By Roland Warren
As a happily married man, I have been troubled by the oft-stated myth that the institution of wedlock has never been central to the African-American heritage.
Unfortunately, this view has permeated the African-American community and society at large. Now, it may be single-handedly holding back blacks in their pursuit of social, economic and educational progress.
According to testimony given last fall to a Senate subcommittee by Ron Haskins of The Brookings Institution, from 1970 to 2001, the overall marriage rate declined 17% but 34% for blacks. The overall rate for out-of-wedlock births is 33% compared with 70% for blacks.
These disappointing trends are critical because research has shown that marriage provides significant benefits for men and women. Most important, children who are raised by their married, biological parents do better across every measure of economic, social, health and educational well-being than children raised in other family arrangements. In fact, when comparing families of similar socioeconomic status, these black children have similar outcomes as their white counterparts. Marriage is the great equalizer.
Alex Haley wrote Roots based on the belief that he was the descendant of an African slave named Kunta Kinte. Roots tells the story of his family, starting with Kunta’s birth. Although some of Haley’s research has been contested, Roots can teach us some valuable lessons, including one that few seem to discuss.
Kunta Kinte escaped his master several times only to be caught each time. But one thing finally caused him to change course: his marriage and the birth of his daughter. Kunta “jumped the broom” with Bell, the plantation’s cook. The ritual was used to formalize the husband-wife bond, since slaves could not legally marry. Bell soon gave birth to their first daughter, named Kizzy, an African word for “stay put.” Kunta decided that creating a legacy of hope for his family was more important than escape.
Kinte’s dedication to his family is not unique. In 1890, 80% of black families with children were headed by married couples, according to sociologist Andrew Billingsley. That figure has dropped to 39%. In 1950, 64% of black males older than 15 were married compared with 68% of white males. By 1998, only 41% of black males were married. From 1950 to ’98, the percentage of never-married black women doubled.
This divergence in black and white marriage rates is not the legacy that Kunta Kinte left for us. It is time for African-Americans to change the path that is holding our children and families back so that we can rediscover the “roots” of marriage.
Roland Warren is the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative.
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