In Search of the Missing Two-Parent Black Family

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Commentator Deborah Mathis recalls a time when most black households were headed by two parents. Mathis is a syndicated columnist and a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.


We just heard from a panel of authors reflecting on the decline in black marriage rates. Commentator Deborah Mathis remembers a time when a two-parent household was nothing unusual.

Professor DEBORAH MATHIS (Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University): When I was a child, nearly every kid had a father at home. Some were drunkards, some were abusers, some were gamblers and hoodlums, some were cheaters. But they all shared a roof with their children.

I know that on my block, with its passel of kids, we all felt safer knowing there was a daddy in just about every house. After his own household, each one had an unspoken duty to defend ours, too.

Who can say now whether these men liked one another? They had different professions, different salary ranges, different habits, and hobbies. But they were always civil to one another. I suppose you could call it honor among men. Even if it was tainted with hypocrisy, the men tried to maintain it. For sure, the good ones set a standard.

Somewhere along the line, fathers started disappearing. There weren't as many quick impromptu weddings in somebody's mamma's living room, with a guy standing by looking a little ashamed. Young females barely into womanhood would get pregnant and stumble into motherhood without partners. For them, it was enough if the fathers of their children were paying for diapers and milk and showing up every once in a while to play with the babies.

By the time my own children were in their late teens and early 20's, the fathers were not only absent from the home, from trips to the pediatrician and the grocery store checkout line. They were just plain gone. Many a young woman has bounced a toddler who had her lover's eyes, mouth, and smile, but who would never, ever know him.

The reasons for this are manifold, nuanced, and complex. Bill Cosby and others can lay the blame on our own community and its attitudes, but cultural changes, public policy, and biology itself have created an atmosphere that makes it easier for a man, or a boy, to forget his honor as a father and simply drop his seed and walk away.

Perhaps every one of them is unaware of the treason he has committed against our heritage. All we can do about it is wage a determined war against the ravages of hyper incarceration, unemployment, mis-education, and the ludicrous pretense of being hard.

A few weeks ago, among some bibliophiles in Harlem, I announced I've got a working title for a prospective book. I want to call it, Men, Come Home, I told them. "Quickly!" someone shouted from the rafters.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Deborah Mathis is a syndicated columnist and a professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, in Chicago, Illinois.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from