What Do We Know About Black Mothers and Their Sons?

How Black Mothers Participate in the Development of Manhood and Masculinity: What Do We Know About Black Mothers and Their Sons?

V, Lawson Bush

The role all women play in raising sons has received very little scholarly attention. Moreover, and more germane to this article, discourse on Black women and sons in this regard until fairly recently, was almost nonexistent. With this in mind, the present review examines the emerging research concerning how Black mothers participate in the development of manhood and masculinity. An analysis of the recent and nascent body of literature exploring Black mother-son relationships (a) suggests that Black mothers play a significant role in the healthy development of manhood and masculinity, (b) demonstrates how Black mothers participate in healthy development of manhood and masculinity, and (c) challenges notions about mothers and fathers, males and females, and masculinity and femininity by blurring traditional lines of separation.

There is a significant volume of literature that addresses the many variables that contribute to the construction of manhood and masculinity, such as the role of families (Billingsley, 1992; Boyd-Franklin, Franklin, & Toussaint, 2001; Cones & White, 1998; Franklin, 1984; Freud, 1976; June, 1991; Sigel, 1986), the media, including television, music, film, and written material (Boyd-Franklin, Franklin, & Toussaint, 2001; Comstock & Paik, 1991; Cones & White, 1998; Dines & Humez, 1995; Stroman, 1991; Winbush, 2002), religion (Billingsley, 1992; June, 1991; Stearns, 1990), schools (Murrell, 2002; Winbush, 2002), biology (Bush, 1998; Lewis & Weinraub, 1979), and peer groups (Boyd-Franklin, Franklin, & Toussaint, 2001; Cones & White, 1998; Franklin 1984, 1988). However, after examining the literature, it became strikingly evident that scholars have virtually ignored a significant variable in the manhood development process. The role all women play in raising sons has received very little scholarly attention. Moreover, and more germane to this work, discourse on Black women and sons until fairly recently, was almost nonexistent.

During the 1980s, White feminists (Arcana, 1983; Forcey, 1987) began to examine how mothers participated in the reproduction of chauvinistic and sexist paradigms with respect to raising their sons. Looking at mother-son relationships from this perspective also continued to be the work of White feminists more recently (O’Reilly, 2001; Smith, 1995). However, largely left out of this discourse were the unique dynamics of Black mother-son relationships?

Although there are some overlapping aspects and issues concerning Black mother-son relationships and White mother-son relationships, there are some salient differences. Having to forge and maintain a relationship in the context of white supremacy is the major factor that differentiates the mothering of Blacks and Whites. In addition, the following related conditions make the study of Black mother-son relationships unique: (a) 50% of all Black households with children under age 18 are headed by Black women, (b) Black women are held responsible in some academic literature and in the popular press for Black males’ maladaptive characteristics and behaviors, and (c) catastrophic conditions exist that cause some observers to view Black men as an endangered species (Bush, 1996).

Both with the uniqueness of Black mother-son relationships and the dearth of social science literature in mind, this article looks at how Black mothers participate in the development of manhood and masculinity. The following works are examined to shape our understating of this relationship and process: Black Mothers to Sons: Juxtaposing African American Literature with Social Practice (King & Mitchell, 1990), Can Black Mothers Raise Our Sons? (Bush, 1999b), Beating the Odds: Raising Academically Successful African American Males (Hrabowski, Maton, & Greif, 1998), and Black Sons to Mothers: Compliments, Critiques, and Challenges for Cultural Workers in Education (Brown & Davis, 2000). In addition to three out of the four aforementioned texts being based on empirical study, the four works were also selected because they seem to be the only texts where Black mother-son relationships are the primary focus.

My approach to analyzing Black mother-son relationships is rooted in both Black feminist and African-centered perspectives. Black feminist perspectives provide us with the framework to locate Black mothers/women within the context of sexism, racism, and classism (Cannon, 1988; Cole & Guy-Sheftall, 2003; Collins, 1990, 1994; hooks [sic], 1981). Because of the aforementioned oppressive paradigms, Collins (1990, 1994) concludes that most of what is written about Black mothers is stereotypical and inaccurate.

African-centered perspectives overlap with those of Black feminists in that they also provide a framework to critique White cultural hegemony. Additionally, however, African-centered paradigms provide a definition for healthy manhood and masculinity that emerges out of ancient African cultural traditions and the historical and topical struggle for Black manhood in the United States (see Bush, 1999a). Essentially, African-centered models for manhood and masculinity (see Baker-Fletcher, 1996; Hunter & Davis, 1992; Karenga, 1980; Nobles, 1980; Roberts, 1994; Watts, 1993) and what others in the conventional human development discourse call androgynous (see Bem, 1984, 1987) seek a middle point or balance between traditional and stereotypical masculinity and femininity.


Recognizing the dearth of information in the social sciences, King and Mitchell (1990) turned to fictional literature and found relationships of mothers and sons. They juxtaposed the literature with data collected from group conversations with seven Black mothers. Using semi-structured interviews, the following questions were asked: (a) What have you done to protect your son(s) from society’s hostile forces? (b) What have you taught your son(s) of honesty, loyalty, compassion, faith, and responsibility? (c) What have you taught your son(s) of reciprocity, difference, mutuality, and spirit? (d) What have you taught your son(s) of family background, secrets, and family lore?

They found a major crisis facing Black mothers: although these mothers want to protect their sons from a racist world, they also want their sons to manage the racism the world has to offer them-a catch-22. Consequently, guilty feelings arise when these mothers wonder if they have overprotected their Black sons.

The question, “What have you taught your son(s) of family background, secrets, and family lore?” yielded the clearest and most telling examples of how these Black women participate in developing manhood and masculinity. These mothers talked to their sons about their fathers, grandfathers, and uncles, providing them with examples of how similar men have persevered through difficult situations maintaining their dignity, strength, and pride. Stories about ancestors, according to King and Mitchell (1990), reinforce family values and help sons overcome situations of hopelessness that can exist in an anti-Black society. Moreover, the author contends that the Black men in these stories become role models of manhood and masculinity.

Finding other examples of how these Black women raise their sons to become Black men becomes problematic because the participants’ responses to the other questions tended to focus on examples where their sons did not live up to the prescribed components of manhood (e.g., honesty, reciprocity, and loyalty) and the women’s guilty feelings for their sons not living up to these expectations. In other words, instead of discussing how they taught their sons these components of manhood and masculinity, these mothers talked about how they felt when their sons were dishonest, disloyal, and irresponsible. It may be safe to assume that these mothers participated in their sons’ acquisition of these principles or values because of the level of disappointment expressed by these mothers when the sons’ behaviors were inconsistent with the principles they had taught. While King and Mitchell (1990) offered other insights into the feeling of Black mothers, they did not fully address how Black mothers participate in the development of manhood and masculinity.


Building on the work of King and Mitchell (1990), Bush’s (1999b) qualitative study (the book was based on his dissertation that was completed in 1998) examined how Black mothers participate in raising their sons to become men. Twenty-seven mothers, with at least one son, were selected from churches, a homeless shelter, schools, and other southern California locations. Twenty-three of the mothers with sons between the ages 6-19 and 24 and above participated in face-to-face taperecorded interviews.

Bush discovered that little work had focused on how Black women construct manhood and masculinity. He found that Black mothers recognized the interrelationship of masculine and feminine experiences and expect Black males to contain in their sex-role identities a masculine and feminine self. Table 1 is an alphabetical listing extracted directly from the mothers’ responses that can be a guide toward understanding what these women mean when they say man, manhood, manliness, and masculinity.

When comparing this list (see Table 1) with traditional and Euro-centered concepts of masculinity (e.g., aggression, success, anti-femininity, and sexual conquest) against the stereotypical traits of traditional femininity (e.g., the concepts of being easily influenced, passive, illogical, having feelings easily hurt, having difficulty making decisions, and being very submissive), the analysis indicates that what these Black mothers have constructed is neither traditional masculinity nor femininity (Doyle, 1989). Rather, they desire qualities that are more of a balanced or synthesis and are somewhere in the middle of traditional Europeanized dichotomization of masculinity or femininity. For example, the Black mothers’ list is composed of concepts such as being strong in mind and strong in heart, showing compassion for everyone, believing in God, and being true to self.

Bush also discovered that Black mothers use diverse methods to teach their sons. Most salient of these is the utilization of timely words coupled with ongoing dialogue. These mothers also used magazines, television, and the positive and negative behaviors of men in the community as a method. Yet, this does not negate the significance of Black mothers using themselves as examples to imbue their sons with respect, a sense of responsibility, compassion, individual strength that benefits the collective, and honesty, which is tantamount to manhood, adulthood, or just being human.

When discussing this research with both male and female friends and colleagues or hearing issues germane to this research being debated on the radio, common questions or concerns are, “Who is going to teach Black boys about sex; and who is going to teach them how to survive if there is no father around?” This study revealed that these Black mothers were not only effective at teaching then” sons lessons about honesty, honor, spirituality, responsibility, and respect, they were also successful at teaching them lessons that many contend are essential to the relationship between young boys and men, such as, sexuality, surviving in an anti-Black male world, and knowing himself with respect to his history, purpose, and mission in life. In fact, Bush found no aspect or component of Black male life that eluded these mothers in their ability to teach lessons that were necessary for manhood and the development of masculinity.

Yet, ironically, Bush found that many of the mothers hold on to the popular belief that Black women cannot show or teach boys how to become men. Although Bush found no evidence of any aspect of Black males’ lives that suggests that Black mothers are inherently unable to participate in the process of developing manhood and masculinity in their sons, he created two graphics to honor those who suggest that there is something that only a man can bring out in a boy that a woman cannot. However, he concluded that if one accepts that there is something that only a man can teach a boy, then one must accept the possibility that there are some things that only a woman can teach a boy; perhaps both what a woman and a man can solely give to a boy are intangible and unnamable.

Figure 1 combines what the findings say about the mothers’ actions and beliefs concerning raising their sons with others’ suppositions about this matter. The region where the two spheres intersect represents the areas in males’ lives in which both mothers (women) and fathers (men) can potentially cultivate manhood and masculinity. This represents a majority of what a boy needs to know, possess, and master in order to reach manhood. The gray region, where there is no overlap, represents the aspects of manhood that possibly only fathers (men) can teach. The white area, where there is no overlap, is a component or point left out of the discourse concerning this subject. Logically, if there are aspects of manhood that only men can teach, then there must be aspects of manhood that only mothers (women) can teach.

Bush added Figure 2 to address aspects of manhood that neither possibly mothers nor fathers could teach. This is represented in Figure 2 at the white bottom region where there is no overlap. Possibly there are aspects of manhood only a third party can teach.


Hrabowski, Maton, and Greif’s (1998) book focused on the families of academically successful Black males. Their work represents the most holistic approach to date for studies on how Black mothers participate in the development of manhood and masculinity, because they employed mothers, fathers, and sons as participants. They collected data from 38 mothers and 29 fathers using a questionnaire and mostly single-sex group interviews. Telephone interviews were conducted with parents who could not make the sessions.

Both the chapters on fathers and sons and on mothers and sons utilized the following categories to illustrate how mothers and fathers participated in the development of manhood and masculinity: general child-rearing issues; race and being male; limit setting; talking specifically about sex and drugs, fighting, and family rituals. By interviewing mothers and fathers, asking the same questions, and using the same categories, Hrabowski, Maton, and Greif (1998) provided a unique opportunity to juxtapose the role of mothers against the role of fathers in the manhood and masculinity developmental process. In fact, Hrabowski, Maton, and Greif provided the following summaries at the end of both chapters that help to facilitate this comparison. The fathers’ responses:

(a) Fathers need to prepare their sons for being an African American male. The message here is never to forget that they are Black and that Black males are often placed in difficult situations; (b) Children need to learn African American history; (c) Do not expect life to be fair; (d) Do not expect all neighborhoods to be the same. The sons who were raised in advantaged neighborhoods or home environments need to be aware that the rest of the world may not be as nice a place; (e) African Americans need as much education as possible in order to help others; (f) Appropriate discipline is needed. With disciplining their sons, the fathers emphasize setting high expectations early, discussing the punishment with their children when they misbehave, and reacting on the spot; (g) Fathers must teach their sons about the dangers of sex and drugs; (h) Two slightly different messages were given about fighting. Some fathers mentioned teaching their children to walk away from situations where fights were occurring or about to occur. Other fathers described the need to teach their children how to defend themselves if they had to and; (i) Family rituals are important, (pp. 58-59)

The mothers’ responses:

(a) Develop a broad philosophy of life. The mothers described their efforts to create an atmosphere at home where values were discussed. This is part of a preparatory stage that the mothers see as important to handle the ups and downs of life; (b) Develop a relationship that encourages open discussion of issues; (c) Teach specific ways of handling situations that arise. Mothers taught their children what situations to avoid, as well as what to do when such problems arise as drugs being offered or fights being started; (d) Talk about race-related matters. Mothers, like fathers, had many concerns about the plight of African American males and taught their children to be wary of the police, about discrimination at the hands of Whites, and about Black-on-Black crime; (e) Understand one’s own family and learn about African culture; (f) Set high standards. Achievement in nonacademic aspects of life was underlined when mothers described their expectations of their children in terms of behavior and gaining employment; (g) Maintain family rituals and; (h) Maintain religious beliefs, (pp. 95-96)

The examination of the two chapters reveals that there is no difference in how Black mothers and fathers participate in developing manhood and masculinity. Additionally, Hrabowski, Maton, and Greif s work appears to give greater validity to Bush’s work in saying that Black mothers participate in every aspect of the development of manhood and masculinity and that there is no real evidence that supports the supposition that mothers and fathers approach the process differently based on their gender.

Nevertheless, Hrabowski, Maton, and Greif s analysis of their data is different from what the author is suggesting. They use their work to support old paradigms concerning mother-son relationships. Though there is no evidence to support this in Bush’s or Hrabowski, Maton, and Greif s data, they contend that mothers do more things for their sons while fathers do more things with sons. Therefore, they use this as evidence to buttress the old adage that “Mothers raise thendaughters but love their sons.”


Brown and Davis’s (2000) book differs from the other three texts in that it is not a work based on

empirical research nor does it claim to be. Nevertheless, the work has much to add to our understanding of mothers’ influence in the development of masculinity and the preparation of boys for manhood.

The edited book consists mostly of personal essays by scholars who give an account of how their mothers participated in then- development. Duncan’s (2000) essay, which depicts his life growing up in Oakland, California with his mother and sister, is saturated with examples of how Black mothers participate in developing manhood and masculinity. Duncan leaves no doubt about the fact that he was both loved and raised by his mother.

While Duncan and others add to the growing body of literature showing how Black mothers participate in the development of manhood and masculinity, the book makes another significant contribution. The work suggests that mothering should be viewed as an act rather than as a gender. Underwood’s essay offers an example of this perspective.

My two sisters, both older than I, seemed to rally around the goals of making their younger brother the fall guy for anything that went wrong, and making sure that I shared equally in the housework-washing dishes, cleaning the bathroom, washing clothes, and ironing. I can remember at an early age protesting to my mother that “such work” was girls’ work and no young masculine male should be subjected to such cruelties. I quickly learned from my mother that my views of “such work” were not to be tolerated in our house. She quickly informed me that there was no such thing as girls’ work or boys’ work and I needed to get my head straight, (p. 38)

Unfortunately, Underwood got a chance to call on his motherhood training when his wife died leaving him alone with his daughter. His essay chronicles his relationship with his daughter, where he assumes the role of, not necessarily of male and female, but of mother and father. His daughter wrote about this dynamic in an essay she wrote for her class: “I cherished the few short years I had with my mother but my music helps lighten the burden. I feel that God has blessed me with a strong man in my life who will be my mother and father” (p. 47).


The trajectory of the body of work concerning Black mothers and sons appears to be headed in a similar direction in that (a) it suggests that Black mothers play a significant role in the healthy development of manhood and masculinity, (b) it demonstrates how Black mothers participate in healthy development of manhood and masculinity, and (c) it challenges our notions about mothers and fathers, males and females, and masculinity and femininity by blurring traditional lines of separation. In other words, the body of literature both covertly and overtly suggests that we view mothering as an act rather than as a gender or biological assignment.

The view of mothering in the aforementioned fluid state challenges popular notions of Black mother-son relationships, as the author has previously noted (Bush, 1999a, 1999b). Yet, this perspective of motherhood also challenges psychological theories that are gender and biologically dependent such as Freudian developmental psychology (Freud, 1976), cognitive perspective (Kohlberg, 1966; Lapsley, 1990), and attachment theory (Boris, Fueyo, & Zeanah, 1997; Gaines, Reis, Summers, Rusbult, Cox, Wexler, Marelich, & Kurland, 1997) while it supports those theories such as social learning theory (Bandura, 1986; Perry & Bussey, 1984) that are more dependent on sociological determinants with respect to the parental involvement in developing manhood and masculinity.

Future study and discourse must continue to situate and analyze Black mother-son relationships through multiple lenses and disciplines. For example, in order to provide the most complete picture, future research must be informed through the perspectives of feminist theory, traditional human development theory, sociology, psychology, and African-centered paradigms in both their radical masculine forms and in the forms that represent a balance between masculinity and femininity.


Though the body of literature is becoming clearer concerning the significant role of mothers in the development of manhood and masculinity, this is not to say that the mothering of Black males by women is not without its special challenges. White supremacy not only makes mothering challenging, but also makes all parenting of Black boys more difficult. Black males are especially targeted for destruction (Akbar, 1984; Kunjufu, 1984; Madhubuti, 1990). Consequently, the horrific conditions facing many Black males (see Gibbs, 1984; Holland, 1991; Kunjufu, 1991) is not a result of incompetent and failing Black mothers as some suggest (see Wright, 1991); but rather an outright attack on every and all things African (see Williams, 1987).

Moreover, the double-edge sword of sexism and racism (Cannon, 1988; Collins, 1990; hooks, 1981) works to de-center, devalue, and disempower Black mothers and womanhood. As racism and miseducation (Woodson, 1977) may cause self-hate, sexism may cause the hate of women, which may cause Black males to unconsciously resent their mothers, because they are women and are Black.

Economic conditions also have the potential to make mothering of Black males more formidable. For some mothers, this variable combined with others has the potential of creating challenges that especially impact the amount of time they can spend with their sons.

Although the aforementioned challenges and conditions are the most pressing for Black mothers, much of what was mentioned potentially affects all parents irrespective of race, class, gender, or marital status. Nevertheless, those circumstances are more greatly the blame for undesirable conditions facing Black communities than any assumed inability of Black mothers raising their sons to be men. Black women should not be intentionally or unintentionally the scapegoat for their singleness in raising sons, which is a symptom of larger problems.


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Lawson Bush, V California State University, Los Angeles


LAWSON BUSH, V is Associate Professor, California State University, Los Angeles, Charter School of Education, Division of Educational Administration and Counseling.

All queries and comments regarding this article should be addressed to Ibush2@calstatela.edu.

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