Grandparents Vital in African-American Families

Teaching, Caregiving and Providing Are Among the Roles They Fill

Grandmother and granddaughter cooking
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African-American grandparents tend to play vital roles in their grandchildren's lives. Often grandparents reside in the same household as their grandchildren. Multigenerational homes are common, and the number of grandchildren being raised by grandparents or even great-grandparents is higher in this group than in any other major racial or ethnic group.

Grandparenting Roles in African-American Families

All generations agree on the important roles played by African-American grandparents, although the generations have slightly different takes on those roles.

African-American grandchildren are likely to say that their grandparents hold positions of authority. They add that their grandparents are involved in discipline, provide financial assistance and often act as parents. The grandchildren are also likely to see accepting a grandparent's guidance as part of their duty as grandchildren.

African-American parents often see grandparents as sort of second-line parents. They rely on grandparents to take up the slack when they need help with parenting. This practice can lead to a blurring of the line between parenting and grandparenting and can cause boundary issues

In addition to the other roles they play, African-American grandparents often see themselves as teachers. The lessons they transmit often concern manners, values, morals and religion.

The Special Role of the Grandmother

No survey of African-American grandparents would be complete without mentioning the almost mythic role of the grandmother.

Partly due to earlier mortality among black men, grandchildren are more likely to have substantive relationships with their grandmothers. According to one study, among grandchildren living with a grandmother, grandfathers were present about one quarter of the time.

African-American Family Structure

The modern American family is sometimes described as a vertical structure, or "beanpole." Generations consist of only a few members and are removed from each other by a considerable number of years.

African-American families have historically been more horizontal than vertical in structure, with fewer years between generations and more members in a generation. Some researchers posit that African-American families will become more vertical in the future.

Earlier childbearing by women has been a factor in preserving the horizontal structure of African-American families. Younger mothers produce younger grandmothers, who may be more willing and able to take active roles in raising their grandchildren. In addition, however, this horizontal structure often results in grandparents being in what is called the sandwich generation. African-American females of a certain age may be providing care for elderly grandparents, aging parents, children and grandchildren. In addition, when adult children are incarcerated or struggle with substance abuse, it is often grandparents who take up the slack.

Roots of Family Structure

Some trace the fluid nature of the grandparenting role back to the days of slavery. Any adult who happened to be nearby when a child needed help readily gave that help. Many times a child's real parents were not available. They might have been working or even have been traded away, so every member of the community looked out for every child.

In post-slavery times, many African-American women have continued to practice an extended form of parenting, caring for children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as for nieces, nephews and children unrelated to them. 

In other cultures, women may expect their mothering days to come to end at a certain time. In African-American families, many women simply see themselves as women who work and take care of family members, with no discernible end in sight. 

Fictive Relatives

Another important aspect of African-American families is the role of fictive relatives, meaning relatives who are not related by blood but who take on the roles of relatives. It is not unusual for African-American children to have both literal and fictive grandparents. In addition, African-American households are often fluid, with various members of the nuclear family and the extended family taking up residence according to their needs.

Even among grandchildren who were neither co-resident nor reared by grandparents, it is common for grandchildren to have lived with grandparents for periods of their lives.

Names for African-American Grandparents

Some African-Americans tap African languages for grandparent names. African languages and dialects yield the following possibilities:

  • Swahili: Bibi or Nyanya for grandmother and Babu for grandfather
  • Botswanan: Nkuku for grandmother, Ntatemogolo for grandfather
  • Shona: Ambuya for grandmother, Sekuru for grandfather
  • Venda: Makhulu for grandmother, Mmakhulu for grandfather
  • Xhosa: Umakhulu for grandmother, Utat'omkhulu for grandfather
  • Zulu: Ugogo for grandmother, Ubabamkhulu for grandfather

It is far more common, however, for African-Americans to use the English terms and their variants, such as Grandmother, Grandma, Granny and MawMaw for grandmothers.

Sources:

  • Hunter, Andrea G., and Robert J. Taylor. "Grandparenthood in African American Families." Handbook on Grandparenthood. Ed. Maximiliane E. Szinovácz. Greenwood Publishing. 1998. 70-86. Google Books.
  • Ruiz, Dorothy S. "Guardians and Caretakers: African American Grandmothers as Primary Caregivers in Intergenerational Families."
  • "The Ultimate Guide to Grandparent Names." Grandparents.com