Importance of Family to Slaves

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Carnegie Mellon University
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One of the most inhuman and heart-wrenching thing that occurred during the period of American slavery involved the destruction of families. That was denoted through the selling of family members, separation of a husband and his wife, mothers and their children, and even brothers and sisters. In most occasions, the separated members of a specific family never got to meet again. In the book Help Me Find My People by Heather Andrea Williams, the central theme encompasses different ways of understanding the after-effects of the domestic slave trade (Williams, 2012). The book is divided into three parts. Williams starts by providing narrations about separation, then the search for respective family members and lastly stories about the few people who were able to reunite with their families. Slaves also employed the use of ads to try and locate or search for their missing family members and dropped them in churches, streets, and newspaper editions. She provides a clear and detailed analysis regarding the emotional process of separation evident on families torn apart by the slave trade.

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According to the author, more than one-third of the enslaved children often experienced some division with their respective families. As a result, that made separation and loss of family ties one of the negative features and effects of enslavement. The debate by various historians and scholars about whether the impact of segregation felt by the concerned African Americans led to the rise in the African American family dysfunction. It is also essential to understand whether the separation leads to the above discussion or if it is just an accepted reality caused by prolonged trauma. The author employs many ploys with the aim of breaking down the topic and making it more relatable and understandable. She uses a rich and well-textured interpretation of costs incurred by humans in connection with slavery and separation. In the process, she reveals various mechanisms the people used to cope with the issue and lastly she analyzes multiple reunification methods employed by former slaves in trying to regain and rebuild the connection destroyed by the devastating results of family division. The author, Heather Andrea Williams uses different methods and literary skills to expound on her discussion. She employs the use of short narratives, correspondence, newspaper advertisement cuttings, literature and music, and many other methods. Those help her to show details on separation, search for family members and reunification at the end of the whole undertaking. The purpose of this essay is to explore lessons learned from the book in connection with the importance of family to the enslaved. The text and the advertisements placed by formerly enslaved people provide a more in-depth understanding of this topic.

Slavery defined the family life of the enslaved African American in different ways. As much as slave families lived their lives and did similar things to other families, the fact that one of the members or all of them was owned by another human being made it vulnerable to different constrictions, frustrations and painful moments. In the first and second chapter of the book Help Me Find My People, Professor Williams explores the separation and loss among enslaved children as well as separations of husbands and wives. He goes ahead to explore the attitudes showcased by these family members towards the separation. The chapters revolve around the emotions showcased by slaves after separation from their families. From this writings, we see the importance of family and the hardships that come with separation.

There is a reliable interconnection between family and emotions such as love, loneliness, grief, anger, fear, joy, despair and last hope. These feelings get displayed from the moment of separation with the family, the duration of searching for family members and lastly the reunion of the family members. Emotions of people who got separated from their families vary a lot as we see from the book. Most of their lives are in fragments thus bringing about many difficulties as one tries to understand the emotional turmoil caused by the separation. A few terms and theories describe the feelings surrounding separation. They include disenfranchised grief and ambiguous loss. Another topic of study involves who between the blacks and whites feels more after separation of families with their children. That brings about the issue of racism which was the stem of slavery. It hurts very much for a child to be taken away forcefully from his or her family and end up getting sold somewhere else to provide forced labor. It is important to explore different perspectives that constructionists have regarding emotions. Some of them view emotions as local and culturally constructed while others see them as Psycho-cultural and common. From the sources, it is clear that separation causes deep pain to the families affected and the expression of this suffering to the people that held them captive differed a lot.

Blacks feared showing their emotions to their white masters and many of the times they remained muted, buried and silences as the masters could not tolerate a show of emotions. Additionally, most of the blacks understood that showing their feelings such as grief would earn them nothing. Enslaved people lived double lives. When in front of the whites, they pretended to be numb to the pain they felt but in their quarters, it was common for them to weep and show grief as they all missed their families and wanted to get reunited. In chapter three, we read about the few love letters enslaved people wrote to their loved ones making it difficult to figure out how they maintained their emotions all through the period of separation. As much as most of the slaves were prohibited from reading and learning, a few wrote occasional heartbreaking letters to the loved ones whom they had been separated. The whites even went ahead and stereotyped slaves by referring them to an American personality called the "sambo" which stood for someone lazy, infertile, and dependent on the whites and lacking in manhood. As much as family ties were critical to slaves, most of them ended up detached emotionally from their surroundings and families. Psychologically, most slaves had multiple personalities to help them deal with things happening around them. That helped them retain their sanity with the hope of getting reunited with their families when slave trade ended, and they got allowed to head back to their homelands.

Many factors contributed to the tearing apart of black families during the American slave era. People differ a lot in their behavior and sense of humanity as showcased in the ads and narratives from Williams's book. The whites were responsible for many of the atrocities that occurred during the time. For example, in most of the stories, the whites deliberately sold their slaves, broke up families and even went to the extent of ignoring the powerful connections between a mother and husband or child. Similarly, the fact that they barred their slaves from communicating outside their work areas and writing any letters show how merciless they were towards the blacks. As much as others acknowledged harboring emotions such as guilt and shame due to the mistreatment of their slaves, none took a step to change and instead let their financial and familial priorities take control of them.

While some slaves dwelled in pain caused by separation, others remarried during their slave tenure and tried starting new families. However, one of the horrors of the slave trade was that there was no assurance and official recognition of this marriages. Subsequently, the husband and wife and in other cases children could get separated any moment by the will of their masters. The role of women in a family got incapacitated by slave trade too. Most members of the female gender either got defiled of sold as domestic workers to the whites. It was hard for a woman to care for her family and children as their maternal affection got destroyed in the process.

We see the importance of families to slaves from the effort they put in trying to stick with their families as well as tracing lost family members. The emancipation period revolves around the abolition of slave trade and the period of recuperation. African Americans yearned to have families that were stable and secure. To achieve this, most of them tried to locate their loved ones who, they had been separated from during the slave period. Others did not wait for the period to end, and most of the times they ran away from their masters to try and get back to their families. Getting caught after running away opened doorways to severe punishment and getting sold but to some of the slaves, this was a worthy risk. It took a lot of strength for slaves to survive the emotional trauma and physical brutality evident during the slave period.

As much as many of the slaves wanted to be part of a family, they could not do that as they feared getting wrenched any moment by the whites. Others reasoned that their system of life under their masters could not allow them to form any culture, family traditions, and societal norms. In the end, it is clear that families were vital to African Americans. As much as they suffered at the hands of the whites, they continued to invest emotional capital in both making new families and finding lost ones. Others even went to the extent of begging their owners to buy their relatives in an effort of avoiding separation. The fact that slave owners disregarded their emotional ties didn't matter, and they maintained their desire to reunite with their loved ones and keep family bonds.


Williams, H. A. (2012). Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. Unit of North Carolina Press.

"In another case. Whitfield Fulton tried finding his mother's sister through similar ads." "Whitfield Fulton," Mr. Editor, Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), March 3, 1884, Last Seen: Finding Family after Slavery, accessed February 10, 2018,

Siblings also got separated on many occasions as with the case of Tom Malone trying to trace his brothers.

"T. M. (Tom) Malone," Mr. Editor, Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), March 20, 1884, Last Seen: Finding Family after Slavery, accessed February 10, 2018,

After the period, everyone tried to retrace his or her remaining family relatives. A good example is Setes who created an ad to try and find his people.

"Setes," Mr. Editor, Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), March 27, 1884, Last Seen: Finding Family after Slavery, accessed February 10, 2018,

The case of Tally Miller involved separation with his two daughters just like other families. "Tally Miller," Mr. Editor, Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), February 7, 1884, Last Seen: Finding Family after Slavery, accessed February 10, 2018,

Relatives of Sneed Bewley got sold during the slave trade, and he put all his effort in trying to trace them back and reunite with them.

"Sneed Bewley," Dear Editor, Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), January 3, 1884, Last Seen: Finding Family after Slavery, accessed February 10, 2018,

Children underwent a lot of pain after getting separated from their parents. The survivors such as Ann Washington made an ad to help in searching for her parents.

"Ann Washington," undefined, Southwestern Christian Advocate (New Orleans, LA), January 10, 1884, last Seen: Finding Family after Slavery, accessed February 10, 2018, http://informationwant...

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