A Big Extended Family

The question about family is very important to me. I grew up in a community and culture as an African American that has defined family very broadly for a very long time. I grew up with "aunts" and "uncles" and "cousins" that were not blood relatives but were long standing family friends who knew us and our challenges and were invested in our successes as much as, if not more than those who were related by blood. Geography also played a role, I think, as my mom's family was part of that generation of Black southeners who migrated to the North during the mid-20th century. So, much of the blood family was still in South Carolina and maintaining close family relationships was difficult. Consequently, friends who were geographically close enough to be a part of our daily lives became handy stand-ins for family.

As I've grown older, I've replicated these same "fictive kinships" in my own life. I have two biological sisters and no brothers, but nearly a dozen plus "sisters" and "brothers" who I have adopted into my family and who have adopted me into theirs. These people are "aunt so-and-so" and "uncle so-and-so" to my daughter. I have students with whom I have developed such close relationships that they call me "mom" and I refer to them as my "sons" and "daughters." Again, much of this is driven by geography and the distance at which I live from my biological family. My mother lives in Atlanta and I in Ohio; my sisters are in Georgia and North Carolina. I crave family ties though and so I've learned to do as my mother did and create family wherever I am.

Another piece to this though is also about identity. As a queer woman, I have found "mothers" and "cousins" and "siblings" and other extended family who have been vital in socializing me into the queer community. It's not uncommon to hear queer folks reference other queers as "family" as a sign of the need to function as families hopefully do at their best - places of refuge, security, healing, and challenge.

There's a saying that you can't pick your family. Well, sometimes you need to, you must pick your family, in order to have a place of rest and somewhere to go where people already know who you are and love you for that, foibles and glory included.

Dafina Lazarus Stewart, PhD is associate professor of higher education and student affairs at Bowling Green State University. Dafina spends her life educating for social change through her teaching, writing, and ever expanding family network.