BLACK GRANDMOTHERS FROM SLAVERY TO THE PRESENT

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Black Grandmothers from Slavery to the Present contextualizes contemporary black grandmothers experiences as part of a larger, longer narrative. While working on publications, I observed a glaring omission in Sociology, African American Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Carework literatures. I could not cite one book about black grandmothers caregiving from slavery to the present. Arguably, there isn’t a more iconic 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. 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.

Black Grandmothers is the first book written about African American grandmothers caregiving experiences across four watershed moments—slavery, Jim Crow segregation, Great Migration urbanization, and contemporary, criminalization of the poor and formalization of historically informal kinship care systems. Through historical archives of oral narratives and firsthand accounts, qualitative, and historic census data, this groundbreaking book explores the role black grandmothers played in the changing racial landscape.  Drawing on the grandmothers’ perspectives, the book argues for a conceptual approach that neither romanticizes, pathologizes, nor erases the significance of their care work.

Scholars tend to interpret black grandmothers’ more central and parent-like role in the lives of their biological and fictive grandchildren as the continuation of a cultural tradition rooted in West Africa. My research builds upon that long established scholarship to suggest that both cultural and coercive forces operate in tandem to compel care. Coercive forces include individual and structural factors that compel grandmothers to provide care, offering a framework for differentiating caregivers’ experiences within and across time periods. Black grandmothers’ greater involvement in the parenting of their grandchildren, I argue, was necessitated by the coercion of free labor under slavery, exploitation of labor in the post-slavery debt peonage system, exclusion of blacks from most of the formal sector prior to the Civil Rights era, and their disproportionate representation in the expanded informal, contingent, and low-wage service economies of the postindustrial era.  I contend that state-sanctioned violence, residential segregation, and public policies also contributed to African American grandmothers’ increased likelihood of providing care (compared to their racial/ethnic counterparts). Those factors also contribute to their higher poverty rates and the ways in which they strategize to meet the demands of caregiving. By attending to this neglected history of the forces that shaped grandmothers’ caregiving across time, I uncover how they perceive and construct their roles across heterogeneous experiences. To support the completion of Black Grandmothers, I was recently awarded a Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship, Simpson Center Society of Scholars Fellowship and a Royalty Research Fund Grant.