Tuesday, April 20, 2021

My Family's Experiences With "Aunties" And "Play Cousins"

Renee Powell, Sept. 25, 2016

This is a lip synch battle social event that was held at the home of Cousin Nay, one of my granddaughter Jaiya's "real cousins". One of Jaiya's "real" grandfathers, Wade H. Powell, Jaiya's mother Tazi, me, and three of her "real" Cousins on her father's side ("Cousin Stell", "Cousin Nay", and Cousin Mar") were at that event along with a number of younger cousins,  including one of her little cousins who wanted to dance with her.

Click for a 2016 pancocojams post "Almost Three Year Old Jaiya Lip Syncing Two R&B Songs".

Also, click for the closely related pancocojams post entitled "2014 Article Excerpt About "Play Cousins" : Why Do Black People Have So Many Cousins?" 

Written by Azizi Powell

[Latest revision: April 21, 2021] 

I'm an African American women who was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey in 1947. I lived there until I went away to college in 1965. I then moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1969 and have lived there ever since.

I've never had any play cousins, play aunts, or play uncles. I had a number of "real" cousins, "real" Aunts, and "real" Uncles. My siblings and I (and our children) called our mother's only sister "Auntie" and her children (and their children) did the same thing. Other than my mother's sister, we've never called anyone else "Auntie". 

It often became confusing when my siblings and I used the term "Auntie" while talking to my cousins whose mother was "our" Auntie, or when they said "Auntie". 

My siblings and I called our mother's brothers' wives "Aunt" plus their first name. All of our cousins did the same thing, but they also used "Aunt plus the first names as references for my mother and my "Auntie". Their children do the same thing.

Although our Auntie lived in Philadelphia, and the other Aunts lived in Atlantic City, my siblings and I were closer to "Auntie" and her children who were near our ages, than we were to our other Aunts and their children who were around our same ages. 

My father had no siblings. He was adopted (or long term fostered) by a Black couple who lived in Michigan. I have vague memories of my sisters and I when we were little riding a train with my mother to visit these grandparents and the rest of their (my) Michigan family. I remember meeting one of my father's uncles (my uncle) whose name "Uncle Willie-Dillie". Unfortunately, my father had mental health problems and he was disowned by that Michigan family. My mother's family was therefore the only "real" family I knew. 

Later in my life when my mother got in touch with some of her family who lived in Barbados but had emigrated to England. I never kept in contact with that side of my family, although my sister has kept in touch with one British cousin.  

My siblings and I were taught to refer to adults we often came in contact with using the title "Mr". or "Mrs" and their last name if the men or women were married or "Miss" with their last name if the adult woman was unmarried. The only exceptions were "Reverend" for ministers and "Doctor" for medical doctors/dentists. 

I moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1969 and got married shortly thereafter. My husband and I both come from large families so my daughter has a number of "real" aunts and "real" uncles on both sides of her family. However, the only person she has ever called "Auntie" was the same Aunt that I used that referent for. That Aunt passed without my granddaughter ever knowing her, and my granddaughter doesn't refer to anyone as "Auntie".

My husband and I had a core group of friends when we were raising our daughter. I
n one way or another, all of us in this group of four couples were very active in Pittsburgh's Black arts communities. Consequently, our children were often together at public events and at private social gatherings. We also regularly babysat for each other, and our children would sometimes spend overnights in each other's homes. In this sense, we were a "family". For a long time our custom was that all of the children in this group of friends called the adults by their first names. (I think we were trying to be "new age", "hip" or something like that.). Here's my daughter's recollection of how she began referring to the adults in that core group as "Aunt" and "Uncle", and began referring to their children (who were her close friends) as "cousins":

My daughter attended Pittsburgh's Creative And Performing Arts High School and was in one class which was discussing famous Pittsburghers. One classmate read a poem about Bob Johnson who had just passed away. Bob was a well known dancer, choreographer, and founder of the Pittsburgh Black Theatre Dance Ensemble and was the father of two children who are part of our core group of family friends. While the student was reading that poem, my daughter began to cry and ran out of the classroom. When the teacher came out of the classroom to find out what was wrong, she told him that the poem was about her Uncle. Consequently, my daughter started referring to Bob's children as her "cousins", and his wife as "Aunt Stephanie". She also began using "Aunt", "Uncle" as referents for the other adult members of that core group and began calling all their children "cousins". These terms were reciprocated among that group except for three "children" (then high schoolers) who were members of that core group who perferred to call my daughter their "sister". Each of them  refer to me as their "Aunt" and my former husband as their "Uncle". My daughter's husband passed away when my granddaughter was one years old. When he was alive, the now grown children in that core playgroup who called my daughter "cousin" also considered him to be their cousin, and the ones who called my daughter sister, called him their brother.

After my daughter completed high school, other people were added to her family of "play cousins". Sometimes she iniiated the custom of calling someone "cousin" and sometimes it was initiated by the other person. Usually, she called the parents of these play cousins were called "Aunt" and "Uncle". 

Here's my daughter's answer to the question "Why do you call certain people cousins who aren't related to you"?  "The main reasons for me are 
"we've known each other since we were kids because our families are good friends", and/or "because we are close and supportive of each other-above and beyond what friends would do". 

That said, which family referents are used for people who are "play cousins" and "play sister", "play brother" can get complicated when these people have children. The "Aunt" and "Uncle" referents that the children of that core had begun to use for people in my generation have carried down to their children. All the other children who were born to those (now adult) cousins are also referred to as "cousins". In the case of members of this group who began referring to my daughter as their "sister", her daughter (my granddaughter) calls them "Uncle" (plus their first name). One of these "play Uncles" is married and his wife is also my daughter's sister and my granddaughter's Aunt. That Uncle and Aunt recently had a child, and that child is my granddaughter's cousin.

My granddaughter Jaiya has other "play Aunts" and "play Uncles" who weren't a part of that core group of friends that I (and her mother) had, but they were and are close friends of her mother. Two of those close friends are my granddaughter's 
Godmother and Godfather. My granddaughter calls her Godmother "Aunt" plus her first name ("Aunt Jen" and her Godfather "Uncle" plus his first name ("Uncle Alvin"). Aunt Jen's parents are my granddaughter's "God grandparents", and she calls them "Mr. and Mrs. Thomas". 

My granddaughter is seven years old now and has lots of real and play cousins. She uses the titles "Aunt"/"Uncle" (with their persons' first name) for her "real" Aunts and Uncles and she refers to their children as her cousins. However, those children aren't considered to be cousins to her "play cousins". Take for example, the case of her cousin Jamar Jr. . Jamar Jr's father is one of my daughter's "play cousins" who wasn't a part of that core group of friends which I referred to earlier, but he and Tazi "go way back". They can't remember which one initiated the custom of calling each other "cuz". 

It just so happens that Jamar, Jr. attends the same school as Jaiya and is in the same grade, but not the same classroom that she is in. Jaiya has a "real" cousin Jay who also attends that school and is in the same classroom as Jamar Jr. (Jay is the son of one of my daughter's "real" cousins from her grandfather's side of the family.) In addition, another boy named Abdul is also one of Jaiya's play cousins (since his father and the rest of his immediate family consider Tazi to be part an honorary member of their family.). Abdul is one year older than Jaiya, Jamar Jr, and Jay.  My daughter shared with me that one day after school, Cousin Jamar told his son Jamar Jr. "Come take a picture with your cousin, Jaiya". Abdul heard this and said to Jamar.Jr, "She's not your cousin. She's my cousin." and the two boys shouted back and forth to each other, each claiming Jaiya was their cousin and not the other boys's cousin. They went back and forth like this for a bit until my daughter and Jamar said "It's okay  Jaiya is both of your cousins. Jamar ended taking a separate photo of each boy with Jaiya. 

In spite of that incident, I don't know whether Jamar and Abdul consider each other cousins.  Jay knows that his classmate Jamar Jr. and Abdul call Jaiya "cousin", but none of these boys refers to each other as cousins. W
hether or not children who are those ages call any non-related people their "play cousins" largely depends on their parents.

This is complicated, isn't it? 

While these are just a few snapshots of my family's experiences with these titles, it helps to  document that there's more than one way that African Americans or any other population have used in the past and continue to use for who is a real or "play" "Aunt", "Auntie", "Uncle", and "cousin".

What experiences do you have with calling people who aren't really related to you "Aunt", "Auntie", Uncle, and/or "play cousin"? 

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