Forgetting the Moynihan Report

I am unsure how James T. Patterson wants his article to be read. And so I will try to be generous. If I can. He writes,

[T]oday the Moynihan Report is largely forgotten. Sadly, its predictions about the decline of the black family have proven largely correct. Fortunately, many of its prescriptions remain equally relevant.

. . .

[I]f we do not act, the “tangle of pathology” that Moynihan described in 1965, having grown far worse, will be impossible to unravel, and America will become more deeply divided than ever along class and racial lines.

Where does one start? Who is it who has done the forgetting? And how do we understand the work of remembering this report? How is it that Patterson’s article so glibly dismisses, erases, unthinks, refuses to register the many black feminist engagements with this report, including my favorite by Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” which I try to include no matter which class I’m teaching?

How does the history of its reception, and a truncated one, help create the “need” for us to “remember this report, with its controversial and, frankly, insulting conclusions?

As Patterson frames it, the report focused on out-of-wedlock births in the black community, and their “unfortunate” effects in helping to perpetuate cycles of poverty. This story is partially true, or strategically so.

I came to the report through black feminism. The report, blamed the “condition” of the “Negro family,” then and seemingly perpetually “in crisis,” on the gender-inverting role of black women, who, because of the legacy of slavery, had been forced to become matriarchs, and had created unstable family structures that could not compete with stable nuclear families. Black matriarchs were “responsible” for the “tangle of pathology.”

Framed in this way, as opposed to how Patterson puts it, it is difficult to see who, if anyone, has forgotten the Moynihan report.

Since its publication, we have been living in an ongoing Moynihan present, marked by an incessant call for gender normalization in black communities (issued by “insiders” and “outsiders”); marked by an ongoing pathologization of single-parent, women-headed households (see many, many films); marked by ongoing, increasing, and almost hysterical attempts to “marry off” black women; marked by profound anxieties over “the state” of “the black family”; marked by incessant expressions of worry by young black women that they will “never” find “the right men”; and these really filtered all through mass and popular culture.

I find it troubling that Patterson so easily dismisses the vast amounts of scholarship published in the wake of Moynihan by all kinds of historians and anthropologists and sociologists, all of which troubled Moynihan’s thesis, seeing in it the very active remnants of racialized heteronormativity.

Here is what is ugly about Patterson’s writing: A “tangle of pathology” marks black communities and it stems from black women’s habits and proclivities. It is not stated that baldly, but there it is.

If only black women would get married. If only black women would stop being promiscuous. If only black women would get more educated. If only black women learned their proper roles as wives and partners to men. If only black women, if only black women, if only black women . . .

But none of this is new. It is a running refrain all over the place. We have not forgotten the Moynihan report. In fact, despite efforts by black feminists, it seems to have become all the more entrenched in the U.S. psyche.

I know the NYT often publishes completely objectionable pieces, but this one, this particular one has really crossed a terrible, terrible line.

Unfortunately, advocates for black heteronormativity, and there are many, will probably read it approvingly, marveling at its wisdom, and praising its call for black women to get married and to learn how to take care of their children properly.

This article could have taken another path. As a meditation on the relationships among class, gender, and racialization, it might have focused attention on how cycles of poverty perpetuate themselves, how individuals and groups enter into these cycles, and the ongoing problem they present, especially under neoliberalism. It might have asked how social and economic policies continue to undermine many efforts to create better lives. It might have borrowed from Moynihan without claiming that the “tangle of pathology” continues and has expanded. It might have actually paid attention to work by black feminists. And this last, for me, is its greatest failing.

It is not that we have forgotten the Moynihan report. Far from it. Patterson has erased and ignored the many people who continue to engage its claims and recommendations.

Let me give the last few words to these voices.

“The Moynihan Report” links black poverty to the deterioration of the black family, begun in slavery and reproduced in successive generations in the form of fatherless, matrifocal households, which spread from the South to the North like migrating locusts, infecting the inner cities with unemployment, illegitimacy, delinquency, and crime—a “tangle of pathology.”

Like the scholarship on which it draws, the report seems to put much of the onus for this black pathology not simply on the peculiar institution and Jim Crow discrimination but on the black female’s supposedly more dominant role within that institution and her greater success at negotiating its aftermath. Various male scholars and civil rights leaders are quoted on the subject, as if their opinions were empirical facts. Whitney Young, Executive Director of the Urban League, offers the historical perspective that “in the matriarchal Negro society, mothers made sure that if one of their children had a chance for higher education the daughter was the one to pursue it” (34). His claims are reinforced by the eminent Harvard psychologist Thomas Pettigrew, quoted as if in dialogic agreement: “Embittered by their experiences with men, many Negro mothers often act to perpetuate the mother-centered pattern by taking a greater interest in their daughters than their sons” (34).

These extraordinary claims go unrebutted in the report, although both history and literature offer abundant evidence to the contrary. Black women emerge from the document confirmed not merely as matriarchs but as emasculating Sapphires of Amos ‘n’ Andy fame and man-hating mothers, who drive away their mates and discriminate against and psychologically damage their sons. The report recommends a kind of rescue mission that would encourage black males to enlist in the “utterly masculine world” of the Armed Forces—”a world away from women, a world run by strong men of unquestioned authority.” (Ann du Cille, American Literary History, 2009)

The figure of the black matriarch haunts Patterson’s piece, and her absence in his rhetoric is significant, not, I think, that he wants to resituate her, but that he desires her haunting presence, the founding absence.

The Black matriarch of Moynihan’s nightmares threatens the system of gender and power to a degree that she threatens the “natural,” asymmetrical order of patriarchy and heterosexuality. (Mattie Udora Richardson, Journal of Women’s History, 2003)

How do we see the limitations of the terms Patterson proposes?

Indeed, a more radical social transformation is precisely at stake when we refuse, for instance, to allow kinship to become reducible to “family,” or when we refuse to allow the field of sexuality to become gauged against the marriage form. For as surely as rights to marriage and to adoption and, indeed, to reproductive technology ought to be secured for individuals and alliances outside the marriage frame, it would constitute a drastic curtailment of progressive sexual politics to allow marriage and family, or even kinship, to mark the exclusive parameters within which sexual life is thought. (Judith Butler, Differences, 2002)

And that gorgeous, gorgeous opening from “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe”

Let’s face it. I am a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name. “Peaches”a nd “BrownS ugar,”” Sapphire”a nd “EarthM other,”” Aunty,”” Granny,” God’s “Holy Fool,” a “Miss Ebony First,”o r “Black Woman at the Podium”: I describe a locus of confounded identities, a meeting ground of investments and privations in the national treasury of rhetorical wealth. My country needs me, and if I were not here, I would have to be invented.

The problem before us is deceptively simple: the terms enclosed in quotation marks in the preceding paragraph isolate overdetermined nominative properties. Embedded in bizarre axiological ground, they demonstrate a sort of telegraphic coding; they are markers so loaded with mythical prepossession that there is no easy way for the agents buried beneath them to come clean. In that regard, the names by which I am called in the public place render an example of signifying property plus. In order for me to speak a truer word concerning myself, I must strip down through layers of attenuated meanings, made an excess in time, over time, assigned by a particular historical order, and there await whatever marvels of my own inventiveness. (Hortense Spillers, Diacritics, 1987)

4 thoughts on “Forgetting the Moynihan Report

  1. 45 years after the publication of the Moynihan Report on “The Negro Family”, PBS’s Basic Black will be looking at the current state of the black family and how it has evolved since the report’s publication. Join us TONIGHT, Thursday June 3rd at 7:30 pm EST LIVE at or on channel 2 in Boston. You can also participate in a live chat at starting at 7:20 pm

  2. Sure,the “Moynihan Report, was in essence, the prediction of the current implosion which is crippling the Black family and community..Moynihan, in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” said, “Questions about American slavery which have never been altogether explained and which, indeed most Americans hardly know exist, and have been stated by Nathan Glazer follows: “Why was American slavery the most awful the world has ever known? The only thing that can be said with certainty is, that this is true…it was”..American slavery was profoundly different from and in its lasting effect on individuals and their children, indescribably worse than any recorded servitude, ancient or modern!!!While slavery was old when Moses told the Pharaoh to “Let my people go” there has never existed in all recorded history, a form of slavery as vicious as American slavery… Southerner, President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, showed a rare insight into the effects slavery on the Black family, and in particular, Black males..

    At a speech at Howard Umiversity he said, “Perhaps the most important, its influence radiating to every part of life, is the breakdown of the Negro family structure..For this, most of us, White Americans, must accept responsibility..It flows from centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro male..It flows from long years of degradation and discrimination which have attacked his dignity and his ability to provide for his family..This , too, is not pleasant to look upon, but it must be faced by those who seriously intend to improve the life of all Americans”!!White Americans are of the opinion that slavery occurred a long time ago and has little or no effect on Blacks today..As Dr. Alvin Poussaint recently described the effects of slavery and jim crow on the psyche of Black Americans, especially the Black male as” Delayed stress syndrome”..
    Instead of blaming the Black male or female for the present plight of the Black family and community, we as African Americans must truly come to terms with the root causes of our dilemma; and thrive collectively to correct or change the conditions confronting the very survival of the Black family and community!!!

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