The church gives blacks community, Billingsley says

February 24, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Even as a rookie teacher, Andrew Billingsley knew there was something wrong with his textbooks. Here he was in 1964, teaching a class on the family to budding social workers at the University of California-Berkeley, and there was nothing about the black family.

"All the materials didn't include minorities," he says now. "I found myself increasingly thinking about my own family. I grew up in the South, in a family with strong achievement values. We were poor, but we had fantastic aspirations. But those textbooks didn't indicate that, and most of the books I read over the years either ignored the black family or, I felt, totally misrepresented it."

Writing about the black family became a crusade of sorts for Andrew Billingsley. In 1968, his "Black Families in White America" was published and became a seminal work in the area. This soft-spoken, gentle man went on to become a nationally recognized expert on black families while teaching at Berkeley and then, from 1975 to 1984, president of Morgan State University.

Now, 25 years after his first book, Dr. Billingsley has come out with the follow-up. "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families," just published by Simon & Schuster, is an exhaustive and at times celebratory look at the black family, which, as he writes in the introduction, "remains a resilient and adaptive institution reflecting the most basic values, hopes, and aspirations of the descendants of African people in America."

Dr. Billingsley, 66, who is chairman of the department of family studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, spent the last eight years working on "Climbing Jacob's Ladder." He says he wrote the book mostly to dispel what he felt were disturbing myths about American blacks and their families.

"Let's take the most obvious one: that 30 percent of us live in poverty," he says over lunch in a Washington restaurant during a busy day of media appearances. "Yes, that's a national disgrace, but it's still only 30 percent. That means more than two-thirds of us are in the working class or the middle class or above. In this book, I discovered more achievement than failure. Blacks go to church, they work, they send their families to school."

What has helped hold the black community together, he believes, is the strength of its institutions -- chiefly the black church.

"In 1968, when I wrote my first book, I knew the black church was an important part of affirmation in the African-American community, but didn't know just how important," Dr. Billingsley says. "So I just included a few pages on it. In this book, I've included a whole chapter on it, because now I know the church is the most important thing we have in the black community. And my next book, which I'm working on now, will be entirely about the black church.

"Like the family, it has an identity dating from its African roots. It's not the same institution as the white church. It's self-supporting and independent, and it's not just a religious institution. It's a social, political and economic institution that deeply affects the lives of its members outside the church. But in book after book on the black community, they don't mention it."

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is peppered with vignettes of blacks who have succeeded and persevered despite the odds. "Optimism is key to the success of black people," Dr. Billingsley says. "That's why I included such people as Patricia Schmoke [wife of Mayor Kurt Schmoke], who was a single parent."

He also includes a few pages on his own background. The youngest of three children, Dr. Billingsley was born into a working-class family in Alabama in 1926. "My father had only a sixth-grade education, but we children grew up with this love of learning. He was always reading to us from the newspaper, pushing us to learn."

Dr. Billingsley went on to earn four degrees, including his doctorate in social welfare from Brandeis University in 1964.

His experience as president of Morgan he found "illuminating" but ultimately frustrating. Though he was credited with attempting to bring several changes to the university, such as higher faculty wages, he also was accused of financial mismanagement in a state audit. He resigned in 1984, joining the UM faculty a year later.

Today, Dr. Billingsley acknowledges without discernible bitterness, "I still think about those times at Morgan. I think of myself as a builder, a scholar and an innovator, and it was difficult to do those things at the university. When the recession hit, I couldn't get money for faculty raises. And I spent a lot of time dealing with politicians who didn't understand what education is all about. Certainly I enjoy what I'm doing now a lot more -- writing and doing scholarly research."

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