In numerous instances relating to francophone literature, the displaced African woman is often depicted as a strong, independent, and resourceful individual. Contrary to western depictions of the role females were to play during that time period, many African women endured such things as hard labor and an increased sense of responsibility about the household. Though the man is still one to play the dominant role in the majority of situations, women were not known to be overly submissive, but instead raised themselves to a level nearly equivalent to that of their male counterparts. In a similar vein, grandparents, and specifically grandmothers who evolved from their prior status as strong and independent, are also portrayed as caring yet resilient people in various pieces of Caribbean literature. Despite not being better represented among major African authors, grandparents are nonetheless pivotal characters of noteworthy contribution. Grandparents play a number of functions in the African community; most notable are the three primary roles of imparting values and cultural relevancies onto children, being a consistent and reliable fixture for the family, and taking on the responsibility of nurturing children; acting as an emotional, physical, and intellectual anchor for those in need.
The instilling of morals and values into the children of a specific community is a crucial step in the preservation of a culture. Without the transmission of this information between generations, cultural principles and ideals become vague and the community’s sense of identity grows to be equally indistinct. This important role of acting as a preserver of values was often placed upon the child’s grandmother. The reason being that in African culture “grandparents were honored because it was believed that they were the closest to the ancestors … [who] assumed revered status” (The Grandmother in African and African American Literature, Hill-Lubin, 259). So essentially, it was the grandmothers who most closely emulated the highly esteemed ancestors. We see this conveying of moral standards a lot in the texts covered in class, most notably in The Butterfly in the Inner City. In the story, the reader can find that Felicie’s grandmother, usually referred to as Man Ya, regularly exercises her influence over Fefe; communicating a number of cultural values to her in the process. There are a couple of prime examples as to how the transmission of said values are communicated that are found within the text, one being Man Julia’s strict set of rules put in place for her granddaughter. Even when just going out with her best friend Laurine for a short while, “She always has one thousand rules to list before I go.
‘Don’t go to strangers’ houses! Don’t play with boys who look up girl’ skirts! Do you understand? Don’t go too far…’” (The Butterfly in the Inner City, Pineau and Rudolph, 10-11). Man Ya repeatedly stresses safety and order while also giving practical advice to Felicie, simultaneously conveying ideals to her. In another example we also see Man Ya’s tremendous value she places on education. In the first chapter of the book, Felicie speaks of her grandmother having her recite homework upon completion and the notion of schooling is mentioned multiple times throughout. Despite being illiterate, Man Ya is still able to express this key value. Towards the end of the chapter when Felicie was preparing to finally leave, we again see the stress Man Ya puts on education when she says to “Forget your miserable life with me, but never forget the good education you received here.” (The Butterfly in the Inner City, Pineau and Rudolph, 15). The fact that the last thing that meant anything to Madam Julia was being stripped away from her yet her granddaughter’s education was still what was foremost on her mind shows the true worth she places on receiving a proper schooling. In another instance, this time utilizing the film Sugarcane Alley, the infusing of cultural ideals is also prevalent. In the movie, Jose proceeds as a malleable young boy who is infatuated with an old man names Medouze. Medouze in effect plays the role of the boys grandfather because of the constant presence in Jose’s life and in doing so, also takes on the role of imparting culturally relevant morals and values. One of the main ways this is done is through the art of storytelling, which serves the huge burden of conveying ideals and morals in African tradition.
By Medouze taking Jose under his wing, quizzing him with riddles and answering all of his questions, there is an obvious imparting of cultural standards, which is the role of the grandparent. On the flipside, there is the grandmother who also does her bit in leaving a cultural impression on her grandson. Among other things, and mostly done through action rather than speech, Jose’s grandmother imparted such values as pride in ones heritage, hard work, and education to him. Instances such as the one when she made certain to Jose that the money for his schooling would be available despite being financially broke reinforce the grandmother’s stress on receiving a good education and is one of the many examples showed in the film portrayed her communicating basic cultural principles. In The Grandparent in African and African-American Literature, Hill-Lubin says that, “Most [grandparents] were determined to endow their families with values and ideals which would enhance their lives and provide them with the essentials for survival, growth and development.” (266). This statement is most definitely backed by the preceding examples that allude to the same level of determination amongst grandparents to provide for their kin.
Another function of the grandparent that is apparent in Caribbean texts is that of maintaining consistency and reliability, especially in the child’s life. The concept of dependability by a grandparent was addressed in the book Annie John. For the first six chapters, not even a hint was made at the grandmother’s existence, but as soon as she was needed and called upon, Annie’s grandmother was there; able to nurse her very sick granddaughter back to health. The near miraculous results attained by her grandmother are even more impressive in light of the reality that a different obeah woman tried to treat Annie and yielded very little to no results. This further emphasizes the strong bond of that between a child and her grandmother. Likewise, in Butterfly in the Inner City, Felicie also forms a strong emotional bond with her grandmother. Man Ya also assumes roles relating to consistency and reliability in that she is the sole guardian and provider for Felicie up until the age of ten. In that respect, not only is she a consistent presence in her granddaughter’s life, but she also proved reliable when Felicie’s mother left them and took on the burden of raising another child. Even after Fefe was taken away to France, Man Ya remained a constant figure in her granddaughter’s thoughts and dreams. These reoccurring themes of permanence and consistency are inherent in grandparents considering their ages which usually hint at longevity, facilitating the execution of such a role as remaining consistent and dependable. Just as precisely stated by Mildred A. Hill-Lubin, “Certainly, the African family has suffered tremendously under the burden of slavery and colonialism but it has also persevered. One of the major strengths in its survival has been the survival of the grandmother” (The Grandmother in African and African American Literature, Hill-Lubin, 268)
In the tempest of faulty and botched relationships that is community, the grandparents also tend to act as the emotional, intellectual, and even physical anchor within said communities. Because of their dependability and permanence that was examined in the previous paragraph, grandparents act as an ideal nurturer for children who without a consistent presence in their lives would have simply been caught up in the storm. The theme of nurturing and cultivation is widely ubiquitous throughout a majority of the texts covered in class. One of the more prevalent cases was found in the novel Annie John where Annie’s grandmother nursed her back to health after a long fit of illness. During this time, Annie was transitioning from her child-like caterpillar stage to becoming her own individual and had encountered the necessary cocoon that was her sickness before she emerged a dazzling butterfly. While Annie is beginning down the road to recovery, the reader discovers that her grandmother suffered a terrible loss earlier in life. Her son, Johnnie, died as a direct result of lack of obeah treatment in favor of western medicine. This plus the void left in Annie’s life as a result of her separation from her mother eventually culminate to Ma Chess becoming a nurturing figure to Annie in her time of need. The idea of maternity is further advanced through latent imagery of a child in a mother’s womb.
“I would lie on my side, curled up like a little comma, and Ma Chess would lie next to me, curled up like a bigger comma, into which I fit.” (Annie John, Kincaid, 126). The grandparents nurturing role is also prevalent in other texts, such as Butterfly in the Inner City, where Madam Julia raises her granddaughter on her own for ten years. There were instances in the text where Man Ya would “[fall] asleep … her arms laced tightly around [Felicie] in an inescapable karate hold” (Pineau and Rudolph, 10). While this doesn’t necessarily conjure up the most nurturing of images, it does convey to a degree the sense of love and care Man Ya feels for her granddaughter. In addition to this, there are several occasions in the text where Felicie professes her knowledge of Man Ya’s abundance of love for her, saying things like “I think she loves me even more than she says.” (11). A third and final example of the fostering nature of grandmothers in particular come from the previously mentioned film Sugar Cane Alley. From the beginning to the end of the movie, it seemed as if Jose’s grandmother never stopped working to provide for him except for the occasional pipe of tobacco. She worked long and arduous hours while making her best attempts at making sure her grandson never went hungry. Towards the middle of the movie, it becomes apparent that his grandmother has fallen very ill. What is remarkable is the fact that even in during the worst of her symptoms, she proceeds to place Jose’s imaginary hunger over her own well-being. These consistent acts of utter selflessness mirror a heart of a nurturing grandmother.
Grandparents tend to be important and respected figures in most families, what differentiates between them are the responsibilities they take on as a grandparent. As one observes different cultures, it is apparent that roles played by the grandparents of Caribbean literature stemming from African descent are of a different variety. They sharply contrast the images of frail and defenseless old women commonly portrayed in western media, instead playing critical roles within the community. Functions such as instilling the values of a culture, being a consistent and reliable presence, and nurturing the youth in times of parental absence, they fulfill duties of immense significance and should thus not only be respected, but also celebrated.
* Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
* Butterfly in the Inner City by G. Pineau and K.L Rudolph * The Grandmother in African and African American Literature: A Survivor of the African Extended Family by Mildred A. Hill-Lubin * Sugar Cane Alley / Rue Cases-Negres (film)