DON’T MESS UP THE ROUX
Close your eyes and smell the toasty aromatic scent
of wheat flour and oil (lard for some, butter for others)
under a closely watched fire.
Water merged just before blackening;
not a second too late of browning.
Joined by the trinity of seasonings.
Smell it simmering, the piquant sassafras
grounded into olive mounds of filé.
But watch the fire, least you burn the roux.
Roux is the hard strength and softness of the Grand Mother, the earthy foundation on which the other ingredients of the gumbo family rest. Loyal to her ingredients, she allows them individually to shine and retain their unique flavors in order to delight palates.
But the roux is in trouble now. Undercooked, the roux lacks the rich earthy, dark brown color with a wonderful smoky flavor, or overcooked, like burnt toast. Grandmother faces the threat of burning as need of her is stronger than ever. She is forced to play a new role in the African American family of today. It’s a greater role than the traditional one she has held, and that may be a problem for her and us. Don’t mess up the roux.
It’s tradition that Grandmother fulfills her vaulted position. It is not one she accepts lightly, for it takes patience to make a roux. Ever since slavery, she is known to have prepared the children by feeding them oral histories along with survival strategies: bitter truths – like sassafras from which filé is made – had to be learned in order to triumph over racism and other injustices common to living in America. Grandmothers grace their families with indomitable spirit, entrusting each generation to hand off her legacy of determination for continued survival in the gumbo of the world.
Even though Lorraine Hansberry’s play, “Raisin In the Sun” introduced black life in 1959, featuring family matriarch Mama Lena Younger, the strengths of the African American family have not been sufficiently researched. One small study of seventeen African American grandmothers, however, reveals the strengths of grandmothers’ parenting of grandchildren. Like any of the varieties of gumbo, the findings show that the Grand Mother is a strong advocate for education, an effective communicator, provides socioemotional support, involves the extended family, acknowledges and works with familial weaknesses, and “recognizes the children’s feelings in the absence of the biological parent(s)” (Gibson, 2006).
It’s known that fear of the proliferation of the “nuclear family” would slowly but surely vanquish the role grandparents existed. Nothing is more frightening than being excluded, particularly when traditionally, your presence is expected, even welcomed. Like the trinity of the gumbo – onion, celery and bell pepper –Grandmothers help support the family economically, protect children from parental tendency to punish socially, and culturally, make sense of the past and encourage hope for the future. The teachers and transmitters of cultures’ culture, traditionally, grandmothers have been as vital as the roux of a gumbo. If it weren’t for the roux, there would be no gumbo. Don’t mess up the roux!
Like the meats of the gumbo, be they seafood, beef, pork, or fowl, “Grandmothers are a source of information, wisdom and comfort” . . . and “a source of inspiration for many in the family (Malawi Medical Journal, 2007). She is the Grand Mother heralded in Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands.” From this genuine heroine who “clapped in church on Sunday mornings,” we get a religious example, a cultural legacy in “played a tambourine so well,” a protector who “used to issue out a warning,” and a teacher of social responsibility in “soothed the local unwed mother.” What Grandmothers have done traditionally is set standards and goals for their grandchildren. The value of Grandmothers is further seen in “Extended Family Relations and Social Support Networks” (http://social.jrank.org) where it is reported by both African American and Latino adolescent mothers that they have “fewer psychological problems, more positive interactions with their babies, and higher levels of educational attainment.”
Nevertheless, the need for extended family, especially the Grandmother and Great Grandmother should be tempered by a shared responsibility. In the article, “Grandmother Roles: ‘First Grandma,” M. Spencer Green writes, “While grandparents are really the only truly ‘professional parents’ around, great-grandparents should be truly and respectably retired from the tasks.” Instead, what even Grandmothers face today is far different from the reciprocal value of close kin relationships.
According to the US Census Bureau, 2011, 2.6 million grandparents are responsible for raising their grandchildren. Since the 1990s, we have seen an increase in the number of children – from four million in 2000 to more than six million in 2008 – that live in homes maintained by a grandparent. While Hispanic grandmothers share in this disproportionate higher rate, “African American grandmothers are more likely to be grandparent caregivers than grandmothers of other races” (Ruiz, 2004). Drug use, teen pregnancy, abuse and neglect, divorce, and incarceration paint ugly pictures of crises in the African American family, which have resulted in more grandmothers assuming the role of caregivers. Not to be left out, AIDS has also impacted the parental role grandmothers have assumed.
The roux is disturbed, on the way to ruin. Because of age, employment opportunities hinder the traditional grandmother needed, which in addition, negatively impacts her new financial responsibility. She experiences considerable stress. Some even neglect their own social, emotional and physical needs (Ruiz, 2004). It is an unfortunate, yet very real phenomenon that the mothers who should be in celebration of their grand years, instead suffer more stress and health issues because of the increased and unfair dependence on them. Don’t mess up the roux.
Revered and respected for their wisdom and experience since slavery, Grandmothers have no choice but to redefine their roles in this 21st century. New age Grandmothers populate the familial landscape, further putting our future families in precarious hands. We can glorify the traditional Grandmother, the strength of her awash in bravery and courage, keeping our memories alive with the pungent determination of bay leaves. We can do this. But we run the risk of creating mythical histories if we fail to find solutions to the problems we – our old and our young alike – face.
A burnt roux can’t be fixed. The process must be re-started. Our GrandMothers can’t and shouldn’t have to continue shouldering the burden of the African American family.
Please, don’t mess up the roux.
This essay was written to accompany a traveling art exhibit by the same name and featuring the art of some of Houston’s most gifted sister artists.
Gibson, Priscilla, “The Parenting Strengths of African American Grandmother Caregivers.” http://www.sswr.org/ Society for Social Work and Research. January 2006
Green, Spencer, “Grandmother Roles: ‘First Grandma’,” available at http://www.momtograndma.com/grandmother-roles-first-grandma
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Jonasi, S., What is the role of a Grandmother in Malawian society and how can we as health workers support her? Melawi Medical Journal, 19(3): 126-127, September 2007
Okra, or “Gumbo,” from Africa available at http:// aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/archives/parsons/publications/vegetabletravelers/okra.html, last visited March 14, 2011.
Ruiz, Dorothy S., Zhu, C. W., “Familes Maintained by African American Grandmothers: Household Composition and Childcare Experiences.” Western Journal of Black Studies, 415-423, Fall, 2004
Some Key Ingredients for Louisiana Cusine, available at www.gumbopages.com/food/ingred.html, last visited March 14, 2011.
Withers, Bill. (Songwriter/Singer). 1972. Grandma’s Hands (lyrics). United States. Columbia Records.
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