Penn State symposium aims to reconstruct African-American narratives

Min Xian
November 10, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Black males in the U.S. face and overcome many unique challenges, yet this population remains largely understudied in social science research.

The 23rd annual National Symposium on Family Issues, hosted recently by Penn State’s Social Science and Population Research Institutes, featured 18 leading researchers in sociology, demography, psychology, human development and public health, as well as several community organizers and activists.

According to Susan McHale, director of the Social Science Research Institute, the symposium focused on the roles that families can play in the well-being of African-American men and boys. “Research on the family experiences of African American men and boys – particularly the ways in which males provide and receive support – is quite limited. The insights provided by our speakers offer new directions for research that can translate into programs and policies that promote positive health and development of black males, their families and their communities.”

Linda Burton, dean of Social Sciences at Duke University and symposium co-organizer, connected with the audience by sharing a narrative of her upbringing in a community that was marked by poverty, violence and unrest in the 1960s. This intense time period included the Watts riots , which began when a black man was pulled over for possible drunk driving and ended in the deaths of almost 40 individuals and thousands of dollars in property damage. 

Burton noted the timeliness of the symposium’s focus on black boys and men and posed the question of whether America was ready to heal. “Black men and boys are not telling their own stories, others are writing for them, others are in control of the narrative. However, I think this generation could become the real game-changer,“ said Burton. Along with other speakers, Burton urged scholars to focus on the experiences of black boys and men as seen from the subjects' own perspectives.

Velma McBride Murry, professor and Betts Chair in human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University, addressed the lack of research on the family experiences of African-American males. “These boys enter the world with stereotyped labels on them that have been constructed in a racialized society. How can we begin to clean up the toxic water our young men are growing up in?”

The symposium also examined how families can engage young black men to meet higher educational expectations and integrate into the mainstream of U.S. society. David Harding, associate professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, described his studies of urban neighborhoods, schools, and criminal justice in Michigan, highlighting the roles of families in reintegration following incarceration. “Families have complex and countervailing effects on reintegration outcomes and are often ill-equipped to provide for former prisoners’ emotional needs,” Harding explained.

The final group of speakers delved into the factors that affect African-American men’s health. Cleopatra Caldwell, professor of behavior and health education and director of the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health at the University of Michigan, studies why African-American males’ life expectancy lags behind that of the rest of the U.S. population. “One of the biggest areas we can study is family influences, but not many researchers are looking at these relationships and how they affect health,” said Caldwell.

Wizdom Powell, associate professor of health behavior at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, further addressed health disparities among African-American males.  “There are 1.5 million missing black men, but the more appropriate term is ‘stolen,’ ” she said. “Many of these men are missing because of drugs and related neighborhood violence. The pressure to ‘man up’ by shutting down or suppressing emotions may be more pronounced in violent neighborhoods.”

The symposium wrapped up with a view from the field. Trabian Shorters, CEO of BMe Community, an organization that works to build caring and prosperous communities inspired by black men who lead by example, spoke about next steps. “There are millions of black men who are assets to their communities – men from all walks of life doing right by their families, professions and neighborhoods. We need to engage them around the things they care about and build communities together.”

The symposium series is funded in part by a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Other sponsors include Penn State’s Population Research and Social Science Research Institutes; the Children, Youth and Families Consortium; the Prevention Research Center; and the Penn State Departments of Sociology and Criminology; Human Development and Family Studies; Psychology; Anthropology; and Biobehavioral Health. For more information, visit the National Symposium on Family Issues’ website.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 10, 2015