Written by Serie McDougal
A common pattern among pre-colonial African initiation rites of adolescent males involved removing boys from the immediate community to guide them through a series of collective tasks, while under the leadership of older males and elder males. The objectives at this age were above all, educational, often to teach boys discipline, to be courageous, how to deal with fear, to bond with other males, and for older males to take responsibility for their younger peers, and to teach boys to listen to and obey their elders (Mazama, 2009). These communally formed male bonds set the stage for healthy brotherhood between men.
Black Brotherhood in the Antebellum Period
There is not a great deal of literature on brotherhood between Black men during slavery. However, in the recently published text, My Brother Slaves: Friendship, Masculinity, and Resistance in the Antebellum South, Sergio Lussana discusses many aspects of Black manhood during slavery. One of the areas that he focusses on is Black male friendship. Lussana begins with a quote from the formerly enslaved abolitionist, Frederick Douglass:
“For much of the happiness, or absence of misery, with which I passed this year, I am indebted to the genial temper and ardent friendship of my brother slaves. They were every one of them manly, generous, and brave; yes, I say they were brave, and I will add fine looking. It is seldom the lot of any to have truer and better friends that were the slaves in this farm. It was not uncommon to charge slaves with great treachery toward each other, but I must say I never loved, esteemed, or confided in men more than I did in these. They were as true as steel, and no band of brothers could be more loving. There were no mean advantages taken of each other, no tattling, no giving each other ban names to Mr. Freeland, and no elevating one at the expense of the other. We never undertook anything of any importance which was likely to affect each other, without mutual consultation. We were generally a unit, and moved together.” (Douglass & Ruffin, 2001)
Lussana’s (2016) narrative explains that the above testimonial from the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, is an illustration of the importance that friendship has played in the lives of African American men’s lives throughout the duration of their experience in the American context. Enslaved Black males created their own all male social network and subculture of brotherhood. In these circles recognized their interdependence and formed all male networks of cooperation, masculine identity construction, and resistance (Lussana, 2016). Therefore, they had to form friendships under duress and surveillance. Often, they covertly met with one another to spread news of rebellion, or even drink, gamble, and organize social events (Lussana, 2016). During slavery, Black males’ friendships provided them: “hope, comfort, and relief from the drudgery and horrors of their enslavement” (Lussana, 2016, p.99). Male friendships were critical during slavery, as they trusted one another to share their conspiratorial thoughts and nurture their opposition to slavery. Afterall, running away during slavery was a gendered form of resistance, with the vast majority of escapees being Black males (Lussana, 2016). Trust and loyalty were excessively central to Black male friendships given that the consequences of sharing their thoughts, plans, or generally unsanctioned activities could be fatal. Other males were a buffer against oppression (Lussana, 2016). Henry Brown, a fugitive from enslavement said this about the importance of friendship:
“we love our friends more than White people love theirs, for we risk more to save them from suffering. Many of our number who have escaped from bondage ourselves, have jeopardized our own liberty, in order to release our friends, and sometimes we have been retaken and made slaves again, while endeavoring to rescue our friends from slavery’s iron jaws” (Brown & Ernest, 2008, p.34). Brown adds that:
“A slave’s friends are all he possesses that is of value to him. He cannot read, he has no property, he cannot be a teacher of truth, or a politician; he cannot be very religious, and all that remains to him, aside from the hope of freedom, that ever present deity, forever inspiring him in his most terrible hours of despair, ,is the society of his friends.” (Brown & Ernest, 2008, p.34)
Enslaved parents taught their children to refer to other enslaved Blacks as brother and sister to instill in them the principle that they were a part of a community that was responsible for them and vice versa (Mintz, 2004, p. 26). Enslaved Blacks preferred to refer to one another as ““bro” and “Sis” rather than “nigger”” (Roberts, 1989, p. 181). After slavery, Black male friendships were continued in formal men’s clubs, fraternal lodges, political parties, and businesses. Before enslavement, in African societies there were typically formalized rites of passage that fostered the formation of male friendships, starting in adolescence (Lussana, 2016). Male rituals consisting of learning activities, trials, and tests that they struggled through together were expected to draw them together into lifelong relationships. As Franklin (2004) explains, African American models of friendship are extensions of African manhood rituals and the relationships formed between unrelated African men from of different ethnic groups during slavery. Lussana’s (2016) work challenges the notions that Black men were emasculated, unable to provide for families, or unable to form lasting bonds. This text also makes it clear that Black men did not cease to implement rites and rituals to shape the development of manhood for one another. Perhaps, more critical is that the text makes the point that Black manhood is not only defined by Black men’s relationships to women, but their relationships to their brethren.
Lussana (2016) interrogates many original sources, including autobiographies and other narratives from enslaved Black men and women’s narratives about the enslaved men in their lives. The author explains several aspects of Black men’s experiences with one another including: their work; their leisure activities; their collective resistance with other males; their friendships with one another; and their methods of communicating information and subversive plans with one other across plantations. Different African rites and rituals around manhood are firmly established as a point of reference for Lussana (2016). The author makes strong connections between the interaction between the cultural interactions between African men and those of men of African descent during enslavement. However, his analysis remains primarily focussed on similar behaviors and practices. Here, the author misses an opportunity to highlight the continuities and discontinuities of African worldviews (values, beliefs, and philosophies of manhood) in the American context. These invisible aspects of culture do not receive a great deal of voice in Lussana’s (2016) explanation of the relationships between African manhood on the African continent and in the American antebellum south. This text, remains one of the only explicitly gendered analysis of Black male relationships during slavery. The multidimensionality that Lussana’s analysis offers is a leap in the direction of producing humanizing work on Black men’s lives beyond the culture of poverty and oppression.
Peer friends provide young males with their basic needs for intimacy, belongingness, the development of social skills, and excitement. These relationships provide Black males a safe zone within which they can be themselves (Bonner, 2014). They rebel against social norms, learn and set trends with one another. They are often on the cusp of cultural creation, spurred on by a validation from their peers that they would not get from their elder. For example, Afrika Baby Bambataa of the Jungle Brothers arguably one of most influential hip hop groups said:
"The school talent shows are a tradition. It's just that when we came on the scene, we added something new to the tradition, which was hip hop. Here’s a stage where we could do something that ninety percent of our peers know what we’re doing but our elders don’t. We can get on the mic and we can perform our lyrics and be just stars in the high school." (Ogg, & Upshal, 1999, p. 105)
Today, peer relationships remain critical for Black males. Because peer relationships are usually between equals, they provide a sense of closeness and relatedness that cannot be achieved in parent-child relationships. Although peers may have more short-term influence on peer behavior, parents still have more influence on long term behavior (such as attending college) (Davies & Kandel, 1981; Belgrave & Brevard, 2014). It is critical for parents and young Black men to recognize the heritage of brotherhood and the role that it has played in sustaining Black family and community. It is also important that Black communities draw on Africa rites, and African American rites of passage to construct culturally aligned, institutions, and processes that allow Black males to come together to form bonds around values that advance the agenda of Black collective emancipation.
Brown, H. & Ernest, J. (2008). Narrative of the life of Henry Box Brown, written by himself. University of North Carolina Press.
Douglass, F., Ruffin, G. (2001). The life and times of Frederick Douglass. Scituate, Mass.: Digital Scanning.
Lussana, S. (2016). My brother slaves: Friendship, masculinity, and resistance in the antebellum south. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.
Mazama, A. (2009). Rites of passage. In M.K. Asante & A. Mazama, Encyclopedia of African religion. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE, pp. 570-574.