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Grandparents Vital in African-American Families

Teaching, Caregiving and Providing Are Among the Roles They Fill

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Grandmothers are respected advisers in African-American families.

Photo © Dennis Lane / Getty
Grandparents should teach their grandchildren to use good manners.

Grandfathers can be highly involved family members, too.

Photo © Ariel Skelley / Getty
Grandparents Day at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History would be a good destination for grandparents and grandchildren.

Photo © Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

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

African-American grandchildren are likely to say that their grandparents hold positions of authority, that they are involved in discipline, that they 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. Research shows that African-American grandparents often see themselves as teachers, and that the lessons they transmit often concern manners, values, morals and religion.

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 few years between generations and more members in a generation. Some researchers posit that African-American families will become more vertical in the future.

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.

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.

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.

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