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Sippi Slaves Intimate Relationships

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Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
On board the over 30,000 voyages from Africa to the Americas were the first real incubators of Slave intimate cross-cultural relationships. The Yorubas, Akans, Ibos, Angolans, and others were often as much strangers to each other as to their European captors. These relationships fostered resistance to slavery and forged the first links with their new American identities. The conditions under which this occurred were on ships legally limited to carrying 350 people but actually carrying 800 or more men, women, and children. This trip—the ultimate in evil, sadistic, and dehumanizing experiences in all of slavery—occurred in branded Slaves stripped naked for the duration of the voyage; lying down amidst filth and dysentery; enduring almost unbearable heat or cold; compelled by the lash to dance on deck to straighten their limbs; and women and boys being sexually abused. Some Slaves killed other Slaves; some killed themselves; and some were prevented from starving to death by being whipped, tortured with hot coal, or crews breaking their teeth so as to do force feeding.

Nevertheless, two Slaves adjacent to each other devised very simple cooperative efforts to create social bonds while in coffles.  Partly because Slave males and females were kept separate, these bonds were between members of the same sex (Mintz, African-American Culture p44). From these relationships came the terms Sippi (‘ship’) in Surinam Dutch Guiana; Sibi (“malungo” in Brazil; “malongue” in Trinidad; “mati” in Suriname; “bâtiments” in Haitian or Creole (from the French for ship), and shipmate in Jamaica—terms synonymous with “brother” or “sister”—terms implying dearness and a bond of affectionate compassion. So strong were “shipmate” bonds—first between members of the same gender and later between a woman and man—that certain normal occurrences in such relationships were simply not done. For example, sexual intercourse between a woman and man was considered incestuous. Otherwise, the spiritual essence carried inside these bonds extended widely and interpenetrated with biological kin ties. This occurred with such force that those involved would look upon each other’s children mutually as their own.  Furthermore, it became customary for children to call their parents’ shipmates “uncle” and “aunt.”

Then the term “sippi” (a synonym for “shipmate”) began to be used between Slaves who belonged to a single plantation in order to preserve the essential notion of fellow sufferers who share a special bond.  The relationship developed between “Sippi” has persisted to become the tow-rope inside the pattern of social organization that continues to influence ongoing social relations between lower and middle class Blacks. In the process, meanings of “Sippi” branched.  One branch is that “sippi” (or “sibi”) refers to a special, non-biological dyadic (two people) relationship with very similar symbolic content. For example, when two people find themselves victims of a parallel misfortune (e.g. two women whose husbands deserted them at about the same time), they thenceforth may address each other as “sibi” and adopt a special prescribed mutual relationship.  Sibi and its African diaspora equivalents —which imply same-sex dyadic ties—tend to occur with random Blacks when they are thrust into an institutional, depersonalizing setting (e.g. prison or boot camp).  Between slavery and now, this Sibi process, retaining its original African-American enslavement and transport bonding concept, has helped to shape organizations and leaders in all-Black communities. It is part of the bonding mystique between Blacks meeting for the first time. (Reference: Bailey, “Special” Minds Among Struggling Black Americans).

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