African-American Children and Youth

Because of the cultural definitions of family that grow out of the traditions of continental AFRICA, and because of the unique histories of the populations of the African diaspora, in African-heritage societies and communities, children often play roles that are distinct from those of children in other social groups. These two factors have produced particular childhood patterns that persist into the twenty-first century to varying degrees among the many contexts and groupings that fall under the cultural generalization African American. Together, these two broad categories, heritage and history, reflect the more general way in which all children's lives are defined by the hopes and ideals inspired by new lives, and the constraints of the material conditions in which those lives come to exist and be.

Heritage and History

African cultural heritage is significant because of the way societies throughout continental Africa tend to define families by the presence of children. This stands in contrast to the European tradition of viewing marriage as the moment that defines a new family. Of course, in many situations families contain both a couple and children, but in situations on the margin, when family choices must be made, this difference can lead to a significant variation in outcomes. Because of the emotional role that families play in human life, there is also a contrast in the cultural focus of desire between a partner focus and an intergenerational focus. The partner focus can lead to a contractual orientation, with a sexual component that heightens the private and biological emphasis of relations to children. The generational focus tends to highlight the roles of care provision and dependency, reciprocal obligation, and time- and age-defined stages in relationships that place them more strongly in community.

African-American children have also been affected profoundly by the events, circumstances, and geography of African-American history. Systems of enslavement, displacement, segregation, labor, and formal and informal education, and the distinctions they created and enforced, interact with family systems and the ways children are seen by and interact with communities and society. It is important to emphasize,

Schoolchildren, New Bern, North Carolina, c. 1860s. Because it was forbidden by law to teach slaves to read and write in the pre–Civil War South, after emancipation, one of the chief concerns of newly freed African-American parents was for the education of their children. © .

however, that local and individual experiences of cultural interaction and variation, in addition to varied customs, opportunity structures, and legal frameworks, speak against a single timeline or common experience for all African-American children.

The practice of enslaving people to do forced labor, like many systems of migrant labor, had the demographic effect of skewing populations towards a large number of young men. Particularly in climates that allowed for year-round agricultural production, such as the Caribbean and South America, the tremendous profits that built the palaces and treasures of Europe allowed for a constant importation of men who could be exhausted and replaced. Dependents were often an unwelcome expense to the enterprises, while the huge demand for labor developed African-majority societies throughout a region that included southern Louisiana and the South Carolina coast. The sexual exploitation of African women who were dragged into the horror of the middle passage, and the separation of children from parents, which was common in the slave trade, meant that few slaves saw both sides of the Atlantic as children. The harsh conditions in these intensely exploitative economic operations also discouraged the migration of European women, and so these areas quickly saw the emergence of free populations of mixed heritage, along with "maroon" or back-country communities of African heritage that had escaped enslavement.

Boys on Easter Morning, by . Many African-American children followed their parents north or were sent to live with relatives during the Great Migration from the South to the industrial Northern cities of the early twentieth century. These children are dressed in their Sunday best for Easter, April 1941, in their South Side Chicago neighborhood. Rare Books and Special Collections Division, The Library of Congress. ©

The household, town, and back country became the most common environments for children and other dependents, and for the few who became elderly. In many cases, children born into SLAVERY were sent both by their enslaved parents and by their purported owners to spend much of their childhood in these communities before being brought into plantation labor. Near enough to be visited by parents but far enough, perhaps, not to be direct witnesses to the immediate traumas of slavery (other than the not-insignificant pain of parental separation), children raised in these collectives experienced some few early years of love and play, while also being schooled by elders and peers in the painful rules of race-associated slavery. Small communities of grannies and children were common in these areas, living on the fringes of plantations and in the alleys of towns, supported by semi-secret religious societies and by the local free African artisans and visiting runaways, who more often than not returned to plantations, as did the children themselves when they came of age to do useful work. In larger plantations, such arrangements of grannies and children were sometimes formalized, which restricted connections to outside community, but had the advantage of keeping children close to parents for nighttime study or Sunday contact.

Because of the limited labor value of children under the age of ten or twelve and the expense of their care during these dependent years, this setup was of some mutual benefit to those who regarded themselves as owners of the children, to the actual parents of the children, and to the children themselves. Except on large plantations, it also meant that there was some mixing and common experience among children who were to be enslaved and those born free or whose freedom would later be purchased. On large plantations, a different sort of mixing occurred, often with the free white children of the plantation owners and employees. The terrifying awakenings of those who were enslaved–the large majority of African Americans–are described in many slave narratives written by those who were enslaved as abrupt and stark ends to childhood at the auction block or in the violence of coerced labor.

Children who were still too young to do the sustained and heavy work of slavery had the important social function of linking groups who often were unable, due to distance, time, exhaustion, or physical restriction, or not permitted, by law or local authority, to visit each other. The children would spend time both off and on the plantation, carry important messages, and travel more than the more closely watched and constrained adults. Children of enslaved people also quickly learned to care for each other and tend the garden plots that provided basic sustenance or a necessary supplement to the unhealthy rations that came through the labor system. Children also could be placed intentionally in situations to their advantage and shielded from witnessing the direct humiliation of parents and parental figures subject to plantation labor. Thus for the majority of African-American children in both towns and on plantations, the notion of family was quickly expanded; a number of adults could play a parental role in their lives, and community responsibilities were an immediate part of their lives. An urgent and elaborate education in operating safely and discreetly within the social system was a part of every child's early experience of responsibility and DISCIPLINE. The pain of constant separations from SIBLINGS, loving adults, and familiar environs made community bonds all the more significant, alienation from dominant whites and elites all the more profound, and early maturity a necessary survival attribute.

Children and the Community

Other regions, where agriculture was more limited by soil and season, relied more openly on African-American communities that could sustain themselves, whether slavery was practiced or not. Being less likely markets for the main slave trade, women, children, and family life quickly became a central part of African-American experience, both as means of surviving urban and rural enslavement and as sites of love, support, and cultural sustenance. Emancipation, formal education, APPRENTICESHIP, and social intermingling came to the northern colonies and were enhanced by the rhetoric and ideals of the U.S. revolutionary period. Inequality and segregation remained significant social factors that children had to learn to negotiate, and the restricted occupations of free African-American adults–domestic workers, sailors, miners, and similar jobs–tended to require frequent separation from children and spouses. This meant that children in the North, a much larger proportion of whom were free after the Revolution than before, also experienced multiple households and served as cultural mediators and connectors between adults and within communities, both free and enslaved. The religious societies that were formed in these communities were often more open and public than those in the Deep South and were likely to include social clubs and betterment organizations, along with specialized schools for children, which often included education about Africa, as Anthony Benezet's school in Philadelphia did in the 1760s. During this time period and into the nineteenth century, the general term of reference for themselves and designation by others was African, as in the African Meeting House in Boston, the Free African Society of Philadelphia, and the development of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.

Contact between free African communities and Africa was constant throughout the antebellum period (1789-1861) through the whaling and sea trades and through the continued trade in humans where slavery persisted. In addition, the Caribbean trade and the Atlantic world in general were frequently traversed, and so the African diaspora and African heritage were not far from the consciousness of most African Americans, as is illustrated in many slave narratives. The Old Testament stories of Joseph, Moses, Daniel, Gideon, Joshua, and David, which are common to ISLAM and Christianity, held significant messages of God's care and the coming deliverance and were familiar and central texts to African-American children. Because many of the people who were enslaved had origins in the predominantly Muslim populations of West Africa, the transition to another "religion of the book," as Muslims traditionally recognize JUDAISM and Christianity, was not drastic. The innocent and persecuted Jesus of Christianity or Issa of Islam also spoke to the condition of African Americans, and all figured in the music and coded messages of cultural communication in which children participated. Community celebrations involving music and dance, recognized calendar holidays, and claimed holidays, such as the Pinksterfest in New York, were times of reunion and reconnection, as well as places to build networks and a way to place children in living situations with broader opportunity, if possible. Such opportunities were, however, severely constrained for most by geography and enslavement.

Children were regular passengers on the Underground Railroad and its antecedents, and were guaranteed a home in African-American communities in free Canada, Mexico, or Florida, as well as in the northern United States. Union armies entering the South during the Civil War were trailed by large numbers of African-American children who had been sent by their parents and communities to find freedom.

The middle colonies and upper South prior to the Civil War were a blend of the above situations, with a mix of large plantation agriculture, smallholdings, and seasonal change, along with varied urbanization and the differing local presence and numbers of free African individuals. When the religious and secular, white-led African American Abolitionist and Back-to-Africa colonization movements rose in the late eighteenth century and grew in importance in the mid-nineteenth, they had at their center the images of defenseless women and children, which also became the dominant feature of the poetry, novels, and narratives of African-American literature of the period. The mobility of children and the strategic placement of children so they would have opportunities for education and freedom were sometimes enhanced by white patrons and allies but more often were constrained by high mortality, malnutrition, and the violent suspicions of white neighbors and authorities.

Children's TOYS and games in African-American communities were most often homemade and were the hoops, balls, and corn-husk or rag DOLLS typical of the various time periods and locations. Storytelling among children was encouraged by adults and was more distinctively African-American than were toys–as was childhood preaching by both boys and girls. These practices, along with music, dancing, and memory games, were often treated as competitive, while organized outdoor games were somewhat circumscribed until more recent times. Verbal skill and play-acting were essential survival skills for many African-American children. On the occasions they interacted with or were questioned by white authority figures or informers, they needed to be able to protect community secrets, and hide their own possible feelings of fear or resentment.

The distinctive NAMING of children with Africanized or invented names and creative spellings and pronunciations, making each child unique, has always been a part of African-American practice. When resented or disallowed as legal names by whites, such names reemerge as creative nicknames, endearments, chosen names, multiple names for particular circumstances, or names to recognize achievements or social positions. This practice of making a child different and special through a name not only allows for easy identifi-cation in a wide community but also gives a child an owned and positive difference in a social context where other experiences of difference will likely have negative impacts. Children are to be both seen and heard in African-American communities, which builds both presence and confidence lest they disappear both literally or figuratively in the discouragement of an oppressive environment. Such naming occurs across the spectrum of education, income, and status up to the present and is one of many strategies used by adults to ensure the normal psychological development of children who will experience discrimination early; it functions as a means to externalize the ignorance of others.

Discipline and Family

Outsiders often regard the disciplining of African American children as demanding or harsh, with an emphasis on minding and respecting elders. In a world of particular danger for African Americans, and in which police and teachers are not necessarily allies or to be trusted, it is important to have children respond immediately to adult warnings or commands. Older children as well as unrelated adults keep an eye out for trouble that might come to African-American youngsters, and responsible adults are prepared to supervise children, whether or not the children are known to them. Such community behavior relies on the kind of strict training that will guarantee a response from children who may need to recognize both subtle and overt warnings and advice from adults. It also demands clear and frank communication about such situations between adults and children when they are on familiar ground; this often happens through storytelling and relating past experiences. Because many adults feel that the painful realities of contemporary racism must be related to children for their own safety, the painful past, which may not be directly relevant to children, often remains untold. It is typical that the vast majority of children who were born to people who had formerly been enslaved never heard from their parents about the experience of slavery, and many young African Americans have little knowledge of the days of violent legal segregation.

Adolescent rebellion, or self-definition, is normally externalized from family and community so that it is rare for African-Americans to have fraught relationships with their parents as older children or as adults. Children generally understand the situations of their parents and know who their biological parents are, as well as their relationship to the other adults in their lives who may play a parental role. While other cultures may treat the existence of such varied PARENTING as a family secret or as something shameful, it is openly acknowledged to most African-American children from a young age. In this way, children know the vagaries of the world, and also know that their caregivers have chosen them and are doing their best. Children grow up knowing a wide circle of siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles, many of whom may not be blood relations, and regularly experience large reunions of families and communities. The long post-puberty dependence that emerged in white communities in the twentieth century remained atypical for African Americans, who continued to quickly take on adult earning responsibility and sexual experience.

After the Civil War, some of the main concerns of the Freedman's Bureau were centered around children in the search of lost relatives and the demand for education. Many newly freed African-American citizens rejected other forms of agricultural labor in favor of sharecropping because it allowed them to build a family and community structure where the care of children and the elderly could be pooled and the basic community institutions, church and school, could be supported. In both rural and urban contexts, it was typical for both parents to work outside the home and for the older children to be responsible for managing the household during parental absences with the advice of elderly neighbors or friends. While they were responsible for significant duties within the home, African-American children were much less likely to work for wages outside the home than were white children of similar economic status. When African-American children went to live with other adults, it was most likely for educational or apprenticeship purposes or to leave particularly difficult or oppressive circumstances. This was in contrast to the ways impoverished or orphaned white children would be sent off to work for wages and often encountered even more difficult and oppressive circumstances than those they left.

Aspiration, Connection, and Responsibility

After the Civil War, social distinctions became important within communities where the small but significant free African-American populations often had experienced a high degree of interracial marriage. The descendants of these mixed marriages often assumed leadership roles within the community but also sometimes set boundaries between themselves and those who were recently freed. When inter-marriage declined drastically in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the U.S. with the end of Reconstruction and the rise of racism based on "scientific" theories, EUGENICS, legal segregation, and in many places prohibition of intermarriage, the elite of the African-American community developed institutions for their own children. Some were based on distinct church congregations, but specialized SUMMER CAMPS and clubs like the Jack and Jill clubs emphasized class differences among African-American children. The Women's Club movement and the desire for "respectability" helped form the family patterns and aspirations of the elite, and their expectations for their children, while the enforcement of segregation pushed some people toward passing as white and others toward the larger African-American community.

During the Great Migration from the rural South to northern cities, which started before World War I, African-American children continued to play a mediating role, connecting communities and relatives who had become separated. Children would be sent South to friends and relatives to "stay out of trouble" in the summer and North to friends and relatives during the school year to get a decent education. Years and several generations later, these links are still maintained between the cities of the North and the rural South through the exchange of children. Older urban children often remain in charge of significant aspects of home life while all available adults work, just as they did in rural economies. African-American adults and children tend to socialize together to a greater degree than those in other communities, and seek to maintain wide networks of acquaintance and support.

Children and adolescents played a significant role during the civil rights movement, often standing in for parents whose circumstances did not permit their direct participation. The widespread news coverage of the movement led some to criticize this "use" of children, but African-American children have long played significant and strategic social roles in society. As migration and media portrayals led whites to have more and more encounters, both real and virtual, with African-American children, many white adults were critical of the assertiveness of African-American children and of their comfort around adults. This disapproval, along with children's unfamiliar names and family patterns that appeared disorganized and immoral to outsiders, has often led sectors of the white public to view African-American children negatively.

In the meantime, the channeling of children into avenues where they will have opportunities to be successful and creative continues. When the New York City budget crisis eliminated all arts and music programs, young people took the musical instruments at hand–their parents' stereo systems–and by manipulating the recordings to both sample snippets of music and make new sounds, the rap industry and hip-hop visual, literary, and dance culture were born. When sports became a vehicle for academic scholarships and direct material success, parents and children in African-American communities dedicated themselves to encouraging all kinds of athletic endeavors. When community colleges declared open admissions, youth of color flocked into higher education. Children as entrepreneurs and entertainers are not new to African American communities. They participate both in negative and positive ways, but always as full social participants, following the paths of opportunity. The community generally continues to support unconventional and nonconforming children in unfamiliar endeavors. It is much rarer for African-American children to be written off or completely separated from family and community than it is among other groups.

Immigration and U.S. expansion have brought Latino and Caribbean children of African heritage, as well as African children, to the United States. Some of them resist being labeled African American and see themselves as distinct. Ongoing tensions within black communities, including those involving class differences, people of mixed-race parentage or people involved in mixed-race relationships, gender, rural/urban divisions, and religious differences, have brought with them variation and rich infusions of culture, as well as new social options. Children reflect these interactions even as the social segregation of U.S. society increases in the early twenty-first century, particularly for children. Often the objects of social commentary and research, African-American children remain the central subjects of African-American family and community life.

See also: Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.


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