Establishing their place in the past enables any group to assume a more self-confident and purposeful role in the present, even a less self-preoccupied role. Something like this seems to be taking place among Negro Americans today. But where the social present requires the management of large and pressing problems that have special historical roots not likely to be generally understood, it is a matter of consequence that whose who would explain this do so accurately. Hence, it is all the more a matter of consequence that the beginnings of serious ethnic history of the Negro American should have been so largely presided over by someone like W. E. B. Du Bois.
The present interest in the Negro American family, and in the family-connected problems explicit in such a concern, makes the republication of Du Bois's The Negro American Family singularly welcome. The work was originally published as No. 13 of the now famous Atlanta University Publications.
It is not a description of contemporary black families or of the consciousness of blacks as they interpret and respond to present circumstances. A most salient point about this study is that it was written prior to 1910. Aside from the question of the quality of the data on Negroes in 1900 and before, it is obvious they do not reflect current situations. Since then changes have occurred in such vital areas as urbanization and literacy. Moreover, the civil rights movement has altered the emphasis on, if not the substance of, the problems Du Bois examines.
What then is the principle contribution that this book makes to the social sciences and to contemporary America? It lets us know that some of the problems of power, family stability, economic support, alienation, etc., have deep roots in the past. Even more important, however are its methodological and theoretical contributions. To Du Bois the Negro family did not just happen; it had a history. For this reason he consistently strives to connect present conditions with an African past. He does not do this because “... Negro-Americans are Africans, or can trace an unbroken social history from Africa, but because there is distinct nexus between Africa and America which, though broken and perverted, is nevertheless not to be neglected by the careful student.”