Radical Family History

Beyond the Nuclear: The Caribbean Family

In the 1930s, low marriage rates amongst lower-class African Jamaicans attracted the attention of colonial administrators in Jamaica, and concerns were raised regarding the general disorganization of family life and the apparent increase in promiscuity. This report led to an increase in anthropological interest in family structure, particularly in the Anglophone Caribbean. Anthropologists used words such as “disintegrate”, “fractured”, “unstable” and “loose” to characterize numerous family structures such as those where parents might not be married, where women were heads of household, where mother figures were central, and where nuclearity was rejected. This misunderstanding and vilification of alternative family structures still exists, and it is this that I seek to disrupt. What models of love and support do we miss if we cling to the model of the nuclear family? Whose contributions to family life get forgotten if we use only linear family trees?

The “disorganized” family structures described by early twentieth-century European anthropologists were often matrifocal in nature. Matrifocality was a term coined in 1966 by anthropologist Raymond T. Smith in his study of working-class African-Caribbean families in British Guiana. Smith defines matrifocality as ‘a property of the internal relations of male- as well as female-headed households’ wherein ‘women in their role as mothers […] come to be the focus of relationships, rather than head of household as such’. Smith describes the centrality of women, in their roles of mothers, grandmothers, and ‘othermothers’ in the Caribbean, even in cases wherein families are nuclear. Despite this understanding, Smith still normalized and idealized the nuclear family and, like his predecessors, positioned non-nuclear family structures as non-normative and thus a problem.

Caribbean feminists have critiqued the harmful male- and Euro-centric biases that characterized this early scholarship and offered beautiful reconsiderations of matrifocality and the Caribbean family that offer new ways of understanding relatedness and kinship in the region. In her book Family in the Caribbean: Themes and Perspectives (1996), Christine Barrow rejects earlier perspectives which positioned Caribbean family structures as ‘deformed’ and ‘dysfunctional’. Instead she works towards dispelling negative attitudes and highlights the limitations of using a Eurocentric approach when analysing the Caribbean. Eurocentric perspectives on the matrifocal family often focus on the trope of the “missing man”. Because the Eurocentric construction of the matrifocality is predicated on the absence of fathers (even though matrifocal families are not necessarily single parent households), understanding of alternative forms of relatedness was restricted. The focus on and normalisation of the nuclear family, and the emphasis on men as financial providers within that nuclear family, limits understanding of the role of men within the family. What of grandfathers, uncles and older brothers within matrifocal families?

To focus on the nuclear family ignores or diminishes all other strategies of connectedness within the extended family. And of course, by focusing on missing men, early scholarship diminished the centrality, the labour and the love of women in these non-nuclear families. Writers such as Olive Senior have made sure to place women at the centre of their work, and to highlight their autonomy in the organization of the Caribbean family. Senior’s conceptualisation of the family does not focus on men, whether present, marginal, or absent. Instead, her research is based primarily on interviews with women, and she references their perspectives generously. Interviews with women in Jamaica highlight the function of friendship networks between women as both a system of care and support, and a strategy of survival.

Caribbean speculative fiction has provided many ways of re-imagining Caribbean families, matrifocalities, and connections. In her 2014 novel Nothing’s Mat Jamaican sociologist and writer Erna Brodber offers a new model for the Caribbean family; one that rejects the linear family tree and the universalization of the nuclear family. The novel’s protagonist travels to Jamaica to complete a genealogy project and decides to model her family tree (which she learns through the stories of Cousin Nothing) on a circular sisal mat. The mat is made up of several circles, with the remaining thread of the previous circle becoming the starting point of the next, thus creating a fractal pattern. To consider the Caribbean family as fractal, after a history of it being misunderstood as fractured, is a radical act. The circles of the mat allow us to rethink the very definition of family. That the mat is informed, in the first instance, by oral histories suggests that official modes of genealogical enquiry do not offer the fullest picture. Cousin Nothing tells the story of Keith, who is her ward but not a blood relative. Their histories are so closely entwined that she considers him family. But were it not for the act of storytelling, and if they had drawn upon a traditional family tree based solely on bloodlines, this relationship would have gone unmarked.

The mat is never finished – there is always a hanging thread which means there is always room for it to grow. In rejecting nuclearity for a fractal model that can always be expanded, Brodber honours the Caribbean family as one that is infinitely expansive. The circular fractal mat is best able to represent those instances of love and kinship that are often not so easily encapsulated in the linearity of the standard family tree. The novel offers a number of representations of matrifocality within the protagonist’s family, and by using the fractal mat as inspiration for her alternative family tree, Brodber positions matrifocality as being an integral element of Caribbean genealogy. In the novel, matrifocality is the seed of the family, a repeating pattern that reiterates those expansive networks of love within Caribbean communities and facilitates the possibility of a family that continues to grow infinitely.

Leighan and her Grandma, Carriacou, 2013

My own mother was born on the tiny Caribbean island of Carriacou, a sister island of Grenada, with a population of 6000. Whenever I visit, I take the opportunity to sit with my grandmother (now 94 years old) and to collect family histories. We have traced her maternal lineage back to her great-grandmother, who was born into slavery. Given major gaps in the archives, hers is a history that would be difficult to trace through archival documentation, and so my grandmother’s stories are a gift.

Ours is a very big family, and it is clear that the traditional family tree wouldn’t do it justice. There are instances of biological aunts mothering their nieces and nephews; of cousins who grew up as close as brother and sister; of best friends as close as siblings. As Grandma explains these relationships, she tells stories about these people, and they come to life. The rigid lines of the standard family tree cannot encapsulate these important connections. So as I consider my own matrifocal family I consider Brodber’s circular, fractal mat; I consider the construction of the mat as being primarily informed by the stories of women; I consider how expansive the family can be, and how important it is to honour these non-nuclear networks of love.

Family is an institution, and as with many other institutions that we encounter daily, the need to decolonize our understanding of it has become increasingly urgent. An understanding of Caribbean matrifocality, and a reconsideration of how me might map the family, encourages us to think more critically about the normalization of nuclear families and its connections to patriarchal ideology, whilst also engaging with more expansive definitions of family and relatedness.


  1. A wonderfully presented article Doctor Renaud. Very moving; I am deeply proud of you.

  2. A compelling insight into the ‘disfunction’ of the post slavery Caribbean family structure, its complexities, its resilience, how it has evolved, and does not conform to eurosentric colonial ideals.

    Thank you,
    Dr. Leighan Renaud PhD

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