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The readings presented by African American writers vary greatly in style, context, and story line, however there are some common themes presented throughout. Among these themes is an expansive shift from what is generally considered to be a traditional, nuclear family. Each work presents a view of family life that, forced by events, shows people attempting to build non-traditional, extended families in an effort to identify themselves, understand where they fit in socially, and know their place in the world.
It is important to clarify the definition of traditional and extended families in the context of minority populations. For the majority culture, a traditional family is thought to consist of the nuclear family (i.e. father, mother, and children). Minority groups tend to cast a wider net when defining members of their "families." The extended family is the norm in minority cultures, which consists of the nuclear family plus Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, and Grandparents. In the following works, each of the main characters are forced to go beyond what is considered the extended family structure to find what they need.
Song of Solomon is the only story presenting even a glimpse of what can be considered a majority traditional family. On the surface, the Dead family presents all the mechanics of a normal and functional family attempting to live out the American dream. The family unit is complete; there are no overt problems or missing pieces of the puzzle.
This image of a normal family quickly vanishes when we see how unhappy Milkman is within this family. He feels smothered; he lacks identity and direction for his life. His family does not provide what he needs most, a sense of where he belongs and fits in the world. In order to understand his own place and history he is forced to first leave his immediate family, then his extended family and finally begins his quest in search of unknown family members as a way of self-development.
This quest is beyond the normal strive that a son takes to become his own person rather than the son his father envisions. It is a quest to understand himself as a whole person, to know where he fits in the "big picture" rather than simply following the family's expectations. He does not feel complete until he has discovered where he came from.
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"Comapring Families in Song of Solomon, Narrative of Frederick Douglass and Push." 123HelpMe.com. 25 Sep 2018
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While in Virginia searching for the gold that was supposedly hidden by Pilate, Milkman meets Reverend Cooper and his wife. Reverend Cooper tells Milkman, "I know your people." This comment has a profound affect on Milkman. "It was a good feeling to come to a strange town and find a stranger who knew your people. All his life [Milkman] had heard the tremor in the word: 'I live here, but my people,' or 'She acts like she ain't got no people...' But he hadn't known what it meant: links." Milkman is beginning to have a sense of where he comes from and where he fits in. He "beamed at Reverend Cooper and his wife. 'You do?'" (229).
Milkman's attitudes on identity and knowing his past differ greatly from Macon. His father is content to know and live in his immediate past and in what he has accomplished during his own life. He finds his identity in his own achievements versus a family identity. Macon's disinterest in his past is carried to the point of avoiding his only blood relative, his sister, always keeping his past at a safe distance. Macon is never forth- coming about his relationship with his own father or with Pilate. Milkman has to prod him for information, which adds to his desire to search for his past.
The gold Milkman is searching for is the feeling he gets when he discovers his family origins. There is a profound change in him the moment he discovers "his people." "He was as excited as a child confronted with boxes and boxes of presents under the skirt Christmas tree. Somewhere in the pile was a gift for him" (304). Milkman has been searching for his "roots" not his genealogy. He is not able to get what he needs from his traditional family but his distant, extended family give him what he is looking for.
In contrast to Milkman, the families presented in the slave narratives are ones of almost unimaginable chaos and turmoil. Here, reliance on extended families was necessary for survival versus a means for self-discovery and increased personal understanding. On the hierarchy of needs, slaves were concerned with having their physical needs met and in most cases simply trying to stay alive from one day to the next. They did not have the time or luxury of searching for in-depth self identity.
During slavery, families were routinely split up and sold to different plantations. Douglas points out "It is common custom...to separate children from their mothers at a very early age" (256). Douglas concludes that this is done to break the bonds between mother and child. This action greatly affects the child's sense of identity and understanding of their place and role within a family. By separating children at such a young age the slave owners were attempting to control the development of the children. Their goal was to prevent bond being build that could undermine their control and dominance.
If a family were lucky enough to remain in tact for even a short period of time there was always the threat of separation at a moments notice. Mary Prince's vivid recollections provide an example of the complete uncertainty that the slave faced. "I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners; so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage" (191). At a moments notice, the external forces beyond their control would force dramatic changes in family dynamics.
As a result of these practices, both Prince and Douglas are forced to establish extended family relationships throughout her lives. It was common for slaves to refer to older slaves as "Aunt" and "Uncle." Prince speaks of her "Aunty Hetty" who showed her great kindness even in the mists of her own terrible plight. The use of these terms shows the strong need to have family structure within one's life. The titles also set a social structure or hierarchy that facilitates knowing where one fits into society.
Non-family relationships were also very important, for example Prince is ultimately driven to live the Church and the Anti-Slavery Society. She is faced with the choice of living free or returning to slavery to be with her husband. Here again the traditional family is forced to take a backseat because of external forces.
rince is driven to a ring that is in many ways outside even the extended family. She is living in a foreign country and amongst people that do not even fully comprehend what slavery is about. She is in an almost totally foreign environment. This affects her self image in that she now not only has to figure out what her values are, but she needs to explain to others why and how she has gotten to where she is.
In the context of family support and relationships, Precious (Push) can be compared to Prince and Douglas. The slaves were forcibly cut off from their families and had to forge extended family relationships on their own. Precious is forced to do the same because of the abhorrent conditions she faces at home. While she has a family, she would be much better off without them. Neither Precious nor the slaves has the support, guidance, or encouragement of their immediate family.
With no immediate support group around her Precious focuses on simply surviving from one day to the next. The abuse she faces at home does not allow her to focus on anything other than living from moment to moment. Precious, like the slaves, does not have the luxury of thinking past her immediate physical needs and self-preservation.
Precious's inner circle of family is her worst enemy. Between her father raping her and her mother's abuse and neglect, it is a miracle that she survives at all. The next ring of defense, her extended family, does not play an active role in her life either. Her Grandmother takes care of her first child for her, but is uninvolved beyond that. As a result, Precious doesn't have the option of seeking out guidance from members of her family. There is no mention of other family members for Precious to turn to.
The next ring of support for Precious would be friends and neighbors living in the city. Here again, there appears to be no one for her. With the exception of the neighbor that prevents her mother from killing her as she is going into labor, there is no real interaction mentioned. This forces her to look further away from home for the family she needs.
The lack of support and identity at home forces Precious to desperately search for any identity. She is proud of her role in math class. "I'm like the polices for Mr. Wicker. I keep law and order" (6). She knows she can't do math, yet she feels good about herself and is pleased to note that "I'm getting pretty good grades. I usually do" (6). She is yearning to see anything positive in herself and will take whatever she can get, even if she knows it is not true.
Her desire to know where she fits, coupled with her illiteracy, contribute to her behavior in school. Without anyone to help her develop her identity, she behaves in the only way she knows how to relate. She acts like a "bitch" in school to know where she fits in. She is forced to create her own comfort zones simply to survive. She has no guidance, support, or direction to do otherwise.
Her life takes a drastic change when she begins to attend the Alternative School. Here, she is finally able to find the extended family she has been looking for. This revelation is not an epiphany like Milkman's, but a more gradual development. Precious is understandably not able to trust people and it takes some time for her to begin to open up.
A pivotal point for Precious is when she explains that she can't read and asks Ms Rain, "Is I in the right place?" (48). Ms Rain and her classmates become her extended family. They are the ones that support her and help her develop her self-identity. They provided her with what her traditional and limited extended family cannot. She recognizes this and rejects her mother and the destructive affects of her childhood.
The three works presented by African American writers share a common theme of breaking away from traditional extended families structure. This theme is a step away from the normal minority cultural mores that rely on the extended family for support, guidance and direction. In each case, the extended family has broken down and failed in some regard. These failures are driven by both internal and external events which force the characters to search beyond their extended family for what they need. In each story, it is the establishment of nontraditional extended families that provides the necessary support, direction and guidance the character needs.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1987. 243-331.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1987.
Sapphire. Push. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.