Black Fatherhood in the Long Nineteenth Century

African American family readings books (Photo: Schomburg Center, 1922).

The summer of 2020 was not only dominated by a global pandemic, but also saw a surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement that tragically arose from the murder of George Floyd. Floyd’s death, and thousands of similar deaths, are rooted in racist stereotypes of Black hypermasculinity created and perpetuated by white society. Despite emancipation occurring over 150 years ago, efforts to minimize and destroy any positive image of Black men continue. In 1965, Daniel P. Moynihan published The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, stereotyping Black men as absent and poor fathers. However, as Libra Hilde shows in her book, Slavery, Fatherhood, and Paternal Duty in African American Communities over the Long Nineteenth Century, Black and enslaved men were loving, involved, and emotionally invested in their children, despite the barriers erected by white society. 

Inspired by Harriet Jacobs’s and Frederick Douglass’s differing relationships with their fathers, Hilde’s work aims to undo the damaging myth that Black masculinity is harmful, dangerous, and violent—a myth used to rationalize the killing of Black men. Instead, Hilde demonstrates that Black fathers consistently provided for their children during and after slavery. Enslaved men regularly supported their families and communities in covert ways, as “their influence over their children was often subtle, indirect, and hidden from ‘dominant society’,” (92) subverting and resisting the expectations of white society on a daily basis “within the intimate spaces of the father/child relationship” (102). Hilde establishes the constraints that slavery put on Black men’s ability to father, and then works to show how enslaved and free Black men supported their families through the provisioning of food and clothing, the purchase of their loved ones from enslavers, escape from slavery, and the formation of identity within a climate of fear and sexual exploitation. Hilde contends that caretaking was a form of resistance for enslaved men, as they attempted to covertly reappropriate the paternal role back from their enslavers. 

Primarily using sources from Black perspectives, such as published narratives and interviews with formerly enslaved people, Hilde demonstrates how enslaved men fathered their children: they provided for and protected their families to the best of their ability, provided religious protection, and nurtured their sense of self-worth and identity, whether they were physically present or not. However, abroad marriages “increased the vulnerability of a kinship unit by placing family integrity in the hands of two slaveholders” (42). Fathers that lived on a separate plantation frequently dealt with not knowing whether their children were safe from the violent tendencies of their enslavers, or if they had enough food to eat. Despite the geographical constraints, Hilde demonstrates that “through memory, a father’s influence could extend across time and space” (77). 

Crucially, Hilde highlights the complexity of fathering, striking a fine balance of discussing how enslaved men did father while avoiding romanticizing enslaved fatherhood by emphasizing the difficulties that men faced. White appropriation of fatherhood, the witnessing of enslavers abusing their children, and the lack of recognition of authority and ownership over their own offspring obstructed fatherhood. Furthermore, enslaved men that resisted these oppressive measures balanced their own life with that of their children: “surviving retaliation involved choosing the right target, good timing, and a willingness to flirt with death” (56-57). Hilde shies away from exaggerating the ability that men had to father their own children, but emphasizes the intense desire that fathers had to love their children despite difficulties created by enslavers. 

Hilde discusses fatherhood from the point of view of both children and fathers, providing a broad study into the various values enslaved people put on fatherhood at different stages of their lives. Where Chapter One explores ‘Slavery and the Constraints on Fatherhood,’ Chapter Two moves toward the perspective of children, though from the complicated angle of formerly enslaved people looking back on their childhood. In a later chapter, Hilde discusses a respondent in the post-war period who reminisced about his violent father. Although traumatized by his childhood, he felt sympathy for his father. Hilde uses this opportunity to discuss the cycle of abuse that many enslaved and formerly enslaved people experienced, charging slavery as “an environment that constantly knocked [enslaved people] down,” (264), stripping them of their “chance to succeed” (264). 

Hilde also discusses fatherhood from the white perspective, shining light on allegedly consensual mixed-race families and contrasting them with families born of rape and sexual exploitation. Hilde’s exploration of matrifocal and matrilocal families reveals the multifaceted and complicated dynamics and structures that enslaved families formed. For example, she argues that although abroad marriages may have been matrifocal in structure, they were functionally, emotionally, and psychologically patrifocal. This important argument highlights the complexity of enslaved families and the need for historians to move beyond the western assumption that all families must be nuclear and two-parent in structure to be “complete.” 

Though Hilde does well to consider the impact of forced reproduction on the ability to father, her conclusions are limited to the decimation of fatherhood and relationships between parent and child, as she argues that forced reproduction “increased the likelihood that a child would have limited or no contact with their fathers and increased the prevalence of fatherless households” (30). By accepting the practice of forced reproduction as an everyday occurrence, historians must consider this as part of enslaved people’s everyday lives.  The enslaved thus attempted to circumnavigate forced reproduction as they would any other oppressive restrictions enacted by their enslavers. Further research into how enslaved men fought to father children despite the control enslavers sought to impose over their intimate relationships would be invaluable to the study of fatherhood and parenting in the antebellum South. The practice of forced reproduction and sale for profit meant that some enslaved people married multiple times, thus thrusting responsibility on many stepfathers. Though Hilde discusses this to an extent, further depth and investigation would highlight the importance of stepfathers as equal to that of fathers, thus emphasising the love that stepparents had for their children and hence showing that community and social networks were important whether through biological links or not. 

Hilde’s convincing work makes a vital contribution to the fields of family history, slavery in the nineteenth century, and Black history. Her conclusion succinctly proves the importance and legacy of such history and the image of Black masculinity, discussing the racialized penal system, the police shooting of Black people rationalized by the stereotype of hypermasculine Black men and children, and the portrayal of young boys as dangerous criminals for walking down the street. Hilde finally compares Black and white masculinity as respectively performed by Barack Obama and Donald Trump, emphasising how Trump’s elitist white masculinity sought to undo and undermine Obama’s work, and shows how racialization of masculinity reaches the highest echelons of politics. The recent riots at the Capitol in Washington, DC, primarily perpetrated by white men, confirm Hilde’s argument that masculinity privileges white men, allowing them to express their views violently with little consequence, whereas Black men are only allowed to publicly perform their masculinity if it benefits white society, lest they risk death.

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Aisha Djelid

Aisha Djelid is a PhD student at the University of Reading in Reading, Berkshire, England. Her research centers on slavery and forced reproduction in the antebellum South. Follow her on Twitter @aishadjelid.