Fictive Kinship Relations in Black Extended Families

By Chatters, Linda M.; Taylor, Robert Joseph et al. | Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Autumn 1994 | Go to article overview

Fictive Kinship Relations in Black Extended Families

Chatters, Linda M., Taylor, Robert Joseph, Jayakody, Rukmalie, Journal of Comparative Family Studies

A growing body of research has documented the existence of extensive kin networks within African American communities (Aschenbrenner, 1973; Hill, 1972; Martin and Martin; 1978; McAdoo, 1980; Stack, 1974) and the importance of these networks as sources of informal social support (Taylor, 1988; Hatchett, Corcoran, and Jackson, 1991; Taylor and Chatters, 1991; Stack, 1974). Ethnographic research reveals that fictive kin relationships are an integral component of these networks (Anderson 1976; Aschenbrenner, 1975; Kennedy, 1980; Martin and Martin, 1978; Stack, 1974; Tatum, 1987), and indeed, extending kinship status to friend relationships is a means to expand one's social network. Persons who are designated as fictive (or pseudo- and para-) kin are unrelated by either blood or marriage, but regard one another in kinship terms (Sussman, 1976) and employ a standard cultural typology (i.e., likened to blood-ties, sociolegal or marriage ties, and parenthood) to describe these non-kin associations (Rubenstein et al., 1991). Many of the rights and statuses usually associated with kinship are accorded to participants in these relationships. As a consequence, friendships which are regarded in kinship terms undergo an intensification of the bonds of mutual obligation in what normally would be a relatively informal and casual relationship (Aschenbrenner, 1975; Stack, 1974). With the designation of fictive kin status comes both respect and responsibility and fictive kin are expected to participate in the duties of the extended family. Despite the importance of fictive kin ties in the maintenance and functioning of the extended family networks of African Americans, little is known about fictive kin generally and quantitative evidence as to the general pervasiveness of these ties is lacking.


Guttman (1976) provides one of the most indepth historical examinations of fictive kinship relations among black families. He notes that there is considerable evidence that the practice of establishing fictive kinship ties and status among African Americans pre-dates the period of slavery. Persons from various West African cultures viewed kinship as the normal idiom of social relations (Patterson, 1967; Guttman, 1976). During transport to the Americas on slave ships (Patterson, 1967) and later on plantations (Guttman, 1976), parents and other adults taught children to address older persons who were unrelated to them by either blood or marriage by the title "Aunt" or "Uncle". Guttman (1976) argues that the practice of instructing children to address all adult blacks as "aunt" or "uncle" served two important functions. First, it helped to socialize children into the slave community and, second, it acted to bind unrelated individuals to each other through reciprocal fictive kinship relations.

Kinship obligations were extended beyond customary adult-child relationships to encompass both unrelated adults and unrelated children within slave communities. These fictive kin relationships functioned to integrate adults in informal supportive networks that surpassed formal kin obligations conventionally prescribed by blood or marriage. Actual or genuine kinship bonds served as the models for affective obligations among non-kin; these responsibilities were then transferred into broader social and communal obligations. The practice of informal adoption of black children (orphaned by the sale or deaths of their parents, parental desertion, and wartime dislocation) during and after the Civil War, speaks to the salience of fictive kinship relations (Guttman, 1976:226-228). Southern whites commonly used kin terms to address slaves and this practice was patterned after black usage. Prior to 1800, there is no evidence that Southern whites used these terms, or that they used kin terms or fictive kin relations with respect to one another (Guttman, 1976). The social meaning behind the use of these kin expressions by whites in reference to blacks, however, was quite different (Guttman, 1976:217). …

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