Originally published in Beyond Bougie (2006)
Traditionally, early African societies organized life around the family. Families had extremely tight bonds. For instance, in the early 1600’s, one family (which would be very small) would bond with another to increase its power. These combined families would become a clan. Several of these clans would ally with each other to make a tribe, or what we might refer to as a community.
It’s quite interesting that wealth was not a main issue for the early African people. If the community [tribe] was wealthy, then the members would be prosperous as well. No single individual hoarded all the goods. This applied to the households as well. If a tribe member had no place to live, he would be eagerly accepted into another household. The welfare of the group was more important than the welfare of the individual.
Even though these tribes practiced equality to an extent, the women in the African families were treated as second-class citizens. Modern-day Black Americans may praise the “Black Queens and Kings” but these were as uncommon as modern-day Queens and Kings — far and few. Women had to look up to their husbands and obey them. The women were responsible for much of the agricultural labor along with household tasks. (Women who sold goods in the market places gained an ounce of social and economic independence.) Even though these women completed all these tasks which contributed to the tribe’s prosperity, the African women were still controlled by the men.
Some of the Africans’ practices were carried over into the American culture, such as the idea of “fictive kin,” where families would accept outsiders into their homes and treat them as part of the family. Fictive kinship was kept alive in the United States, but many of the tribal traditions that were lost. First, when slavery started, the Africans came from different tribes and spoke a variety of languages. Therefore, their native tongues were lost as they adopted English as a common language. Second, the masters were totally opposed to the slaves’ heritage. Because of this, most of the African religious practices were lost. Third, the slaves simply gave up holding onto their culture and tradition. The slaves needed a new way to live in such a hell-filled world. Since many of the traditions were lost, the only thing that slaves had to hold onto was one another. This is why the tradition of fictive kinship remained with them.
Slavery caused African men to become secondary to their wives. The men no longer had authority. The slave master was the one who bore the high status, and the male slaves were left powerless. Males and females were set to do the same tasks on the plantations. Unsurprisingly, the female slaves did the same tasks as well as or even better than the men.
There were many indignities the men did not have to undergo. For instance, the men did not have to be treated as sex objects (at least, not as often). The female slaves had to satisfy the male slaves as well as their masters. Perhaps on some level, sexuality gave women more power than men. Women could breed, which could make more slaves. Young female slaves could stay with their families by getting pregnant. Masters kept many women who demonstrated fertility.
Finally, all the inequalities in their lives balanced.
The slaves realized that they needed to work together to survive, and the closeness took the form of fictive kinship. The slaves would start families by marriage, blood, or by adoption. They would accept others who were homeless, parentless, spouseless, or childless. The children were always taught to assist “their own,” to help new slaves with their work, welcome them with open arms, and treat them like blood relatives. They were all in the same boat.
Slaves were forced to adopt Christianity, but as they worshipped, they became even closer despite previous language barriers. The worship of God helped them grow spiritually and psychologically. Even though Slaves had no formal meeting place for religious practices, this didn’t hold them back from getting together and bonding. Religious consciousness and fictive kinship went hand-in-hand. Both allowed slaves to see “God” as a loving, caring, and sharing model for their actions on Earth, but also as a “God” who scolded them for their skin color, as the Masters brainwashed them to believe. Slave Phyllis Wheatley wrote many poems about her conversion to Christianity. In her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” she sincerely and eloquently expresses her thanks for her conversion to Christianity. However, she also makes disturbing remarks about her African ancestry, which let us see that she is not thankful for her heritage. She calls it [her heritage] a “diabolic dye” and “Black as Cain.” She concludes the poem by stating that all can be as refined as she. Some say that Wheatley was merely imitating the Whites and their writings. Wheatley and many other poets wrote to imitate White models.
There were changes in the way African-American families viewed and adapted to post-slavery life. After the Civil War the African-American families seemed to have changed the views of gender equality which existed under slavery. A contemporary example of this attitude change is seen in Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Fourteen-year-old Celie is forced to marry. Just like in the African family, Celie, as the female, completes most of the buying, selling, and trading, as well as the agriculture and household chores. Needless to say, Celie is suppressed by her dominating spouse.
For several decades the actions of African-American men paralleled those of their former Masters. The African-American men had been psychologically destroyed by slavery and the notion that they had no power over themselves or their wives. This was the first time African-American men were able to take control. Like the husband in “The Color Purple” these men now overpowered their wives. Many African-American men would use “God” as justification for such mistreatment. They would, ironically, quote the same thing their former slave masters had said, “Slaves obey your Masters” followed by “Wives obey your husbands” (Colossians 3:18,12). Slave masters once used these quotes to justify the beating of slaves. African-American men used this same quote to command passive obedience.
The Black Migration to the North during the early twentieth century took place in three time waves. The first of these were at the beginning of the twentieth century, the largest was during the 1930s, and to the last occurred in the 1950s. I believe this migration occurred for several reasons. One reason was that the African Americans were constantly reminded of slavery in the South. As Blacks abandoned Southern life and labor for work in the coal fields, many Blacks settled in southern West Virginia, particularly McDowell, Mingo, and Mercer Counties. From there some migrated even further north to Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York.
My great-grandfather, General Earley Jordan, chose to reside in McDowell County, West Virginia. Because he had hitched a ride from a white man to get to West Virginia from a more southern state, and he could not pay for his ride to West Virginia, my great-grandfather was forced into indentured servitude, even though this modern-day form of slavery was and is illegal. He eventually found work in the coal mines making 20 cents/hour for 10 hours a day. Perhaps when Blacks decided to migrate, the fictive kin were left behind. Blacks appeared began to think more of themselves as individuals rather than as part of a group. Many families of blood kin moved to the city for better opportunities. They could not remain complacent.
I was born and raised in Iaeger, West Virginia, which is in McDowell County, the same county where my great-grandfather lived out his life and where he died when I was in 7th grade. Today, there are few opportunities there since many coal mines have closed. At our first chance, my immediate family left the county to find a better life with better opportunities. Just like my great-grandfather had done decades before, my immediate family left several extended family members behind. I feel that as the Blacks moved North, many Blacks lost their “southern hospitality.” Today, many Blacks feel that some of the “southern ways” of life are “too country.” Some Blacks even learned to scoff at the idea of helping others before helping themselves.
This was the first time Black Americans could survive without fictive kinship.
Today there are many examples of how traditions of the African families still survive. The bonds may not appear as tight, but many African-American families unknowingly practice these traditions. Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place is a terrific example of literature which exemplifies the bonding of fictive kin. The novel is divided into seven stories with seven different tales from separate women. Though these women are beaten, battered and outcast by many people they have loved, they adopt each other. These women find mothers and sisters in each other. The women become stronger with their “family.”
I have witnessed my own mother invite other people to stay with us until they were on their feet. Mom told me that she learned this from her mother. “Our doors were always open,” she said. My grandparents raised 7 children of their own and my mother could not recall how many fictive kin her mother had welcomed into their home. Even though my ancestry consists of Native American, European and African roots, I identify myself as a Black American who is still in the process of growing spiritually while learning more about my own diverse heritage. I think that the fictive kinship is something that is innate, or at least it is for me. I can’t imagine not welcoming someone into my home, especially if I’m financially, mentally and physically capable enough to do so.