UW News

February 27, 2018

Mining memories for stories of ‘real black grandmothers’

UW News

Ifalade Tashia Asanti (far right) is one of the grandmothers featured on UW professor LaShawnDa Pittman's Real Black Grandmothers website. Pittman, a faculty member in the Department of American Ethnic Studies, is collecting the stories of black grandmothers past and present.

Ifalade Tashia Asanti (far right) is one of the grandmothers featured on UW professor LaShawnDa Pittman’s Real Black Grandmothers website.Ifalade Tashia Asanti

While combing through the stories of African-American slaves for her forthcoming book, LaShawnDa Pittman found one narrative that launched a project of love.

As Pittman read of the beating death of an elderly woman named Sarah, she realized: This woman was a grandmother. Sarah may have cared for her own grandchildren while their parents worked in the fields, and quite possibly watched over the children of a white plantation owner as well. Sarah likely was a woman who played an important role in two families, yet she suffered a brutal death at the hands of an overseer.

Pittman wondered: How can I share her story beyond the book I’m writing? Why were the experiences of black grandmothers not reflected or represented in an increasingly digital world?

The narrative of Sarah led Pittman, a UW assistant professor of American Ethnic Studies, to establish a website, Real Black Grandmothers, where she features living and oral histories about grandmothers, gathers a list of memorable grandmother quotes, posts stories from contributors and invites newcomers to do the same.

Already in the throes of research into her primary areas of expertise, race and poverty, Pittman had studied the growth in and reasons for grandparents raising their grandchildren. (A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that black children are at least twice as likely to be cared for by a grandparent as are children of other races and ethnicities.) African-Americans not only are over-represented among grandparent-headed households, but they also are more likely than their white counterparts to be poor and to have impaired health while caring for their grandchildren.

But after reading one too many times that black grandmothers’ lives today are qualitatively different from their historic counterparts, Pittman began to question how this is known, with so little scientific evidence of black grandmothers’ experiences throughout history.

LaShawnDa Pittman

LaShawnDa Pittman

So Pittman began a new study to examine the varied lives of African-American grandmothers, and the multifaceted ways in which they have been— and are yet — involved in family life from slavery to the present. She’s writing a book on how black grandmothers humanize, reconstitute and hold together their families, given legal, social and economic constraints in society over time. The website showcases many individual stories.

“Black grandmothers are nuanced,” Pittman said. “Nobody is all of anything.”

In the five months since the website has been up, one point is clear:  There are plenty of stereotypes — think Aunt Jemima, Tyler Perry’s Madea, or really, most any grandmotherly character from TV — but in real life, there’s no one type of black grandmother.

“This group tends to be so stereotyped, even within the black community. We romanticize them — they’re tough, they’re caregiving, they’re holier than thou,” Pittman explained. “But nobody lives up to the ideal of the ‘traditional grandmother’ we’ve created.”

There are historical and societal reasons for the creation of a “traditional grandmother,” she added. Systemic racism and economic hardship pose unique threats to the stability of African-American families. During slavery, they humanized familiesin a system that treated African Americans as property, Pittman said. After slavery, it was grandmothers who reconstituted the family and maintained family ties through reunions, church and child-rearing. ”

Today, “Grandparents step in when parents are unable to meet a child’s needs, and in the black community, it’s not assumed that they always can. Raising children is a collective endeavor, and grandmothers are key to that collectivity,” she said.

Yet despite the variety of experiences in black families — the grandmother in a two-parent, middle- or upper-class family might be involved in different ways than one who is raising her grandchildren — a concept of the all-encompassing grandmother has evolved.

Pittman’s website, collects and displays images, stories and even one-liners (example: “It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to!”) to share the many personalities and experiences of grandmothers, from the perspective of the women themselves, or their grandchildren. A South Carolina chef describes his 90-year-old Grandmama Mary and her Gullah “tones.” Artist and educator Natalie Daise recounts the obstacles her grandmother Elizabeth overcame to become a nurse, an artist and a poet. Musician Kelly Price writes about her goals for her granddaughters.

And Pittman adds short tributes to her own grandmother, who helped raise her after her mother gave birth as a teen.

She wants the site to appeal to all ages, for a variety of purposes.

“I hope that like other archives that hold the stories of African-Americans, Real Black Grandmothers can be a useful educational, historical, and even inspirational tool for generations to come,” Pittman said.