Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Contesting the Rhetoric of 'Black Family Breakdown' from Barbados

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Contesting the Rhetoric of 'Black Family Breakdown' from Barbados

Article excerpt

"The traditional extended family (parents, children, grandparents and other relatives)... has been replaced by the nuclearfamily (parents and children only) and this has caused 'a breakdown in family life'" (Chairperson, Barbados Committee for International Year of the Family. Reported in.the Daily Nation 13/11/1991).

"Anglican Bishop of Barbado said hefound the news (of teenage pregnancies and abortions) `shocking, disappointing and embarrassing'. The Bishop said that family fife is breaking down and he called on all relevant agencies to unite and tackle this crisis (Daily Nation 7/4/1996).

"The Member of parliament... said that the population of Barbados was `greying at an alarming rate'... that many pensioners would face hardship unless provisions were made to supplement state pensions. In addition, he pointed out that the extended family had been broken down into increasingly smaller family units" The Barbados Advocate 17/4/ 1996) (emphasis added)

Popular opinion in Barbados, expressed by politicians, clergymen and educators as well as the general public, repeatedly highlights family breakdown' as a principal social problem of contemporary society. On a daily basis, the national newspapers, television, radio call-in programmes and public discussion sessions broadcast an alarmist rhetoric of family crisis and predict a multitude of consequent social ills. The target is `black families' in comparison with which those of other ethnic groups, white and East Indian in particular, are assumed to be as they should --properly functioning, cohesive and stable social groups. A wide range of problems persisting throughout the human life cycle is attributed to black family failure from unwanted babies and `unmannerly' children, to delinquent youths and pregnant teenagers, to `irresponsible' men and over-burdened single-parenting mothers and female household heads, to `abandoned' elderly grandparents.

On the face of it, the available evidence appears to confirm this stereotype. A long history of macro-economic intrusion has left its mark on black families in the Caribbean. Summarised briefly here, the slave plantation system marginalised and disrupted family life for nearly two centuries from its inception in the mid- 1600s (Patterson 1957; Beckles 1989). Slave men and women alike were defined and reconstructed as units of labour to fulfil the economic demands of what was perhaps the most dehumanising of capitalist systems ever to have existed. Gendered familial roles were undermined and stable family life rendered virtually impossible by the onerous and persistent requirements of the plantation work regime. Black women, for example, were valued as field labourers and domestics, not as wives and mothers. It was only during the final years of slavery, after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 that their role as reproducers to replenish the slave labour supply was recognised and rewarded. Even then, the emphasis was on biological function and demographic contribution, not on their social mothering role. Slaves struggled to cement kinship ties and reconstruct family and community within the cracks and crevices of this hostile regime (Mintz and Price 1976), but their efforts were continuously thwarted. Marriage was forbidden and conjugal and family relationships disrupted by the sale and transfer of partners, children and other kin from one plantation to another and by the sexual liaisons and abuse of female slaves by white men.

In the post- Emancipation era after 1838, macro-economic and environmental constraints continued to militate against family life. In Barbados, the absence of land for small farm settlement denied ex-slaves the opportunity for peasant development with cohesive family units, an opportunity so eagerly grasped by their counterparts in the larger, more mountainous neighbouring countries (Marshall 1968; Barrow 1995). And as the plantation enterprise went into crisis at the end of the nineteenth century, the working class of Barbados found itself unemployed with no alternative sources of livelihood and little choice but to migrate in search of work. …

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