All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community, 1974
Call to Home: African Americans Reclaim the Rural South, 1996
Holding on to the Land and the Lord: Kinship, Ritual, Land Tenure, and Social Policy in the Rural South, 1982 (with Robert Hall)
Carol B. Stack is an urban anthropologist whose studies of African American family networks, minority women, and youth have become modern classics in several social science disciplines. Born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, she grew up in New York City, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles. For most of her childhood, her father worked as a bread truck driver. Every summer he took Carol along on his route, explaining, “I want her to learn how to work!”
She did learn to work, tirelessly, although in a different vocation. Graduating from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in philosophy in 1961, she went on to get teaching credentials and then taught social studies at Berkeley High School from 1962 to 1965. Her participation in an M.A. program was only temporarily interrupted when she married John Stack, a physicist, and moved with him to Urbana, Illinois; she continued graduate study in anthropology at the University of Illinois, receiving a master’s degree in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1972.
For her doctoral research, she spent almost three years living in the black community of a small midwestern city, participating in and observing the activities of daily life. During this time, racial issues were constantly in the news. As a white woman studying the community’s interpersonal networks, Stack expected resistance or resentment, but she was accepted fairly readily. She attributes this partly to entering the community as a friend of a woman who had lived there, rather than with an introduction by more distant sponsors from the black establishment. It also helped that her small son Kevin, born in 1968, lived with her there, so she shared child-rearing problems with other single mothers in the community.
This study resulted in her first book, All Our Kin, which has become an integral part of the research canon on the African American family. Her respondents were interviewed informally, in the context of daily life and usually on several occasions over a period of time. Stack found that, although her subjects’ actions and family structure may have appeared chaotic from outside, many aspects of their lifestyles emerged out of the limited resources available to them. For example, what had been described simplistically as a disorganized “black matriarchal family” structure was actually an intricately functioning network of kin, mates, and friends providing mutual aid, a successful coping strategy for survival under the constraints of poverty.
In 1975 Stack accepted a faculty position in the School of Public Policy at Duke University, with a joint appointment in anthropology. Among her accomplishments there were establishing the Family Policy Center and carrying out the research for her second book, Call to Home. This work looks at the return of African Americans in large numbers to family lands or home counties in North and South Carolina between 1975 and 1990, often after many years spent living in the North. The phenomenon was less reported than was the earlier migration to northern urban centers. Nevertheless, many people were involved, and they brought back with them certain skills and a determination to change the face of the rural South, even though they as individuals were struggling with limited job opportunities and the lagging pace of social change in the region. Their reasons for moving back varied but often were based on the call of the land and of extended family ties.
One notable feature of Call to Home is its stylistic difference from All Our Kin. The earlier work, while trailblazing and quite accessible, is written in the careful, objective prose expected from graduate students and young scholars. Call to Home uses a variety of literary techniques, along with straight exposition. There are long quotations which read like internal monologues, question-and-answer interview passages, and tales of mortgage foreclosures and other crises. In addition, the stories of outward and return migration often reflect, if not consciously, the hero’s-journey pattern found in many myths, oral traditions, and literary epics.
In 1985 Carol Stack returned to Berkeley as a professor of social and cultural studies in education. Her professional involvements begun at Duke have expanded, adding to a hectic schedule with its central demands of teaching, research, and committee work. She has won many awards and research grants and serves on boards for a variety of national organizations.
Her planned book “Coming of Age at Minimum Wage” studies the efforts of minority young people–African American, Latino, and Asian–to participate in the American Dream through the entry gate of employment in the fast-food industry.