By Anna Fahlstrom
When I was in 8th grade, my mom came home from work like every other weekday. She called me downstairs from my room saying she had a surprise for me. One of her coworkers was selling necklaces and bracelets and my mom thought I might like one. At that point in time, I didn’t think much of it. Cool, a new necklace, yes, but would I really wear it? It’s not the typical style I went for at the time. If I saw it somewhere I would probably say, “Oh that’s pretty!” and never think of it again. After taking a good look at the necklace, I was intrigued by what it was made from. The beads didn’t seem like anything I have ever seen before; they were oblong and only smoothed out because of the shellac that coated them. Being the widest in the middle, it looked like the material was wrapped around itself, similar in shape to a football.
Soon after examining the beads I noticed a metal charm near the clasp. It said BeadforLife, and I knew this wasn’t a typical necklace. I researched what BeadforLife was and came upon the Seattle based non-profit organizations’ website. That’s where I learned the true value of the necklace. Women in Uganda were trained to make paper beads in order to help get out of poverty. BeadforLife created a marketplace and training center for the women. After becoming a ‘Beads to Business’ graduate, many women were able to open their own business that allowed them to support their family.
The beads on the necklace that I received 7 years ago are similar in shape to the glass ones found in the fourth row, third from the right in the photo. The photo is comprised of beads that were excavated from an archaeological dig of Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest Plantation in Virginia (Lee 110). However, beads have been found on many plantations throughout the United States. The most common type of slave beads with the most extensive research are glass beads, but bone and seeds were also used. They range in a variety of colors such as black, purple, turquoise, white, red, and blue (Lee 109). Some plantations favored certain colors, while in other locations it a mix of colors was present.
Originally, archaeologists believed men used the beads, specifically in locations where Indians had interacted with European traders. They were used as a form of currency and a trading product. When beads were found in locations without Indian presence, the discussion of slaves using beads became important. However, a lack of association between the sexes of African Americans was never discussed. This was due to the linking of the genders, rather than thinking of how they could have been used by both genders individually (Yentsch 44). Not until images of African women getting onto slave ships, as well as images of slave women wearing beads did it become apparent to archaeologists that there was a difference between the way women and men used the beads.
While the exact producer of the beads is next to impossible to know, it is very likely a majority of the beads came about through trades with Europeans. Beads are a product that constantly being made, and new styles and colors are always being created. This means bead came from a variety of producers from different time periods.
Slave ships were known to “entice de colored folks onto de boat to see de purty things.” This quote, from ex-slave Della Fountain is referring to beads that slave kidnappers would use to willingly get slaves onto their ships to be taken across the middle passage (National Humanities Center). Planters bought beads once they reached America. At this point they were either given to slaves who the owners were fond of, or slaves stole them from their owners. Beads were also passed down from generation to generation, helping to form kinship bonds and a sense of community. If they had the means, slaves would make their own beads (Stine 55). Knowledge of bead making came from their roots in Africa. Glass was heated, melted, and formed into beads that would be used in the communities starting around the 11th century (Ogundiran 432). While it is highly unlikely any of those beads made it into the hands of the slaves, the knowledge of how to make them is rooted in their history. Slaves were also some of the best textile workers in the nation. The process of bead making was something that could have been done during subsistence production.
Once a gendered view of slave beads came into light, women and children were the main focus of bead users. An ex-slave from Georgia, Callie Elder, said “them blue and white beads what the grown woman wore was just to look pretty,” (Stine 61). Elders’ quote and photos of slave women show the beads were worn as an adornment. They helped to provide a sense of identity and individuality for the women who wore them. Sewing them onto clothes and wearing them as jewelry humanized the women even though they were in a very dehumanizing situation. Black women and their daughters would wear beads symbolizing them as being African women or women-in-the-making. They provided an arena that created a community and strengthened relationships among the women. Beads were passed down generation-to-generation, further strengthening familial bonds (Yentsch 48). During a time where families were constantly being broken up, whether it was from the auction block, abroad spouses causing distance between families, or by separating families by selling them to different plantations, beads provided a bit of comfort.
They were also used as a form of resistance. Slave women wearing beads were completely overlooked by their masters and other plantation overseers. White men viewed the jewelry as embellishments that held no meaning. Little knowledge about the strong historical ties to beads in Africa were known by the white owners. Thus, beads were completely overlooked and silent to the owners while blaringly broadcasting their cultural significance to those who understood their African roots. Beads became a uniting factor not only with the female slave population, but also with the slaves as a whole (Yentsch 48).
The significance of beads from their start in Africa throughout their use as slave beads evolved naturally with the different situations the African descendants were thrust into. In Africa, beads had a variety of meanings beyond embellishments; they were used as spiritual protectors, showed status, created identities both individually and collectively, and protected their health (Stine 49). Many of the same characteristics and traditions of the beads were brought to America on slave ships and continued once sold into slavery. One significant change in meaning that occurred in America would be the strong yet silent form of resistance the beads encompassed that was discussed previously.
The beads provided a means to show kinship ties and create relationships within the slave community. During a time when families were continually being broken up and fictive kinship was becoming a norm, anything that allowed a sense of humanization and family was valued. Families were broken up in multiple ways, such as being sold individually at the auction block, abroad spouses and kin, as well as by selling individual slaves from one plantation to another (Pittman 2015). The beads were one way to connect the slaves over distance.
Slave beads were also a way for slaves to rebel against their owners. As mentioned earlier, the white plantation owners didn’t know the history of beads in Africa, thus they viewed women wearing them solely as an adornment and nothing to worry about. For slaves, however, it was one of the many ways to rebel against their owners that could occur daily. While slowing work, pretending to be sick, arson, and breaking tools were all ways of daily resistance, they were all visible acts of resistance the owners understood and would punish them for (Pittman 2015). Slave beads, on the other hand, were a constant reminder to the slaves of their history and allowed them to express their culture without having to worry about any backlash from their owners.
When I first received the BeadforLife necklace, I viewed it as an adornment. Necklaces were something to be worn to express ones identity and to make a fashion statement. How could they have any other purpose than that? At that time, I didn’t understand the meaning beads had in Africa or how they could ever connect to American slavery. After studying the meanings of beads in African and African American slave cultures, it became apparent that what I once thought was “a pretty necklace” holds so much more meaning to the women who made them.
Center, National Humanities. “Capture Selections from the Narratives of Former Slaves.” Capture in West Africa, Accounts from the Narratives of Former Slaves, WPA Narratives, 1936-1938 (n.d.): n. pag. National Humanities Center. Web.
Lee, Lori. “Beads, Coins, and Charms at a Poplar Forest Slave Cabin (1833-1858).” Northeast Historical Archaeology 6th ser. 40.1 (2011): 110. Digital Commons. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Lee, Lori. Figure 3. 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Ogundiran, Akinwumi. “Of Small Things Remembered: Beads, Cowries, and Cultural Translations of the Atlantic Experience in Yorubaland.”The International Journal of African Historical Studies 35.2/3 (2002): 432+. JSTOR. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnda. “Dunaway Intro. & Ch. 2.” Canvas. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnda. “Slavery & Slave Resistance.” Canvas. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Stine, Linda France. “Blue Beads as African-American Cultural Symbols.” Society for Historical Archaeology 30.3 (1996): 49, 55+. JSTOR. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
Yentsch, Anne. “Beads as Silent Witness to an African American Past: Social Identity and the Artifacts of Slavery in Annapolis, Maryland.”Academia (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.