Customs and Practices: An Overview

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Customs and Practices: An Overview

Many customs encompassed the entire life cycle of a slave; some customs and practices varied from region to region but shared many common tenets. Slave owners often encouraged slaves to get married in the hope that the union would produce offspring. Wedding ceremonies differed from region to region and among plantations; in his memoir, ex-slave James Williams said: "The field hands are seldom married by a clergyman. They simply invite their friends together, and have a wedding party" (1838, p. 33). Sometimes the simple act of jumping a broom together was enough to bind a couple together. Slaves usually had to obtain permission from their masters to marry and in many places slave marriages were not recognized by law.

The broom played an important role in slave life as it had in African cultures such as the Asante. A broom was believed to have a spiritual value and symbolized sweeping away evil or bad luck. When couples married, brooms were waved over their heads to ward off evil spirits. When couples jumped a broom, the person who jumped highest was said to be the one who would rule the marriage. Brooms were not always positive symbols; if a broom touched one's body accidentally it was believed to shorten one's life. Also, it was believed that sweeping near a woman's feet prevented her from marrying.

When a slave died, his or her fellow slaves would sacrifice white chickens over the grave in order to release the deities from the world of the spirits. In the world of the living lights guided people at night but for the dead they were used to guide deceased people into the world of the afterlife; hence the placing of lamps and bonfires on graves. Whenever a death occurred, a typical slave custom was to stay up all night guarding the body from prowling animals. Funerals were held at night because slaves worked during the day. Bodies were buried east-west with the head pointed west so that their eyes would face Africa. It was not uncommon to see the corpse with the head tied so that the mouth would not open and allow the soul to wander. It was believed that a dead person would not be at rest for some forty days. At funerals, participants would dance, sing, and pray around the grave before smashing bottles and dishes in order to "break the chain," that is, ensure that no other family members would die.

Songs and dances were a way both to preserve the African culture as well as to ease the burden of the suffering endured. The ex-slave Frederick Douglass observed, "They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves … Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy" (1846, p. 15).

Slaves believed that spirits roamed the earth and many customs involved either seeking their help or trying to ward them off. To protect a home from evil spirits bottles would be tied to trees outside a home in order to lure and trap evil spirits; these bottles were sometimes filled with dirt from a grave. In Memoir of Phillis Wheatley: A Native African and a Slave, Benjamin Thatcher recalled of Wheatley, "One circumstance alone, it might have been said, she remembered; and that was, her mother's custom of pouring out water before the sun at his rising. This no doubt was a custom of the tribe to which she belonged, and was one of their religious rites" (1834, p. 13).


Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Boston: 1846.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Auburn: Darby and Miller, 1853.

Opala, Joseph A. "The Gullah: Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone-American Connection." Available from

Thatcher, Benjamin Bussey. Memoir of Phillis Wheatley: A Native African and a Slave, 2nd edition. Boston: 1834.

Williams, James. Narrative of James Williams: An American Slave: Who Was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama. New York: 1838.

                                      Josh J. Hem Lee