Maternal Grandma Will Help Obamas Settle In D.C.

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The Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, will start class Monday at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. Their maternal grandmother, Marian Robinson, is moving from Chicago to help them make the adjustment. Commentator Patricia Elam talks about the traditional importance of grandmothers in black families.


Today is the first day back in class for lots of kids, including two little girls starting at their new school here in Washington, D.C. Commentator Patricia Elam is glad that if President-elect Obama has his way, his daughters Malia and Sasha will have some extra support at home. Mr. Obama has invited his mother-in-law to join the family in Washington.

Professor PATRICIA ELAM (English, Howard University; Author): Marian Robinson, the first grandma to be, from all appearances possesses that familiar balance of no nonsense, tempered by large doses of love. I've peeped her standing protectively behind the girls. I watched her wordlessly take the president-elect's hand in hers on election night. Her face exuded the pride of a mother.

She's not effusive with it though, at least not in public. She knows her role, and she's done it well for many years, as evidenced by the remarkable children she already raised, the coach and the first lady to be. Many families, especially African-American ones, have enlisted grandmothers to help raise children, both out of necessity and out of shear respect for our elders. Grandma, Nana, Gramee, Ma'Dear, Big Mama, by whatever name necessary, they are often the family arbiters. We tend not to want to institutionalize our older folk, and many remain youthful and spry for quite some time.

My teenage students constantly remind me I'm the same age as their grandmothers, several of whom are raising them. Others relieve parents who work during the day or at night. In many cases, they live in. I grew up with my paternal grandparents only a few blocks away. We spent time with them whenever our parents had meetings or date nights. My grandmother cooked the best fried chicken on Sunday mornings. A stereotype, I know, but true and delicious nonetheless. And we knew better than to turn down her request for a command performance of a poem, dance, or song we had learned in school.

I loved many things about my grandmother: her wispy blue hair, her funny stories about the old days and my father as a little boy, her bowl full of peppermints, and the fact that she went to bat for us on those rare occasions when our parents, sharp minds temporarily eclipsed by hectic schedules and long hours, had simply made the wrong decision. I bet the Obama girls can count on that from their grandmother too.

SHAPIRO: Patricia Elam is a professor at Howard University and author of the novel "Breathing Room."

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