Book Review Help Me Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery

matthew mckeon

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Heather Andrea Williams has written a short, but densely written account about the most heart wrenching aspects of American slavery, the destruction of family by sale or other means. She had been doing research on the crop of African American newspapers that sprung up with the end of the Civil War and was struck, as many others have been, by the poignant personal ads seeking information about lost husbands, wives, parents and children. In Help Me Find My People she studies the sale of children or the sale of parents, then the sale of spouses, the experience of the auction block, the attempts to maintain contact, although separated, finally the search family members after the end of the war.
 

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matthew mckeon

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Part Two:
In the first section, Williams describes the sale of children away from parents and parents from children. Among enslaved children, a common thread is the slow realization that they are different then free children, and that their parents can not protect them. If the sale is within a small area(but how large and distant the world was to the enslaved), there was an attempt to maintain a relationship. One elderly former slave remembered her father visiting and always bringing some treat, "always the sweeter, because it was from his hand.'

But for people sold at a far distance, it was impossible to have the most sporadic contact. Williams describes the psychological term: ambigious loss. The family member was absent, but not truly gone, there was always a chance, however small, they might reappear.

Many enslaved people implored God to provide guidance and protection for family members, and consolation in the belief that one day, all would be reunited. One man remembered his mother promises that they would see each other in the next world, where there was no slavery, and "all were free."
 

JPK Huson 1863

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Thanks for the head's up on the book although it sounds like it'd be incredibly wrenching to get through. I've bumped into some of those searching for lost relatives ads and they make you flinch.

You just can't imagine what it was like to have a child literally taken from your arms, and how terrifyingly traumatic it would be for the child.
 

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Part Three:
In the next section, Williams discusses slave marriage. Most enslaved people wanted to marry someone outside the plantation or farm: the enslaved population on each property usually was pretty small, and there was concern about too close intermarriage. Slave owners found it easier to keep the couples in one place, but that often wasn't possible. Spouses could use passes, and a visiting spouse was an anomaly, he was acting as a husband, and the oversight of the slave owner was compromised.

While slave owners sometimes performed marriages(Williams reproduces some owner issued marriage documents), the unions had no legal standing and were liable to be broken up at the will of the owner. When couples were separated, they might attempt to escape, or at least try to continue to communicate. To remarry was to bend to the painful circumstances, but in one example Williams describes, after emancipation, one woman simply told her 2nd husband it was over, she was returning to her first, true husband.
 

matthew mckeon

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Part Four:
The turmoil of the war caused further separations, but also the beginning of efforts of locate family members. One Iowa senator proposed creating a national clearing house of information, with books kept in all major towns, to assist the freedpeople to "find their people." Nothing came of it.(what a treasure trove of historical information it would have been). But the Freedman's Bureau did create a network tasked with helping Union soldiers to locate missing family members.

The obstacles were daunting, the information sparse, records few. Circular letters went to African American churches to be read out each Sunday, or the new newspapers and journals springing up. To me the short paragraphs read like prayers, recitations of names, places, dates to summon up a son, a wife, a mother.
 

JPK Huson 1863

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To me the short paragraphs read like prayers, recitations of names, places, dates to summon up a son, a wife, a mother.
That gave me chills. This is where I get frustrated with endless arguments over ' slavery ', using what we did to human beings as part of some discussion over economic factors like all these individuals were some anonymous clump. It brings it home with a sickening bang wrapping your head around the fact families were torn apart. You know that moment of horror when you take eyes from your kid in some store and he vanishes under a row of coats? You find him in 30 seconds but boy are those 30 seconds heckish. That, only forever.
 

matthew mckeon

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That gave me chills. This is where I get frustrated with endless arguments over ' slavery ', using what we did to human beings as part of some discussion over economic factors like all these individuals were some anonymous clump. It brings it home with a sickening bang wrapping your head around the fact families were torn apart. You know that moment of horror when you take eyes from your kid in some store and he vanishes under a row of coats? You find him in 30 seconds but boy are those 30 seconds heckish. That, only forever.
There was a belief espoused by some at the time, that black people were not capable of feeling grief or loss when family members were sold away. Williams' research does not support that rather obviously self serving belief.
 

matthew mckeon

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Sometimes there is a happy ending, a son finds a mother, and there is a reunion. These meetings were fraught: so much time had passed, children had grown, parents had aged, the anxiety of, will I know my own? Even when recognition is instant, Williams notes the people embrace in silence. There are no words for the miracle they are experiencing. I am reminded of the line from the recent musical Hamilton "There is a grace too powerful to name."

But its a book of partings more than reunions. Slavery left little material culture, but Williams ends with a photograph of a linen sack. A mother sold away gave it to her daughter, half full of pecans. The mother said told the girl to keep the sack after the pecans were gone, because it would always be full of the mother's love.
 


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