In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section African Americans

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • African American Social Welfare Workers
  • Historical Context
  • Cultural Context

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Social Work African Americans
Iris Carlton-LaNey, Tanya Smith Brice
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0108


African Americans (also known as Afro-Americans, blacks, black Americans, or Negroes) are citizens of the United States who have biological and cultural origins in the continent of Africa. Most African Americans are descendants of kidnapped Africans enslaved in the institution of chattel slavery widely practiced in the New World from 1619 through 1865. It is important to remember that African American history does not start with the institution of slavery but extends to ancient Africa, including the origins of humankind and the rise of civilization. Although thousands of miles and many generations removed from the African continent, African Americans share many cultural practices with contemporary Africans, particularly with West Africans. The African American fight for freedom from enslavement, endurance through the injustices of apartheid policies, and struggles for civil rights characterize their experiences in the United States. It is out of these experiences that the unique stylings of African American arts and social structures arise. It is also due to these struggles that African Americans are disproportionately represented in negative social indicators.

Introductory Works

A variety of works describe African American life. The African American experience is best described in the context of the family structure, because African social structure dictates the family as the smallest unit of society. This context is evident in works that describe African American life. Descriptions range from deficit perspectives highlighting perceived inferiority of people of African descent in the United States to strengths perspectives celebrating the resilience of African Americans. The works in this section serve as an introduction to this population.

  • Billingsley, Andrew. 1994. Climbing Jacob's ladder: The enduring legacies of African-American families. New York: Touchstone.

    An in-depth discussion exploring the connection of the African American family to its African roots. The author posits that these roots provide resiliency to African American families, enabling endurance through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow apartheid, and the civil rights movement to contemporary movements.

  • Billingsley, Andrew, with Amy Tate Billingsley. 1968. Black families in white America. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

    Provides discourse regarding the structure of black families. The author challenges the Moynihan Report (United States Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research 1965), charging that it misrepresented the black family by overgeneralizing data and ignoring context. The authors connect black family structures to West African roots. They also call for an end to the practice of comparing families to a “white norm.”

  • Hill, Robert B. The strengths of black families. 1972. New York: Emerson Hall.

    This seminal work identifies five strengths of the black family. It contextualizes and corrects those observations made by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in United States Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research 1965.

  • Logan, Sadye Louise. 2001. The black family: Strengths, self-help, and positive change. Denver, CO: Westview.

    Explores strategies that build on the strengths of the black family to promote positive change in light of challenges facing the black community. Addresses health, faith, and socioeconomic issues.

  • Martin, Joanne M., and Elmer P. Martin. 1985. The helping tradition in the black family and community. Silver Spring, MD: National Association of Social Workers.

    This seminal work provides an evolution of the helping tradition of African Americans from traditional Africa through the institution of slavery, Reconstruction, and migration from rural communities to urban centers. The text describes concepts such as fictive kinship and religious consciousness, mutual aid, social-class cooperation, male-female equality, and prosocial behavior in children.

  • Staples, Robert. 1998. The black family: Essays and studies. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Describes various issues facing the African American family and community. The author engages in a detailed study of the African American family structure, gender and relational roles, and issues affecting the family. The author culminates these studies with policy implications addressing social problems.

  • United States Department of Labor, Office of Policy Planning and Research. 1965. The Negro family: The case for national action. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Labor.

    An introduction to “the Negro Problem,” as described by United States congressman Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Subsequently known as the Moynihan Report, this work provides a deficit view of African American life and culture. Since its publication, this work has been a staple of the discourse on African American issues.

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