Christmas evening, my sister and her husband were due to arrive at 6. The plan was that I was to pick them up at the airport and we would then go to my mother and father's home and all of us would spend the night. That way, no one would be on the road after a late Christmas dinner and the attendant champagne and so forth. Besides, it would be fun, camping out.
Close to midnight I got my children into their sleeping bags. Not long after, I realized that they were going to be giggling for quite awhile. I got up and told them to settle down and announced that I was going to visit my sister and her husband in the next bedroom until they -- my children -- were quiet. I figured five, maybe 10 minutes at the most. It had been a long, tiring day. I was determined not to end it by hollering at them.
Time passed. My sister, her husband and I visited. I kept hearing sounds from the next room. We are not talking quiet sounds here; we are talking borderline anarchy. I debated what to do. My children were on the verge of disturbing my parents in the middle of the night, and I was running out of patience.
"I've never asked you to do this," I said to my brother-in-law, "but I need your help. I would like you to go in and speak to those children."
What brings this story to mind is the recent spate of attention being given to the deterioration of the black family. Much of the focus, both in the CBS special and in a six-part series running in The Washington Post, has been on the effects of teen-age pregnancy. Through it all, however, there are the recurrent themes of men who cannot get jobs, who abandon their children, and women who are alone, raising children by themselves, producing a new generation of young men who have no good examples around them of what men should do or what they can be. Black male professionals, who might have had to live in these neighborhoods in the time of segregated housing, have long since moved out. It is women who are running these families, and any thoughtful reader of Leon Dash's series in The Post has to be struck by the violence that accompanies their discipline.
Teen-age mothers tell of being beaten harshly by their own mothers; women who were themselves teen-age mothers recall stories of being beaten as children by their own mothers. Generation after generation talk about being raised without love and so they seek love where they can find it -- from teen-age boys. The violence may in part be a function of how the women were disciplined as children. But it may very well be a function of women who are simply strung out, desperate, exhausted -- women who are trying to raise their children to do what is right, but who don't have the patience or stamina left to do it with love. These are moments that just about any single mother -- black, white, middle-income or poor -- can understand.
I rediscovered something over Christmas -- and that was the value of an authoritative male voice telling children simply and quietly to settle down. They did, and it left me with something to think about. Families and communities without men who have credentials in the eyes of their women and children to help in the rearing of the next generation are families and communities that are deprived of a vital pillar for survival.
The operative word here is credentials. A young man needing to prove his manhood by fathering illegitimate children and abandoning them doesn't have credentials. Nor, for that matter, does the overwhelmed teen-age mother who hasn't even finished high school and has no idea of how to raise a child -- other than what she learned from her own mother. She is the one stuck with the child, however, and she has been the focus of most social programs designed to help these families. The undereducated, unskilled, teen-age black male has been largely ignored -- while his unemployment rate has steadily climbed over 40 percent. Ignored, too, has been his potential value not only as a breadwinner but as a father who might help with the teaching and disciplining of the next generation of children if he had work, self-esteem and the sense of responsibility that go along with having a job and a family.
Families are being run by mothers and grandmothers, and cycles of poverty, abuse, teen-age pregnancy and abandonment go on and on. There's a lot to be said for an authoritative male presence in the business of raising children -- and with all the billions we have spent on welfare, food stamps, public housing and so forth, perhaps we have not appreciated that enough. Families fell apart during the Depression because men could not get jobs. It's not very different now.