Amber Burns has a mother, but this Mother’s Day she’ll be extending appreciation to Sheilah Strong — her mother’s best friend. Burns is one of many black people who, in addition to biological mothers, have aunts, grandaunts, or other women who have played a hand in their upbringing.
Burns, 25, maintains a special relationship with her “Aunt” Sheilah, because of their strong bonds during her turbulent teenage years. Burns believes that other motherlike figures helped her to fill the space where her own mother may have fallen short.
“I can honestly say that even if I didn’t have a relationship with my mom, I never felt like I was lacking motherhood in my life, because I always had [Aunt Sheilah] and women in my church who would take me under their wings and nurture me,” Burns said. “[Aunt Sheilah] has been in my life since the day I was born. When I was in college and had $3 in my bank account, she was the person I called, because I knew that she would be there for me.”
For many in the black community, motherhood extends far beyond the nuclear family and biological ties. Black “aunts” are often the backbone of their community, especially in the context of social values and responsibilities. However, there’s no specific call for appreciation for these women.
“We come out of a tradition where we expand the family system well beyond blood relatives,” said Chad Lassiter, president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work Inc. “So that’s where you get the Aunt René or the Aunt Keisha, when in fact, she may just be your mother’s choir mate or your mother’s best friend. They become an unofficial aunt, but officially, they’re an extension of the family.”
The black aunt walks the precipice of being a friend and elder. She’s typically less strict than a parent, but there’s more formality in the relationship. Philadelphia psychologist Clara Whaley Perkins, president of the Life After Trauma Organization, describes the black aunt as a “stabilizing force in the black family.”
“This idea of the African American community as an extended family is not new,” explains anthropologist Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon. “There have been the aunties, or the grandmothers, or the neighbor-friend, or godmothers who have always lent a hand when the biological mother couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t have the capacity to do what was needed by themselves.”
As the black community evolved from the enslavement period to the Jim Crow era to the civil rights movement to #BlackLivesMatter, the archetype of the black aunt has not only endured but thrived.
Williams-Witherspoon points to Philly native and sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, distinguished university professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, who coined the word othermothers, which describes black women who took on the responsibility to keep the infrastructure of the family unit intact through honesty, discretion, and discipline. Though other cultures and communities may have a similar concept of “othermothers,” the black aunt fills a very specific emotional and spiritual need in the black tradition.
“I think the nuclear family means something very different in other cultures. And in that respect — the chastisement, the punishment, the loving, the caregiving — is often just for the nuclear family,” Williams-Witherspoon said. “Maybe it’s because of the village concept that’s so much a part of most African cultures. So when we were forcibly brought to this country during enslavement, we brought that ethos with us. Because other cultures haven’t experienced a similar kind of forced enslavement and then genocide, that may be why they haven’t developed that component.”
When Brian Foster’s aunt Josephine Morgan, or Aunt Phine, disciplined Foster, now 25, she would take away his video games and his TV. “But she would leave the radio, because she knew how much I was connected to music,” Foster said.
She was always attuned to his musical interests, introducing him to George Clinton, Michael Jackson, Salt-N-Pepa, Adina Howard, Patrice Rushin, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Foster is now a DJ.
Aunt Phine assumed custody of Foster and his younger sister when he was 2. He recalls having many “long talks” with his aunt about the importance of responsibility for himself and his community. Foster attributes his strong sense of character and respect for elders to his Aunt Phine.
In the African American custom, black aunts usually emerge in middle age, once they’ve proven their value to the family. By then, they’ve established enough trust with their community that a higher level of respect is warranted.
Abington Friends School teacher Beverly Weems, 65, is considered an aunt by many people in her community, blood-related and others. Weems feels “honored” when people herald her as “Aunt Bev.”
“With [being called Aunt Bev], there’s a feeling of trust. I know they trust me to do right by them. They trust me to take care of them and to be fair. It’s an honor to be included as an extension of their family,” she said. “I come from a mentality of it takes a village to raise a child. So as many people as the parents can trust, the better.”
Aside from trust, the most important components of being an aunt are love and respect, according to Weems, who has three children of her own. She helps those who look up to her “acknowledge their part” in complications. Weems said she learned how to be nurturing without knowing it because she cared for her nieces and nephews at an early age.
Whaley Perkins explains this process as “grooming.”
“Mothers know, early on, who is capable of taking care of children, and taking care of them when they get older. So they automatically begin to groom them for that position. So as they come of age, they already understand their responsibility to the family and to the community. Mothers are able to spot the next auntie, very early on.”
Lassiter’s aunt is Harriet Jackson, or “Aunt Peaches,” his mother’s best friend. Lassiter can recall times when his Aunt Peaches has prayed for him and encouraged him during his studies at Johnson C. Smith University and the University of Pennsylvania.
“Aunt Peaches is accomplished by having three kids of her own. But she’s helped me understand my position in the world, in addition to my mom,” Lassiter said. “She’s done this at times when I may not have loved myself as a young kid — growing up with big eyes, big lips, and dark skin. Aunt Peaches always assured me that I was somebody.”
Traditionally, adding “Aunt” in front of a black woman’s name is seen as one of the highest forms of respect that can be attributed.
“We’ve begun to call [U.S. Rep] Maxine Waters ‘Aunt Maxine,’ ” Lassiter continues. “In that context, that means that she’s going to speak truth to power. She’s going to fight against white supremacy. Not only do we have Aunt Maxine. We have Aunt Angela Davis. We have Aunt Maya [Angelou]. The black aunt sticks to. She gets with. She watches over. She stands in truth. She tells an unbridled truth. She’s not going to hold back. She should be held in the same high regard as the [biological] mother.”