Social work literature, like other disciplines, reflect what is considered “current knowledge” about a certain topic area. Social work practitioners, researchers, educators often use literature to help guide their understanding of a particular group and the group’s experiences. Essentially, what is captured in literature serves as a representation of experience. For historically oppressed groups, especially, the way they are understood vis a vi social work literature has significant implications that can either perpetuate harmful deficit mis-orientations, or disrupt the hegemony of deficit by offering readers asset-based perspectives that include a critical understanding of the sociopolitical contexts shaping experience. Given the consequential link between literature and understanding, this study revisits an observation made by Greif, Hrabowski, and Maton (2000) in their study of African American mothers of academically successful sons. Their evaluation of social work literature on Black mothers between 1992-1996 found that much of the emphasis on these mothers focused on the negative. This updated exploration into social work literature on Black mothers hopes to provide insight into how social work literature has progressed since Greif’s and colleagues’ (2000) study. The study’s guiding question: How are Black mothers discussed in social work literature?
Similar to Greif, Hrabowski, and Maton (2000), the authors conducted a content analysis of social work literature to determine how Black mothers are represented in research. A search of literature published between 2000-2018 was conducted in the Social Work Abstracts database using the key terms “black mother*” OR “african american mother*.” The authors selected articles for inclusion in the study if they met the subject-focused category of Black mothers if the content of the article contained a clearly identifiable discussion of Black mothers. Articles meeting these criteria (n=34) were examined closely to determine if representations of Black mothers were either deficit or strength-based.
Of the 34 articles published in Social Work Abstracts on Black mothers, only six (17.6%) articles had a positive, strength-based orientation. These articles discussed mothers in terms of personal agency, used culturally-relevant theoretical frameworks (i.e. womanist), and/or centered Black women’s unique perspectives. Consistent with Grief and colleagues (2000) the majority of articles on Black mothers were negative (82.4%; n=28), focusing primarily on issues related to low-income, depression, and/or violence.
Conclusions and Implications:
Social work literature on Black mothers has focused primarily on negative experiences rather than assets and strengths. This perspective not only severely limits the profession’s “knowledge” and understanding of Black motherhood but it also contributes to deficit beliefs and perpetuates harmful, controlling images of Black mothers. Also striking is that much of the literature make no mention of systemic interlocking inequities these mothers often confront. Social work educators, practitioners, and researchers must be keenly aware of the dominant ideologies and structural forces that frame Black motherhood. They must also recognize the critical role of mothers in African American culture, use culturally appropriate theories and design strategies that center the unique insights of Black mothers, and identify strategies that inform an anti-oppressive standpoint.