Black families are in a crisis

July 14, 2000|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

MIAMI --Here's the question the reader asked: What's wrong with black women?

The reason it stopped me is that the reader was herself a black woman.

She was responding to a column I wrote defending the right of basketball star Kobe Bryant, who is African-American, to marry a woman who's white. And the question she asked found echo in the questions many other women posed.

Fine, let Kobe marry a white woman, they said. But why is it every time a black man becomes successful, he leaves us behind? Why aren't we good enough? Why don't our men find us appealing? What's wrong with black women?

Some part of me expected this. After all, it's not as if I didn't know that black women -- some of them, at least -- harbor those questions ... those doubts. But still, hearing them voiced is a shot in the heart. And it's a reminder, as if any were needed, that something is wrong in the heart of the African-American family.

I'm not necessarily referring to any statistics you've read about crime, teen pregnancy, drugs or poverty. No, I'm talking about these women I keep meeting -- and men, too -- who've convinced me that something fundamental has changed in the dynamic between us.

Frequently, though not always, African-American women and men seem to watch one another over an ever-higher barrier of cynicism and mistrust.

No, I don't have numbers to quantify that observation. I doubt that numbers even exist

But I know what I've seen and heard -- all over the country, in fact. I've sat in on I don't know how many dozens of rap sessions and community forums devoted to the healing of the black family. And inevitably, you hear the same remarks, the same bitter, angry observations giving vent to the ache that simmers between us.

Men talk about the supposed materialism and greed of black women. They complain that some women have become so "strong" and "independent" they make a man feel unneeded.

At the same time, women paint black men as feckless and trifling. They argue that women have no choice but strength and independence when men absent themselves from their families, communities and obligations.

And no one ever seems to get around to the hurt question that underlies the entire argument:

Why have you lost faith in me?

Why, indeed?

It's not that black women and men have a monopoly on gender conflict; indeed, it seems fairly widespread these days. But in the black community, that conflict seems to come with an added sense of urgency, an extra sense of crisis.

Small wonder. More even than the American family as a whole, the African-American family is in crisis and for all the weeping and gnashing of teeth over teen pregnancy, drugs, poverty and crime, I would submit that the most pressing problem, the one that provides fertile ground for the others to grow, is simply the yawning distance of man from woman, mother from father.

Historically, family was the thing that succored us, the last line of defense against the machinations of the world. Now family is fractured, splintered, thrown to the wind, and the two people who were once its bedrock all too frequently spend their days sniping at each other and enumerating each other's faults.

Maybe it's time we stop doing to ourselves what we've long chastised white people for doing. Namely, generalizing to all of us the characteristics of the worst of us.

Maybe when a woman disappoints us or a man is less than we had hoped, we move on to the next -- and the next after that -- without carrying forward an expectation of the worst. Maybe we learn that material things ought not define our success as women and men.

Maybe we lower the barricades and the rhetoric and begin to talk. Maybe even trust. And maybe when we do, we'll learn that the answer to the question is not hard at all.

There's nothing wrong with either of us that the other cannot make right.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald and can be reached at or by calling toll free 1-800-457-3881.

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