I and I Identify with my Grandmother
By Alicia Wedderburn
On the surface my grandmother lived a very typical life for people of her generation. Our family is Jamaican, and she grew up in the period of early decolonization, where Jamaica was gaining its independence from Great Britain, its former colonial occupier (Haughton, 2014). She was an obedient daughter, responsible older sibling, caring mother, doting grandmother and most important to her, a devout God-fearing Christian. Many aspects of my granny’s life mirror my own and are consistent with the theories of adolescent development and social transitions outlined in Steinbeck’s book, Adolescence (2017).
What Steinbeck and most of the other adolescent identity development theorists of Western psychology leave out is the social context in which these stages of identity development take place. British colonialism was a patriarchal power, and my grandmother lived under a patriarchal system in her family of origin.
“During colonialism, Jamaica had to blindly ingest the unsavory meals served up by colonial powers. They took our harvest and gave us slaves to create more harvest. It is true,
I and I build a cabin,
I and I plant the corn.
Now you look me with a scorn
then you eat up all my corn’.” (Haughton).
Indeed, under the “rule” of my grandfather and his father, my grandmother had to “blindly ingest” a gender identity of servitude to the family and to male prerogatives.
The main difference between my experience of very similar identity development stages to those of my grandmother was our ages. Her story begins at a significantly younger age (Steinbeck, 2017).
My paternal grandmother, Albertha Clarke was born on December 23rd, 1919 in the rural town of Tweedside, Clarendon in Jamaica. She went to school until the third grade, old enough to help her parents by working on the very small family farm and taking goods to market. She executed that important milestone that signals the end of adolescence, leaving her parents’ home to start her own family, at what we would today consider a very young age (Steinbeck, 2017).
Well before Jamaicans had garnered enough political strength to expel British rule from the nation, my grandmother began to break with the male supremacist set up: She left home at age 13. She had her first child at 16, and became a “teenage mom” by today’s standard, but at that age she was very much an adult in a committed common law marriage. My granny was not officially wedded due to financial and regional constraints. Municipal offices were located in the city, nowhere near the rural area where she lived. The cost associated with being “married” just didn’t make practical sense, especially when it did not make much of a difference in terms of how they lived, or by the rights afforded to her. In other words, as a woman in the 1930’s she didn’t have any legal say in any of this. She was subject to the say of the men in her life.
From the perspective of identity development, this circumstance, this condition, cannot be fully understood without placing a microscope on the social era. As Manuelita explains, the indigenous peoples of West Africa, from whence England and Spain stole my ancestors, lived in a horizontal, woman-centric social arrangement before the European invasion and institution of the slave trade. The indigenous peoples of the Island of Jamaica were equally matriarchal with a horizontal social structure (no ruling and oppressed social classes) previous to the invasion of the British and Spanish. It was British and Spanish imperialism which introduced, through brute force, murder and genocide, patriarchy — that is, the rule of men:
“In contrast to dominant modes of feminist critique that locate women’s oppression in the structures of patriarchy, the project of decolonization begins with the understanding that the collective oppression of indigenous women results primarily from colonization — a multidimensional force underwritten by Western Christianity, defined by white supremacy, and fueled by global capitalism” (p177).
It is in this context that “faith,” Christianity, was something that was established at a very early age, and it influenced much of my grandmother’s decisions and choices as an adolescent and as an adult. These included decisions related to peer group choices, family norms and child rearing. All of her social activities revolved around the church, she literally went to church every day, and twice on Sundays. She also made sure to drag all of her children (and later her grandchildren) along with her.
In contrast, having been compelled to go to church so much as a child, as soon as I was old enough to make the decision about my own faith and religion, I chose not to subscribe to any religion. Today, I understand that the national liberation movements and women’s liberation movements influenced this break from a Christianity which was decidedly white-and-male supremacist in its influence on how I was being told to live.
Much to my granny’s dismay, I chose to no longer attend church. I was always very close to my grandmother, so she gave me the space to explore and “find my own way”. She was confident that I would “end up on the right path eventually”. From a social context perspective, since my grandmother left school in the third grade to work the family farm, this meant that she was more influenced by her parents/family, and less so by her peer group (Steinbeck, 2017). In contrast, I had emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal transitions where I challenged and questioned ideologies and perspectives to which my grandmother was subject, particularly religion and the patriarchy it promoted (Thame, 2014). Another difference, when comparing our social transitions, has to do with education. My grandmother dropped out of school when she was eight-years-old to help her family. I didn’t have to drop out of school, but, similar to my grandmother, I started working to help my family financially when I was fourteen years old. I, however, made the transition out of the family home at a similar age, seventeen, to attend college. Granny did not have this same opportunity. She left to start her own family.
Where my grandmother (and my own mother) both had their first child at the age of sixteen, I delayed having children until I was thirty-one-years-old. My decision to wait this long was based primarily on the experiences of both my mother and grandmother, who both had a very large family (ten and twelve children respectively), and struggled financially to take care of them. Again, as part of the patriarchy which our people inherited from British rule, the men were not able to support the family due to semi-slavery conditions of employment imposed by the colonial power, and, concomitantly, as men they were not “responsible” to raise the family — the women had to do it alone (Thame). I knew I didn’t want those same struggles, so I pursued education. Some might argue that this decision prolonged my transition into adulthood (Steinbeck, 2017).
In reality, my transition into adulthood and living independently from my parents started for me at age seventeen. I attended undergraduate school, but my family could not afford the tuition so the decision was made that if I wanted to attend college, I would have to pay for it on my own. I worked full-time for the entire four years I attended college and later during graduate school. I maintained my own apartment starting sophomore year in college, because it was cheaper than the annual cost of room and board. Therefore, by the time I made the decision to have a family, I was well educated, had my own career, and was extremely independent. So much so, that when it was time to make a decision about getting married, I chose not to. Looking back, each of these decisions were influenced by the looming presence of Womanism and the women’s rights movements of the present period, as exemplified for me by the daunting spirit of my grandmother (Amaduime, 1995).
Womanist consciousness influenced how I appropriated the experience of my grandmother who had nine children with the same man and never married him. What I found from speaking with my grandmother over the years about her life growing up, was that she was a trailblazer, and very much a woman ahead of her time. She accomplished a lot in her life with a third grade education and with having only read one book in her entire life. (She claims to have read 66 books, not one). She revealed to me once that not getting married was more of an intentional decision on her part, rather than just a mere happenstance. Her common law husband and father of her nine children was extremely abusive. She did what women in her time didn’t do: she stayed single and when her kids were old enough, she made her move, leaving everything she knew in rural Tweedside behind. She ventured to the city of Kingston all on her own to make a new life for herself.
If she had not taken that risk, I would literally not be here today. My grandmother gave birth to my father and two other children after leaving that life-threatening situation which would surely have resulted in an early grave. Instead, my granny lived to be 98 years old, raised twelve children, and over 100 grand and great-grandchildren. I live my life to honor her and her example.
Amaduime, Ifi. (1995). African Matriarchal Foundations. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Red Sea Press.
Haughton, Maurice. (2014). “Colonialism and neocolonialism in Jamaica.” Jamaica Observer. http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/columns/Colonialism-and-neocolonialism-in-Jamaica-_15717745
Manuelita, Kathryn. (2006). “Womanism and Indigenism: Identities and Experiences.” Works andDays, 47/48, vol. 24. Nos. 1 & 2.
Steinberg, L. (2017). Adolescence (11th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw Hill Education
Thame, Maziki and Dhanaraj Thakur. (2014). “The patriarchal state and the development ofgender policy in Jamaica.” Institute for Gender and Development Studies. https://idl-bnc-idrc.dspacedirect.org/bitstream/handle/10625/53631/IDL-53631.pdf