'They've Been Invisible': Seattle Professor Studies Role of Black Grandmothers in Society; Tribune News Service

The Florida Times Union, February 11, 2018 | Go to article overview

'They've Been Invisible': Seattle Professor Studies Role of Black Grandmothers in Society; Tribune News Service


Madea? Big Momma? Please.

Those movie characters may have made comical, cultural icons of black grandmothers, but they don't do them justice. They're not even played by actual women.

"If that's what you're getting, you're missing what a lot of these women bring to bear on their families and communities," said LaShawnDa Pittman, an assistant professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington.

"We shouldn't be talking about the black experience without talking about black grandmothers."

Pittman did her doctoral dissertation on black grandmothers: Their health. Their income issues. Their place in society as a stabilizing, nurturing safety net for families that, without them, might very well fall apart.

"Friends started telling me their stories," she said, "and I became this grandmother repository. And I thought, This is a thing.' "

Pittman has turned the stories into a website called RealBlackGrandmothers.com.

The site is a place where people can post testimonials about their grandmothers, and archive the experiences of the women "who have played such an important, and unsung role in American society," Pittman said.

During Black History Month, the site will feature testimonials from 20 people whom Pittman considers "influential leaders" including Naima Mora from "America's Next Top Model" and Seattle chef Edouardo Jordan.

"We are relying on these women more and more, and their representation online is not representative of their role in the world."

It is a role they serve with less money and more health problems than the general population.

Consider: Around 7.6 percent of black women have heart disease, compared to 5.8 percent of white women and 5.6 percent of Mexican American women.

In 2016, around 46 of every 100,000 black women died from strokes, compared to 35 of every 100,000 white women.

They have a higher rate of diabetes, for developing breast cancer, and are more likely to die from cancer than white women.

If that isn't enough, Pittman said, "they're more likely to be poor."

Black women have high labor-participation rates. They start working younger and work longer, often as domestic and agricultural workers who, historically, did not receive Social Security benefits through their work.

And, according to an analysis by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, black women who work full-time and year-round earn 64 cents on the dollar compared with white men, the largest group in the labor force. Black women also experience high unemployment "and are overrepresented in jobs with little job security, few benefits and limited opportunity for advancement," the IWPR said.

This continues into old age, when black women are even more vulnerable economically and tend to assume greater caregiving responsibilities.

"So they're doing more with less, and with impaired health," Pittman said.

All this, while bearing witness to some of the biggest problems society has faced: Drug abuse. Racism. Mass incarceration.

"People love to focus on the problems of the family," Pittman said. "But those problems didn't create themselves. They're born of the racism in this country. …

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