Caribbean Family Reunions

Sutton, Constance R. “Celebrating Ourselves: The Family Reunion Rituals of African-Caribbean Transnational Families”.  Global Networks; Jul2004, Vol. 4 Issue 3: 243-257.



We met to discuss the article, its themes and how we are going to plan the class discussion. The article was about family reunions and their significance for the Caribbean families. The author interviewed members from three families that planned family reunions to explore its importance for them. Taryn introduced the article and discussed the first family reunion, the Marshalls. Mariana continued the discussion about the Bishops and the Williams family reunions. As we talked about the main points of the article, we asked the class some questions to recall what happened and explain their meanings. After discussing the article, we split the class into three groups to analyze themes about the article. The class was brought together to share the group analysis and we ended the class by relating family reunions to our own lives and experiences. We also thought about making the discussions stronger, and we brought chocolate!



Taryn began by introducing the author, Dr. Constance R. Sutton and giving some background. The script she used is as follows:

Dr. Constance R. Sutton (professor)

  • Anthropology department at NYU
  • has expertise in socio-cultural ethnography, transnational/diasporic processes, gender and the international women’s movements and postcolonial changes in historical consciousness and identities. Dr. Sutton has conducted extensive research in Barbados, and with Caribbean migrants in New York. Further reading on Dr. Sutton’s research will soon be available at the Schoenberg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library).
  • Sutton begins by discussing how she first hears her friends discussing family reunions in the 1990s, and how these reunions differ from any gatherings such as funerals, carnival, etc. because they are purely centered on family
  • Rituals such as these are extremely important for anthropologists because they show how social practices and unwritten social memory are constructed, performed, and transmitted
  • In 1998, Sutton interviewed people she knew who participated in family reunions
  • She wanted to know what participating in these rituals meant, and how participating in them shed light on the meaning of family to them
  • She had several questions that she wanted to answer, including:
    • What kin-based activities preceded these events and eventuated from them?
    • Why had the family reunion fervour emerged at this particular point in time?
    • What kinds of subjectivities and identities did the events evoke in the participants?
    • Finally, what role did memory, history and the past play in these ritualized gatherings and with what possible effect on the future?
  • Sutton noticed that not a lot of research had been done about family reunion rituals, and that in fact, these reunions were started by the migrants and not by those “back home”
  • So she gathered information from eight different participants who belonged to three different descent groups that held family reunions in Barbados, Grenada, and Trinidad/Barbados
    • They were immigrants and children of immigrants
    • The trans-migrants who attended the reunions came from the USA, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Ghana, Guyana, and other places in the Caribbean
    • Size of the reunions varied from 46 people to 250 people
    • Overseas participants outnumbered those from the island
  • This brings me to the similarities and differences between the families. Can anyone tell me similar features the three families shared? Differences?
  • The significance of reunion rituals can be captured in certain sayings they have like “family is everything” or “knowing your family is knowing yourself”
    • ‘Knowing your family’ referred not only to learning who  you are but whom you can count on for support
    • This support came in all kinds ways including monetary assistance, advice, or exchange of goods


Taryn then went into the actual interviews, beginning with the Marshalls. This family had the smallest reunion, which was planned after the father of the core sibling group passed away. This reunion was perhaps one of the most successful in promoting the next generation to continue a tradition of planning more reunions for the future and keeping family ties. Here are the notes that I took which outline this portion of the discussion:


    • The Marshalls organized their first reunion over the Christmas/New Year holiday of 1997-1998 on the island of Barbados – this was also where Sutton had carried out much of her earlier doctoral research
    • The brothers and sisters of the core Marshall family were spread out across England, the USA, Canada, and Barbados
    • They had met a few years earlier for their father’s funeral, which is how they started planning the reunion
    • 47 people were part of the reunion and it was more informal than the other two reunions
    • Does anyone remember some of the activities that the Marshalls took part in?
      • Visited father’s home
      • Visited the cemetery
      • Visited the village where the core group grew up
      • Took trips around the island
      • Took sea baths
      • Went to clubs
      • Drank, talked, caught up, telling memories and stories
    • the event was important and should be repeated. The adults emphasized the desire to reconnect with kin on a face-to-face basis and to refurbish their more distantly known kin connections.
    • they wanted to ensure that their children (born elsewhere) ‘get to know their family and their parents’ Bajan culture’.
    • They regarded their Bajan culture as superior to that of the different societies in which they currently resided
    • So basically the reunion wanted to achieve the purposes of re-creating a kin-based collective identity and passing that identity on to their children
    • Do you remember who Sutton interviewed to see if this goal was accomplished?
    • Andrea born and raised in NYC, 20 years old, father was black Barbadian and mother a white american professional
      • Andrea went to the funeral in Barbados, but the reunion gave her a new perspective on her identity and culture and gave her a new perspective on her racial identity in the USA
      • She had always had issues with who she was but actually being able to experience her father’s culture and seeing her mother being so comfortable in that environment gave her a more grounded sense of identity because she finally got to experience her ancestral culture
      • She stresses the importance of family as a structure in her new found identity
      • She also emphasizes how she felt like a tourist in her father’s town but as she continued staying there she began to equate her family identity with the town as her home identity – she finally has a family and a “home” to call her own
      • Andrea is extremely enthusiastic about being involved in organizing even more family reunions and continuing to grow the bonds she discovered with her home and family
    • Here, Sutton wonders if the ties that Andrea experiences to her family also translate to a feeling of identity with the African Caribbean or African diaspora as a whole, but then she talks about how further research would have to be done to specifically address this issue
    • Her brother Gregory made a family tree
    • There were more frequent visits to family living in Canada, first-time visits to siblings living in England, and more frequent visits to New York City from family in these countries and from Barbados
    • Andrea carries on a weekly email exchange with her half-sister in Barbados
    • Their father has weekly face-to face conversations with family members in ‘real time’ – using the ‘instant messenger’ computer program to talk directly to family members
    • They’ve never been closer because of the reunion


Mariana took the class discussion from there and discussed the family reunions of the Bishops and the Williams. The Bishops’ first family reunion took place in 1995 in Grenada and consisted of 250 people. Although it was complicated, involved long times of planning (4 years!), and was successful, it was not likely to become a tradition. The family members claimed that the reunion has already achieved its goal of strengthening kin networks and finding and meeting family in Grenada, which is a place they can call “home.” This concept of a “home identity” was also shared by the Marshalls family. The script used for this portion is:


  • Took place in 1995 in Grenada (first one for this kin group)
  • 250 people – much larger than the Marshalls
    • England, Germany, Canada, Aruba, Trinidad, Guyana, Puerto Rico, USA, Africa
    • Outnumbered the people living on the island
    • Many never met each other
  • Interviewee: Norma
    • 39 years-old woman who works as a dental assistant in NYC

**Does anyone remember where the idea of having a family reunion came from for the Bishops? Who started the idea?

  • ·Birth to the idea of having a reunion? Where the idea came from?
    • Idea of drawing up a family tree
    • She, her sister and her paternal male cousin put the idea together
    • Originally- from the cousin who grew up in Washington DC and (unlike Norma and her small family who frequently visited Grenada), he has never been there.
    • He was motivated to have the family reunion
      • Trying to trace his family.
      • Met people with the same last name and ask them who is their mother, who is their brother and sister? Who is their family?
      • Even when they answer, he couldn’t put it all together.
      • Started writing to make a genealogical chart.
      • Got help of Norma’s sister and started putting the ideas together
      • Decided to have a family reunion to see where everybody comes from.
      • Did a small one with just their little family then the bigger one
      • Norma says “But all I really wanted, really, is to go to Grenada and see how much of us there is, who is who and you know.
  • Required longer and more complicated preparations than Marshalls- 4 years!
  1.    Search for relatives identified by “name”
  2.    Contact them
  3.    Arranged to assemble a large number of people who did not formerly know that they were kin.
  • A week in August
  • Activities
    • Big Feature: examining the huge family tree (went back to the 18th century) that has been drawn on a large canvas and put on an outside wall for all to see (feel empowered by the size)
      • A compressed representation of the genealogical tree was put on a pin and T-shirt and distributed as memorabilia of event.

**Why was it important/ What is the significance for them to put the family tree on the wall and print it on the t- shirts?

  • Other activities
    • Participating in Carnival
    • Swimming at the famous Gran Anse beach
    • Visiting family land and old family houses
    • Holding a special church ceremony
    • Visiting a plantation
    • Partying- dancing, drinking
    • Putting on various performances
  • Outcome
    • Very exciting
      • Everyone got to know each other: see people haven’t seen for long time and meet new people
    • Sense of second generation also having fun/enjoying
      • Norma’s daughter was excited and learned who to call “uncle” and “auntie”
    • Strengthened family relations/ ties and brought them closer together
      • Norma already had but the reunion made it stronger
    • Led to a Larger overseas kinship networks  
      • Members living in different countries began visiting one another more often
      • Norma plans to contact them if she travels to where they live: Boston, Aruba, England, Germany and Canada
    • Inspired other people from the island to hold similar family reunions.

**After all these positive outcomes, was the Williams reunion likely to become a new tradition?

  • Was the Grenada family reunion the beginning of a new tradition?
    • Completely opposite to from the way Andrea experienced the Barbados reunion (Marshalls). Norma thought:
      • No reason to have another big family reunion
      • This is surprising because it was much larger and more formally organized than the Marshalls.
      • Yet, not likely to become a tradition.
      • “we all met; next one, it will have to be up to the children.”
      • Already accomplished its purpose, which was to find and meet family in Grenada, a place considered “home”
    • Shared idea between Norma and Andrea
      • Concept of a Caribbean place identity as a home, where the core kin group originated, where kin elders still live and where some of the migrants at reunions intend to return to live.


The Williams’ family reunion had three family reunions. The first small one took place in Trinidad and consisted of 21 cousins. This reunion promoted the planning and organization of the other two. The second family reunion took place in 1993 in Trinidad and the third took place in 1995 in Barbados. In both reunions, 175 people attended who were middle to upper class and had university educations. Like the Bishops, the Williams also used genealogy and family trees to inform people of their origins and strengthen their connections. This family reunion was also successful and unlike the Bishops’ reunions, they decided that family reunions would become a tradition that would take place annually or biannually. However, there were many tensions in the Williams’ family reunions. The older generations were taking over the managing and organizing of the event while the younger ones felt distanced from the event’s planning. There were also tensions between the African Caribbean and African Americans and their origins relating to the Caribbean. The script used for this portion is:


  • Three reunions
    • 1.    A small one in Trinidad:  21 cousins that preceded and prompted the two larger ones
    • 2.  In Trinidad in 1993, 175 came
    • 3.    In Barbados in 1995, about 175 also
  • Interviewees: jointly interviewed 2 cousins
    • Assisted in organizing the family reunions.
    • Were the children of the core kin group of sisters who initiated the family reunions

** What were some of the characteristics of the members of the Williams group?

  • Characteristics of the Williams
    • Middle to upper middle-class status
    • University educations
    • Belonged to transnational professional families with multiple rooted identities and a cosmopolitan consciousness.
    • Resided in northern urban centers, where they had positions that had them traveling widely around the world.
    • Cousins described them saying, “Everyone is all over the place.”
      • In terms of where they were born (Trinidad, Barbados, Canada) and where they live now
      • In terms of how well they are doing financially
      • Some are doing extremely well
      • Others have problems paying their monthly electric bill.
  • Origin of the idea?
    • The cousins all lived part of their early lives with their grandmother in Trinidad.
    • Idea started as a “cousins” reunion
      • Feeling that the grandmother was getting older
      • It is there where they got the basic grounding and the feeling of pride
      • So, they wanted to do something to celebrate her
  • Christmas 1992: First reunion in Trinidad
    • Had 21 cousins who never all came together.
    • What did they do?
      • Fashion show, Sang, Danced
      • Honoring their grandmother
  • Good fest — decided to go for a big one

**Even though the idea for the second reunion began in the cousins’ meeting in 1992, what was another factor that played into it? Who promoted the idea?

  • How did the 1993 reunion take place?
    • Encouraged by the fact that an uncle of theirs had gone to Barbados in the 1960s to search for archives of the family’s roots, which he wanted to trace back to Africa
      • Turned out, root-work led him back to Ireland so he got upset and threw it away
    • The mother of one of the interviewees took the work and decided to find a way to continue it
      • In early 1990s, she made several people (including her daughter and son-in-law [interview] ) work on the project
      • Phoned, wrote letters, looked at newspapers, and used computer programs to produce a genealogy
  • Genealogy
    • Traced back to 1702
    • Produced a book (49 pages long) called “Family Commix ’93: our family’s story”
      • Commix: to mix together, blend, to mix smoothly and acceptably together.
      • Had entries for 150 people
      • Preface: “an introduction for an extended family where connections and relations can be initiated, and … for a better understanding of the past where our children may grow knowing their roots.”
  • Similarity between the second reunion and the Bishops
    • Everybody wanted to come to know where they came from, to know their connections and how the names passed down
    • Genealogy was used to invite people, where many people who came met each other for the first time.
      • Given name tags
      • People were given T-shirts with “commix” printed on the back and a condensed family tree in the front
      • Copy of “Family Commix ’93: our family’s story”, which they carried around.
  • Death in the family occurred and the older members wanted to have another family reunion.
  • Newsletter was published in July, 1994 (contribution made by one of the cousins)
    • Called: The drum: one sound- our family commix news
    • The one sound drum represented a news conveyer
      • The link with the past as they continue to discover more names for the individual family tree
      • The link would make their bonds stronger.
    • Announced the Williams reunion would take place again in 1995 in Barbados.
  • Expansion and continuation from 1993 to 1995 reunion (and onward)
    • Further tracing of genealogical links and on information obtained from the 1993 reunion.
    • Many new faces that they had not seen before
    • In 1995, it was decided that the reunion would be an event that will occur annually or biannually.
    • In early 1998, another smaller family reunion
      • Organized by African Americans
      • Take place in Poconos, New York
      • Cousins didn’t attend, but the parents went to “make sure that the rest of the family’s vote in being heard” – to still be part of the event
      • Some of  tensions going on

**What were some of these tensions that were mentioned and briefly discussed in the article?

  • Tensions
    • The younger and older generations
      • Older generations took over managing and expanding a range of activities related to institutionalizing the family reunions.
      • The cousins felt distanced from the organization that emerged.
    • Older gen. engaged in “power plays”
      • Created competition and tension between those who primarily self-identify as African American (with distant Caribbean ancestry) and those who primarily self-identify as African Caribbean.
  • Unlike Marshalls and Bishops, The Williams family reunions have become an institutionalized recurrent event.
    • Involved reaching out to increase the size, the generational depth and the formality of family reunions.
    • Meant: there was no “homeland” place-centered identity for holding family reunions
      • The connections linking some of the people didn’t focus on a one place centered “home” identity in the Caribbean

After the discussion, we showed the class a website:

This website showed the relevance of family reunions. The website provides information on things to do in the caribbean and places you can stay in. This helps in the planning and organizing of family reunions.

The class was split into three groups to further discuss the themes and main points of the article. The three discussion questions were:

1) What were some of the main themes that you noticed were associated with family reunions of the diaspora?

  • Rituals of family reunions are about reconfirming family connections
  • About creating new ideas among folk who are widely dispersed internationally
  • Rituals publicly reassert the existence of distinct kin-based collective identity
  • Migrations have cause these ties and connections to weaken, and family reunions are designed to offset this

2) What were some conditions in more recent years that have made family reunions more possible and strengthened the connections among family members?

  • Increased income of many migrants
  • Increased ease of transnational air flights
  • High tech computer based communications revolution
    • Makes easier to access information on genealogical connections
    • Sustain frequent contact through email
    • Engage with kinfolk in weekly and daily face to face conversations in real time
  • Family trees
  • Newsletters
  • Memorabilia t-shirts

3) What future research suggestions did the author talk about and which one do you think should be added?

  • Comparison with other ethnic groups and time periods
  • The role of family reunions in adding a diasporic identity to the transnational family/kin identity
  • The question of whether the home country will remain the anchoring place of identity and periodic return over the generations and of how a changing world will impact family reunions

Lastly, we asked the class: How many of you have family reunions, and if you do, do you have this feeling that you can identify with a “home” or people you can always count on?

From this discussion question, we shared our own experiences and asked our classmates to share theirs as well. Mariana talked about how she can count on her family in Egypt but never really thought about planning and organizing an actual family reunion, which would be a great idea to bring people together. Taryn said that she had only had one family reunion in her life and the environment was awkward and not too focused around being a family rather than trying to figure out who everyone was and how they were related. The concept of being so close immediately was strange.