For African American women, the household as defined by systems of “finance, law, and policy” has not been a useful tool. Unrecognized, misrecognized, or labeled dysfunctional in their family formations, the construction of household has worked to marginalize and subjugate. Many within what has come to be known as the Black community—mostly descendants of American slavery who have, as a result, been bound by race-based inequities that reified and produced particular social and cultural practices and institutions—see this community, when operating at its best, as a village. Media pundits and politicians appropriate the village as “folksy,” simultaneously provincial and idyllic. Yet its efficacy remains as developed in Africa and transplanted by force through American slavery. The village has been structurally dismantled, marginalized, and devalued both socially and financially, yet it resonates.
Among African Americans who locate the term in an incomplete understanding of a broadly African precolonial past, the village takes on connotations similar to Fausto Barlocco’s (2010) “village as ‘community of practice.’” Drawing on research with people in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, Barlocco (2010, 405) shows how they “refer to themselves as a group of people, not only residing in an administrative unit (managed by the state), but also having a sense of common belonging based on the sharing of some common practices.” Among villagers in Sabah, the village is autonomously grounded in “local practices and traditions, downplaying its integration within the regional, national, and global economic and political system” (Barlocco 2010, 405).
Barlocco develops the framework of the community of practice (see Wenger 1998) as different from the imagined community of the nation or racialized ethnic groups (Anderson 1991). In the former, there is an engagement in practice and social interactions that form a collective identification, the definition of which communities have control over in comparison to those around collective categories such as the nation or the ethnic group. For the latter categories, community is derived from common characteristics or practices despite the fact that the community may not be physically nor temporally together. In my study of African American women, I observed a reliance on collective memory (see Goodson and Choi 2008) as it undergirded much of their understanding of themselves as racialized and gendered mothers, wives, and daughters. African American women practice what I call “Black strategic mothering,” which articulates the importance of the village as a unit of analysis by drawing from elements of the imagined community as well as the community of practice.
Strategically Mothering the Village
Gail was one of the women I met during a three-year ethnographic study of Black career women. A mother of three, Gail was in her late thirties and was a former chief operating officer for a small firm. She and her husband, a manager at a multinational corporation, decided that she would stay home once she was pregnant with her first child “for as long as it worked financially.” When I asked Gail about some of the factors that went into her decision—staying at home was not, after all, a model that she had grown up with nor knew much about—she said it had been a very difficult decision. She explained, “When a Black woman is a stay-at-home mom, people assume you are on welfare. They don’t know any Black stay-at-home moms, so they can’t even imagine it. People just think you are lazy” (Barnes 2016, 36). Gail was worried about what others might say, and conversations with her mother only reinforced these concerns. “My mom totally disagrees with my decision to be at home,” Gail told me. “She doesn’t just disagree; she makes me feel bad, like I am not being a good mother by being at home. She thinks I am wasting my talents and spoiling my son and not contributing as I should be to my household. And she definitely thinks I am making a mistake by being dependent on my husband” (Barnes 2016, 36).
The ability of Black families to adapt to political, economic, and social conditions stemming from racial inequalities is what has both ensured their survival and made them maladaptive with respect to the ideal American nuclear family ethos. However, like Barlocco’s villagers, Black women have mobilized strategic mothering to “declare their autonomy over the village and its grounding in local practices and traditions, downplaying its integration within the regional, national, and global economic and political system” (Barlocco 2010, 405).
A Village of Households
Much of the structure of the village as a unit of analysis for African American women was developed during slavery. According to Patricia Hill Collins (2000), other-mothers, often considered the backbone of the Black community, attempt to give anything they can to their communities. This reference draws on Angela Davis’s (1972) conceptualization of the place of Black women in the community of slaves, itself an adaptation from African villages, and privileges Black women’s role in maintaining the Black community and especially the children at all costs. Black women have had to develop these practices independently of the development and dismantling of the welfare state; state-sponsored aid was never meant to assist them.
As the history of Black family life demonstrates, socializing and sheltering children has rarely been the sole responsibility of parents of origin. Often who the child belongs to or what household is responsible for their care is not “a particularly meaningful question” (Stack 1997, 90). This communal focus on children is the way most of the women I met during my research were raised, and they wanted similar experiences for their own children.
Many of the families in my study were dealing with elder care, combined households, and new definitions of family. Jill, who was sandwiched between three generations, was not able to rely on her mother for help with child care. Jill’s mother had been taking care of her elderly grandmother when she started showing signs of dementia. Jill had no choice but to bring both women to live with her. Shortly after her grandmother passed, Jill found that the care for her mother, three small children, and a career was too much for her to handle. A family friend, Rosa, then stepped in to help. “I met Rosa through a casual friend and I think she realized I was having a hard time and she just adopted me into her family,” Jill said. She refers to Rosa as “godmother,” and says there really is no distinction now between Rosa’s biological daughter and Jill. “I am her daughter and even though I still have my mother, Rosa is my mother. She is who I call when something is on my mind and I don’t even have to tell her. She knows. I am so blessed. . . . My family is so blessed to have her.”
Over the course of the study, the village motif extended into other areas besides caregiving. All of the women discussed a responsibility to help, particularly in the Black community. Because of their class position, many of their households contribute significantly to the financial resources of family members who require economic assistance (see Barnes, forthcoming).
The village, like the household, has long been considered a unit of analysis in its geographical and spatial form. Here, I follow Barlocco in identifying the village, particularly for African Americans, as both an idea and a practice. While the village shares similarities with the concepts of kinship and family, it also draws attention to geographical and spatial dimensions of locality that are often missing from understandings of the household. The village is a broader physical space with financial, legal, and policy implications. The village for African Americans is also organized around ideas based on common understandings of practice, trust, and norms. These ideas are not necessarily correlated with physical proximity, thereby stretching the village across geographical, household, kinship and family units.
While we ponder the notion of household and its limitations, we must remember that for some, it has always had arbitrary boundaries rendering it either useless or expansive: a clear indication of where inequality and solidarity begin and end.
Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition. New York: Verso. Originally published in 1983.
Barlocco, Fausto. 2010. “The Village as a 'Community of Practice': Constitution of Village Belonging through Leisure Sociality.” Bijdragen Tot De Taal-, Land- En Volkenkunde 166, no. 4: 404–25.
Barnes, Riché J. Daniel. Raising the Race: Black Career Women Redefine Marriage, Motherhood, and Community. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
_____. Forthcoming. “Eradicating Multiple Systems of Oppression Through the Public Anthropology of Johnnetta Betsch Cole.” in African American Pioneers in Anthropology: The Second Generation, edited by Ira E. Harrison, Deborah Johnson-Simon, and Erica Williams. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge. Originally published in 1990.
Davis, Angela. 1972. “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves.” Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1: 81–100.
Goodson, Ivor, and Pik Lin Choi. 2008. “Life History and Collective Memory as Methodological Strategies: Studying Teacher Professionalism.” Teacher Education Quarterly 35, no. 2: 5–28.
Stack, Carol. 1997. All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community. New York: Harper and Row. Originally published in 1974.
Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practic:; Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.