Honoring the Ancestors: Kongo-American Graves in the American South

Photo of gravestone

Elizabeth Fenn

Magazine cover reading "The quiet epidemic: Gay-baiting as right-wing tactic. Gay-baiting is new in Southern politics. There is reason to believe that it will replace racism and anti-communism on the top of the bag of tricks of conservative Southern politicians."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 5, "The Quiet Epidemic: Gay-baiting as Right-wing Tactic." Find more from that issue here.

In recent years Southern religion has increasingly been stereotyped through proliferating images of conservative, white, Bible-thumping ministers of the Jerry Falwell variety. Yet such images, to which the media seem particularly attached, obscure the great diversity of religious traditions that have contributed to Southern culture. Not all of these traditions are Judeo-Christian in origin. Native Americans adhered to their own distinctive and widely differing religious beliefs long before the first Europeans set foot in the South. And the black slaves forced to accompany these Europeans contributed the classical religions of West Africa to the Southern cultural blend. Through struggle and creativity Afro-Americans have kept important aspects of these religions alive for centuries.1

Today, one of the most visible manifestations of West African religious thought in the New World can be found in the black cemeteries of the South, where many meaningful and seemingly unusual objects adorn individual graves. Ranging from bed frames and bathroom tiles to car parts and Christmas tinsel, these decorations reveal artistic and philosophical roots in the ancient Kongo civilization of central Africa. That Kongo traditions remain particularly visible is not surprising. Of the 500,000 West Africans shipped to North America in the course of the slave trade, more came from Kongo and Angolan ports than from any other single area of the West African coast. Captives from these ports were especially prominent among the slaves entering the United States during the trade's final peak period around 1800.2 

The Bakongo people constitute the demographic heart of Kongo civilization. Like many West African peoples, the Bakongo and related cultural groups believe in the continuing influence of the dead in this world. But unlike West Africans such as the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Bakongo do not worship a great pantheon of gods. Instead they recognize one almighty god who has given them medicinal powers through the ancestral spirits who constitute the primary spiritual actors in the Kongo cosmos. 

The Bakongo believe that we live in a divided world. The world with which most of us are familiar is of course that of the living. But beneath us, according to Kongo tradition, there lies another world — that of the dead. The land of the dead is a world upside down, a world that is in some ways a mirror image of this world. (Hence for the Bakongo death is the inversion of life.) The two worlds are connected by water, and the Bakongo believe that gleaming ancestral spirits can be seen in the flash of the sun's rays off of oceans, lakes, and streams.3 

The Bakongo communicate with the dead through charms called minkisi. In fact, Kongo minkisi are an important source for Afro-American traditions of conjure and charm-making. Among the Bakongo, graves are the ultimate charm, providing a particularly effective medium for communicating with the dead. Hence the Bakongo often cover graves with an array of objects intended to admonish, appease, and instruct ancestral spirits.4 

In the Afro-American cemeteries of the South, often associated with Christian churches, Kongo decorative traditions remain strong. And although these traditions have in some cases taken on new meanings in the Christian context, revealing the enormous creativity that has long been a hallmark of Afro-American culture, the accounts of early folklorists confirm their West African origins. 

Among the objects most frequently placed on Kongo graves are the personal effects of the deceased — things that might continue to be of use in the spirit world. A late nineteenth-century observer noted that the Bakongo "mark the final resting-places of their friends by ornamenting their graves with crockery, empty bottles, old cooking-pots, etc." By placing such objects on a grave, the Bakongo insured that the spirit would not return to this world in search of favorite or much needed items.5 

Many Afro-American graves are decorated in a similar fashion. Although her testimony was unfortunately recorded in racist dialect, a Georgia woman interviewed in the 1930s makes this quite clear. "I dohn guess yuh be bodduh much by duh spirits," she explained, "ef yuh gib em a good fewnul an put duh tings what belong tuh em on top uh duh grave." According to Ben Washington from Pine Barrens, Georgia, people placed last-used objects and personal effects on graves because "duh spirits need deze same as duh man. Den duh spirit res an dohn wanduh bout." Folklorist Elsie Parsons noted similar traditions in the South Carolina Sea Islands early in the twentieth century. "To keep the deceased 'from frettin' — goin' back,' " she explained, "the cup and saucer used in the last sickness should be placed on the grave."6 

Graves with just such decorations can be found throughout the black South today. At an A.M.E. Zion church in Bladen County, North Carolina, an inverted coffee cup marks the site of one woman's grave. Next to it is a grave decorated with a candy jar and an inverted plastic bowl. A black Baptist church in the same county contains graves marked by jugs, pitchers, ceramic figurines, and an upside-down bowl. Far to the west in Cass County, Texas, empty snuff bottles denote the outlines of another black grave, recreating the luumbu, or protective enclosure, that commonly surrounds Kongo graves and royal compounds.7 

The fact that the items on Afro- American graves are often inverted is also consistent with Kongo tradition. The Bakongo often invert grave goods in symbolic recognition of a spirit world which is itself "upside-down" — the mirror image of the world of the living.8 

Grave decorations are frequently broken as well. In 1891 E. J. Glave observed that the glass and ceramicware in Kongo cemeteries was "all cracked or perforated with holes." Some three decades later another European noted the same phenomenon. The objects on Kongo graves, according to John H. Weeks, "are generally broken, i.e. killed, that their spirits may go to their former owner in the spirit town." Other West African cultures adhere to related beliefs.9 

In her recent autobiography singer Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Islands recalled similar traditions in the Afro-American context. Before Sea Island blacks put objects on graves, she explained, "they'd punch holes in the bottom of the glasses and such." One explanation for this practice comes from Rosa Sallins of Harris Neck, Georgia: "Yuh break duh dishes so dat duh chain will be broke. Yuh see, duh one pusson is dead an ef yuh dohn break duh tings, den, duh udduhs in duh fambly will die too." An explanation closer to that of the Bakongo comes from Texas folklorist Dorothy Jean Michael. Grave goods, she writes, "must be cracked: only in that way can the spirit be released from its porcelain prison to go to the next world and serve the dead owner."10 

Ceramics and glassware are not the only items of personal significance decorating the graves of Afro-Americans. Two North Carolina cemeteries, one in Chatham County and the other in Robeson County, contain burial sites decorated with images of guitars. One guitar was painstakingly fashioned out of plywood. The other, probably made by a florist, consists of styrofoam and artificial flowers. 

Santeria: Afro-Cuban Religion in Miami

The 1980 Mariel exodus, in which some 125,000 Cuban "boat people" emigrated to the United States, has brought a new infusion of African religion into the South. Many Cubans, both black and white, participate in a religion known as Santeria. In places like Miami, where Cubans have had an enormous cultural impact in recent years, Santeria is growing at a very rapid pace. 

In its basics, Santeria consists of a blend of Catholicism with Yoruba and Dahomean religions from the countries we know today as Nigeria and the Republic of Benin. Although the Yoruba and Dahomean religions are closely related, it was the Yoruba who had the greatest influence on the structure of Santeria. 

Followers of the religion worship the Yoruba gods, or orisha, many of whom have fused with the Catholic saints. For example Ochun, the goddess of sweet water and love, has for obvious reasons become affiliated with St. Valentine. Chango, the fiery god who mistakenly killed his family while playing with a lightning bolt, merges with St. Barbara, whose father was struck by lightning after he jealously imprisoned his own daughter. The Yoruba god of smallpox and pestilence, called Babaluaiye by the Cubans, is associated with the crippled St. Lazarus, whose body is covered with oozing sores. 

The ongoing worship of these African gods is most visible today in the many botanicas (herbal pharmacies) scattered throughout the Cuban sections of Miami. In these Afro-Cuban religious supply stores one might purchase cigars to use as offerings to Ellegua, the trickster god who guards the crossroads and controls communication. Or one could buy strands of blue and white beads for Yemaya, the goddess of the sea. Some botanicas also offer consultations for people seeking advice regarding particular problems or quests. 

Shrines to the various gods can be found in botanicas, in private homes, and in the templos devoted to Santeria. At the heart of each shrine are the stones, always hidden from view, which embody the personal power and life force of each of the orisha. Because of their great importance the stones receive special care and feeding through animal sacrifices. 

In the rituals of Santeria, which are performed for a variety of purposes, the "children" of the various orisha dance and sing to African drumming, and in some cases become possessed by one of the gods. 

As Cuban influence continues to spread throughout the South, we can expect Santeria to become increasingly visible in urban areas, as it already is in Miami, New York, and New Jersey. — Elizabeth Fenn 

Elsewhere, a beautiful car wheel with two wrenches welded to it decorates the grave of a Fort Bragg mechanic. Made and placed on his grave by his fellow workers, this marker is but one example of a whole genre of decorations associated with cars and the mechanical arts. Automobile drive shafts seem to be particularly common on black grave sites. Although automobiles are clearly icons of the modern world, in a Kongo cemetery the concrete form of a car marks the grave of "a man who was a noted driver." On the Caribbean island of St. Thomas there are black graves decorated with car mufflers and batteries. And in Haiti, where the Bakongo made important contributions to the religion usually known as "voodoo" but correctly called vodun, it is still common practice to bury people with the tools of their trade.11 

The writings of the early twentieth-century explorer John H. Weeks give us clues to other Kongo-American funerary traditions. According to Weeks beds were among the items commonly needed by spirits in the Kongo world of the dead. When a man or woman's spouse died the surviving partner sometimes carried the bed of the deceased into a stream and broke it apart, letting the pieces float away with the current. Thus the bed was symbolically "killed" in order that its spirit might be free to travel, via water, to its owner in the other world. In other cases the bed remained intact as a grave marker.12 

Beds and bed frames mark the sites of graves throughout the black Atlantic world. A photograph from the Belgian Congo in 1944 shows a wooden bed frame marking a burial site. In Texas an immense tomb "shaped like a king-sized bed, complete with an imposing headboard and two-poster footboard" sits on top of a grave of unknown ethnic origins. Metal bed frames have been observed in a black cemetery on the island of St. Thomas and in two separate black graveyards in Hale County, Alabama. One of the Hale County burying grounds once contained two bed frames, side by side, where a married couple rests for eternity. Only one of the bed frames survives today. The other disappeared not long after an antique dealer passed through the area and inquired about purchasing one of the beds. Local residents informed him that neither of the beds was for sale. Several nights later one of the two gravemarkers disappeared. Apparently the antique dealer was unfamiliar with Plat-eye, the spirit who, according to Afro-American folklore, spells the doom of people who steal from graves.13 

Other cemetery decorations recall different Kongo traditions. Scholar Robert Farris Thompson pointed out that shells from the sea are emblems of the cosmos and the spiraling cycle of life and death in Kongo religious thought. Their white color recalls the chalky hue of the spirit world, a world that according to Kongo thought is connected to our own by the very sea which casts shells upon our shores.14 

It is no accident therefore that shells are among the objects most commonly found upon graves in the coastal South. Georgia Sea Island singer Bessie Jones explained in an interview, "The shells upon our graves stand for water, the means of glory and the land of demise." One scholar surveyed some 687 Afro-American gravesites in the South Carolina Sea Islands and found that 100 of them bore seashell decorations. In Texas and the Carolinas shells can be found in inland areas as well. "Nearly every [black] grave," noted an 1892 observer in Columbia, South Carolina, "has bordering or thrown upon it a few bleached seashells of a dozen different kinds, such as are found along the south Atlantic coast."15 

Pipes used for drainage and household plumbing, laden with watery associations, also serve decorative purposes in the cemeteries of Afro-America. A black graveyard in Virginia contains a marker made of two bent metal pipes united at the top by a faucet. Black cemeteries in North and South Carolina, Texas, Missouri, and New York boast large ceramic drain pipes and narrower metal and plastic pipes as grave decorations.16 

Like shells and pipes, bathroom tiles are commonly associated with water. In many of our homes such tiles cover shower floors and the walls behind kitchen sinks. But outside our homes bathroom tiles find different uses. In three widely separated but heavily Kongo-influenced lands, West African aesthetic values have developed independently along strikingly similar lines. In Haiti many black cemeteries now contain tombs covered with gleaming bathroom tiles. Similar gravemarkers can be found in the Afro-American cemeteries of North Carolina and, remarkably, in the Kongo cemeteries of West Africa.17 

Water may be important in explaining other Afro-American grave decorations as well, and the significance of water in Kongo thought may have been reinforced by its use in Christian baptism. The notable predominance of pitchers in black cemeteries (usually with their bottoms broken out) may have to do with their symbolic associations with water. When the Georgia Writers Project interviewed Margaret Snead of Pin Point in the 1930s, the black woman recalled that among the many items set upon her friend Catherine De Lancy's grave was "duh pitchuh she made ice water in."18 

The great black folklorist Zora Neale Hurston sheds further light on the importance of water to the spirit world in an account of her initiation as a conjure doctor in New Orleans. For three days she lay "silent and fasting while my spirit went wherever spirits must go that seek answers never given to men as men." During that time, Hurston says, "I could have no food, but a pitcher of water was placed on a small table at the head of the couch, that my spirit might not waste time in search of water which would be spent in search of the Power-Giver. The spirit must have water, and if none had been provided it would wander in search of it." This account comes immediately to mind when one sees a black grave in eastern Georgia with a sealed plastic jug of water placed squarely in the middle of the mound.19 

One of the most striking characteristics of Afro-American graves is that they sparkle in the sun. Cracked and broken glassware, Christmas tinsel, silver paint, bathroom tiles, mirrors, marbles, "mailbox" letters, and reflective red driveway markers all contribute to the glittery appearance of certain black cemeteries. Like other funerary traditions, this too can be traced to Kongo traditions and aesthetics. Just as the Bakongo see the spirits of ancestors in the brilliant reflection of the sun in water, they see the same spirits in other shining objects. In fact, such objects once formed an essential part of Kongo charms. "Bakongo ritual experts," writes Robert F. Thompson, "used to embed the glittering, iridescent wing-case of a particular kind of beetle into their charms as 'something full of light, like water, that you can see through, to the other world.'"20 

Similar items are used in Afro-American charms. Blacks in the U. S. South interviewed by Newbell Niles Puckett in the 1920s included objects such as silver coins, a "glistening mineral like polished lead," or "tinfoil (representing the brightness of the little spirit who was going to be in the ball)" in their charms. Likewise, many blacks and whites throughout the South understood that a shining piece of glass or a mirror could capture the spirit of the newly deceased. Hence many folklorists have noted that as soon as someone died, all mirrors, clocks, and pictures in the room with the deceased were either covered or turned to the wall. If this precaution was not taken, Puckett explained, the "reflection of the corpse might permanently hold in either the pictures or the mirrors."21 

Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps elaborate on the mystical powers of glass and mirrors in their collection of black folklore. To see a spirit, they say, take a mirror into a graveyard and follow the prescribed ritual procedure. "You will see his reflection in the mirror and ask him what you please." Zora Neale Hurston recounts a similar ritual that is filled with Kongo imagery. "Ghosts cannot cross water," she says, "so that if a hoodoo doctor wishes to sic a dead spirit upon a man who lives across water, he must first hold the mirror ceremony to fetch the victim from across the water."22 

In some instances the animated, flashy aesthetic so apparent in black graveyards is rendered in more symbolic forms. One scholar in the 1920s found more than 20 lamps in a small Alabama burying ground. Another counted lamps on 71 graves on the South Carolina coast, "while six other graves had articles for lighting, [such] as lamp-wick, burner, chimney, broken shade, candlestand, and [the] bottom of [a] glass candle-holder, while five graves had lamp shades. Three graves had electric light bulbs and two had dry cell batteries." Lampshades, brass lamps, and candlestick holders can still be found in the Afro-American graveyards of North Carolina and Georgia, and they no doubt exist in other locations as well. The light from such objects, according to North Carolina folklorists, "will lead the deceased to glory."23 

To argue that the rich funerary arts of Afro-America have roots in classical Kongo religion and aesthetics is not to say that present-day practitioners still see the world in Kongo terms. Traditions such as these can take on new (often Christian) meanings, or they may survive as aesthetic values alone. But as the accounts of tum-of-the-century folklorists make clear, Kongo concepts and their material manifestations continue to influence the American artistic landscape. In the realm of graveyards, there may be no better evidence for this than the surprisingly African appearance of a few white cemeteries scattered across the South. While there are numerous European and Native American traditions that could explain the presence of a great variety of decorations on these graves, the likelihood of Kongo influence across racial boundaries cannot be ignored. Just as most black cemeteries contain European-style engraved headstones, some white cemeteries contain Kongo-style shells, ceramicware, and household objects. Indeed, this is but one indication of how Afro-American we have all become. 



1. Except where otherwise noted, the observations in this article are based on the author's fieldwork. 

2. Philip D. Curtin, The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (Madison, 1969), pp. 129, 144, 150, 157. 

3. Discussions of Kongo religious thought can be found in the following sources: John M. Janzen and Wyatt MacGaffey, eds., An Anthology of Kongo Religion (Lawrence, Kansas, 1974); Wyatt MacGaffey, "The West in Congolese Experience," in Philip D. Curtin, ed., Africa and the West (Madison, 1972), pp. 49-74; Robert Farris Thompson and Joseph Comet, The Four Moments of the Sun: Kongo Art in Two Worlds (Washington, D. C., 1981); and Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York, 1983), chap. 2. 

4. Thompson, Four Moments, pp. 34-39, 141-147, 181-186; and Thompson, Flash, pp. 132-145. 

5. E. J. Glave, "Fetishism in Congo Land," The Century Magazine 41 (1891), 835. 

6. Dialect appears in this article only for the sake of accuracy when I am quoting from published sources. In all other cases it has been (and should be) avoided due to its clearly racist application. Folklorists have tended to use dialect to indicate race and class rather than to record actual speech patterns. There is, after all, no difference in the pronunciation of "was" and "wuz" or "when" and "wen." Yet "wuz" and "wen" are used repeatedly in written renditions of black speech. Georgia Writers Project (GWP), Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies Among Georgia Coastal Negroes (Athens, Ga., 1940), p. 136; Elsie Clews Parsons, Folk-lore of the Sea Islands, South Carolina (Cambridge, Mass., 1923), p. 214. 

7. Terry G. Jordan, Texas Graveyards: A Cultural Legacy (Austin, 1982), p. 22. 

8. Thompson, Flash, 142. 

9. Glave, "Fetishism," 835; John H. Weeks, Among the Primitive Bakongo (London, 1914), p. 272; Thompson, Four Moments, 184-185. 

10. Bessie Jones, For the Ancestors: Autobiographical Memories, ed. John Stewart (Urbana, 1983), p. 76; GWP, Drums, 87; Dorothy Jean Michael, "Grave Decoration," Publications of the Texas Folklore Society 18 (1943), 131. 

11. I would like to thank Tom Hatley for giving me directions to the Fort Bragg mechanic's grave. Thompson, Four Moments, 202; Alfred Metraux, Voodoo in Haiti (1959; rpt. New York, 1972), p. 247. David Brown of Yale University has kindly shared with me his observations on black graveyards in St. Thomas. 

12. Weeks, Bakongo, 273. 

13. Many friends and colleagues have generously provided me with information from their own research on beds in black cemeteries. The information leading me to the Kongo photograph came from Robert Farris Thompson of Yale University. David Brown of Yale told me about the St. Thomas grave. Sydney Nathans of Duke University deserves credit for both the photograph and the information about the Hale County cemetery from which a bed was stolen. Documentation for the other Hale County grave can be found in William Christenberry, Southern Photographs (New York, 1983), p. 37. On the Texas grave see Jordan, Texas Graveyards, 10. 

14.Thompson, Flash, 135; and Thompson, Four Moments, 197-198. 

15. I am grateful to David Wilcox of Harvard for sharing his research on black graves with shell decorations in Denison, Texas. Thompson, Flash, 135; Samuel Miller Lawton, "The Religious Life of South Carolina and Sea Island Negroes," (unpublished PhD. dissertation, George Peabody College for Teachers, June 1939), pp. 197-218; Jordan, Texas Graveyards, 23; Ernest Ingersoll, "Decoration of Negro Graves," Journal of American Folklore 5 (1892), 68. 

16. Thompson, Four Moments, 193-195. David Wilcox of Harvard has kindly provided me with a copy of his photograph of a black grave in Denison, Texas, marked by a drain pipe. 

17. Thompson, Flash, 84. 

18. GWP, Drums, 87. 

19. Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (Philadelphia, 1935), p. 281. 

20. I am grateful to David Sullivan of Yale University for showing me his photograph of driveway reflectors marking a grave on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Thompson, Four Moments, 198. 

21. Newbell Niles Puckett, The Magic and Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926; rpt. New York, 1969), pp. 81, 228, 233. 

22. Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds., The Book of Negro Folklore (New York, 1958), p. 163; Hurston, Mules, 282. 

23. Puckett, Folk Beliefs, 106; Lawton, "Religious Life," 203; Paul G. Brewster, ed., The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore (Durham, 1964), 1:260.