Heather Andrea Williams. Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. The Johns Hopkins Series in African American History and Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 264 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3554-8.
Reviewed by Sheri Huerta (George Mason University)
Published on H-SAWH (January, 2015)
Commissioned by Lisa A. Francavilla (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series and Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters)
The Domestic Slave Trade, Separation, and the Enduring Emotional Bonds of African American Families
In her latest work, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery, Heather Andrea Williams offers a new approach for evaluating the effects of the domestic slave trade by focusing on the emotional process of separation resulting from families torn asunder. Some estimates indicate as many as one-third of enslaved children in the Upper South experienced some form of familial division, making separation and loss a grim feature of enslavement. Historians of slavery have long debated the effects of separation experienced by enslaved African Americans due to the domestic slave trade, whether as a harbinger of future African American family dysfunction, as an event characterized by accommodation or resistance, or simply as an accepted reality due to prolonged emotional trauma. Williams adds a richly textured interpretation of the human costs of slavery and separation by uncovering the broad spectrum of public and private emotions experienced, by revealing the variety of coping mechanisms employed, and by analyzing reunification strategies utilized by the enslaved and formerly enslaved to regain control over the devastating effects of familial divisions. The exploration of this multilayered process opens new interpretations of the enduring emotional strength of enslaved family bonds and the significance of memory while astutely discerning public versus private spheres of loss and emotion.
Employing a close analysis of slave narratives, correspondence, newspaper advertisements, Works Progress Administration (WPA) narratives, travel accounts, Freedmen’s Bureau records, and literature and music, Williams details the emotional process of separation, the search for family members, and reunification through the perspectives of enslaved children and adults, as well as through the lens of white observers and participants in the slave trade. The author readily acknowledges the challenges in interpreting documents created for many specific purposes, while appreciating the likelihood that accounts reflected a range of emotional intensity altered for the anticipated audience. By evaluating both white and black accounts of the slave trade and public separations, this work confronts the nineteenth-century belief that African Americans were somehow emotionally and sensitively inferior to whites, a view propagated to confirm the logic of the slave trade. Williams argues that few of the white correspondents accurately interpreted the difference between public and private expressions of grief, and fewer still understood, or cared to recognize, the hidden currents of emotion present at points of separation. Acknowledging the pain the enslaved felt at separation challenged the fundamental underpinnings of the institution of slavery. The decision to show or mute public displays of emotion were hinged on gendered expectations of behavior for enslaved persons, their situational awareness, and their knowledge that an emotional outburst might sway those in power to overlook financial gain. What whites failed to notice, or purposely ignored, in their accounts of the slave trade were the hidden depths of emotional bonding between enslaved parents, children, and spouses.
By illustrating a wide range of coping mechanisms that demonstrated an ability to stay emotionally invested in family, Williams also challenges historians who used this rationale for linking current social problems to the destabilization of the enslaved family. Creating mourning rituals that linked memories of family to daily tasks, reframing expectations of marriage to accommodate the possibility of separation, and sharing hymns of remembrance in churches and at community gatherings provide evidence that family “lost,” “taken,” or “stolen” by the slave trade did not mean family was forgotten. Admittedly, separation could lead to unassuageable sorrow and depression or to avoidance of attachments out of fear of separation, but Williams posits that even these responses denote the depth of emotional connection that the enslaved experienced prior to the point of separation rather than an outright rejection of the importance of family bonds. Despite the many experiences revealed in Williams’s work, proof that emotional expressions toward lost family members led to a widespread creation of a culture of enduring family bonds is unconvincing. Still, by exploring a range of lived experiences, Williams argues that there were no absolutes for responses, and even though separation caused trauma, the greater significance was that emotional bonds continued to exist and family ties persisted, if only in memory.
Strategies employed to recover lost family reveal the limited yet persistent power African Americans held over their families and memory. Parents shared stories of lost family members in hopes that remaining children could keep memories of family alive, as evidenced by the many references to family history found in WPA narratives. Parents also utilized the mobility of the enslaved community to send out messages of love to scattered family. Once freed, the formerly enslaved published “Information Wanted” or “Lost Friends” newspaper advertisements to search for family. Williams’s strength lies in her analysis of how these documents, comprising familial names (an impermanent marker of identity for the enslaved), circumstances of sale or separation, and physical landmarks, demonstrated persistent hopes for finding lost family, even decades after separation.
Some family members did reunite, but the vast majority could not because “too many miles and too many years lay between them” (p. 172). Despite limited evidence of successful reunions, Williams astutely perceives that public awareness of the African American desire to reclaim family generated a rich literature, like the works of Mark Twain and Charles Chesnutt, who articulated the challenges of recognition, reunion, and reconciliation of past with present lives. She poignantly describes the significance of family, not merely as “the smallest, most insular sphere of relationship,” but as “a sense of belonging” to a people, an emotional desire that transcends the era of the slave trade to present-day family historians (p. 183).
Help Me to Find My People provides a stirring account of the emotional cost of separation during slavery through meticulous decoding of records revealing the persistent strength and importance of enslaved family bonds and the enduring hope to find kinship connections. Williams’s richly textured analysis contributes greatly to the history of emotions, slavery, the Old South, and family history studies.
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Sheri Huerta. Review of Heather Andrea Williams, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.
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