Today it is commonly accepted that the relative absence of black males from involvement with family structures is historically attributable to shifts in post Civil War and post WWII migration of males for employment purposes, as well as the historically relative and racist lack of employment for black males in this country--but this was not always the prevailing wisdom.
About 9 years before Gutman's publication, D.P. Moynihan (later a U.S. Sentator from New York) had caused a stir by advocating public policy based on the common idea that American slavery and subsequent neo-slavery policies had destroyed the American "Negro" family. By "destroyed" these historians and policymakers meant that black fathers were historically absent, creating a matrifocal lineage system that was incapable of properly raising children and transmitting cultural values.
Apart from the obvious sexism inherent in that stance, several researchers, including Gutman, attempted to find out if there were viable family structures during the antebellum period in selected black communities---first in Buffalo, and then in plantation communities in Louisiana, Virginia, and South Carolina (among others).
Gutman found that long slave marriages (including between two persons and otherwise when necessary) did exist over a wide period of time and across different geographic locations. Despite the obvious pressures of slaveowners and white cultures, slaves were able to adapt and maintain families kin networks. While disruptions often occurred through sale, death, or forced displacement, these disruptions caused slaves and their communities to adapt and form larger shared kin networks of fellowship and communication based on patterns devised wholly by blacks themselves.
For example, in the face of endogamous practices by plantation owners, slaves practiced wide forms of exogamy that maintained and reinforced stable kinship networks. Children were often the result of prenuptial intercourse, but these parents consistently married each other afterwards. Far from being licentious or indiscriminate mating, these couplings were part of a consistent pattern of social practices. Children were named for blood relatives, further preserving cultural memories---even inscribing the lives of other family members on the narrative of slave children's bodies. through naming.
Rather than destroying families---forced migrations and relocations of slaves spread kinship networks wider and spread a "common slave culture" over the entire South.
Much of Gutman's evidence is convincing-especially early on in his volume-the birth records he relies on and kinship diagrams provide a wealth of information that supports his basic thesis very well. His study, although wide ranging, is easy to read because it is very structured, almost dry, in its presentation.
Gutman runs into difficulty when he attempts to extend his study beyond the antebellum period (ch. 9 and 10) because his documentation is severely lacking in this regard. Moreover, Gutman has a tendency to reproduce a certain amount of patriarchy inherent in the archival sources he consults. It is easy to get the impression that even though Gutman defends black women from charges of indiscriminate mating, he does not thoroughly interrogate his sources for the obvious biases they contain against black women. Some of his thought experiments with the data even seem unnecessary and overdetermined. But his basic thesis is sound, and he has the data to support it.