Posted: March 10th, 2022
Culture Importance of the Extended Family
African literature is more than words on a paper. It tends to have a theme that relates to the writer’s experiences or to soul of a person. Both in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” by Edwidge Danticat and “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” by Paule Marshall, one of the main themes is the importance of family. This emphasis is not only on the immediate family but also with the extended family as well.
Before a textual analysis of these three short stories, it is important to understand the sociological studies explaining the importance of the extended family in African literature. In their work “Grandparenthood in African-American Families,” Hunter and Taylor note that studies suggest that “cultural notions of the ‘traditional’ black grandparenthood, in some way, inform contemporary grandparenthood” (72). Hunter and Taylor also explore the important family role of the dominant family member who serves as the family “linchpin” and how that role “emphasizes intergenerational care and obligation, family legacy and continuity, and expressive and instrumental functions” (75). Additionally, “grandparents are viewed as playing a critical role that is based upon African-American cultural traditions and the economic and social realities of black life (78, citing Gutman 1976). With these academic theories in mind, this paper will discuss the importance of the extended family in African literature culturally.
“To Da-duh, in Memoriam” (1967)
Marshall’s “To Da-duh” (first published in 1967) is an autobiographical piece that centers on issues of conflict and even rivalry between a grandmother, Da-duh, and her granddaughter. Through this conflict between the two women, Marshall explores the dichotomies of tradition against modernity, the rural world vs. The urban world, and age vs. youth. Set in 1937, readers experience a family’s trip from Brooklyn to Barbados taken as a way for the narrator’s mother to return to her homeland after 15 years of being away and for the narrator to finally meet her grandmother.
When the narrator-granddaughter first arrives in her new surroundings, she comments “I was busy attending to the alien sights and sounds of Barbados, the unfamiliar smells” (159). The mention of this “unfamiliarity” symbolizes the narrator’s lack of knowledge about her extended family in the Caribbean. This is her first visit to see her relatives, and the fact that she notices that the environment she has just stepped into is “alien” signifies her recognition of how different she is from her extended family.
Despite this unfamiliarity and new surroundings, the granddaughter understands the importance of coming to know her grandmother Da-duh for the first time. She narrates with great care and detail her observations of first seeing her grandmother. The granddaughter notices “the small, purposeful, painfully erect figure of the old woman” (159). She continues to observe “[b]ut her eyes were alive, unnervingly so for one so old, with a sharp light that flicked out of the dim clouded depths like a lizard’s tongue to snap up all in her view. Those eyes betrayed a child’s curiosity about the world…” (160). One can infer that the child’s detailed observation of her grandmother’s appearance and analysis of the elderly woman’s personality and character signifies the importance placed on the grandmother. In other words, the granddaughter realizes the significance of meeting the matriarch of her extended family and perhaps even can feel how important this woman will come to be in her life.
The dichotomies Marshall bases her story on are represented in the narrator’s early impression of Da-duh. “Perhaps she was both, both child and woman, darkness and light, past and present, life and death — all the opposites contained and reconciled in her” (160). The granddaughter observes the conflicting characteristics that Da-duh seems to possess, in a way that perhaps shows the growing respect and admiration the granddaughter has for her grandmother.
Marshall introduces another issue that seems to be prevalent whenever a younger generation is introduced to the elders and members of his or her extended family: a longing to return to the safety and comfort of where the youth has come from to visit. In “To Da-duh,” the granddaughter narrates that she “longs for the familiar” (162). However, after the initial desire to return to the familiar from her life back in Brooklyn, the granddaughter warms up to and begins to bond with her grandmother. They spend more time together, Da-duh slyly seeking knowledge about the lavish-by-comparison lifestyle her granddaughter is privileged with in New York. Each time the grandmother criticizes or makes a snide comment about how life in New York and the United States could never be as great nor fulfilling as it is in the Caribbean, the granddaughter provides her grandmother with details about prosperity and impossibly built architecture that fascinates Da-duh. These interactions between Da-duh and her granddaughter demonstrate both the dichotomy between the rural and the urban world, as well as age vs. youth.
Over the course of coming to know her grandmother and developing their relationship, the granddaughter dances and sings for Da-duh, only to have her grandmother stare at her as if she were a “creature from Mars, an emissary from some world she did not know but which intrigued her and whose power she bolt felt and feared” (164). This part of the story also expresses the continuing dichotomy between the younger generation and the extended family in African-American culture. In other words, the child’s interaction with her extended family only comes when she travels to the country of her parents’ origin and is forced to get to know her relatives. The two parties, the stranger from abroad and the natural being of the Caribbean view each other with caution and perhaps wonder. Yet somehow, a close bond is able to be formed, as demonstrated in “To Da-duh.” The granddaughter in this story clearly becomes very fond of her Da-duh, given their interactions together during the trip and also given the story is written as a celebratory memorial piece by the granddaughter to commemorate her grandmother upon her death.
Edwidge Danticat’s “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” explores the deep relationship between a mother and a daughter in Haiti. Danticat’s story highlights the importance of family but more so on an immediate family level. The daughter, Josephine, in “Nineteen Thirty-Seven” has no way of interacting with her own mother except through visiting her in prison. The experience of going into the dreary prison, filled with mal-nourished women accused of practicing witchcraft and santeria is almost more than the daughter can handle. Seeing her mother in such a devastating condition, head shaved and the skin “barley clinging to her bones” (448) due to her rapid weight loss, drives Josephine to be unable to find the words to speak. For the entire time her mother has been incarcerated, Josephine has not been able to speak one word to her mother. Yet she continues to visit, which highlights the prevailing importance of family relationships in one’s life.
“Nineteen Thirty-Seven,” in addition to focusing on the underlying immediate family relationship, briefly touches upon the strength and importance of having extended family in one’s life as well. Josephine describes the importance of how her mother survived the ordered massacre of Haitians residing in the Dominican Republic by Generalissimo Dios Trujillo. Josephine’s mother had been able to escape Trujillo’s soldiers but was forced to leave her own mother behind as she fled across the Massacre River that separated the two neighboring countries, into Haiti. “From the Haitian side of the river, she could still see the soldiers chopping up her mother’s body and throwing it into the river along with many others” (451).
This occurrence explains the lack of extended family in Josephine’s life, but also emphasizes that even though her grandmother, and perhaps other ancestors, were not physically present in her life, they still remained important figures. Josephine narrates “[w]e were all daughters of that river, which had taken our mothers from us. Our mothers were the ashes and we were the light. Our mothers were the embers and we were the sparks. Our mothers were the flames and we were the blaze.” (451). In other words, although Josephine, and other daughters, had lost her extended family, they were still all inter-connected. Josephine remembers an utterance of her mother which highlights this importance: ” ‘At least I gave birth to my daughter on the night that my mother was taken from me…At least you came out at the right moment to take my mother’s place'” (451). This statement infers that although Josephine’s grandmother is no longer physically present, she continues to live on through the spirit of her granddaughter.
“The Inheritance of my Father: A Story for Listening”
Astrid Roemer’s “The Inheritance of my Father: A Story for Listening” describes the strong connection between a mixed race granddaughter and her black grandmother, residing in Surinam, that she has lived thirteen years without ever meeting. After living as an African-American child in the United States and entering her adolescent years, the daughter comes to the conclusion that she was “ashamed to be the child of a woman with blond hair and grey eyes and a voice that sounds just like that of people who are not black….I longed for a mother with a scarf on her head and a skin so dark that I never would have to be afraid at night again that the sun would ever burn me” (350). It is this sense of personal shame of having a white mother, caused by the teasing of her peers, that perhaps drives the daughter’s longing to travel to Surinam someday to meet her extended family and learn of her black father’s roots. “… I began to think about everything, about who my parents were, about my mother, about where my father is from, about what I am, about who were are together” (349).
Her parents are reluctant to allow their daughter to go, but finally give in when it is the summer of the grandmother’s eightieth birthday. The father and daughter make the long trip to Surinam. “I knew that we were flying away from the country of my mother and — to rid me of my frightening dreams — toward the country of my father” (352). However, it is interesting to note that on the plane the daughter listens to a voice recording her mother left for her on her Walkman: ” ‘My darling, whatever you may experience in your fatherland, do not forget that there is also a woman who has given you a motherland!’ “(352). This expresses the continuing dichotomy that the daughter feels between wanting to live the life of her extended family and ancestors in Surinam with her desire to remain a part of her mother’s American family as well.
Once arriving in Surinam, the father takes several days to re-visit with friends (and even one woman) that he has not seen in the thirty years has neglected to come back to his roots. However, when the daughter finally has the opportunity to meet her grandmother, Roemer’s language conveys that the young girl instantly loves her grandmother, Ouma, in what feels like an unconditional manner. “I immediately loved her, so totally different from my Grandma in my mother’s country” (356). This instant connection between grandmother and granddaughter is different from Marshall’s and Danticat’s stories on the importance of extended families in African-American culture. It also serves to explain the conclusion of the story, which has the grandmother on her eightieth birthday assigning all her property and possessions to her granddaughter, instead of to the son who has not visited her for thirty years. In this way, the bridge between generations is crossed, and the granddaughter’s future becomes even more complicated by the implied decision she will have to make between living in Surinam or returning to her mother in America.
Roemer ends her story with the daughter reflecting on her mother back in America. Ultimately, although happy to be with her father’s people and with her grandmother, the image of her mother is unable to be erased from her mind. “My thoughts of my mother were like crumbs of happiness that I stepped on with my own shoes as if they were firecrackers” (360). For a moment, the reader wonders what decision the daughter will make about where she will lead her future life: will she remain in Surinam or will she return to her mother in America. “Even if I had to suffer my whole long life, all my heart and all my body would belong to a black person — just like you Mama, Amen!” (360). From this powerful concluding statement, we understanding that even though the daughter may have made the choice to connect with and remain with her extended family in Surinam, she will always remain connected to her mother. Thus, the important interconnection of both immediate family and extended family is preserved.
Danticat, Edwidge. “Nineteen Thirty-Seven.” The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories, Ed. Stewart Brown and John Wickham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 447-456. Print.
Hunter, Andrea G. And Robert J. Taylor. “Grandparenthood in African-American Families.” Handbook on Grandparenthood, Ed. Maximilane Szinovacz.. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. 70-86. Print.
Marshall, Paule. “To Da-duh, in Memoriam.” The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories, Ed. Stewart Brown and John Wickham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 159-168. Print.
Roemer, Astrid. “The Inheritance of my Father: A Story for Listening.” The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories, Ed. Stewart Brown and John Wickham. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 348-361. Print.
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