Thanks to the urging of my buddy, Zabeth, I’m reading a book on my insy, weensie, ittie, bittie iPhone screen called “American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare” which chronicles how three African American single mothers fared under Clinton’s landmark welfare-to-work program that was enacted in 1996. I remember that time, because Maxi Me was born in 1998, and as I have mentioned before, I was on welfare for a short time while I was in college and was aware of the changes. I used the system for what it was designed for–to get a leg up when I needed it. I bought PAMPERS (lol if you know why this is funny to me) and used WIC to buy milk and cereal. The small stipend was it $400? went toward utilities, gas and school supplies, but no way in hell was it enough to live any kind of comfortable life–at least not any kind of life I wanted to live. When I graduated, I sent the State of California a nice thank-you note and happily took a 500% raise as an entry-level media relations specialist at a premiere agency in Washington D.C.
But I know I was one of the lucky ones. For many, welfare is a way of life…the only way. Illegitimacy and single-hood are byproducts of this system, and at first blush, one might conclude that the system is the cause of these problems. But according to author, Jason DeParle, who traced the three women who were entrenched in the Wisconsin AFDC system with family ties to Mississippi, these issues predated welfare and root of the cause is…slavery, then after that the often-corrupt share cropper system. No surprises there.
Quick history lesson: Slaves were commodities to be bought and sold. If a slave owner got short on cash, the quickest way to land it was to sell a slave. Marriage wasn’t allowed, but people in love still ‘jumped the broom.’ But the fact remained was no family was safe–any little slip of a familial security could be snatched away and vanish like vapor. Putting myself in the shoes of a strapping black male slave, I could understand how the threat of being sold off at any moment, coupled with the inability to provide and protect a family might lead to a certain necessary detachment.
After slavery these behaviors persisted in some groups, with multiple marriages and divorces, not bothering with marriage and doing the common-law thing, or hitting and quitting altogether. American blacks have always sewn a fragile family fabric and out-of-wedlock births, rampant sexual abuse, domestic violence and drug abuse fraying the edges. With 80 percent of black mothers giving birth to children out of wedlock, these behaviors are still persisting. Black fathers are still acting as if they could be sold off at any moment, and the core of the family for millions consists of a mother, and if she’s lucky, a grandmother or aunty to help out with the babysitting and child rearing.
One can surmise that’s why African American family structure is so much more precarious when compared to Africans who immigrate to American and sometimes look at us like we’ve lost our minds.
Ever heard of the saying, “When you know better, you do better?” Well, we can argue that as a whole, black people should know better. Men and women are still forging these transient, fragile family structures as if the male will be sold off any day. What has replaced the slave master is now prison, drugs and gangs. What’s more, many girls and women lack what the author deems, “self efficacy” By dictionary definition, they lack the ability to produce a desired or intended result. They don’t know there is any other way. They simply believe they have no choice, and this is life…there’s no more to what they experience than what they can see, hear, and feel around them.
These women are still slaves, ignorant of what lies beyond the plantation.
A New Culture Must Be Forged
We need more freed women to speed the word to our most vulnerable. There may not be much hope for the old slaves who are set in their ways, so let’s focus on the young ones, who are agitating for change and can still sense that something is amiss. Let’s get to them before all the light drains from their eyes. It is not acceptable to resign ourselves and say, “Well, this is how it’s always been! There’s no way to change this!” Oh really? There was once a time when women weren’t allowed to vote. Babies deemed unworthy to live were once thrown off of cliffs. It was once acceptable for lead to be laced in the paint of children’s toys. Four hundred years ago you could be burned at the stake over little more than a rumor. This country was once ruled by a King. All these things happened, and were perpetuated for hundreds, and even thousands of years. It took prescient and persistent thinkers to bring about change. And guess what?