Broomsticks and Material Cultures of Cleanliness in American Slavery

By Tyler Parry | Black Perspectives

In 1901 preeminent Black Sociologist W.E.B. Du Dois published an essay entitled, “The Home of the Slave,” which detailed his findings about plantation landscapes, the architecture of slave cabins, and his reflections on the difficulties Black people faced in maintaining a domestic space under American slavery. He noted that the system’s brutalities were not only manifested through labor, but that an enslaved person’s denigration was woven into the plantation’s environment and its architecture. Essentially, “The Home of a Slave” was equated to familial destruction and personal demoralization. Du Bois’s essay was an innovative venture because it explored the material culture of slavery when few white scholars believed African American history was worth intellectual pursuit. However, he presumed that enslaved people were so dejected by their bondage that they developed a “lack of hygiene customs,” since Black families were often ruptured “and the traditions of the white environment never learned.” Like others of his time, he was especially critical of Black southerners’ perceived unhealthy behaviors, believing slavery produced a culture of degenerate habits.

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