A scholar traces the evolution of black families

March 14, 1993|By Cliff Redding

CLIMBING JACOB'S LADDER:

THE ENDURING LEGACY OF

AFRICAN-AMERICAN FAMILIES.

Andrew Billingsley.

Simon & Schuster.

` 445 pages. $27.50.

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" has a powerful and important message: that the African-American family is an enduring and viable entity, often misunderstood, but intact nevertheless in American and world society despite the tribulations put upon it.

But though this work by Andrew Billingsley, a leading African-American scholar, appears to have been written with lay people in mind, its arguments and explanations take on the feel of a dissertation. Dr. Billingsley, chairman of the Department of Family Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park, is basically on target with the subject matter as a whole, the African-American family, yet sometimes fails to carefully contemplate exactly what he is trying to say. One might think the book was written for his fellow faculty members.

Relatively quick reading, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is presented six headings: "The Whole Is Greater Than Its Parts," "History Is Prologue," "Society Has the Upper Hand," "Family Structure Is Adaptive," "The African-American Community Is Generative" and "The Future Is Already Here." Each manages to show the plight of the African-American family in a manner that is always enlightening, yet at times gets bogged down with statistic tables and graphs. Beginning with the premise that any particular aspect of the African-American family's structure should not be interpreted in isolation, the book takes a holistic approach that is re-emphasized throughout.

In discussing the evolution of the African-American family, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" goes into much detail describing the major forces that shaped it. Dr. Billingsley notes that when attempting to study the African-American family, we often start and finish with slavery and what the Europeans did to the African people. "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" examines other aspects of the evolution of the African-American family, from its African origins through the slave trade and the era that immediately followed slavery. Each discloses the different sources of strength that have helped ensure survival of the family.

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" proposes that society has the power to shape the outcome of the black family, and the military, health-care and educational systems are examined to illuminate this point.

Another proposition Dr. Billingsley examines is that African-American families are, above all, adaptive, customizing their structures and patterns of operation according to the pressures of society as a whole, to meet the needs of the family members. He also contends that the African-American family is generative, with the working-class, middle-class and upper-class families "intersecting" as they attempt to coalesce around the same set of values and aspirations.

Dr. Billingsley concludes his argument by saying that by building strong institutions, organizations and alliances based on traditional values and history, blacks already have entered the mainstream of national and world society as equals. He disagrees with the viewpoint that blacks need to assimilate more into white culture to succeed, a position Dr. Billingsley says is held by many scholars.

One nagging point: It is often difficult to understand why Dr. Billingsley would include outdated material to back up his arguments. It is almost as if he wrote the book between several hiatuses from teaching and included whatever was most available or appropriate at the time. For example, data from the 1980 census is often cited. This is not to say that the data are entirely outdated, but at times throughout the book, perusing the tables and graphs, one wonders if more anecdotes and fewer tables should have been included.

This book takes a broad perspective, presenting interesting concepts of the black family. In all, it does a fair job of getting people of different backgrounds to understand why and how, as the old spiritual goes, "We are climbing Jacob's ladder."

Mr. Redding is a copy editor at The Sun.

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