African Ideograms in African American Cemeteries

By Rachel Malcolm-Woods

Marks and objects in cemeteries that look merely decorative to the uninformed eye may be African signs and symbols. This iconography in cemeteries can be divided into three categories: 1) sign systems of African origins, 2) secular objects as surrogates for ideograms and 3) revival of African traditions, interpreted in new ways. Examples of such African retentions (subconscious transmissions from prior generations) exist in burial grounds and established cemeteries, particularly in the Southern United States.

A cemetery in George Washington National Forest in Amherst County, Va., is a good example. For decades, observers have commented that the gravestones had “strange marks.” Recently, these marks have been identified by this writer as African ideograms originating in Nigeria. The gravestones are inscribed with what appears to be Nsibidi, an Igbo writing system, confirming the survival of Igbo traditions during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Made of high-quality blue slate indigenous to the area and mined from a local quarry, the stones show little damage from weather or time. Subsequently, the place was named the “Seventeen Stones Cemetery.”

The African Presence in America, Ogam-Ichi Marks Petroglyphs West Virginia, Virginia Igbo Ideograms, New Africa Mississippi, Timbuctoo New Jersey, Africa Ohio, Africa Town, Guinea Virginia,  – Haki Kelli Shakur

The stones were probably engraved between 1770 to 1830, when the Igbo Diaspora was at its height in Virginia. At that time, the Igbo people comprised approximately 70 percent of the blacks in Virginia, a larger percentage than in any other Southern state.

A star symbol at the top of one stone, signifying “congress” or “unity” has similarities to the Kongo cosmogram that depicts the life cycle of birth, life, death and the afterlife. The cosmogram symbol has equal perpendicular crossbars or lines, sometimes contained in a diamond shape or a circle. Here, the linear symbol in the lower register appears to be a combination of the sign for “individual” and “this land is mine.” Together the signs mean the deceased has joined the realm of the ancestors. Both symbols are enclosed in a rectangle, denoting their association. A line separating the symbols emphasizes they are separate but one.

Igbo ideograms were important elements of religious practice and served as mnemonic devices associated with religion and with moral and historical narratives. In Igbo death and burial traditions, Nsibidi symbols honoring the ancestors were thought to protect the deceased. The most appropriate place to honor one’s forefathers was the cemetery. At times, the deceased were consulted for help with day-to-day problems. Items such as chickens, rum and schnapps were offered as gifts for the deceased during a grave-side ceremony.


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