The Caribbean Region: An Open Frontier in Anthropological Theory
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 21: 19-42 (Volume publication date October 1992)
Michel-Rolph Trouillot
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dear, sweet Simone,

I don’t know that it makes sense, but I feel a small happiness at the thought that I was on Earth breathing at the same time that you were on Earth breathing. The small pleasures make for a deeper and more secure happiness, n’est-ce pas? I find that I miss my recently deceased friend the most during the small pleasures. Often times characters in movies speak of missing a deceased loved one during big life events like graduations or weddings or promotions, but those are the types of experiences that have the support of shared culture. The thing I miss is that my friend would have recognized the significance of little changes and little moments in my life. It’s strange how the little changes in life, the little ups and downs, are the most pervasive, but at the same time it’s harder to share the little joys and sorrows of them; we all have them, but it takes a familiarity to share in them. I found that at about the six-month mark, my grief was smaller in many ways, but more impactful. By then it was more clear that the whole world wasn’t upside down, only mine. By then others are less likely to treat you as if you’re in grief–no polite silences when you enter the room, no light brushes to the shoulder, no speaking to you in hushed tones. By then, others in your circle of acquaintances may have experienced a similar loss… which in a way makes you feel less alone, but at the same time makes your loss seem more real because others are experiencing that same loss. I think less now about the reality of my friend’s death and more about how I miss him.

I do believe that I was to say a bit more on Trouillot’s review. Staying on the subject of family structure from Monday, Trouillot writes that when R.T. Smith coined the word “matrifocality,” he did not mean female-headed, but rather he meant to underline the role of women as mothers. That word was definitely used as a cattle prod for misogyny in my little corner of Mississippi. Trouillot notes that Smith might despair at this misuse of the “notion of matrifocality.” I remember hearing as a child that the female-headed household was a major problem for black families and for black men. I believe this had a profoundly negative effect on how black men viewed black women and women generally. I saw it with my father and others. My grandmother had been married, but her husband died. And although my father maintained a respectful and admiring attitude towards his mother, I think anger at the notion that he couldn’t be quite right having grown up in a female-headed household was transferred to women generally. The same goes for non-black men who grew up in similar households.

Also, the notion that female-headed households was a problem was explicitly used to encourage submissiveness among women in more “traditional” nuclear family households. Subservience to the man in the household was necessary for the healthy development of the children present. While I think this had some measure of success in black communities, it may have impacted non-black communities even more given that there was a higher expectation of conformity to this ideal in those communities. I had a culturally diverse mix of friends growing up and I know the issue of matrifocality was discussed in various types of households.

Going back to Smith’s notion of matrifocality as a term that underlines the role of women as mothers, I see how this might be a point of focus for black families in the Americas. What must it have been like for a young black woman who had been recently freed from slavery to give birth? Certainly the specter of children born with price tags on their toes didn’t disappear overnight. Something to ponder at a later date. Also, I don’t know what the current thinking on matrifocality in black families in the Americas is among social scientists and the like.

I started on a new, paying project this week, so I didn’t get as much reading in as I had hoped. The days since Monday have been a blur. I need more of your voice in my head. Perhaps I should set a weekly minimum number of pages to read?

Your ever gracious pupil,