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Aging and social isolation
JOHNSON, COLLEEN L. (Summer 1999)FAMILY LIFE OF OLDER BLACK
MEN. In Journal of Aging Studies, 13, p145. Retrieved September 07, 2006, from Expanded Academic ASAP via Thomson Gale:
Full Text:COPYRIGHT 1999 JAI Press, Inc.
ABSTRACT: This report explores family structure and functioning among 58 men whose ages range from 65 to 96. In comparison to women in this study, men are no more likely to be isolated from their family. In fact, more men are married and live with others, and there are no significant differences in other indicators of family integration. There were no significant differences in the instrumental and expressive supports from members of the extended family. Those men who are married have a strong relationship with their wives. Most fathers have active relationships with their children but are closer to sons over daughters and proximal children over distant ones. Collateral relationships include strong bonds with siblings and siblings' children. Those with few family relationships have pieced-together networks of friends and kindred.
Recent studies of black
families in later life shed few insights on men's family roles. In their extensive review of the research literature, Taylor and his colleagues (Taylor et al. 1990) concluded that studies of men's family life are exceedingly rare and one of the most conspicuous gaps in the literature. In the absence of adequate literature on the family life of older black
men, this report draws upon already available data from two studies conducted in the San Francisco Bay Area that included 58 black
men and 192 women 65 years and older. Three questions will be addressed. First, how do black
men's family roles and their family integration differ from black
women's? This question will be addressed by comparing men and women in these two samples. Second, how do men perceive and evaluate their family status and roles as husbands, fathers, and kin, and what are the qualities of these relationships? Third, conceptually how does the organization of the family affect the resources available to older male members? To address these questions, I will draw upon the open-ended discussions of the men in the studies in order to tap not only contacts and mutual aid but also qualities of their family relationships.
The findings on black
men are organized around three constellations of the extended family. These include: those that emphasize lineal ties between generations, those that emphasize collateral relationships such as the sibling relationship, and a residual category that includes not only a few loners, but also those who have pieced together networks of kindred from various sources. By classifying the respondents' discussions about their families into these categories, it is possible to identify how one constellation may be emphasized over another and lead to different types of family relationships. For example, those who emphasize collateral ties through the solidarity of siblings usually have a larger kinship group than those emphasizing generational bonds to the exclusion of other kin (Johnson and Barer 1995).
Two contradictory views on black
men's family life dominate the literature (Allen 1978; Wilson 1986). One set of assumptions traces black
men's current family status to historical antecedents in slavery when marriage and fatherhood were not emphasized. In combination with later economic and employment barriers and discriminatory practices, high rates of marital instability left men more peripheral to female-centered households (Staples and Johnson 1993).
A second set of assumptions coming from in-depth studies of black
extended families point to the strengths of black
families that have facilitated survival under difficult circumstances (Aschenbrenner 1973, 1975, 1978; Hill 1971; Martin and Martin 1978; Shimkin et al. 1978; Stack 1974, 1996). Since relatives beyond the nuclear family are readily willing to respond to the needs of kin, this extended family type is particularly adaptive in urban areas. Flexible household structures permit the easy incorporation of kin, making the extended family a convenient facilitator of mobility for economic gains. These studies are in agreement that the black
kinship system is bilateral but has a matrilateral focus. In other words, both maternal and paternal sides are recognized, but the maternal side is more central to family functioning.
Given the high interactions and cooperation among residentially clustered households, relatedness by blood often takes precedence over marital ties (Mitchell and Register 1984). Consequently, men may be active in matrifocal extended families either of their mother, sister, and their wife, and men are active in kinship roles as fathers, grandfathers, and uncles (Aschenbrenner 1973, 1975, 1978). Where not active with biological children, they may be devoted stepfathers and stepgrandfathers. Additionally, men's capacity to move in and out of several households has an advantage in making them more mobile in looking for work. They may be contributing to households of their mother, an ex-wife, and a girlfriend who is raising their children. In other words, they may have formed several families rather than being without families. In recent years, however, such extended-family households have declined in prevalence, so men may no longer have that advantage (Sudarkasa 1997).
A more recent and variant view comes from Scott and Black
(1989), who view the family from a network perspective. They maintain that to understand how black
families function, male and female networks must be considered as distinct entities. Each has created survival strategies through the formation of different types of social networks. Since economic deprivation has been a major impediment to forming conventional nuclear families, female networks are child-centered and household-focused, while males tend to live on the margins of female-headed households as they participate in street-corner-centered networks.
Most recent research findings on black
families in later life come from national surveys, where gender is rarely singled out for special analyses. Nevertheless, the roles of men are undoubtedly affected by the symbolic and emotional importance assigned to women in black
families. Historical references to the rural southern family stress the importance of the mother and grandmother (Frazier 1966). Where large extended families are found, they are as likely to be headed by women as by men (Martin and Martin 1978). Taylor et al. (1993a) found that three-quarters of their respondents identified a grandmother, not a grandfather, as their significant relationship. Since black
women have been active economic contributors to the family since slavery, however, they may compete with men in the economic sphere to the extent that the marital bond is weakened (Staples and Johnson 1993). Gender differences in the provider and homemaker role are not rigid in the black
family. An analysis of attitudes in a sample of blacks
55 years and older found that their gender attitudes mirrored those of the general population. But the divorced and unmarried, particularly the women in the survey, found the absence of a spouse was usually considered to their advantage in terms of their independence and freedom (Taylor et al. 1993b).
In addition to supportive extended family relationships, moreover, the importance of children to older blacks
is repeatedly stressed (Chatters 1990; George 1988; Gibson 1982; Mutran 1985; Taylor 1985). Studies also find that families have a strong capacity to mobilize support from relatives beyond the nuclear family to meet the needs of older people as well as dependent children (Crosbie-Burnett and Lewis 1993). In fact, happiness or subjective well-being among blacks
is strongly associated with closeness to the family over friends (Ellison 1990). Strong community ties are also prominent such as the family-like relationships formed through black
churches (Gibson 1982; Johnson and Barer 1990; Perry and Johnson 1994; Taylor and Chatters 1986). Such effective mechanisms have been traced to the generalized, incorporative kinship system on plantations and later in the rural South.
Spitze and Miner (1992) report that older black
men have less contact with their children than women do. Urban-rural differences may be important, however, for Kivett (1991) reports that the grandfather role in the rural South is more central to black
men than white men. In gender comparisons of the oldest old, Perry and Johnson (1994) found that women have more expansive urban networks than men, because their networks are often augmented through the creation of fictive kin. In fact, in our two San Francisco studies, we found that older blacks
were significantly more integrated into their family than their white counterparts (Johnson and Barer 1990). Racial differences were particularly prominent in comparisons of childless blacks
and whites who were 85 years and older, with blacks
having significantly more helpful relatives as substitutes for children (Johnson and Barer 1995).
In contrast to the emphasis upon kin solidarity, Burton and Dilworth-Anderson (1991) conclude that such conceptions of the black
family as an all-embracing support network need to be reassessed to take contemporary cultural changes into account. They maintain that the contemporary black
family is distinct from its predecessors. Not only is the family more vertical in its structure with more generations present, but it also has fewer members in each generation. It is also age-condensed with fewer years between each generation (Bengtson et al. 1990; George and Gold 1991). They also challenge the widely held assumptions about the high fertility of black
women. With delayed childbearing or permanent childlessness, birth rates among black
women have fallen by 50% since the 1940s. As a result, one increasingly finds truncated family structures consisting of those without lineal kin. In view of these changes, they suggest that the costs of family involvement today as well as its benefits need to be explored.
Because of the dearth of research specifically on older black
men, these varied reports on black
families leave important questions unanswered. This paper hopes to fill some of the gaps inductively by reporting on the men's descriptions of their family roles and relationships. Knowing more about their adaptation in later life can extend our knowledge of cultural and gender differences in family life. Since the literature suggests that the black
family in later life usually meets the needs of older members more adequately than the average white family, these findings may also add to the growing body of empirical data on minority aging and the social support process.
The findings reported here come from participants in two research studies. First, between 1987 and 1990, 32 black
men and 96 women 65 years and older were part of a research project on the informal and formal supports of inner-city elderly. Respondents in this study were selected from patient rolls of the general medical clinics of two hospitals (Johnson and Barer 1990). Second, 26 men and 96 women come from a sample of 122 blacks
85 years and older drawn in 1991-1992 (Johnson 1995; Perry and Johnson 1994). They were selected from voting rolls in those neighborhoods with a high proportion of blacks
. Since my purpose here is to map men's family roles, the women in these studies will be used only in an initial comparison to identify gender differences in family involvements.(1)
Because little information is available on older men's family roles, the methods here are inductive and aimed at generating hypotheses or propositions that can be the basis for further study. In both studies, a focused interview technique was used, and the same questions on family life were asked. This technique of combining forced-choice with open-ended questioning encourages respondents to speak freely about their family life. Other than specific questions that resulted in measures of social relationships, respondents ranged widely in their discussions of their families. Verbatim notes were recorded and transcribed later. These interviews lasted two to three hours and were held in the respondents' homes in one or two sittings.
In addition to demographic information, respondents were questioned by the open-ended techniques about each category of relationship (spouse, child, child-in-law, grandchild, sibling, and other relatives). They were asked general questions about their activities together, patterns of reciprocity, and the positive and negative aspects of family relationships. Then they were asked three questions about whom they turn to for expressive functions (when they are feeling down, when they want to have some fun, and whom they see on holidays) and five questions on instrumental functions (those who provide household help, transportation, meal preparation, shopping, and paying bills). Finally, they were also asked to identify those individuals they considered as members of their families.
Using these data, two social support variables were coded on 5-point scales. Instrumental components of relationships were derived from their discussion about practical assistance they did or did not receive from each category of relatives such as household help, money management, and transportation. Expressive components refer to the extent the relationship met needs for security and sociability. These were elicited through questions about shared activities, whether contacts were rewarding, whether they could share confidences or go to that person when troubled. A third variable, family contacts, is a measure of the total number of family members and kin with whom the respondent had weekly interactions.
To determine the qualitative dimensions of relationships, two members of the research staff examined each interview and recorded and coded all comments. Where needed, they also derived measures. These coders had a mean agreement rate of 81%. A content analysis was also conducted on the participants' open-ended discussions to identify the organizational emphasis of their family. Discussions about their families were extracted from the interviews, and the patterns were identified, summarized, and categorized by which types of relationships were emphasized. These categories of vertical, collateral, and kindred dominated networks are not mutually exclusive, however, for some maintained strong vertical and collateral emphases or strong generational relationships in addition to having pieced-together networks of kindred.
Comparison of Two Samples
T-tests and chi-squares identified significant differences between the men in the two samples. The only significant family variable was the finding that the oldest old men had fewer children, most likely because more of them had witnessed the deaths of children. The oldest old men did differ on two socioeconomic variables; they were more likely to report that their economic status was good, and more of them were home owners. The men in the out-patient study and the oldest old study did not differ in either mean education (6.0 years and 5.9 years, respectively) or in occupation level with most having had semiskilled or unskilled positions. In physical status, their situation was similar with 40% to 44% being disabled on four or more instrumental tasks of daily living.
GENDER COMPARISONS IN DEMOGRAPHIC INFORMATION AND FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS
To address the first research question, "Do men differ from women in their family functioning?", Table 1 makes comparison by gender in the structure and functioning of extended families. Significantly more men are currently married, and thus, more men live with others--55% of the men but only 30% of the women. It should also be noted that 32% of the men, but only 10% of the women live with a spouse either with or without the presence of a child. There are no significant gender differences in parent status or the numbers of children in proximity. A high proportion of parents, however, have at least one child in the area--69% of the men and 83% of the women.
Comparisons of Male and Female Family Characteristics
(n = 58) (n = 192)
Married 33 9
Widowed 21 53
Divorced 41 36
Never Married 5 2, p < .001
Alone 45 70
Spouse 27 8
Spouse and Child 5 2
Child 14 11
Relative 9 9, p < .005
Childless 28 40
Children Present 72 60
Child in Proximity 69 83
Child Away 31 17
Spouse 31 7
Child 38 51
Grandchild 23 29
Sibling 14 22
Relative 17 27
Spouse 31 7
Child 59 72
Grandchild 50 61
Sibling 45 55
Relative 51 51
Contacts (weekly or more)
Child 53 68
Sibling 16 19
Relative 36 43
Weekly Family Contacts
None 22 30
One Member 40 32
Two or More 38 38
Frequent 35 67
Rarely or Never 65 33, p < .001
No significant gender differences are found in their relationships with members of their extended families. Men and women did not differ in the instrumental and expressive supports they received from children, grandchildren, siblings, and other relatives. Fifty-three percent of the fathers and 68% of the mothers have at least weekly contact with at least one child, while 16% of the men and 19% of the women have weekly or more contact with a sibling, and 36% and 43%, respectively have weekly contact with other collateral relatives such as nieces, nephews, and cousins. Consequently no gender differences are found in their lineal and collateral relationships. Also, only 22% of the men and 30% of the women have no weekly contact with a family member. One significant gender difference may affect the social relationships of men; they attend church less frequently than women. Since the church is an important base for forming fictive kin relationships, they may have fewer such relationships (Johnson and Barer 1990). Nevertheless, the absence of gender differences in family was unanticipated so possible explanations will be discussed in the conclusion.
MARITAL RELATIONSHIPS OF BLACK
At the time of the interviews, 33% of the men were married, 21% were widowed, 41% were divorced, and only 5% never married. While the numbers are too small to report in tabular form, in their marital history
, 20 of the 58 men had lived in a long-term marriage of whom 12 were still married. Almost twice as many had multiple marriages, a mean of 1.7 per married man, and the majority of the marriages had ended in divorce. Some marriages ended informally when the husband migrated from the South to California without his family. Despite histories
of marital instability, relationships with women were important to these men. Thirteen of the men currently had close female companions whom they saw frequently, and 4 of these 13 men lived with them. Also 25% of the divorced men carried on friendly relationships with former wives.
Consequently, the male-female bond was likely to be central to most men at some point in their lives. Some men sustained relationships with women over the years through a succession of marriages or casual unions. Most men who were currently married were satisfied with their marriage, and we observed high levels of companionship and interdependence between spouses in long-term marriages. Most married men identified their wife as their most important relationship, a bond that took precedence over other relationships.
The men in long-term marriages of over 50 years had usually married in the South before migrating to California. These marriages seemed particularly rewarding. They were rated as "a number-one marriage" or "a happy marriage for all 55 years." Some couples beamed with pleasure as they recounted their courtship in the rural South. For example, one man spoke romantically of their meeting at a country store almost 70 years ago:
She was going out with a man who owned two cars and seven houses, and I had
nothing. But I'd be there waiting for her on her front porch when she got
back from dates. I got to know her mamma well, who decided I'd make the
better husband even if I was poor.
Another couple met at church in Louisiana. The first time he called on her, he brought along his preacher to vouch for him. Now, 66 years later, they are very affectionate, and both are constantly worried that something might happen to the other one.
VERTICAL GENERATIONAL BONDS
The emphasis upon the vertical bonds between generations is the most common configuration in these kinship systems for the 72% of the men who had children. The role of father is quite varied, most likely because of the varied marital histories
. In some cases, respondents were vague about their paternity or their role as fathers, so the precise number of children was difficult to clarify. They also selectively redefined the conventional father-child relationships in four ways. First, there was a propensity to maintain relationships with only those children in the area. Some men ceased contact or had only rare contact with children who lived at a distance. In some cases, they had had no role in raising their distant children, having left them with their mother when they moved on to look for work. Thus, the proximity of children is an important determinant of the relationship.
Of the 42 men who are fathers, 69% have at least one child living nearby, and 53% are in contact with them at least weekly. In contrast, 45% have no contact with children who live outside the area, and another 14% have less than monthly contact. Consequently, most fathers with descendants in the area maintain a fairly active relationship with them, and they often report strong bonds of affection between themselves and selected children. Supports between generations are usually unilateral, however, with children aiding their fathers rather than the reverse. These fathers are proud of the esteem and respect they receive from their descendants. For example, Mr. R. reports: "I got three children, and my daughter has a million grandchildren. They all are mighty good to me. They don't leave me to myself."
Second, not only are generational bonds determined by geographic proximity but also by genealogical nearness. Closeness to children does not necessarily insure strong relationships with grandchildren and great grandchildren. In their discussions, these men did not usually single out qualities of a specific grandchild nor talk about their relationships with any of them. If they had many descendants, grandchildren and great grandchildren were often treated as a generic category with few being singled out by name or specific personal characteristics. The respondents would say: "There are too many to count," "I can't remember all their names," or "I hardly know them." This vagueness was also present when describing supports from grandchildren: "They see after me," or "They come around when I need them." One man typifies this situation. He lives with his son whom he considers his best friend, but he rarely sees his grandchildren. He knows little about them and is not particularly motivated to see more of them.
In only a few cases were these men distant with their children but close to grandchildren. Sometimes if a child was unable or unwilling to help out, selected grandchildren might come by each week to clean their house or shop for them. A few emotionally close bonds developed with a specific grandchild out of mutual needs as well as affection. For example, Mr. S. had been widowed for 15 years. He explained that his closeness to his grandchildren over his children developed, because they needed a place to live:
After my wife died, the grandkids started moving in. I haven't been alone
since then. That's all right with me. I like to have them around. I don't
see my children much though.
While most grandfathers avoid those grandchildren who have problems with substance abuse or with the law, a few in troubled families became surrogate parents. Mr. and Mrs. T. have three daughters, 15 grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. According to the T.s, most of their children are "heavy drinkers" and some of their grandchildren "live on the streets and are druggy." They had in their words "rescued" two grandchildren 15 years previously. Both still live with them and call them "Papa George and Mama Rose." The T.s rarely see their children, even though they live in the same neighborhood. It seems that the T.s have barricaded themselves along with their two grandchildren to avoid the problems of the rest of their extended family.
Third, father-son relationships are usually closer and more companionate than relationships between fathers and daughters. While conflict was rarely reported between fathers and sons, tensions between fathers and daughters were found even when they shared a household. The comments of two men typify this situation: "We live together but as strangers," or "We share the household, but we don't really live together." To further illustrate qualities of some father-daughter relationships, Mr. A.'s daughter and her teen-age son had moved in to help him after he had a stroke, and they stayed on after he regained his functioning. He continually referred to his daughter as antagonistic: "She always gives me snappy answers. She seems to carry a grudge." He wondered whether the source of her anger could be traced to some event in her childhood or some current issue. He thought that his daughter's anger might be due to jealousy about the attention he received from his female companion's daughter. Another man chose to live with his son over his daughter, because his son was more affectionate, while his daughter was "quick to take offense." Still another man lived with his daughter and her children, but most of his time was spent behind the locked door of his bedroom: "I don't like what I see going on around here," he explained.
Fourth, some fathers transferred their affection to stepchildren or the children of girlfriends. In fact, it was common in long-term marriages to blur the distinctions between step and biological descendants. If they had raised their stepchildren over much of their younger years, they considered themselves as their father: "My wife had three children, and I had three. Three died, so now we only have three left." Others switch their allegiances to stepchildren, because they have stronger bonds of affection with them than they have with their biological children.
Collateral bonds are those between members of the same generation such as siblings. Through their siblings, they are linked to other relationships such as nieces and nephews. Although 55% of the men have no surviving siblings, those with siblings in the area have frequent contact with them. Since many blacks
came to California from the South in a chain-migration of siblings, they have lived near each other for many years. Some traced the close bond to their shared privations during their childhood. One man elaborated: "I had always lived near my sister. I was mostly raised by her, and we went through hard times together. When she came to California, oh how I missed her. I came to visit and never went back. I've been married five times, but my sister and her gang of kids have always been my real family."
Collateral bonds have at least four advantages in strengthening family resources. First, they can be mobilized in the absence of vertical relationships, or they can augment weak or unsupportive relationships with children and grandchildren. For instance, Mr. K., who is quite disabled, has five children in Mississippi whom he rarely sees. In their place, he has two types of collateral bonds. Most important is his sister, who calls every morning. If he needs something, she comes over, or she sends her children over to help him. Additionally, his ex-wife also calls daily, and she or her children from another marriage come when he needs help.
Second, collateral bonds are potentially expansive, in that they link together a wider network of kin than is found in lineal bonds between generations (Johnson and Barer 1995). Commonly sibling solidarity continues after the death of one of them, because they continue to maintain their relationship with a sibling's surviving spouse. That relationship is often similar to what they had with their sibling. A brother of a former girlfriend can also assume such importance. Even with children present, collateral bonds may supersede the parent-child bond. As Mr. L. explained his distance from his only child:
I didn't raise him, so I lost contact. I hear I have four grandchildren and
some great grandchildren, but I don't even know their names. The only one I
feel related to is my brother-in-law, who is my best friend. I used to go
out with his sister.
One man had been married three times and had three children from two of these marriages. He rarely sees them or his 12 grandchildren and 8 great grandchildren:
I left one wife and children in Louisiana and moved around a lot. After I
settled here, I never went back to get them. I married here and began a
family who still live here, but they don't come around. My brother and
sister are my family--we look after each other.
Third, relationships through collateral relatives may be less demanding or problematic than those with children and grandchildren. For example, fathers voiced a common complaint about their descendants' frequent requests for money, a complaint rarely heard about nieces and nephews. Siblings and cousins were even less likely to ask for money. Since men have fewer expectations or responsibilities for collateral relatives, these relationships are also less likely to cause as much worry as those with their children. As a counterpoint, consequently, collateral ties may provide a relief from potential tensions in relationships with children and grandchildren.
Fourth, creating fictive kin collaterally can also personalize relationships beyond the kinship group, thus enhancing family resources. Unlike black
women, who have numerous links to the community through churches and senior centers, black
men have fewer such connections. In fact, some are suspicious of relations outside their extended family and their friendship networks. Consequently relationships outside the extended family are either defined as like family members or defined as strangers who are objects of suspicion. For example, Mr. M. is widowed and childless. As he explained:
My nieces and nephews see after me. My landlady's children are like my
family, and that boy over there is my brother (pointing to a fellow
attendee at his senior center). I call him when I need a ride.
When asked about his friends, he replied: "I can't make a friend with too many. They take advantage of you." Others comment on the disadvantages of having too many friends: "They'll steal you blind."
Men's extended kin networks can have other configurations. Either because of personal preferences or no family was in the area, some men have attenuated networks with few relatives available to them. Others have kindred networks that incorporate real and potential relatives to meet their needs for sociability and support (Aschenbrenner 1973).
Twenty-two percent of the men have no weekly contact with any family member, and another 40% have weekly contact with only one category of relative. Nevertheless, loners are rare in this study of black
men, for only two men are truly isolated. One man had children but he reported: "I don't know where they are. I don't want to talk about it. I only have Jesus and maybe a cousin somewhere." Another has no children and no relatives either in the Bay Area or the South:
I was married, but I haven't seen her for years--I guess I'm divorced. I
only see people when I go to the senior center to listen to music.
Others with scant family resources have at least one significant relationship. For example, one man was terminally ill when he was interviewed, and he was no longer able to go to his dominoes club where most of his socializing had occurred. A son in Michigan, his only surviving family member, had come to visit a few months previously. After he left, his only ongoing relationship other than his hired help was a good friend.
Joyce Aschenbrenner (1973) makes a distinction between localized kin groups that live in proximity to each other and kindred, a network in which distinctions between biological, affinal and fictive kin are blurred. Among the men in this study, the boundaries around kindred are vaguely defined with blurred distinctions between kin, fictive kin, and good friends. The structure and functioning of the these kindred networks are quite varied. They may be based upon relationships at church. For example, Mr. A. had been in a good marriage for 20 years. Neither he nor his wife had children, but he reported:
A nephew in Oakland is the only real family I got, but we have lots of
children at our church. One goddaughter lives next door. Through
association, I got my wife's goddaughter. I make my family wherever I am.
Even with attentive children, some defined their family more broadly. Mr. B. was the center of much affection and support from his children, but he identified his "real" family as consisting of, "My church family, my brother, and my girlfriend."
Kindred networks may be expanded through a common-law wife's family. For 20 years, Mr. C. had been living with his female friend, and he helped her raise her son from infancy. Currently his household consists of his mate, her son, her son's girlfriend, and their new baby. He also is in frequent contact with his own three children in the area and his brother and his family. He proudly reported that all the grandchildren including his partner's son were working and doing well.
Others draw upon varied sources of kin. Mr. D., a retired merchant seaman, had been living with a lady friend and her mother for 10 years. It had been prearranged between him and her dying husband:
She takes good care of me, and I've got a sister in Seattle I see every few
years. Then I got another family, my garage group. Some of us men get
together every afternoon in my garage. We drink vodka and swap stories.
Some men blur distinctions not only between kin and friends, but also in distinctions between generations in the choice of a mate. Mr. E. had been divorced for eight years and was currently living with his daughter's friend. He feels he has had a most fortunate life. He had eleven uncles when growing up, none of whom had children:
It was like I had eleven fathers and eleven homes. I'm still blessed. I
have my girl friend. My kids are so attentive. My daughters are in and out
of here, always looking out for me. We like to listen to my CD collection.
They are very good kids. My stepson is pretty close too, and a friend's
wife is my play sister.
In recent years, voluminous research has reported on caregiving and social supports to older people. Since these reports often come from large-scale surveys, statistical models are used that control for race and gender. At this point, consequently, we know little about older black
men's family life. My first objective has been to compare men and women in their level of family integration. The findings here clearly indicate that older men are no more likely than women to be isolated or marginal to family life. In fact, they are significantly more likely than women to be married and to live with others. In terms of their instrumental and expressive supports from members of their extended families, there are no significant gender differences, nor are differences found in the frequency of contacts with family members. Since men are less frequent church attendees, however, they may be less likely than women to have fictive kin formed through the church.
The absence of significant differences in men and women's family participation was unanticipated. The family literature offers no explanations, because gender issues among the older black
population have not been studied extensively (Taylor et al. 1993b). It is possible that three factors may apply. First, Aschenbrenner (1973) concludes that black
men in their younger years are not without family, because they are members of multiple households. Such flexibility was adaptive, for they needed to migrate to look for work and could be integrated into the households of relatives. Such a flexible view of kin is reflected in some of the commentary included here. Second, if black
men were marginal to their family because they could not perform the economic role, such a situation is less likely in later life. With government entitlement programs available to both men and women, earlier economic disparities are lessened. Third, the fact that more men in this report are married and living with others inevitably links them to more family members, such as step relatives, in-laws, and grandchildren. Such a situation could also act as a leveller and offset women's usually higher family involvement.
The second objective was to present the male respondents' accounts of their roles as husbands, fathers, and kin. Most black
men in this report are the beneficiaries of the strengths commonly noted of black
extended families. Those who are married have strong relationships with their wife. In their vertical ties, those men with children in the area tend to have good relationships with them, although most have weaker bonds with children living in distant places. These men also appear to be closer and more companionate to sons rather than daughters. Since our data on this gender issue does not permit a ready explanation for the greater closeness to sons, and the scant literature on black
men's family life sheds no insights, further research is indicated. Even if relationships with biological children are distant, they still may be effective father figures for stepchildren and stepgrandchildren or a girl friend's children. Nevertheless, strong bonds with children are not necessarily transferred to grandchildren.
Their kinship group is also extended through collateral bonds. Where sibling solidarity exists, relatives by blood such. as nieces, nephews, and cousins and their relatives by marriage potentially become an important part of men's families particularly for the childless. Since these bonds do not have the demands, expectations, and tensions sometimes built into generational bonds, they may be more rewarding. This analysis found few loners. Where men did not have strong lineal or collateral bonds, they mobilized support by drawing upon a network of kindred to create kin or quasi-kin relationships that met their needs for sociability and support. In other words, black
men, like black
women, benefit from the loose-knit flexible structure of the extended family and the blurred boundaries between family and friends. While kinship involvements were strong, however, we found few multifunctional, household-based extended families among either men or women.
Our third objective was to provide a conceptual framework to better understand the variations in black
families that potentially affect their family's capacity to serve the needs of older members. First, vertical bonds between parent and child are usually the most important relationships, but that bond alone does not necessarily lead to an active kinship network. Second, the potential tensions and gaps in supports in generational bonds are not evident when collateral relationships are emphasized. Moreover, a collateral emphasis on siblings or other age peers usually provides a larger pool of kin. The fact that there were few loners among these men attests to a capacity to mobilize kin or kin-like relationships. Third, some men formed looseknit networks of kindred out of a constellation of distant kin and friends so as to have supportive relationships.
These findings point to the need to study black
families from a kinship perspective, an approach that goes beyond intergenerational relationships to include collateral kin. In fact, researchers on the late life family would benefit by a closer examination of the ethnographic research on black
kinship, for it provides a productive context to better understand the reports from recent large-scale surveys of black
families. Although the findings reported here come from small, nonprobability samples, hopefully they may generate hypotheses that address the serious gap in the literature, that of the family life of older black
men. Older black
men are innovative in constructing rewarding networks to serve their needs and enhance their well-being. This analysis of family diversity among older people on the basis of ethnicity and gender also point to special features of minority group families that serve older people well.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The research on which this report was based was funded by the National Institute on Aging (ROI AG06804 and R37 AG06559) and it has been supported by a MERIT Award from the National Institute on Aging, R37 AG06559.
(1.) Migration patterns: Blacks
began arriving in San Francisco in the 1850s, and for a time this city had the largest black
population on the West Coast. Working predominantly in the service trades, their employment ended with the formation of exclusionary unions in 1889, after which many left the city (Daniels 1990). From then until the 1940s, the San Francisco Bay Area was noted for its low proportion of blacks
in its population, .5% in 1900. Those few still in the city worked as servants for leading businessmen and professionals. In fact, Daniels (1990) reports that the largest concentration of blacks
reported in the census before 1900 lived in the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. In our sample, we identified no one born in the Bay Area, and only two men migrated there before the 1940s. Most in the samples came from the proximal southern states, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
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COLLEEN L. JOHNSON University of California, San Francisco
(*) Direct correspondence to: Colleen L. Johnson, Medical Anthropology Program, University of California, 3333 California St. #485, San Francisco, CA 94143-0850.
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