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The Caribbean Family

The family structure that currently exists in the Caribbean today has been influenced by several historical and social factors such as slavery, industrialization and poverty for example. E. Franklyn Frazier and Michael G. Smith propose in their writings that Caribbean families are simply the product of the plantation. This paper seeks to examine these arguments; comparing and contrasting these views with those of other social scientists and in the end come to a conclusion. It is therefore necessary to define and discuss the Caribbean family in addition to the plantation. According to George Peter Murdock in a study entitled Social Structure 1949 (as cited by Haralambos and Holborn 2008): The family is a social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation and reproduction. It includes adults of both sexes, at least two of whom maintain a socially approved relationship, and one or more children, own or adapted, of the sexually cohabiting adults. According to Haralambos and Holborn (2008), Murdock concluded that his definition of the family was universal. However they believe that it may be necessary to redefine the family proposed by Murdock. According to Murdock the family includes at least one adult of each sex. However Haralambos and Holborn argue that at times both at present and in the past, children have been raised in households that do not contain adults of both sexes usually headed by women (matrifocal homes). They further add that this is exemplified among a large number of black families in the West Indies and in parts of Central America and the USA today. The two main initiators of arguments surrounding the origin of the present day Caribbean family structure (black families in particular) were two American sociologists E. Franklyn Frazier and Melville Herskovits. One of few points on which both men agreed was the characteristics of family structure in the Caribbean. They both agreed that black family structure was maternal and extended, that the bond between mother and child was close and that the conjugal relations were non-marital and loose" (Barrow and Reddock 2001; chap.29, pg.419). It must however be noted that Frazier and Herskovits focused primarily on black families. This is justifiable as approximately 80 to 90 percent of families in the Caribbean are from an African background (Barrow 1996). Both men agreed that black families were characterized by matrifocality, extended kin, common-law unions and illegitimacy. M.G. Smith whose work was in essence, an expansion of Fraziers work summed up these characteristics. In this region family life is highly unstable, marriage rates are low, especially during the earlier phases of adult life, and illegitimacy rates have always been high. (Introduction My Mother Who Fathered Me; chap.1, pg.1).

Were these characteristics the product of the plantation society? The aforementioned characteristics of Caribbean families were also sighted by Thomas Simey (1946) who did some work in the region. He saw these characteristics as undesirable and his work contributed greatly to Caribbean family structures being labeled as a social pathology (as cited in Barrow and Reddock 2001). George L. Beckford (as cited in Barrow and Reddock 2001) defines the plantation as follows: Typically, a plantation is a unit of agricultural production with a specific type of economic organization characterized by a large resident labour force of unskilled workers who are directed by a small supervisory staff. The typical plantation society was culturally diverse. The plantation brought together different races and cultures for the purpose of economic production. There were three major racial groups that existed within the cultural plurality of the plantation. These were the whites, mullatoes and the blacks. After slavery was abolished, East Indians and Chinese were added to the cultural mix of the plantation as indentured servants. The basis of Fraziers and Smiths arguments is to be found in the family structure evident on the plantation. Both men were adamant that the plantation disengaged stable family patterns. This was primarily because economic production was the main purpose of the plantation. Workers on the plantation, especially before the abolition of slavery were treated with scant regard. Thus the family unit, in particular the conjugal pair (mother and father) was often disrupted. Smith argued that families, particularly women and men were separated either before or after arrival through the slave trade. He further stated that the pair of a woman and her children was less targeted. In addition male slaves were used as studs in breeding slaves of high quality. Smiths arguments coincide with Fraziers arguments which were documented earlier. For both, the plantation destroyed African culture completely. Both men saw the plantation as the basis on which existing Caribbean family structures were formed. Common-law unions and illegitimacy were seen as failed attempts to imitate white norms (Frazier 1966 as cited in Barrow and Reddock 2001). Such features common to the plantation are still evident in Caribbean society today. Studies carried out by Edith Clarke on three communities in Jamaica highlighted the differences in family structures among social classes. (Barrow and Reddock 2001; chap. 29, pg. 420) in describing the interpretation of Caribbean family by Clarkes study stated; Put simply, these studies interpreted Caribbean family structure as a functional response to the disorganizing effects of contemporary socio-economic conditions in Caribbean village communities. In examining the statement above, one can uncover a link between the current structure of Caribbean families and the plantation. If the prevailing socio-economic conditions have impacted on current family structure, then factors such as socialization, economic stability and traditions as well as ideology must be taken in account. Among black families in the region, experiences of previous generations on the plantation would have no doubt influenced the way in which subsequent generations were socialized. After the abolition of slavery freed blacks in most instances, did not have access to land and other economic resources which were vital to their survival. Therefore the advent of industrialization created an avenue for blacks and other minorities (men in particular) to migrate in search of jobs to support

their families. The construction of the Panama Canal during the early twentieth century created such opportunities. During this period several fathers migrated. Unfortunately, some never returned for varying reasons. In excess of 20,000 workers had died during the period of construction before it was opened in 1914. This left behind a pattern of single headed households, usually headed by women. This feature is prevalent in Caribbean society today. Thus it is plausible to say that the economic hardships after slavery have greatly influenced the structure of many lower class Caribbean households. This shows one of the ways in which the plantation has influenced Caribbean family structure. Despite the fact that the traits of the plantation are still present today, one cannot dismiss the arguments of Herskovits who did some work in the Caribbean (Herskovits & Herskovits 1947). Contrary to Frazier (and Smith) Herskovits argued that the origin of the Negro family was to be found in its ancestral heritage which survived the disruptive impact of slavery, although not fully intact. He suggested that aspects of African culture were retained but that some modifications were made. In one of his examples, Herskovits made reference to the African custom of polygamy. He suggested that rather than having simultaneous relationships, a transformation was made to progressive monogamy or multiple successive relationships (as cited by Barrow and Reddock 2001). This claim may be justified in part, if not in full. It may be argued that the popular culture of some Caribbean societies has perpetuated this trend. In Jamaica for example, the dancehall culture may be regarded as the popular culture within this society. Notions such as man fi hav nuff gal an gal inna bundle echoed by popular entertainers promote promiscuity, which is an image associated with real men within this culture. Elephant Man one of Jamaicas most prominent Dancehall entertainers, in an interview published in the Jamaica Star on August 27, 2008 brought to light his family life. According to the tabloid he stated he had eight children between the ages of 5 and 10, scattered in Jamaica and the United States. When asked about marriage he simply said: "Mi nuh have no wife. No sah, mi nuh plan fi get married 'cause mi too young fi dat. When mi 'bout 50 years old, mi think 'bout dat," While there is evidence here of polygamy, was this a practice retained from previous African cultural practices? Or was it, transcended through the plantation setup? For Herskovits it was as a result of African Retention but Smiths plantation hypothesis could well be justified. As mentioned earlier in this paper, the way in which male slaves were used on the plantation for reproductive purposes as put forward by M.G. Smith could have well set the framework for the current Caribbean family situation. In essence, the Caribbean family patterns visible in society today are the result of a combination of factors. The plural society of the plantation is still evident today. Matrifocal homes are also still a common characteristic of many Caribbean homes. The number of matrifocal homes tends to get larger as we move down the social strata. The plantation system perpetuated the displacement of men from their families. Due to the rigours of work on the plantation, male slaves, being stronger physically, were given the more physically strenuous jobs and would suffer harsher punishments if disobedient to masters. For planters, young male slaves were preferred when purchasing slaves. This brings into light the issue of male

marginalization. Due to constant movement on or across plantations, many fathers were absent from their families. In todays society this male absenteeism is still evident. Even in households where fathers are present, boys are expected to be tough as is echoed in slangs such as big boys dont cry. Boys are less likely to be supported financially by parents in furthering their education past the secondary level. A reason for this is that men are still expected by societys traditional ideology to be the providers within the family, even though the reality is quite different. There is evidence to suggest this is true. Females now outnumber males two to one on the three campuses of the University of the West Indies (Brown et al 1997). Frazer also argued that slavery and life on the plantation lead to a loss of identity among blacks. A practice which is quite common in contemporary Caribbean culture is the bleaching of the skin. This involves the use of chemicals to alter the skin tone in order to give the individual a lighter complexion. For many, it is a means for upward social mobility. The colour of the skin was often used as a means of stratifying the plantation society and was often the primary factor used in determining the delegation of work among slaves. Subsequently, it is hard to discount Fraziers and Smiths views that stipulate that Caribbean families today are a product of the plantation. As with the typical plantation society, today the marriage rate is low among lower class families, the number of births outside of wedlock is also high and there are a high number of matrifocal and extended family forms. Within the dominant class there are noticeably; a higher marriage rate, economic stability and a nuclear family structure is more likely than would be in lower social classes. The fact that East Indian and Chinese cultures have remained relatively the same as they were on the plantation further enhances the proposition of Frazier and Smith. Both these cultures consisted mainly of a patriarchal extended kin structure. Though Caribbean society is ever changing, the culture which was present on the plantation has some how been passed from generation to generation. This is evident specifically in the ideology of the people. It seems that the culture of Caribbean families has been impacted in a large way by life on the plantation. Though there are indeed aspects of African culture that have been retained within the Caribbean family, such as in aspects of our food and medicine (the use of herbs), the findings are minor in comparison to those that support the plantation as the major defining factor in the structure of Caribbean families. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests that E. Franklyn Frazier and Michael G. Smith were right; Caribbean families today, are indeed the product of the plantation.

References Barrow, Christine and Reddock, Rhoda (Eds.) 2001. Caribbean Sociology: Introductory Readings. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.

Barrow, Christine, 1996 Family in the Caribbean: Themes and Perspectives. Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers.

Brooks, Sadeke 2008, August 27. The Jamaica Star - Entertainment [Electronic Copy]. Retrieved April 08,2009, from

Clarke, Edith (Eds.) 1999. My Mother Who Fathered Me (with Introduction by Smith, Michael G.); The PRESS University of the West Indies.

Haralambos, Michael and Holborn, Martin 2008, Sociology, Themes and Perspectives: Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.

Roopnarine, Jaipaul L. and Brown, Janet 1997. Caribbean families: Diversity Among Ethnic Groups; Advances in Developmental Psychology.