The Revolutionary period saw a metamorphosis of the Black family as the Northern states abolished slavery, the South opened up to interstate slave trade, and planters moved West. While the newly free blacks of the North started laying the foundations for stable communities centered on the family, the life of the slave family in the South was destabilized. As the geographic center of the agricultural economy shifted, the devastation of slave families became more frequent.
Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves. Because of the high premium placed on male labor, throughout every period of American slavery, Black men were the most likely to be parted from their families. For slave owners, who considered the basic family unit to be comprised of mother and child, husbands and fathers could be, and were, easily replaced. Many enslaved women were ASSIGNED a new husband by her master. Male children were also frequently taken from slave mothers. The bond between an enslaved mother and daughter was the least likely to be disturbed through sale. Yet this tie was also fragile. Owners could reap large returns by selling pretty girls, especially light-skinned ones, into prostitution or concubinage (“Fancy” trade).
The possibility of separation was an ever-present threat to every member of a slave family. When a master died, his slaves might be indiscriminately distributed among his heirs or sold off to multiple buyers. When a planter’s child was born or married, he or she might receive the gift of a Black attendant. Mothers were taken from their own children to nurse the offspring of their masters. And slave children were torn from mothers and brought into the house to be raised alongside the master’s sons and daughters.
The prevalence of single mothers, which we still have today, and orphaned children on plantations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially, necessitated communal parenting, focused on maternal figures. On smaller farms and plantations, a mother might bring her children with her out into the fields when she worked. On larger plantations, however, children were left behind, often cared for by “aunts” or “grannies,” older women no longer useful as field hands.
Extended families not only ensured that their members were physically provided for, but they also offered emotional support. Watching a mother, a husband, or a child being beaten or otherwise brutalized, could be as painful as losing that person. Indeed, some parents wished that death would liberate their children from the horrors of slavery. The extended system of kinship central to African society, thus, found new purposes within the institution of American slavery.
Slaves took risks to maintain relationships, sneaking away to visit relatives on neighboring plantations. They expressed deep grief and horror over the cruelties they saw inflicted upon their loved ones. They often faced abuse in order to protect their kin. And they accepted responsibility for the welfare of children who were not their own (which was still a practice up until the eighties). After Emancipation, newly freed slaves traveled the roads of the south and placed ads in papers in efforts to reunite with family members. Despite the inconsistencies of slave life and the ever-changing circumstances of slavery in America, enslaved men and women demonstrated an unwavering understanding of the value of family. Whatever advantages slave unions held for an owner, for the enslaved man, woman, or child, the family was an incomparable source of solace and strength and a primary means of survival.
As our ancestors “demonstrated an unwavering understanding of the value of family,” we must do the same thing if we are going to achieve a new state of being for the future. We must, again, recognize that we are all “in it together.” If anything is going to change, it starts, as they say, at home. It starts with all members of the family unit accepting responsibility for their role. It takes everyone in the family respecting each others position, and it also takes us realizing that it DOES take a village. We ARE in this together and the only way we are going to be successful is if we do it TOGETHER!