Sociology – Caribbean Families

There are various types of Caribbean family forms. The emergence of the different family types was largely due to historical influences that shape Caribbean civilization; such as racial diversity, ethnicity, social class, African cultural retention, legacy of Plantation slavery, and culture of poverty (Herskovits, Lewis, Clarke, Smith). Caribbean society has grown into an international mixture of different races and ethnic groups that construct their reality in the Caribbean. This mixture has resulted in a unique social system which can be describes as plural, polarized, politicized, problematic, but still some what plantation society.

Smith (1962a: 244) states the most important for an understanding of the functioning of these systems being (1) a mating system characterized by marriage and consensual unions, and (2) households headed by persons of either sex. Each of these attributes, which are characterized by two dimensions, can differ quantitatively from community to community. For example, in some communities the percentage of consensual unions is high, in other communities it is low; or, to select the other attribute, the percentage of female household heads is high in some communities and low in others.

Theorists such as Melville Herskovits (1958) credit African cultural retention and some of the social institutions and social dynamics of the African societies for certain types of Caribbean family forms. He noted that: It goes without saying that the plantation system rendered the survival of African family types impossible, as it did their underlying moral and supernatural sanctions, except in dilute forms.

Only where negroes escaped soon after the beginning of their enslavement, and retained their freedom for sufficiently long periods, could institutions of larger scope such as the extended family or the clan persist at all; and even in these situations the mere break-up in personnel made it unlikely that some manifestation of European influence should not be felt…Yet, on the other hand, slavery by no means completely suppressed rough approximations of certain forms of African family life.

Even in the United States, where Africanisms persisted with greatest difficulty, such family organization as existed during slave times in terms of the relationship between parents and children, and between parents themselves, did not lack African sanctions…. Certain obligations of parents to children operative in Africa no less than the European scene, were carried over with all the drives of their emotional content intact. (p. 139) African cultural retention, as put forward by Herskovits, though modified could be seen in Caribbean family forms.

For example, “the African custom of polygamy was transformed into „progressive monogamy? , that is multiple successive relationships instead of simultaneous unions. This argument was rebuffed by Franklin Frazier who stated that African culture was destroyed upon arrival on plantations. For him the family structures that emerged were a result of their life on the plantations and their inability to accurately imitate their slave owners.

Frazier goes on to show that the polygamy that was practiced in African society was institutionalized. The father in each polygamous unit was committed to all his wives and children and they generally lived in the same location. This is different from the family unit based on visiting union in which the fathers were very marginal to each family unit, and the units were sometimes spread over wide geographical areas.

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