The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Family Emotional System and the Functioning of Slave Owners, Slaves and their Descendants

Authored by Mignonette N. Keller, Ph. D.

(Abstract of paper to be presented at the 35th Midwest Symposium May 4th, 2018)

This study applies Bowen family systems theory to investigate the factors influencing the functioning of slave owners, slaves and their descendants from a systems perspective.  The findings in this investigation reveal the extent to which there is a direct correlation between the quality of a person’s family relationships and how that person functions.  In effect it is an attempt to answer a basic research question asked by Murray Bowen in the late 1970’s.  “How does a slave develop a self in an oppressive, dehumanizing system forcing him into a no self-position?”  Bowen was convinced the answer could best be found by shifting the focus from the atrocities of slavery to the ability of slaves to survive and thrive.

It is hypothesized that mechanisms within the family relationship system influenced the functioning of the slave owners, slaves and their descendants.  According to Bowen theory, the nuclear family relationships of adults and other significant family members are the anchor for the entire family segment.  The quality of the nuclear family emotional process from the collective of family members included in this group influences the functioning and future connections of the family members that are part of this emotional network.

Bowen family systems theory as developed by Murray Bowen (1978) is an effort to understand how people function within both their family system and the larger society.  It follows up on the numerous studies that find the roots of a person’s emotional functioning in his or her development from birth through adolescence (Bowlby, 1973, 1980, & 1988; Rutter, 1988; and Toman, 1976).  The emotional system as conceptualized in family systems theory provides the context for understanding human behavior and human functioning based on the emotional functioning of an organism in relationship to other organisms and the environment.  Moreover, the functioning of the individual cannot be understood in isolation but must be evaluated in the context of the individual’s relationship to the members of the group (Kerr and Bowen, 1988).

Bowen (1978) posits the human family is an emotional unit within which, the social, emotional, and physical functioning of the family members is influenced by their relationships with each other, and these relationships are carried through to subsequent generations.  The theory identifies anxiety and differentiation of self as the main variables influencing how members function within and beyond the family.  Coupled with anxiety and differentiation of self, the nuclear family emotional process is a groundbreaking concept in Bowen theory that refers to a family segment usually comprised of two parents, frequently with children with connections to extended family groups.  The nuclear family emotional process emphasizes that the most significant patterns and characteristics of families are predictably found at the nucleus of this network of relationships that impact the functioning of family members.

Volumes have been written on the history of American slavery.  Many of these studies, both earlier and more recent (Thompson, 1939; Frazier, 1939; Genovese, 1974; Huggins, 1977) affirm the notion of interdependence, familial relations, and common patterns among individuals living within an enclosed system.  For example, studies address matters related to the interdependence between slave owners and slaves including the assimilation of the value-orientation of whites by blacks (Frazier, 1939); mutuality of master-slave relationships (Genovese, 1974); and historical account of blacks and whites that inhabited the same plantation (Hariston, 1986; Ball, 1998; Wiecek, 1999).  Thus, it is reasonable to assume that extended intimate association between the master and the slave inhabiting the same plantations for several decades influenced both the functioning of the other directly and the functioning of their descendants over the generations.

Thompson (1939) argues that the closely interlocked positions of blacks and whites in the Southern economic and social order resulted in both being extremely interdependent members of the same system.  Blassingame (1972) suggests that the miscegenation that occurred between the slaveholders and slaves in the South resulted in an undeniable biological and emotional interconnectedness between the races.

Moreover, several prominent social scientists (Billingsley, 1968; Bassingame, 1972; Genovese, 1974; Fogel & Engerman, 1974; Gutman, 1976; King, 1980) have observed that there was greater stability in slave families than previously indicated.  Genovese points out master and overseers usually listed their slaves by households and planned disciplinary procedures to take full account of the family relationships. Gutman (1976) documents the existence of fully functioning slave families. Blassingame (1972) notes slave families often behaved like free families in both races.  He postulates the rearing of children was one of the slave family’s most important functions.  King (1980) points out individual identity, self-worth and status were also determined by family relationships.  These studies clearly affirm the importance of the family in ensuring the survival of the slave.  Frazier (1939) suggests that the founding of the church in the black community was quite significant because it was related to the beginning of the family as an institution.  According to Frazier (1939), the acquisition of property and a home gave former slaves a sense of control and authority in their efforts to establish a strong family.

Despite their deprivations, many slaves demonstrated patterns of coping and adaptation that were highly, perhaps surprisingly, functional.  What we learn by analyzing these adaptations can have broad application today.  And, in fact, the patterns identified in this case study are similar to the five basic strengths Hill (1977) postulates contributed to the survival of the black family:  strong kinship bonds, strong achievement orientation, strong work orientation, adaptability of family roles, and strong religious orientation.

Bowen’s question in effect goes back to the old nature versus nurture argument asking whether functioning relates to self or system.  In recent years, numerous empirical studies have suggested the primary influence on a person’s emotional, social and physical functioning is family relationships – in effect giving considerable weight to the systems side of the question (Bowen, 1978; Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

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