“She’s my sister because we have the same mother,” Rochelle explained to me about six years ago. For some reason we had been talking about her family when we were at work; she had just told me that her two sisters and she all had different fathers. “Oh, so they are your half-sisters,” I had said. “Why do white people say that? We have the same mother,” Rochelle had exclaimed, with an exasperated tone in her voice. That began my education into the description of half-siblings in Rochelle’s world. I just thought Rochelle didn’t understand genetics; she thought I just didn’t get it at all.
Rochelle’s family relationships are complex; there are a lot of siblings fathered by a lot of different men throughout the generations. During that discussion six years ago, I grabbed a piece of paper to start diagramming the relationships; I wanted to better understand what she was telling me. The paper quickly became a mess of lines, and I realized it wasn’t going to work; I just listened and tried to remember how everyone was related. But soon after I started interviewing Rochelle weekly for this project, I did map out her family relationships over three generations. At first I tried to find a generational chart on the internet. There were a lot to choose from, but I could find none that gave the options I needed for the many siblings from the many different fathers that Rochelle’s family tree required. I finally used these charts as a guide and drew my own. It is still, however, somewhat of a mess and needs to be re-done. But I can understand it and I now know whom everybody is when Rochelle and I talk about her family.
Rochelle has three children by two different men; her mother has three children by three different men; and her grandmother, her mother’s mother, has six children by five different men. None of those siblings are considered half-siblings. “They have the same mother,” Rochelle again explained: “Half-sisters and brothers don’t have the same mother. If they have the same father, but a different mother, then we call them “half.” My sisters lived in the same house with me. Our half-sisters and half-brothers didn’t. We might not even know them.” I already understood how she used the word and now I understood why. I use pure genetics when I use the term “half.” Rochelle, on the other hand, uses genetics as well, but modified in a fashion that works in her culture. “There are a lot of different fathers in Black families,” Rochelle told me last week. “I guess that’s why we talk about brothers and sisters differently from white people.” There may be more to it than that, but it was obvious that Rochelle and I had both learned something about the other’s culture. We no longer have to define what we mean when talking about sisters and brothers.