The history of black Americans reveals a pattern of migration and separation, beginning with the great involuntary migration from Africa that separated a whole race of people from their homes and culture, thrusting them into a totally alien environment. This pattern continued throughout their incarceration, as black families were abruptly sundered and husbands, wives, and children flung far and wide among the great plantations of the South, where voluntary movement was curbed and blacks could not travel without a pass.
As described by Eric Foner, these forced migrations and restrictions on free movement created not only a deep social disruption among them but a spiritual dislocation that resulted in a flurry of movement once they were manumitted. “With emancipation, it seemed that half the South's black population took to the roads. 'Right off colored folks started on the move,' a Texas slave later recalled. 'They seemed to want to get closer to freedom, so they'd know what it was—like it was a place or a city'” (80). The movement of blacks after emancipation was a physical expression of a profound spiritual and social disquietude built up through the centuries of slavery. This restless wandering had its roots in the slave experience and was at the heart of every tale told from an African viewpoint. In the “King Buzzard Tale,” for example, a wandering buzzard represents a traitorous tribal chieftain, but its metaphorical implications seem to include all enslaved Africans, the essential conclusion being that slavery leads to a destruction of spiritual moorings, resulting in restlessness.
Contrary to sociological expectations that forced migrations and their attendant spiritual anxiety would destroy any sense of familial obligation among them, former slaves strengthened their family ties by legalizing their marriage bonds or by adopting orphaned children rather than see them apprenticed to white masters. It is not surprising, therefore, that immediately after emancipation, the desire to travel was also spurred by the effort to reunite families. Foner regards this as the most “poignant ... of all the motivations for black mobility” and reports that the Freedman's Bureau did not consider the work of emancipation complete “until the families which had been dispersed by slavery were reunited” (82).
The very process of familial disruption by slavery, according to Sterling Stuckey, engendered a larger, communal affinity among blacks linked by the collective bond of their suffering and the commonality of their African past. “The final gift of African 'tribalism' in the nineteenth century was its life as a lingering memory in the minds of American slaves. That memory enabled them to go back to the sense of community in the traditional African setting and to include all Africans in their common experience of oppression in North America” (3). Although slavery was dehumanizing and deleterious to the preservation of a sense of community and resulted in fracturing communal bonds among the slaves, it was never able to shatter them completely. The migration of blacks can therefore be viewed not only as an attempt to find lost family...