Sitting on the backyard deck of the house in which I grew up the other morning, I Googled the word, “family,” hoping to find inspiration for this director’s foreword. Here’s what I discovered. A “family” is …
a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household.
a group of people related to one another by blood or marriage.
all the descendants of a common ancestor.
a group of related things.
a principal taxonomic category that ranks above the genus and below order.
all the languages ultimately derived from a particular early language, regarded as a group.
While an initial reading of these definitions illustrates a common or shared characteristic or quality—be it a location, an ancestor, or genetic material—a closer examination of them renders a vista of variations and derivations. The family, hominidae, for example, includes human beings as well as two living species of gorilla, two living species of chimpanzee, and two living species of orangutan. While all share a linguistic lineage back to Vulgar Latin, the modern speakers of the family of Romance languages—Aromanian, Catalan, French, Galician, Occitan, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish—would have as much difficulty communicating with each other as the builders of mythical Babel. It seems like there are as many differences as similarities between members of a family, be it between species, languages, or siblings.
What, then, is a “family”?
Etymologically, the modern English word, “family,” derives from the Latin familia, which is defined as “the group of people who descend from the same pater [father].” Domus, however, from which English derives words such as “domestic” and “domicile,” may be translated as “home” or “household.” or “a kinship group” that excludes servants or slaves. Are families and households perfect synonyms? Seeking some sense of clarity, I read Richard P. Saller’s 1984 article, “‘Familia, Domus,’ and the Roman Conception of Family,” published in Phoenix, the journal of the Classical Association of Canada, only to discover that the two words, along with gens, a word with an equivalent meaning to the English terms, “race,” “nation,” “clan,” “kin,” and “tribe,” erected its own tower of confusion.
Turning once more to the dictionary for clarity, I sought the meaning of the binomial “kith and kin.” While first found in print in the 1377 Middle-English poem, “William Conquering Piers Plowman” and currently used as a synonym for “friends and family,” the two words originally had more specific meanings. “Kith” traces its history back to the 8th century of the Common Era and characterized “things well known” to a person, her/his surroundings or country, and “one’s native land.” On the other hand, “kin,” defined as “one’s family and relations,” has its genesis a century later. A related word, “kindred,” traces its etymology back to the 13th century of the Common Era and has as its synonyms “family, lineage, race, nation, tribe, people, kinfolk, blood relations.”
Frustrated with my lack of progress on this foreword and my growing confusion, I decided to take a break and look around the backyard. While many of the trees are gone, along with the red metal swing set, I still was able to map out my childhood in the grass-covered rectangular space sequestered behind a place I still call “home.” Like a Roman domus, with its ostium (entrance) off of a narrow alley and vistibulum (vestibule) leading into the heart of the home, the backyard secretes away memories of neighborhood baseball games, my parents' renewal of their vows on their 25th wedding anniversary, and my sister sliding on frozen-over puddles in winter. To this day, it continues to be a special place where my parents, nieces, sister, and brother-in-law, and I come to be a family.
Forging Families in a Black & White World: Changing Majority Views with Minority Perspectives has as its mission the “capturing diverse stories of the modern 21st-century family, specifically interviewing those who are transracially adopted, interracially or inter-religiously married, and mixed-race children.” Over the course of the 2019-2020 academic year, the seventeen members of the oral-history seminar examined the definition of “race,” its changing nature over the last two-and-a-half centuries in the United States, and contemporary debates about its place in American society. After a thorough analysis of scholarly secondary sources, the students narrowed the research focus to the role interracial marriage, multiracial identity, and transracial adoption play in defining the family in the early 21st century and interviewed 45 individuals whose sense of family spanned a broad spectrum informed by differences and similarities in race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual identity. Similar to my own efforts, the research team’s work resulted in a crazy-quilt panoply of memories, vocabularies, and locations that illustrate the complex, conflicting, complementary, and curious characteristics that give meaning to the word, “family.”
In closing, I once again pose the question, “What, then, is a ‘family’?” I invite you to listen to the interviews the research team collected, compare them with your own family tales, share them with your kith and kin, and come up with your own answer to the question. Right now, I’m going to make a cup of coffee and sit out on the deck.
Charles R. Kaczynski, Ph.D.
Director, Forging Families in a Black & White World: Changing Majority Views with Minority Perspectives