U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Catron is one of several prominent Americans who fathered children with slave women. His son, James P. Thomas was born to a 36-year-old Tennessee slave named Sally. Thomas escaped slavery, with no help from Catron, who in his entire life gave Thomas only 25 cents.
“Unless their mothers were raped by their masters/fathers; in that case they would be dogged by the existential tensions of their own miscegenated identities; their sui generis experience with fatherlessness would have been inextricably linked to their condition as human chattel“ — James Braxton Peterson “Racial Redux” (NewBlackMan & Huffington Post)
Bill Andrews’ edited, Frederick Douglass Reader begins with a chronology of Douglass’ life. The first entry reads as follows: “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey born in February . . . , in Talbot County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unknown white man” (Andrews, xi). Although scholars and historians have been somewhat reluctant to underscore the fact, Douglass was clearly haunted by his peculiar experience with fatherlessness – so much so that as Henry Louis Gates points out, one of his final “missions” in life was to meet with a physician who may have been able to provide him with some information regarding his actual birthdate. One of the signal achievements of Douglass’ classic 1845 “slave” narrative, was the poignant manner in which he articulated the natal alienation that American slavery produced in its victims. Not knowing one’s birthdate, being alienated from one’s mother, and not knowing one’s father all colluded to produce in enslaved Black Americans a diminished sense of their own humanity. When we factor in additional practices of the “Peculiar Institution:” forced separation of families, rape, rampant brutality, and uncompensated, forced labor, the legacy of the institution and its potential to impact the present become readily apparent.
In the epigraph above I am wrestling with the unchecked irony and impact of certain public comments made by politicians. In this case, then presidential primary candidate Michelle Bachman, fresh off the talking points memo of the moment, suggested that Black families (especially Black children) were somehow better off during slavery because back then . . . (wait for it), Black families were more intact than they are in the Obama era. *Sigh* Although I can imagine that at this point many people can simply tune out these kinds of ignorant comments, for me they reflect just about everything that is wrong with the body politic. Political figures – and I use this term very loosely – exploit history in order to bend the present back on itself. And this comment obscures an even deeper hypocrisy. It is rooted in the Right’s self-professed exclusive claim to traditional family values. In this scenario, right-wing politicians espouse traditional, western, nuclear ideas about family and pass these off as the sine non qua for all human interactions. Never mind their own families; never mind their own behavior, biases, infidelities, and most of all – never mind history.
A couple of years ago, I made my first appearance on the Bill O’Reilly Show (Fox News). It was on the occasion of an extremely violent murder of several school-aged children on school grounds. These murders were horrific and the circumstances surrounding them were mystified by gang lore and the media’s requisite inability to understand the nuances of inner city life. Mr. O’Reilly opened the segment by citing the (oft-cited) statistics on Black fatherlessness – some 70% of African American children are born to single mothers. I remember wondering what that had to do with this particular segment, but for O’Reilly and those who follow the Right’s talking points, Black fatherlessness is the fundamental “problem” with Black people and (simultaneously) the prevailing rationale for all crime in America. I certainly do not want to underestimate the importance of Black fatherlessness here. Parents have important roles to play in the development of children’s lives. Having two parents is a blessing (not necessarily a necessity) and the key to children becoming ‘upstanding’ citizens has more to do with any adults — parents, mothers, fathers, uncles, teachers, etc. — taking a sincere sustained interest in them and their successful maturation into adulthood. That said, Black fatherlessness has been used as a political tool to enhance the public appetite for narratives of Black pathology. And this is always done in a historical vacuum, as if there are no structural (or historical) precedents to these situations; as if there are no biases about the construction of family in the first place.
When we take just a cursory look blackward into the history of African Americans, there are too many narratives of white pathology: systematic rape, legislated oppression, and yes – Black fatherlessness. Slave masters separated Black families, but they also raped Black women and sold their own children – or worse, enslaved them. Let’s just call this white-Black fatherlessness. This was not solely the purview of Presidents and Senators, it was a normative practice amongst white male slave owners for over two centuries. I don’t offer this tidbit of history to justify Black Black fatherlessness, I only make the point to unveil some of the historical ironies inherent in the ways in which Black-Black fatherlessness seems to exist in some socio-political space devoid of the institutions, structures, and yes, HISTORY that predates it and may in some strange way originates it.