A University of Washington Professor Is Sharing the True Stories of ‘Real Black Grandmothers’

With the Real Black Grandmothers website, University of Washington assistant professor of American ethnic studies LaShawnDa Pittman archives the experience of a vital member of the black community

By Sarah Edwards May 16, 2018

1-Lashawnda-Pittman

This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Seattle magazine.

This article appears in print in the May 2018 issue. Click here to subscribe.

What is a “real black grandmother”?
Because of African-American experiences in this country, the black community has had to think about family beyond just blood, so fictive kinships are really important to black people. During slavery, people were sold away from each other, so we adopted each other as family. Grandmothers are those who take on that biological or fictive role.

What was your inspiration to start this website?
There is no role in the community that gets evoked as much as black grandmothers; think of Mammy, Aunt Jemima, Tyler Perry’s Madea, Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma. We talk about these women like we know them, but no one has written about their experiences. They tend to be a particular group within the country that gets a lot of stereotypes attached to them. My idea for the website [where users can submit their own or their grandmothers’ stories; realblackgrandmothers.com] was to tell the stories of real women: good, bad and different. It is not to glamorize them or romanticize them, it is to simply give them a voice.

What’s the most interesting story you encountered working on the project?
We tend to whitewash slavery in this country, in particular, the notion that elder [slaves] were cared for into old age. There was one story of an older woman during slavery who wasn’t moving fast enough. She was beaten, thrown into a prickly pear bush and died in agonizing pain. That story took my breath away, and just to blow that idea out of the water, to show that older slaves could, and did, have a lot of different experiences, and were in fact more vulnerable to abuse because they lacked value in an economic system, is something I will never forget.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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