Teaching Black family history in sociology, student resistance edition

There is an amazing story from a family sociology class at the University of Tennessee. I don’t know the whole chronology of the reports, but I read pieces from As It Happens, BET, the local news. The gist of it is that there was an ambiguous quiz question about Black slave families, and when a Black student named Kayla Renee Parker complained, it led to her making a rebuttal presentation to the class, and then the White instructor, Judy Morelock, going on an abusive, racist social media rant and getting fired.

Before the details, my conclusions:

  • Good test questions are important, and as a teacher it’s OK to admit you’re wrong or there is ambiguity.
  • Two things are true: Black families were devastated by slavery and as a generalization most Black children under slavery lived with both parents.
  • There is a line, but not a straight line, between Black families under slavery and those under today’s system of racial domination.
  • Students who do research, honestly engage the material, and bring passionate or political arguments to class should have their courage and commitment encouraged, not punished.
  • Some White people who say they are against racism, and maybe even are against racism, are also racist and hate students.
  • Social media is public, so expect consequences.

The story, and then my approach, follows.

The quiz

Here is the question at issue:

Historical research on African-American families during slavery shows that:

A) Family ties weren’t important in African cultures where the slaves ancestors originated; consequently, family bonds were never strong among slaves.

B) Two-parent families were extremely rare during the slave period.

C) Black family bonds were destroyed by the abuses of slave owners, who regularly sold off family members to other slave owners.

D) Most slave families were headed by two parents.

Parker chose C, but Morelock said the correct answer is D. In a back and forth that Parker put on her Facebook page, she pointed out that the textbook talked about “disruption of families through sale of family members,” and Morelock countered that “bonds were maintained among family members who were geographically separated” referring to people passing information between plantations. These are long-running and unsettled issues in the historical scholarship. If you revise answer C to read “bonds were often destroyed” then it is obviously true. If you take a legalistic approach you could say, “family bonds were destroyed” means all bonds, so C is incorrect. This is not a good argument for a teacher to have. Correct the ambiguity, figure out how to handle the points, take it as a teaching opportunity, and move on.

In fact, there appears to have been one good outcome, which was Parker making a very good presentation to the class (video in the As It Happens story). If that was the end of it, we never would have heard. Maybe it’s good that it wasn’t the end of it, though, because when Morelock’s Facebook posts came out we might agree it’s just as well that the incident led to her being fired. The posts are in the BET story, and include Morelock calling Parker (thought not naming her), “ignorant simple-minded,” and threatening to ruin her reputation after the end of the semester, specifically saying, “I will post her name, her picture, and her bio on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Linkedin. Count on it.” Wow. (She also says Parker was spreading “venomous rumors” about her, which I don’t see reported.)

Many teachers complain about their students on Facebook. If you have reasonable complaints, don’t compromise their identities, don’t reveal or advocate unprofessional or vindictive behavior, and don’t be really racist, I think this is ethically defensible. It’s like a teaching workshop, or talking about your job in the staff lounge. But it’s risky and if you screw up you can get fired (which might or might not be a good thing).

The key thing is always, “If there was a hidden camera here or someone hacked my account, would I be able to defend my behavior?” If the answer is yes, you might still be taking a risk to talk about students, but at least you can live with yourself.

Anyway, as far as what I see in the classroom video and Facebook post of her email exchange, I have nothing but kudos for Parker although I might argue with her a little, too. If she did bad things elsewhere, she shouldn’t have.

Classroom exchange

In Parker’s presentation, she quotes Frederick Douglass saying it was “common custom” where he was born “to part children from their mothers from a very early age.” This is good evidence in favor of Answer C. Obviously experiences varied dramatically across the slave system and over time. Throwing down over a generalization like “most” is not really worth it.

She added, “We continue to see those impacts today and that’s why I believe that family bonds were destroyed.” She says Morelock told her she can’t teach by anecdotes, and she countered that we have to pay attention to the stories of real people affected. This is a really good argument to have, in theory.

Parker recommends The New Jim Crow, and Slavery by Another Name, and she says of the present “it’s by a different name, it’s still slavery in itself. … Slavery is still continuing to destroy the Black family” because of the “prison industrial complex.” She cites an article by Rose Brewer, “Black Families Imperiled by Growth of Nation’s Prisons Industrial Complex.”

Finally Parker says Morelock recommended some books, one of which was a 1998 edition of Minority Families in the United States, by Ronald Taylor, which she said was good but should be more current.

It’s really an excellent presentation. If you care about educating students, this would make you happy (again, not knowing what else may have happened off camera). At the end Parker takes questions, and Morelock pipes up, saying in part (my transcript):

I don’t have a lot of recent books, because the publishers just don’t send us books the way they used to. And I’ve been using [Andrew] Cherlin [Public and Private Families] for many, many years, the book you have in this course. He says the same thing, and that book is in its seventh edition. If there had been additional sociological research since he wrote that book I would think that it would appear in it, but it doesn’t. So I have to go by what my discipline shows, and I understand no matter how much I revere and respect a historical figure like Frederick Douglass, who was absolutely one of the bravest, most articulate persons of his generation, and highly respected, I still have to go with what has been done systematically, the kind of systematic methods that did not exist at that time, when sociology was still in its infancy. So, in the 70s, you know, the research that was done, with historical documents, on Black families demonstrated that people forged bonds, this is written by sociologist Ronald Taylor, he also happens to be African American, I don’t think he would try to minimize the effects of slavery, which I never ever ever would myself, and he talks about studies here [she quotes Taylor on the strong bonds in Black families, and how they maintained them even when they were separated] … Nonetheless, as I said, no one has to accept the sociological point of view. All students in my class, as is always the case, are free to make up their own minds, in fact I encourage it, and I always encourage you to do as Kayla did, do more research, find out more information about a topic, and come to your own conclusions.

Aside from the giant red flag of calling Frederick Douglass “articulate,” this is a reasonable argument. Although it’s sad that Morelock doesn’t keep up with the literature, and her reliance on authority rather than reason and analysis is bad, the truth is her facts are pretty current. Even though she’s racist, it’s not her take on the history that makes her racist. The prison industrial complex is important but it’s not the same thing as slavery breaking up families, it’s a different but related thing. (Incidentally, Cherlin has a good newer book about working class families that addresses some of this; my review is here.)

It’s not surprising we’ve been arguing about this for a century or so. It’s complicated. Here is the trend, back to 1880, in the proportion of Black children ages 0-14 living with married parents. There are issues with the data and measurement, but this basic pattern holds: the share of Black children living with two married parents increased after the end of slavery, and fell a lot more later:

black children married parents 1880-2015

Of course, some students would also get mad if you said, “slavery destroyed all Black families,” which isn’t true either. I don’t agree with the first part of the BET headline, “Professor Denies Slavery Destroyed Black Families And Threatens Student Who Called Her Out,” but because the second part is true I have no interest in defending her.

My version

Anyone who teaches this material should wrestle with this. Here’s what I have in the first edition of my book, in the history chapter (there is much more current material in the subsequent chapter on race and ethnicity). I would be happy to hear your response to this:

Families Enslaved

African families had gone through their own transitions, of course, of a particularly devastating nature. From the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown in 1619 until the mid-1800s, Africans were forcibly removed from their homelands in western and central Africa and subjected to the unspeakable horrors of the Middle Passage aboard slave ships, slave auctions, and ultimately the hardships of plantation labor in the American South (as well as in the Caribbean and South America). Because they were thrown together from diverse backgrounds, and because their own languages and customs were suppressed by slavery, we do not know how much of slave family life was a reflection of African traditions and how much was an adaptation to their conditions and treatment in America (Taylor 2000).

But there is no doubt that family life was one of the victims of the slave system. The histories that have come down to us feature heart-wrenching stories of family separation, including diaries that tell of children literally ripped from their mothers’ arms by slave traders, mothers taking poison to prevent themselves from being sold, and parents enduring barbaric whippings as punishment for trying to keep their families together (Lerner 1973). In fact, most slaves only had a given name with no family name, which made the formation and recognition of family lineages difficult or impossible (Frazier 1930). Slave marriage and parenthood were not legally recognized by the states, and separation was a constant threat. Any joy in having children was tempered by the recognition that those children were the property of the slave owner and could be sold or transferred away forever.

Nevertheless, most slaves lived in families for some or all of their lives. Most married (if not legally) and had children in young adulthood, and most children lived with both parents. This was especially the case on larger plantations rather than small farms, because slaves could carve out some protection for community life if they were in larger groups, and husbands and wives were more likely to remain together (Coles 2006). Even if they had families, however, African Americans for the most part were excluded from the emerging modern family practices described in the next section until after slavery ended.

Relevant references:

Coles, Roberta L. Race and Family: A Structural Approach. 2006. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Frazier, E. Franklin. 1930. “The Negro Slave Family.” The Journal of Negro History 15(2):198–259.

Lerner, Gerda. 1973. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Vintage Books.

Taylor, Ronald L. 2000. “Diversity within African American Families.” In Handbook of Family Diversity, edited by David H. Demo, Katherine R. Allen, and Mark A. Fine, pp. 232–251. New York: Oxford University Press.

And in our teaching materials, we address it this way, with a multiple choice question:

Most African American slave children lived with: A. grandparents. B. unrelated adults.  C. one parent. D. both parents [D is correct].

And an essay question:

Describe the impact of slavery on the family structure of African Americans throughout U.S. history.

Answer guide: Students should address the lost customs and languages of diverse Africans brought as slaves. Social scientists are often unsure which of the resulting cultural features of African American family life are held over from African traditions and which are adaptations to slavery. Family lineage was difficult or impossible to trace. Separation of parents and children was common. After the Civil War, African American families were legally recognized, and some were reunited. Emerging African American families were more egalitarian in gender roles and had strong extended family and kinship networks.

This story has good lessons about a number of things that scare people who teach family sociology (and lots of other people, too): being wrong, being called racist, and getting fired for saying something on Facebook. Good chance to reflect on teaching, which is hard, but also great.

13 thoughts on “Teaching Black family history in sociology, student resistance edition

  1. From what I’ve read, there were different experiences in different places and times. Virginia, from what I read, generally had families and stable enough lives to support natural increase. The Carolinas had single individuals who had such high mortality rates than families were uncommon. And the North mostly had single individuals who couldn’t form families. After the cotton gin was invented and slavery became unprofitable in Virginia, Virginia served as a source of workers to be shipped South/West as individuals to the cotton plantations in Mississippi and Louisiana, and this definitely broke up families. My main source on this is Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, although what he writes is consistent with other sources I’ve read about variations in the lives of slaves in different regions and over time. The picture I form is that people often formed and tried to maintain families, and that slavery often disrupted them. It’s a complex picture. And whether people could maintain families or not, slavery was slavery and people’s human rights were not respected and the rites of marriage between slaves were not legally respected by White law. In a way, you could say that both the student and the professor were right about the basic facts, but both missed the importance of variation.

    In terms of what you wrote, I think it could be helpful to explain about regional variation and the differences between what people could actually pull together for themselves under the conditions of slavery in different regions, what their sensibilities were as human beings who respected family ties and marriage-like relations, and what the overacting system of laws and practices was.

    The pedagogical issues are different of course: being willing to respect and engage students rather than trying to trot out one’s credentials as definitive in the face of a complex historical/sociological debate about a topic with loaded value implications.


    1. Thanks, Pam. Interestingly, I haven’t read Cherlin’s latest edition, but he did describe some of those regional differences in a previous edition. Here’s a question from a 10-year-old test bank I have from his publisher:

      The disruption of slave families was most severe in:
      a. The upper North
      b. The Appalachian area
      c. The lower South
      d. All areas


      1. One problem with the question is that Virginia families were disrupted in the 1800s by the practice of treating Virginia’s slave families as the source of laborers to be sent South/West; their sales supported slave-owning families in Virginia. Again, my main source would be Baptist here. A lot of slaves lived in Virginia and they typically lived in family units. A lot of Virginia families were disrupted by losing members who were sold South, but the families still continued to exist, often reforming themselves after losses.

        It’s also a debate about whether “disrupted” means “were not able to have families at all” or means “experienced the traumatic loss of family members and a chronic sense of threat and instability.”


        1. And the slaves sold South often patched together family-type relationships and units in their new locations in the South. The whole disruption yes/no way of framing the matter just elides the combination of a positive will to survive and form relationships in adverse conditions with the brutality of the conditions.


  2. Maybe i’m an elitist snob but really, looking at the facebook posts makes me cringe; if there’s one thing that speaks of immaturity and un-professionalism for me it’s the suggestive, sympathy-seeking ranting on facebook, complete with friends expressing hate and joining the rant for the anonymous (or semi-anonymous) offender. The moment you do it you’re totally disqualified, in my book at least (which i understand counts for nothing, still); i blocked lots of otherwise esteemed colleagues for the same reason.

    Unrequested opinion aside, thanks for the very interesting lesson, since i knew 0 on the topic..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Apologies that my comment is so long, but I just wanted to offer a somewhat alternate view on the incident.

    I recommend the student’s blog outlining her take on the entire saga, with more detail: https://mystudentvoices.com/beware-of-wolves-in-sheeps-clothing-the-tale-of-a-progressive-professor-who-forgot-to-hide-her-7efe21b1fc5d

    I did not see any explicitly racist statements or behavior on the part of the professor. Some have argued that the professor wouldn’t have reacted as strongly and viciously to a non-black student. I didn’t see it that way, but certainly I could be wrong.

    Clearly the professor made some racially insensitive remarks (“I have black friends” is a classic). While this does not prove that the professor ISN’T racist, it also does not prove that she IS racist. Also, if a student claims that a professor is whitewashing black history and minimizing the effects of slavery, don’t be surprised if the professor defends herself by stating her non-racist bona fides. Remember, it was the student who initially framed this disagreement as about racism, not the professor.

    While I certainly don’t defend the professor’s threatening behavior on social media, I think this incident began because a student threw down over a really minor point. It may be a legalistic approach, but if D (“Most slave families were headed by two parents”) is correct, then C (“Black family bonds were destroyed “) cannot be correct. The professor should have acknowledged that it was a poorly worded question, but she did offer the student points for her answer and tried to move on from the issue. It was the student who would not let it go. I thought the professor readily noted that black families were harmed by slavery and that the effects continued until today, but the student staked her war on the tiny point that black families absolutely were “destroyed.” This is the smallest of small stakes.

    I did not view this incident as a triumph over racial oppression, but mostly as an example of a student challenging a professor’s authority and knowledge, which is something that women and people of color deal with quite often. Would the student have challenged the professor so strongly if the professor were male? Would she have asserted that the professor was whitewashing black history if the professor were black? As a black female professor, I had plenty of students challenge my knowledge, but never had anyone accuse me of minimizing racial oppression.

    Ultimately, the stakes were small and both were being petty and unreasonable (the professor much more so, obviously).


    1. Thanks, Holly.

      Thanks for the link to her blog. I’m old enough to be shocked by this passage in particular: “The sociologist she cites, Herbert Gutman, is a white man that died in 1985 and conducted his research in the 60s and 70s. It is not hard to recognize that racism and bias could play a large role in the ‘studies’ conducted by sociologists during this time. The whitewashing of Black history has historically been used to justify the barbaric behavior that White people inflicted on Black people for centuries and I was seeing this happen again in my class.”


      I do agree with your last paragraph. I categorized the teacher’s description of the student as “ignorant simple-minded” as racist, but I guess that’s debatable. The blog description makes it seem like they were both on the warpath from very early in the interaction. Your other point is very well taken: I should notice about myself that I am outwardly encouraging about people challenging my authority — but maybe that’s because people very rarely (basically never) do!


      1. Yeah, ye olde White Male professor privilege. I’m kind of a Dragon Lady, so I don’t get a lot of crap, but I get challenged pretty regularly. If you don’t get challenged at all, you have to figure that people just are not telling you what they really think and assume that your privilege is protecting you. Regarding the troubled interaction, it is “normal” for students to take offense at something professors say and “normal” for professors to object to being challenged. Students most often just gripe to their friends when offended, and there is a structure to when they even let the professor know. Once the challenge occurred, either side could have deescalated. But the professor was more in the wrong IMO because she had all the power. She could have said: “I understand why this question was upsetting to you as it seemed to imply that slavery was not all that bad, but I’m still grading the question this way.” She had all the power, she could have stood her ground and simply politely and respectfully refused to change her mind. She could even have told the student that it was only one point, unlikely to affect her final grade, and that she would give her the benefit of the doubt in the unlikely circumstance that one point actually made a difference in the grade. She could even have suggested that they both research the issue more and compare notes. But this would have required tolerating the knowledge that the student thought she was wrong and racially insensitive to boot. Needing to dominate and squash a student (of any race) who challenges you is bad behavior, and I think it is behavior that is more likely to happen in some race/gender combinations than others.

        I have fairly often had a student of color tell me that something I said was racially insensitive. Also I’ve had conservative students tell me I was biased, and radical students sometimes tell me I was biased in the other direction. It has been my experience that treating challengers with respect and dignity in a conversation that explores the issue at hand is usually productive, even as I am completely unwilling to allow students to exert dominance moves over me. There is a way of acting like you are so sure of yourself that you can tolerate dissent. Public challenges in lectures most often come from White students, and there have been a few times when the question was so insolent that it required a dominance move on my part, but this is rare.

        As regards your appearing to be upset about the student saying this is yet another instance of White sociologists trying to Whitewash the history of slavery, are you really saying you found that extreme or upsetting? I wasn’t quite sure what “ouch” meant there. That’s a pretty normal Black opinion. If you have never heard if before or felt the need to adjust your teaching to address that kind of sensibility, then maybe you should question your teaching. Maybe the “ouch” just meant that dying in 1985 didn’t seem all that long ago? I mean the student seemed to be saying that younger sociologists were less likely to be white-washing slavery. Isn’t that a good thing? And there is an implicit academic critique of the professor using out of date research.


        1. I agree with your take on the interaction and the instructor’s responsibility to handle it better. I just meant “ouch!” somewhat sarcastically, like “zing!”: I definitely think saying that about Gutman is unkind and unjustified but I am not upset and don’t consider it extreme or unusual.


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