Found  /  Book Excerpt

How the Survivors of Slavery Used Material Objects to Preserve Intergenerational Wisdom

On the importance of material ownership in the context of Black history.

African American things had little chance to last. This is a painful lesson learned by family historians and museum curators. How could people who were property acquire and pass down property? How could families auctioned like cattle hold on to a Bible or a bead? An excess of trauma, a glut of disruption, and a surfeit of sudden migration severely limited the chances for enslaved people to maintain troves.

Cast into a faulty freedom following the Civil War, without the benefit of savings or stockpiles, formerly enslaved parents and children often lived hand to mouth, desperate to fend off crushing debt peonage. They lacked land, animals to work it, and tools to aid in their labor. They could claim few personal items beyond “the clothes on their backs.” The modicum of things Black families did manage to acquire and hold on to were accorded little value by outsiders. Compared to other groups with a stability afforded by earnings, wealth, or racial privilege, Black people’s possessions were more likely to wind up in dump pits and rag bins as families lost elder members, moved on, or were pushed out during the height of Jim Crow segregation and racially motivated violence.

“There are so many stories about the objects that were lost,” the family historian Kendra Field has noted, “lost letters, lost photographs, lost objects of meaning.” When African American things are lost, the stories once joined to them weaken, memories of the past fray, historical evidence shrinks, and intergenerational wisdom fades.

This loss of the material traces of history, which stands alongside a multitude of other losses in African American experience, has grave ramifications for well-being. Human values and human relations have been expressed and revealed through things for as long as we have been painting on cave walls and making tools. We come to know ourselves through things, cement community ties through things, think with things, and remember what is important to us with the aid of objects.

Beyond the critical role of communicating information, things function as tokens and repositories, as staples in the fabric of time, as a means to effect psychological, emotional, and existential transport or to “convey viewers to another world or state of being.” This quality allows people to use things in the service of compassion and communal life. When we see, touch, and consider another person’s cherished object, we come to appreciate their experience and their group’s experience that much more. In this way, the physical materials that we find, preserve, or make (from rocks and shells to books, blankets, and buildings) can function like social glue, adhering individuals to one another through felt relationship.