West African Marriage and Child-Rearing Norms vs. African American Norms

“Divorce is not a new thing, people have been getting divorces in this part of the world for centuries. The truth is that marriage was not necessarily about love, but wait this is not a bad thing, marriage was a contract in which both the husband and the wife would receive mutual benefits. In addition, women married families, not just the man. If the wife was not gaining her benefits, why should she stay in the marriage? Some of us are the grand- or great-grand daughters of women who divorced several times. It was not a taboo and was not treated as something shameful. Apparently no woman getting married believed that it would last a lifetime. Women left their husbands under various pretexts and returned to their parents’ home leaving children with the husband’s family, they would frequently return to continue playing a role in their children’s lives. Women could have several husbands in their lifetime not unlike men who married multiple women.”

–Cosmic Yoruba, “Would Your Ancestors be Shocked by Traditional Marriage?” on pre-colonial marriage practices among the Yoruba (She also posts about other West African tribes.) Bold mine.

Further:

“I have noted that the most popular women in Yoruba history who are still remembered today are thought to have never married or had children (starting with Efunsetan). When women divorced, sometimes they would leave their children with their husbands’ families, so blended families always existed too. And there were several reasons people did not marry, sometimes not by choice, for example certain priests/priestesses never married because they were already married to the dieties they worshipped.”

” I can’t speak authoritatively for every society, but in parts of Yorubaland this love of kids was not limited to ones biological children. It’s interesting that people would say Africans in the past loved kids, but would limit this to biological children. Have we all not heard of the “it takes a whole village to raise a child” thing? Marriage was never for procreation because children were seen as communal. I have learned that adoption was not uncommon among some Yoruba of the past (and in fact among other ethnic groups, remember King Ahebi’s most beloved son was adopted). Usually temporary unlike the Western adoption model today, it was normal for children to live away from their parents. My own parents did not grow up with their parents but with relatives. It was common back in the day to send children to a place where they could learn a trade and work as an apprentice. Basically everyone took care of children.”

“I think a lot of us tend to be ashamed of polygamy when referring to the past but look at it this way; the polygamy of the past existed because people needed to make a living. Again marriage was mutually beneficial. In places where land was usually owned by men, wives would work on land, farm and sell their produce in order to make money for themselves.”

The location of pre-colonial Yorubaland (from Wikipedia):

The Niger is a pretty major river.
Locations of medieval Yoruba cities
zooom
Yorubaland, relative to the rest of the world

Note:

They don't call it the "slave coast" for nothing.
Geographic origins of the American African population (from the Slavery Site’s “Maps of Africa and the Slave Trade”)

 

From Slavery Site: “Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with a population of 149,229,090. It is bordered on the coast by Benin to the west and Cameroon to the east. Lagos was originally settled by the Yorubas, and is now the largest city in Nigeria (8-10 million population) and one of the largest in Africa, second to Cairo in urban area population. Located on the Slave Coast, it was a major center of the slave trade from 1704 to 1851.”

Statistically, most maltreatment is neglect
Foster care and child abuse rates broken down by race in California — from “Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Trends and Issues

From Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect: Trend and Issues (discussing the CA foster care system):

Foster Care Population by Race/Ethnicity. As shown in Figure 10, African–American and Native American children make up a disproportionately high amount of the foster care population relative to their share of the total state population (for those ages 20 or younger). The rates of African–Americans in foster care are four times that of the rates of African–Americans in the state’s total population, [bold mine] and similar disproportionality exists for Native Americans. Conversely, there are lower rates of Whites, Latinos, and Asian/Pacific Islanders in the foster care population as there are in the state’s total population. Most notably, Asian/Pacific Islanders make up approximately 11 percent of the state population but only 2.5 percent of the foster care population. [Me: Even though a lot of these folks were Vietnamese refugees who’ve had it pretty damn hard in life.]

“Foster Care Outcomes by Race/Ethnicity. There are also differences in foster care outcomes when comparing one race/ethnicity to another, some of which are displayed in Figure 11. As shown in the figure, African–American and Native American children are significantly more likely to be the subject of a substantiated maltreatment report and enter foster care as compared to White, Latino, or Asian/Pacific Islander children. … African–American and Native American children are also less likely to reunify with their families than White, Latino, and Asian/Pacific Islander children. Further, African–American children have less stability in their foster care placements on average than children of all other races/ethnicities.”

Interesting that the cohabitation rate seems pretty constant across races except for Asians
From the Washington Post: The White-Black Income Gap hasn’t Budged in Years

 

ChildStats.gov states, “Seventy-four percent of White, non-Hispanic, 59 percent of Hispanic, and 33 percent of Black children lived with two married parents in 2012.” That leaves 77% of black kids living with one parent or no parents; 77-55= 22% of black kids living with no parents. A large% of those kids live with grandparents, aunts, or other relatives, but a lot are in foster care.

Black marriage rates:

The disparity in male and female marriage rates is partially explained by black men marrying white women at a higher rate than black women marry white men.
From BlackDemographics.com

Conservatives like to claim that if black people would just form two-parent families and raise their kids together, black poverty, incarceration, drug use, low SAT scores, etc., would all disappear.

While a bit of stability might help, (or might not, since males commit the vast majority of violence, so you might just trade neglect for physical abuse,) conservatives are probably on the wrong general track.

The quotes at the top of the post, about the Yoruba, are the sort of thing you might read in your anthropology class and come away with the idea that before evil white people showed up, the rest of the world was full of wonderful gender egalitarians who had lovely, enlightened views about childrearing. Even the title of presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s book, “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child,” is supposed to come from an African proverb on child rearing. There’s some controversy over whether or not it is an actual proverb, or just loosely based on one of the many very similar African proverbs, eg, “A child does not grow up only in a single home,” and, “A child belongs not to one parent or home.” (from the Wikipedia page on the book.)

Various conservatives have responded, “No, it takes a family to raise a child,” just showing that no one involved understands tribal family structure, because a “village” in tribal society is an extended family.

But a village isn’t an extended family in the US, which makes the notion of trying to transfer the model to a population where outbreeding has been the norm for over a thousand years, tribalism is almost non-existent, and most people don’t live anywhere near their extended kin (and they are less closely related to their extended kin than people in a tribal society who’ve been marrying their first and second cousins for generations,) sound rather fraught with difficulties.

 

The rest of the post is meant to caution against seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Here we have descendants of that same population (plus others) with very similar marriage and child-rearing norms, but the general reaction is completely opposite. What is a sign of the wonderfulness of tribal Africans is considered a sign of degeneracy and/or dysfunction here at home. (It is, of course, a total mystery how the same group of people could come up with the same childrearing and marriage norms while living in totally different times, places, and dominant cultures. /sarcasm)

Here in the US, we can see for ourselves rates of child abuse, malnutrition and neglect (and we think of this as a problem.) Until someone invents a time machine, we’ll have a much more difficult time getting a first-hand view of the pre-colonial Yoruba. (Heck, the vast majority of us don’t even have a first-hand view of the current Yoruba.) I’m sure some colonialists wrote accounts of what they saw when they arrived in the area–but any colonialist account that paints pre-colonialized people in a negative light is generally assumed to be biased and tainted by racism, which makes such accounts not-so-useful for supporting arguments in polite discussion. We’d need some kind of data, and data is often hard to come by.

Here are my own suspicions, though:

The tribal/village structure of these west African communities probably provided enough kin support that families could move children around like this and still have many of them reach adulthood. The system may, in fact, have been superior to just having the kids home with mom. Similar to modern day care, the extended kin network could look after the kids while mom worked in the fields or traveled to other cities to trade or do other work.

This system has low incentives for marital fidelity or monogamy, leading to an excess of males, which helped catapult the slave trade in the first place, though that is beyond the scope of this post.

The tendency toward monogamy or non-monogamy is probably basically genetic, reflecting the environmental/cultural structure one’s ancestors lived in. Your particular moral norms on the subject most likely just reflect whatever was evolutionarily advantageous for your ancestors–anyone who did what wasn’t evolutionarily advantageous didn’t tend to become your ancestor.

However, rates of child abuse/neglect/abandonment/starvation/malnutrition were probably pretty high, just as they are in various communities today. These sorts of unpleasant details just don’t tend to show up in accounts that are trying to cast their subjects in a positive light, and frankly, horrible rates of infant mortality were so common in the past as to be unremarkable to many observers.

Here in the US, the system is less functional because, for starters, there are few African American men with large farms for their wives to raise crops on. People who would have been on the top of the social pile in Yorubaland, people who had all of the traits necessary to be a successful, thriving, happy member of Yoruba society may not have the traits necessary to out-compete, say, Taiwanese immigrants with their nose-to-the grindstone approach to getting their kids into medical school. Living in modern America is also much more expensive than living in a tribal village–the cost of housing, transportation (car), health care, etc., in the US will set you back many a small third world farm. Not to mention different policing standards.

Per capita GDP in modern Nigeria is $3,005.51. This is after tremendous growth; in 2000, it was only $377.50–I’m guessing oil is mostly responsible for the difference, because I recall hearing about a joint venture between the Russian gas company Gazprom and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, so I’d caution against assuming that a ton of that money went to ordinary citizens. Looking backwards, pre-colonial per capita GDP was probably also pretty darn low, with most people engaged in subsistence agriculture.

Our perceptions of “wealth” are entirely dependent on how the other citizens of a society lives–a guy with a fifty acre farm can be “wealthy” in a third-world agricultural society, while “desperately poor” by first world standards. How he sees himself probably has a lot to do with how he sees his neighbors–is he on top of his society, or at the bottom?

Perception matters.

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17 thoughts on “West African Marriage and Child-Rearing Norms vs. African American Norms

  1. Conservatives like to claim that if black people would just form two-parent families and raise their kids together, black poverty, incarceration, drug use, low SAT scores, etc., would all disappear.

    Well obviously disparate outcomes will never “disappear”. But there is a perfectly rational basis for believing that black families will do better when hewing to European norms: Viz., they did so for a couple centuries prior to 1960, and reaped massive social and economic gains. It seems, in fact, inarguable that “if black people would just form two-parent families and raise their kids together” and otherwise avoid procreation, black social pathologies would abate by the eugenic effects alone.

    I think you undersell culture. Civilization is adaptively beneficial. What is adaptively beneficial is not necessarily civilized. Having ancestors who managed to procreate is no guarantee that one will do well at being human.

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    • I agree that incentivising non-marriage is a terrible idea, and that long-term, incentivising marriage will lead to more marriage.

      But, I’ve been reading old anthropologic life-histories of former slaves, off and on, and I do not think we should equate “marriage” and “monogamy”. People in these accounts got “married” to several different women over their lives, lived in separate houses while “married,” got married and then had mistresses on the side, etc. Calling something a marriage does not turn it into NW Euro-style marriage.

      For that matter, *have* blacks stagnated economically and socially since 1960?

      Per capita GDP for blacks in 1967 (inflation adjusted to 2013 dollars) was $8,500. Per cap GDP in 1975 was $11,700. In 1985, it was $14,100. Fast-forwarding, in 2013, it was $19,200. source: http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/data/historical/people/

      Socially, a black guy raised by a single-mother went to Harvard and is now president. I’d say those are some pretty good gains.

      (There are, in addition, the difficulties of a two-parent household, which many people seem to underrate. Males are violent; black males more so. Keeping them out of the house keeps down the domestic violence and child abuse.

      Speaking anecdotally, there is an unfortunate side effect of the conservative push for two-parent marriages: women whose first marriages have already broken up feel great guilt for “depriving” their children and rush to re-marry, but end up with sub-standard men who beat their children. These children would have been better off and become more functional adults without the abuse.)

      This is not to say that I like the current system or its effects. But people like to harp about “culture” without doing anything to the incentive structure, when nothing short of massively changing the incentives structure is going to change things.

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      • Keeping them out of the house keeps down the domestic violence and child abuse.

        Are you actually advocating not allowing males to be a part of the household?

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    • They already have different styles. I am pointing out that there are actual reasons for this, rather than just random chance or people being dumb.

      Long term, forcing men and women to live together decreases aggression, but it does so by killing the children (and wives) of aggressive men. You do understand that the women and children who would be killed under such a system don’t like the idea, yes?

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  2. Many years ago I was taught that the US had what is called serial monogamy. It seemed an accurate description to me and still does, although it seems a little more serial today. Blacks used this system as best they could under slavery and on par with whites after slavery until the middle of the 20th century. They didn’t regain their polygamy genes after 300-400 years just as the white underclass is not losing their NWE nuclear family genes in the current era. You seem to have varied experience and knowledge. Apparently you have missed the thousands and thousands of black and now white women who would like to marry if a suitable male could be found. Marriage is controlled by economics and the economics of the current era are arrayed against stable family formation for the underclass, black and white.

    The hazards of step parents are well known and have been for some time. RE Cinderella. For every abused stepchild I will match you with thousands and thousands of stepchildren who were loved and cared for by a step parent.

    Fifty to seventy-five years ago, most police agencies ignored domestic violence unless it involved death or aggravated assault. It is completely different now with most jurisdictions carving out exceptions to normal procedures to require action by the police in domestic violence cases.

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    • I respect, of course, that you have seen a broader slice of the world than I have. Most people have.

      I do question a number of factual statements in your post, ie:
      1. the extent to which we have any solid idea how much monogamy there was or wasn’t in black communities between, say, 1700 and 1950, since I doubt anyone was keeping very good records. (One would also have to consider the restrictions on free movement vs. the conditions of modern city life.)
      2. The statistics on marriage, divorce, out of wedlock births, etc. are not so great for the white underclass. (But not as bad as for the black underclass.)
      3. In my experience, the women who have trouble finding a suitable mate are themselves actually unsuitable. Not, like, they’re ugly, but they have personalities that make it hard for them to get along peacefully with others.
      4. To be fair, I’ve never claimed that environmental conditions don’t affect people. As I said above, actively disincentivizing marriage is a terrible idea.
      5. I think we are somehow miscommunicating. I know that most step parents aren’t abusive (although the rate of abuse probably is more than 1/1000. In the rare cases of abuse, it is better for the child to be away from the abusive parent (regardless of gender.)

      This is not, “Men should be kept out of the household ‘cuz they’re violent,” (most men are *not* violent toward people in their household,) but “self-interested avoidance of violent people probably explains some of our current marriage patterns.”

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      • I do question a number of factual statements in your post, ie:
        1. the extent to which we have any solid idea how much monogamy there was or wasn’t in black communities between, say, 1700 and 1950, since I doubt anyone was keeping very good records. (One would also have to consider the restrictions on free movement vs. the conditions of modern city life.)

        There is a lot of information on historical black communities and families. I refer you to Thomas Sowell’s work, but you are likely aware of his work. He blames 20th century liberal welfare for the breakdown of the black family. One can just look at the 1870 and 1880 censuses and see intact black families spanning 25 years. Read some of the material that comes down through the Freedman’s Bureau where blacks write to the Bureau desperately seeking help in re-uniting with their families.

        2. The statistics on marriage, divorce, out of wedlock births, etc. are not so great for the white underclass. (But not as bad as for the black underclass.)

        True. But we don’t know what causes one to be worse that the other.

        3. In my experience, the women who have trouble finding a suitable mate are themselves actually unsuitable. Not, like, they’re ugly, but they have personalities that make it hard for them to get along peacefully with others.

        We will just have to disagree here because I know plenty of decent women who would love to have a husband if a suitable one could be found. There are a lot of things going on here such as the greater educational achievements for lower class women, black and white which play into evaluation of marriage partners. There is a large segment of the black male population that is caught up in the criminal justice system, not to mention the thug life sub-culture and this takes them out of the “normal” marriage market. This does not even get to the women who accept less than suitable mates in an attempt to conform to societies expectations and those women are sometimes the victims of the violence that you reference.

        4. To be fair, I’ve never claimed that environmental conditions don’t affect people. As I said above, actively disincentivizing marriage is a terrible idea.

        I agree, but your post seems to blame problems with black family formation on West African marriage traditions. If that is not what you are doing then I have misread your post. There is very little cultural continuity between Africa and black Americans. In fact, that is one of the main problems confronting black Americans. Their ancestors were ripped from their culture and placed in an alien one. It can’t be genetic because it is a modern phenomenon and is being tracked by the white lower class. Failure of black family formation cannot be the result of African genes or African culture.

        5. I think we are somehow miscommunicating. I know that most step parents aren’t abusive (although the rate of abuse probably is more than 1/1000. In the rare cases of abuse, it is better for the child to be away from the abusive parent (regardless of gender.)

        We may be. I don’t know how one can identify beforehand which 2nd or 3rd marriages will not be good for the children or women involved.

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