins rarely married each other," said Johnson. What does that prove? They honored tribal cultures that prohibit cousins from marrying.
In Africa, religion and family were all-important. Johnson says religion and family continue to be the two strengths of African-American life. She spoke of churches fighting the war against crack. Of churches providing everything from day care to classes for young black fathers to geriatric services.
And as for black families, Johnson said, it's time to correct the stereotypes of lazy, uninvolved fathers and tough, emasculating mothers. Modern sociologists are finding family patterns that are more like tribal culture than like white European culture. In Africa ties of blood are stronger than ties of marriage.
When a couple marry, they live with the husband's extended family or with the wife's extended family. In most tribes there is no such thing as an orphan. If parents die, other relatives raise the children.
In America, researchers are finding, the tradition continues. Black families are more likely than whites to take in distant relatives. "We have the ability to absorb our own," Johnson said. That's a strength.
New studies show that black fathers value the companionship of their children. To them, that's what being a father is about.
White fathers, those who are a product of European cultures, tend to see their primary role as breadwinner and disciplinarian. Johnson said society ought to be giving black fathers credit for choosing to be warmer, less macho fathers.
But we don't, she said. Even black fathers buy into the stereotypes about blacks. Johnson cites a new study that shows the typical black man thinks he, himself, is a good father, but believes black men in general are bad fathers.
"The nuclear family has only limited and partial relevance for blacks," Johnson said. When we stop calling white nuclear families "normal" we might come to appreciate the good things about black families.
We might appreciate what black churches are doing - without government funding. We might start to see female heads of households as a productive and stablizing force, she said. We might value black men as fathers.
"How many of you even knew that 200,000 people gathered to celebrate black families in 1986?" Boulin asked. (Two people in her audience raised their hands.)
She concluded, "It was not, I say not, a protest. It was a celebration."