150 Years of the Black Family
I believe in families, in the strength of families, and that the strength of a people can be determined by the strength of the families within that people. In December of 2015 the black family will have been established legally in the United States for 150 years. It was December, 1865, that the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery became part of the United States Constitution.
What I proposed to my family was an exhibit, to run in the fall of 2015 outlining the trials and triumphs of the American black family in documents. We have the shortest family span of any nation on earth and our understanding of that time since we were first brought to this country is something we should all examine. I came up with eight core documents of the black family during slavery, most of which I have in my own archives, and so it looked like a project worth undertaking. The first documents were the insurance forms for a slave ship coming from Africa. The capturing of slaves being a clear interruption of black life. The second document was evidence of dockside slave sales directly from ships from Africa of which there is ample evidence. I have dozens of documents of slave sales, showing that people were sold without regard to whatever family ties they claimed.
A document that always gets to third graders when I take it to schools are the apprenticeship papers for a seven year old taken from her family to be taught the ‘domestic trade’ as housekeeper. Eight year olds are appalled that in the papers it is stipulated that the seven year old, through the period of her training, ‘shall not play.’
Eighth graders, especially girls, are shocked to see a letter between two plantation owners contemplating what to do with two slaves who claim to be married but live on separate estates. Clearly, their marriage had little meaning to the owners. Many of the ‘marriage’ vows that owners did allow ended with until death or distance do us part.
Then there are the slaves who have been mortgaged to secure loans, and who are sometimes seized for non-payment of those debts and the slaves passed on by wills. Middle school children all understand the document in which a slave owner allows her slave woman to buy her own freedom, but not that of her children. All of these subtle and not so subtle documents can be summed up in the words of Chief Justice Roger Taney in 1857, that black people had no rights which the white man was bound to respect. And, finally, when I was working on the biography of Malcolm X I came across the very sad letters and advertisements of families searching for family members years after slavery had ended.
Slave documents would constitute the first part of the exhibit, with the second part being a celebration of what marriage has meant to us over the years. It would be great if I could get Obama to declare November 1015 A Celebration of Black Families month. Anyone have his personal cell?
It takes time to mount an exhibit. I’ve had them at the Schomburg in New York, the Apex Museum in Atlanta, The Chicago Public Library, the Newark Public Library, and the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian offered the most help, actually sending someone to my house to build crates for the images of black aviators in the thirties. I should have already been searching for a curator to design the exhibit, prepare the documents, write the narrative, appraise the values involved, etc. My wife is working on a mini-exhibit for London in 1014 for the publication of An African Princess, the story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta. We purchased her nineteenth century correspondence to Queen Victoria some time ago. Whoopi Goldberg was interested in the film rights, but we’ll see. We had also planned a photographic exhibit on black labor, but that’s easy because it would be simply the assemblage of perhaps 75 to 100 photographs and reasonably easy to assemble, Oh, yes, and we need to squeeze the whole black family operation into my regular writing schedule. It’s a great challenge but I love it. There’s work to be done.