AMERICA'S FRAGMENTED BLACK FAMILIES; Helping them rebuild
Boston — She sagged on the living room couch, weary. Her nine-year-old daughter clicked on the television set. ''I wish you were like Jane,'' she said to her mom.
''Jane? Who's Jane?''
''Jane Brady! She's the mother in 'The Brady Bunch.' You know, the TV show.''
Eleanor Engram lifted herself from the couch. She walked to a mirror and stared into it. She gazed back at her daughter. A wave of protest welled up inside.
''Hey! I'm black. My child's black. Why does she want me to be like Jane Brady?'' Off went the TV. ''That child's looking at too much TV. And she's not seeing us and reality.''
That episode took place 15 years ago. ''The seeds of a new life were planted in me then,'' Ms. Engram remembers. ''My education began. My daughter and I learned together. We became a family.''
Today that troubled mother is Dr. Eleanor Engram with MA and PhD degrees in sociology from Duke University. A vital factor in her ''survival,'' she says, was the black extended family (neighbors and relatives) who watched over her child.
Until then Dr. Engram had felt pangs of guilt for giving birth, at age 19, to an illegitimate child. She was an early example of what would become the fast-growing type of black family of the 1980s - a family headed by an unmarried , unemployed, teen-age mother who had dropped out of high school.
During the past 15 years the traditional family (a married couple with children) has been fading among blacks. In 1970, 68.3 percent of black families were headed by married couples. By 1982, that figure had dropped to 55.1 percent.
In the past few years, the disintegration of the black family - and the economic problems encountered by the black woman who is the sole parent in the household - has attracted the attention of the nation's two most influential civil rights organizations. The National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are challenging blacks to work for a revival of the black family.
''The time has come for middle-class blacks to roll up their sleeves and work in the vineyards to solve problems affecting black families,'' says John E. Jacob, president of the National Urban League. ''We can no longer tolerate the attitude of being above the problem.''
His plea for blacks to look to themselves for help - and not to the federal government - came during a summit meeting on the black family held this spring at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. His call for mobilization was echoed by NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks.
''We (the NAACP and National Urban League) called the summit not to review statistics, not to rediscuss rampant unemployment, not to talk about the lack of quality education, not to concentrate on the increase in teen-age pregnancy, not to talk about the growing numbers of female-headed families. We want every black agency, every black organization, to make revitalization of the black family its personal project.''
Since then, a number of organizations - citizen groups in black communities, black churches, volunteer groups in inner-city schools - have planned or expanded their services for black families.
Many of the programs are designed to help unwed, teen-age mothers. To NAACP and Urban League leaders, the statistics are alarming: More black babies are born out of wedlock than are born to married couples, according to the United States Census Bureau. In 1980, 55 percent of black children were born out of wedlock, compared with 38 percent in 1970. (For white children, the figure was 11 percent in 1980).
Last month the National Council of Negro Women, the nation's largest black women's organization, and the Children's Defense Fund met in Atlanta to design a new program to cope with the problems of teen-age pregnancy. The program, to be launched in September in 23 sites nationwide, will emphasize pregnancy prevention, says Marion Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund.
''Obviously, sex education is just a small part of what is needed to strengthen the black family and prevent teen-age pregnancies,'' Mrs. Edelman says. ''It's a very complex problem,'' she says, involving needs for better education, job training, and ''massive consciousness-raising'' among black men and women.
Volunteers will staff the 23 ''Child Watch Adolescent Pregnancy'' programs; they will filter their services through the Association of Junior Leagues, the March of Dimes, and local black organizations to have the broadest impact possible, Mrs. Edelman says. So far, ''response from black groups (who want to link up with Child Watch) has been enormous.''
Another recent development is a $100,000 grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation for the National Urban League to plan a teen program. ''We hope this will spread into a broader network of agencies seeking to reduce teen-age pregnancy and encourage young people to finish school and gain more self esteem, '' says the foundation's Marilyn Steele. The foundation has committed at least $ 1 million a year for six years to implement the plans, she adds.
Other programs are already well established. In Boston, a neighborhood YWCA run programs in two high schools to help keep teen-age mothers and pregnant students in school.
''My school has a female population that includes 10 percent mothers and 7 percent who become pregnant during the school year,'' says Albert L. Holland, headmaster at Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston's black neighborhood of Roxbury. ''The YWCA program keeps most of them in school.'' ''Nationwide, half the pregnant high school girls drop out of school,'' says Jennifer Prescott, director of the YWCA program. ''Our program has saved 40 students (from quitting school) out of 65 in each school in the program's first full year, reducing the dropout rate to 38 percent.''
The YWCA project includes day-care service for the babies, and instruction in child care, prenatal care, and proper nutrition.
''We hope to expand this program to middle schools (junior high) to offer preventive services,'' Dr. Prescott says. ''Children are not getting the proper information at home or school.''
A formal education is important for these young mothers, black leaders say. Without it, the mothers' opportunities for employment - of being able to provide for their children - are severely limited. Seventy percent of black families headed by women are living in poverty - and female-led families comprise 40.6 percent of all the black families in the US, according to the Census Bureau.
Unwed teen-age mothers are not the only women who are running families alone. The divorce rate for black women is also high (265 of every 1,000 black women). The two groups share many of the same problems - inadequate or unaffordable day care, a choice between welfare or poverty-level wages, and lack of access to public transportation.
Norener Kelley-Reid of Boston was left with three small children when her husband walked out three years ago. Returning to the working world with ''three mouths to feed'' was not easy, she says. ''I work every day (as a full-time typist), but I don't earn enough money to take care of my expenses - food, rent, fuel, and three children.''
At first Mrs. Reid went on welfare, but ''had enough'' of its ''dehumanizing'' after six months. ''It's better to work for yourself than be on welfare,'' she says, ''even though a time may come for you to choose between food and fuel when the weather is cold.''
Her family survives, she says, because her own extended family of relatives and friends decided to help. ''I feel fortunate. My mother takes care of the kids for free when I have no money.''
Mrs. Reid's story illustrates how relatives, neighbors, and friends can help a struggling young mother provide for her family. Even so, many single black mothers do not have extended families to help out in times of need. The Urban League and the NAACP are telling their affiliates that black organizations need to reach out into their communities and fill a great need for prenatal care, affordable day care, and after-school care for children. These services must be provided if the parent is to work rather go on welfare, they say.
Is revitalizing the black family an impossible task?
''No!'' insists Dr. Engram. ''In reality, the more critical issue is not the single mother - it's what we can do to halt the disintegration of the black family,'' reasons Dr. Engram, who now heads her own sociological consulting firm in San Jose, Calif.
Dr. Engram says she doesn't look for ''supermom'' to bring up children alone in today's black communities. ''I say the church must join secular institutions in rebuilding the black community and the black family.'' Dr. Engram devotes her volunteer time to the National Assembly of Black Church Organizations.
One church that spreads ''the joy of family living'' is Shiloh Baptist Church of Washington. Through its Family Life Center, built in 1982, the church provides recreation, counseling, and classes designed to bring the family together, says Angela Current, executive administrator. ''We serve all people of the community, not just members of our church,'' she says.
And in one black community in Boston, the Twelfth Baptist Church makes good use of the expertise of a junior minister who is also a social worker for juvenile courts. The Rev. Bruce Wall helps to operate an after-school program at its church center to work with youth.
Black teen-agers have long endured unemployment rates more than double those of white teen-agers. (In June, the rate was 34.1 percent for black teens; 15.5 percent for whites). ''Until black children, especially males, are taught how to make a living for the family, black families will suffer from lack of income,'' says June Hopps, dean of Boston College Graduate School of Social Work.
An organization in Los Angeles has found an unusual way to inspire young black males. It has introduced a superhero - complete with Superman-style cape and mask - to work with children to prevent drug abuse, foster understanding with the law, and promote closer father-son relationships. The superhero, named Radian, embodies clean living and self-pride - and he encourages young blacks to do the same.
Radian is the brainchild of James A. Mays, who founded Adopt-a-Family Endowment, through which Radian works. Adopt-a-Family is a public, nonprofit program to help black families in Greater Los Angeles. Families that come to Adopt-a-Family work with professionals - educators, lawyers, physicians, accountants among others - who volunteer their time to lend help.
''We pull together a written agreement with a family - the family agrees to work for itself to resolve its problems, and we professionals agree to work as a team to help,'' says Carl P. Wallace, program director.
Sometimes, when the professionals see that a family needs financial help, Radian is called in to perform a ''miracle,'' says Mr. Wallace. Radian dips into the Adopt-a-Family endowment to provide, for example, scholarship money for a black youngster who excels in school. The funding has come from Dr. Mays, but Adopt-a-Family is expanding so fast that fund-raisers and business donations are being considered, he says.
National Urban League president Jacob has recommended Adopt-a-Family to affiliates as a model program to assist the family ''without government help.''
The NAACP perceives two ways it can help corral action in behalf of black families. National board member Ernest Green, a Washington-based consultant, is overseeing the NAACP effort. ''Our goal is to create . . . a file of agencies, programs, and projects that can help black families,'' Mr. Green says. ''Some branches will run their own programs. We hope that all branches will refer families to agencies that best meet their needs.''