Why Real Black Grandmothers®?
While there are many carcicaturizations and archetypes of black grandmothers (e.g., mammy, Aunt Jemima, Tyler Perry’s Madea, Martin Lawrence’s Big Mama, etc…) no archive solely dedicated to the experiences of real black grandmothers exist. I coined the concept Real Back Grandmothers to distinguish between real black grandmothers and black grandmothers as romanticized, pathologized, and caricaturized beings. When we tell their stories as imagined rather than as real beings, we not only tell them inaccurately, but also we erase their humanity, nuance, and complexity. With this in mind, the mission of Real Black Grandmothers is to create a digital archive of personal accounts, cultural artifacts, living and oral histories that captures the remarkable and diverse experiences of black grandmothers and their grandchildren from the past to the present.
Real Black Grandmothers® was created September 2016. The idea grew out of Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman’s scholarly work on black grandmothers raising their grandchildren. While working on publications, Dr. Pittman observed a glaring omission in Sociology, African American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Carework literatures. She could not cite one book about black grandmothers caregiving from slavery to the present. Arguably, there isn’t a more iconic and archetypal figure, not to mention family and community role in American culture and the black community, respectively. Yet, the stories of these women are largely missing, not from the historic record but from scholarship. The aspects of their stories that are told are scattered across volumes on black families, midwifery, black aging, black history, black women, and so forth. They can also be seen in fictional versions in various forms of American popular culture, from television to literature.
A systematic study of the structural and cultural factors that contribute to black grandmothers more central and parent-like role in the lives of their grandchildren compared to their white counterparts has not been undertaken—even though this pattern has persisted since the 19th century. Grandmothering While Black: Black Grandmothers from Slavery to the Present © contextualizes contemporary black grandmothers experiences as part of a larger, longer narrative. It is the first book written that analytically investigates the experiences of black grandmothers from slavery to the present.
This larger and longer narrative began with Dr. Pittman utilizing oral narratives from slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and Great Migration eras to tease out black grandmothers experiences. In the process of selecting the most appropriate stories for Grandmothering While Black, it became clear that all of the stories she was reading weren’t going to make it into her book. At the same time, there was a story that she couldn’t shake and didn’t want to leave behind. Dr. Pittman didn’t want to “close the book on her” so to speak. She began to consider other avenues to tell black grandmothers/grandmothering stories beyond academic publications. She quickly discovered that not only was there no book written of its kind, but also compared to fictional representations of black grandmothers, no significant undertaking existed to increase awareness of their real lives.
This was troubling for a number of reasons:
1) During slavery, elderly African American women were often charged with caring for children as enslaved parents were forced to prioritize work over childrearing. At the same time, black grandmothers were forced to care for the families of their white slave owners.
2) After emancipation, Southern whites used a debt peonage system, enforced by law, to recapture black labor. “Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system where an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work.” Although peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867, it was not completely eradicated until the 1940s. With few employment opportunities, especially for jobs that provided a living wage, many black women were forced to work in domestic and personal service. On the eve of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, nearly 90% of black women in the South worked as domestic servants. They did this low paying, backbreaking work in the homes of whites to provide for their children and grandchildren.
3) During the Great Migrations (1915-1960), black grandmothers provided care for grandchildren as parents left the South to get established in new cities and, as newly migrated parents, worked to provide for their families.
4) Today, African American children continue to be more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to live without one or both parents due to a number of structural factors, including mass incarceration, untreated mental illness, premature death, unemployment/underemployment, drug addiction, military deployment, and so forth. It is grandmothers who are the primary safety net for children not in their parents care, including for those in state custody.
Much of what we know about the experiences of black grandmothers during these time periods are from films or books written and produced by others. Missing from these narratives are long overdue first hand accounts that draw from the words of black grandmothers and their grandchildren. RealBlackGrandmothers addresses this huge gap by exploring the ways black grandmothers cared for their own families and participated in their communities, whether in churches or other community institutions, and in political movements. At the center of Real Black Grandmothers, these black grandmothers’ own compelling words address the need to understand a population that often has been idealized or ignored and to advance public awareness about a critical aspect of the African American experience in America.