Class Looks at the Roots of the Black Family
August 12, 2008 — As people of African descent became dispersed all
over the world — mostly to the Americas and mostly through forced
migration as slaves — the definition of “family” by necessity took on
“Black families have been known to incorporate people and create wider
associations,” said Todné Thomas, a doctoral student in anthropology at
the University of Virginia who taught a summer course called “Kinfolks,
Families and Relating in the African Diaspora.”
Black families, she said, can be seen as resilient and flexible in
their cooperation and continuity. A family “is a socially recognized
unit” that is not only biological but also social.
“‘Kinfolks’ is a vernacular term for expressing relationships,” Thomas said.
In the course, students read anthropology, history, sociology and
public policy to look at how Africans who moved or were moved to South
America and the Caribbean, as well as North America, found ways to
maintain an extended family structure. At the time, Western norms of
family arrangement were foreign to them, Thomas said.
Coincidentally, CNN provided a real-time exercise with its two-part
series, “Black in America,” highlighting some of the issues the class
delved into in more depth and breadth.
The class decided to write a letter to the television network
critiquing the documentary — which, for starters, split the episodes
into “The Black Woman and Family” and “The Black Male.”
Although it presented a large family reunion and told the stories of
some of its members, it still relied on the assumption that the
patriarchal nuclear family with mother and father is the normative
Another point they discussed was that the show did not capture the
diversity within the U.S. population of black people. Thomas, for
example, is conducting field work on the West Indian Brethren Church in
Atlanta, which comprises people from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and
“The students had great insights,” Thomas said of their reaction to the CNN show.
She had her 10 students study not only how slavery hampered that family
unit centuries ago, but also how later social policies unwittingly
undermined that model.
Jumping to the 1960s, the class read about policymakers who based their
welfare programs on the norm of the heterosexual nuclear family and
immutable gender roles. If there was a male in the household, it was
assumed no assistance would be needed, so only women with dependent
children received aid. The stereotype of “welfare mothers” developed,
and the prevalence of female-headed households still is usually
portrayed in a negative light.
Kendall Nicholson, a rising third-year architecture major, said, “I
wanted to take this class because I think it is important culturally to
understand what, socially, people often tend to misunderstand.”
The small group allowed for lively discussion of several related topics
and group projects, Thomas said. In addition to readings, the students
were also exposed to different perspectives through visual media,
including other documentaries.
Chelsea Green, a fourth-year psychology major in the early education
master’s program in the Curry School, said, “Now that we have delved
into some readings and I have learned more about past West African and
African-American families, this class forces me to look at my present
idea and conception of family.”
Myah Marshall, a student in the Rainey Academic Program for incoming
first-years to get acquainted with the University, decided to “test the
waters” with the class.
“It is very interesting to see the different structures of black
families, along with seeing the different ways in which these
structures are made possible,” she said. “Since the class is smaller,
the discussions are much more intimate.”
The class also looked at the emergence of genetic ancestry testing and what it means for racial heritage and identity.
The students’ final project involved using digital media to compare
traditional genealogical research with the new industry of genetic
In the past, science was misused to determine or describe racial
identity, Thomas said. She wanted her students to think about the
compelling personal reasons for researching one’s past and to consider
a wide range of social, cultural