CLIMBING JACOB'S LADDER

The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families

By Andrew Billingsley

Simon & Schuster. 444 pp. $27.50

Disraeli's famous quip that there are three kinds of lies -- lies, damned lies and statistics -- has never been more true than when applied to the black family. For the past quarter century, from Daniel P. Moynihan's 1965 report "The Negro Family" to Bill Moyers's 1986 television special "The Vanishing Black Family," the black family has come in for scrutiny by putative experts wielding a bewildering welter of crunched numbers. The point of all this data is often to prove contradictory cliches about the black family -- that it is either going to hell in a handbasket or that it is admirably weathering the stormy social crises by which it is continually buffeted.

For the most part, though, the common cultural perception of black families is indistinguishable from prevailing stereotypes: the sexual misbehavior of black teens, loafing welfare queens, black male neglect of domestic responsibility, and cultural pathology transmitted from one generation to another in patterns of destructive cultural activity. Andrew Billingsley's new book, "Climbing Jacob's Ladder," is a sharp and sophisticated rebuttal to the cultured despisers of the black family. It manages to accent the black family's strengths and successes while acknowledging its weaknesses and failures.

In a work written in 1968, "Black Families in White America," Billingsley touted the virtues of the black family in the face of withering indictments of that institution by commentators armed with Moynihan's report, which claimed the black family was falling apart. Billingsley argued that black families had survived the cruel injustices of American racism and shown a remarkable ability to create familial stability and achievement in the midst of cultural chaos. Now, 25 years later, he supplies a richly detailed, lucidly argued and statistically supported elaboration of his earlier work that greatly expands the scope and application of his thesis of black familial survival under inhuman conditions.

The gist of Billingsley's argument is that "African-American families are both weak and strong but their strengths are by far more powerful and contain the seeds of their survival and rejuvenation." By mixing social theory, historical survey and ethnographic analysis, Billingsley exhaustively details the social, economic and cultural obstacles black families have overcome in preserving their racial and cultural efficacy. What is striking about his portrait is the sheer diversity of black family life. In using that diversity as a theoretical point of departure, Billingsley erodes misconceptions about the homogeneity of black families. He examines two-parent families, single-parent families and no-parent families; upper-income, middle-income and low-income families; and highly achieving, prominent families as well as socially marginalized and embattled families. All the while, he shows how slavery, racism and poverty have exerted a deleterious effect on the structure and shape of black families.

Though Billingsley doesn't sidestep the familiar spiral of social forces that create crises for black families -- including teen pregnancy, criminal behavior, domestic violence, unemployment and black male homicide -- neither does he overlook the "generative elements" of black culture that make it "capable of providing resources and assistance." He explores, for instance, the role of the black church, the function of traditional black family values and the catalyst provided by a powerful self-help tradition that has been prominent throughout African American history in helping "black families grow and move forward."

Billingsley's study will remind some, and inform others, that the black family can be no worse or better than the social forces that shape it, and the opportunities that influence its development. In the absence of addressing the grave problems that assault black families from without, Billingsley proves that it is an even greater injustice merely to blame black families for their problems within. That black culture has generated largely serviceable patterns of familial behavior -- from "fictive kin" where black families are extended beyond the reach of blood or biology, to single-female-headed households that are often heroic gestures of the will to survive -- is a testimony not simply to black culture's hunger for preservation, but to its creativity as well. Billingsley's book helps to document that hunger and creativity, while offering a profound portrait of the heterogeneity, complexity and outright ingenuity of black culture as glimpsed through the beleaguered but brilliant vistas of black family life.

The reviewer is a professor of American civilization and Afro-American studies at Brown University and author of the forthcoming "Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism."