Hyena Women and Other Strange Tales of Social Chaos
by L. E. Rainey

Several years ago I watched a documentary about a pride of lions and a pack of hyenas living in the African savannah. By evening's end, I had learned a few fascinating things about both of these species. For example, lion prides are headed by a dominant male and hyena packs are lead by a dominant female; lions are skillful hunters whereas hyenas are basically scavengers. I was surprised to learn lionesses do most of the hunting for the pride. The dominant male lion, so admired for his strength, power and ferocity, spends most of his time procreating, defending his position as the alpha male from challengers, and, protecting the pride from outside threats. 

In one amazing scene, the hyena pack, led by the seemingly fearless dominant female, attacked the lionesses in a brazen attempt to steal a 'fresh kill.' A savage battle ensued. In the end, the hyenas prevailed and the lionesses were forced to flee. 

The male lion, resting in the cool mountains several miles away, heard the distress calls of the lionesses and ran to their aid. As the dominant male approached, the hyenas fled, abandoning their hard won 'fresh kill' and scattering across the savannah. The lion, however, had only one target in mind'the dominant female. He pursued her for miles. Eventually he chased her down and with one powerful swipe of his paw, broke the hyena leader's back, killing her.

It's funny how odd bits of information like this can be the beginning of 'somethang' that ferments in your brain for days, weeks, months and even years, waiting for the right moment to crystallize into concrete thought. The story about the 'lionesses versus hyenas' had been floating around the ol' memory storage tank for several years; and, I suppose it would have continued to float in storage indefinitely if a couple of random events hadn't started my mental juices flowing. Apparently, the nearly forgotten 'somethang' had ripened and was ready to bear fruit.      

To make sense out of the musings contained in this article, I need to fill in the blanks.  I'll start by telling you about the two events that triggered this brainstorm.

The first event was reading a New York Times article about Martin Strel, the 53-year-old swimming phenomena from Slovenia.  In the article, Strel and his son, Borut, described the dangers he faced during a 67 day swim down the Amazon River. (New York Times Play Magazine, June 2007). According to Strel, he had to evade crocodiles, whirlpools, waves, tides, drug smugglers and pirates. And predatory women (emphasis added).

'Women in Brazil are very dangerous,' Strel explained. 'You have many places in the jungle where is 20 times more women than men.'  

The women allegedly grabbed him and tried to drag him away.

'They want to go with you,' Borut says, 'They never stop. That's why we say they're like piranhas.'

Strel's and Borut's statements left me wondering what these predatory women looked like. My flair for the dramatic made me think that perhaps they were wild-eyed creatures, shabby and unkempt with matted hair.  Neglected women driven to the point of madness by loneliness and despair. The carnal part of me imagined the women looked like jungle sirens in heat'brown, juicy and available. Finally, it occurred to me what probably made predatory women so dangerous was the fact they looked positively ordinary. Such nondescript females could blend into the background; invisible to   unsuspecting males until they. . . pounced.  (A nagging question which remains unanswered is, 'What happened to the men?')     

The second event was reading another New York Times article that said for the first time a majority of American women are living without spouses (51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse, The New York Times, January 16, 2007, www.nytimes.com.)

Professor Stephanie Coontz, Director of Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit research group, stated this low number was unprecedented outside of major wartime mobilizations and when black couples were separated during slavery (emphasis added).

"This is yet another of the inexorable signs that there is no going back to a world where we can assume marriage is the main institution that organizes people lives,' said Professor Coontz.

There it was in black in white, a declaration of a major cultural shift. Marriage, one of the most enduring American social institutions, is teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. Although this news by itself was alarming, it was Professor Coontz's startling statement that African-Americans are marrying at numbers comparable to those recorded during slavery, which made me delve deeper into the issue.   

I discovered 70% percent of all black women are living without a spouse. The news for married black women isn't much better. Half of all black marriages fail within 10 years (compared to 1/3rd of white and Hispanic marriages); 20 years out, 63% of all black marriages have ended in divorce (compared to 50% for whites and Hispanics).

The failure of black marriages has lead to the decline of the two parent household. The 'Ozzie and Harriet' model is no longer the norm for African-American families. It hasn't been for a long time.

In 1940, over 95% of African-American children resided with both parents. Today, only about one-third or 35% of African-American children reside in two parent households, compared to three-fourths or 76% of white children. Add in the fact that 70% of African-American children are born out of wedlock and a picture of a once resilient people operating in the 'self-destruct' mode emerges. The more I read the uglier the picture became. 

Fifty years ago, the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of the report, The Negro Family A Call For National Action, an in-depth analysis of the status of the African-American family, warned of conditions which, left unchecked, would lead to family disintegration. His words seem eerily prophetic:

'From the wild Irish slums to the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expecta- tions about the future'that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder. . . are not only to be expected, they are very near to inevitable . . . And are richly deserved.'  (Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The New York Times Magazine, July 31, 1966.)

In the ensuing years, massive public campaigns to educate people about the social and economic costs of being a single parent didn't fall on deaf ears. Most African-Americans know raising children in a two parent household is the ideal family model. However, any Sunday school teacher can tell you knowing what's right and doing what's right are two entirely different things. Based on statistics alone, whole bunches of grown folk are making poor choices.  

Yet, in an ironic twist, it's the 'babies' Mamas' and 'babies' Daddies' who are revitalizing the African-American population. As one scholar noted, 'The birthrates of black married women have fallen so sharply that absent out-of-wedlock childbearing, the African-American population would not only fail to reproduce itself, but would rapidly die off.'  (The Abolition of Marriage, by Maggie Gallagher, p. 120; citing Reynolds Forley, 'After the Starting Line: Blacks and Women in an Uphill Pace.', Demography 25, no. 4 (November 1988):487, Figure 6.)        

We've now come full circle. It's time for me to explain how each of these separate ideas fit together.

As an African-American woman, I'm deeply troubled by the state of my community. The negative reports about 'us' greatly outnumber the positive.  By all accounts, we've lost our way in this world. The collapse of the black family is being reported nowadays as a historical fact. According to one magazine, the terrible deed occurred between 1960 and 1998. Since families are the essential building blocks of every organized society and group on the planet, the collapse of the black family would be'well'an apocalyptic event'no viable families'no future. Therefore, the critical question to answer is has the black family collapsed? 

The story about the predatory women in the Brazilian jungle holds the answer.  It's easy to imagine that there was a time when the women didn't outnumber the men 'but something happened. The men died or left and the women stayed behind. What happened next, the development of a predatory response to all men, was the way the women adapted to the radical change in their environment. It makes sense that people in the midst of social chaos will choose to adapt to their surroundings in order to survive.  

There's an obvious parallel between the survival behaviors of women coping with social disorder in the Brazilian jungle and the behaviors of African-American families living in the social chaos of their communities. While the crumbling foundations of black marriages may make it difficult for families to conform to the traditional two parent model, the desire to 'create family' is irrepressible. My own experiences tell me the black family isn't dead but rather it's had to adapt'to change in response to the presence of powerful destabilizing social forces. I believe black people are living and loving, making non-traditional families, you might say, below the radar.     

Lionesses versus Hyenas

 (The following observations about black families and some of the ways they've adapted to social chaos include references to 'lionesses and hyenas'. It's the social organizations of these species that makes them relevant to the discussion about  patriarchal and matriarchal parenting styles'so don't get things twisted.)

I know a young woman who is part of a non-traditional family. She has children by 3 different men but still hopes to find her soul mate'a man who will make a good life partner. In the meantime, she maintains cordial relationships with her children's fathers: an estranged husband and two 'babies' daddies'. The woman, who I'll call Mia, has a special relationship with the wife of one of her 'babies' daddies'.  These women, who have children by the same man, work together as partners in an informal family alliance in a way that invites comparison to the lionesses.  The patriarch of the family gives Mia child support and plays an active role in his child's life. Although the two women reside in separate residences, they perform household chores together (i.e., laundry, food and clothes shopping) and  share child care responsibilities. The patriarch exercises a lot of influence and authority over his wife and his children (including Mia's child). He and Mia have a platonic relationship, consequently, she on her part has assumed the role as a non-threatening female; someone respectful and supportive of his position as the family patriarch.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, are the strong, resourceful black females I call 'hyena women'.  The for real  matriarchs'meaning they're not the heads of households simply because they've been abandoned by a lover or a husband. Hyena women from the outset have been heard to say, 'I can do better by myself!' One of my favorite hyena women is a elderly church member. This hat wearing, Grand Dame of the front row pew, has been married a few times ( all of them short-lived). For the most part, she reared three children and a couple of grandchildren on her own. A property owner, entrepreneur ( a caterer known for her mouth watering food), and retired government worker, this black matriarch knows how to take care of business. Her flair for  handling money, husbands and children, left no doubt about who was in charge of the Grand Dame's household. The black matriarchy represented by women like the Grand Dame, however, isn't a new response to social chaos. It's an old model that grew out of the legacy of slavery.

The foregoing examples are offered as evidence that African-Americans are creating non-traditional families as an adaptive response to the social chaos in their communities. From my vantage point, the decline of two parent households, while a disturbing trend, isn't dispositive of the viability of the African-American family.  

If my musing have left you scratching your head, here's the important point to remember: whether you believe anything I've said about hyena women or the other ways the black community is adapting to social chaos, please believe me when I say, 'Reports of the death of the African-American family are premature.'