Coats of arms are a European tradition, originally used to identify knights and nobles in armor. They were hereditary symbols that helped distinguish one person or family from another. Coats of arms are less common among black families, since most blacks in America descended from enslaved Africans who were denied the right to bear a coat of arms. However, some notable black families and individuals have adopted coats of arms to represent their heritage.
History of Heraldry
Heraldry, the system of coats of arms, originated in medieval Europe dating back to the 12th century. Knights wore armor covering their entire body, so they needed symbols on shields and standards to identify themselves. These designs were passed down through noble families. Specific colors, animals, and symbols were used to create unique identifying coats of arms.
Heraldry was strictly regulated, as only those of noble birth were permitted to bear arms. Commoners and slaves were prohibited from using coats of arms. This tradition was later adopted by European colonists. Coats of arms in Europe and the Americas signified lineage and status.
Coats of Arms Denied to Enslaved Africans
During the colonial period in America, blacks were brought over as slaves from Africa starting in the early 1600s. They were kidnapped, forced into slavery, and denied basic human rights. Enslaved blacks had no claims to noble status and thus were barred from legally bearing a coat of arms.
Slave codes in the colonies explicitly prohibited slaves from owning property, reading and writing, bearing arms, and other privileges. Coats of arms were reserved for wealthy white plantation owners in the South who saw themselves as the American nobility. Even after slavery officially ended in 1865, blacks still faced enormous discrimination and were excluded from many institutions of mainstream society.
Modern Use of Coats of Arms by Black Families
Today, there are no legal restrictions preventing black families from creating and using coats of arms if they choose to do so. While coats of arms are not common among black families, some have adopted them as symbols of pride in their heritage.
Here are some notable coats of arms designed for black individuals and families:
- Barack Obama – America’s first black president famously used a coat of arms with the motto “Vero Possumus” (Yes we can). It featured symbols representing his diverse ancestry and values.
- Oprah Winfrey – The famous media mogul Oprah Winfrey has a coat of arms with butterflies representing transformation and new beginnings.
- George Washington Carver – The coat of arms for this renowned scientist features peanuts, sweet potatoes, and a book symbolizing his academic research and innovations.
- Martin Luther King Jr. – The coat of arms representing MLK’s legacy shows a lion symbolizing courage, a cross representing faith, and the word “Hope.”
- Harriet Tubman – Her coat of arms has symbols of freedom including a pine cone, train, and north star with the motto “Liberty or Death.”
- Tuskegee Airmen – This group of pioneering black WWII pilots has a coat of arms with symbols of flight like wings, a plane, and star.
These examples illustrate how modern black families and individuals have chosen to adopt coats of arms that represent their history and values. The symbols and mottos reflect their priorities and accomplishments.
Creating New Family Coats of Arms
For black families interested in developing their own coat of arms, the first step is to identify meaningful symbols and images related to your heritage. These could include:
- National or ethnic origins – Such as pan-African colors or Adinkra symbols from West Africa
- Cultural elements – Images from folk stories, music, dance, cuisine, values
- Family history – Symbols related to your family name, ancestry, or migration stories
- Achievements – Images representing careers, education, military service, sports, community leadership, etc.
- Personal interests – Visuals related to hobbies, causes, interests, or philosophies
The key is choosing symbols that authentically resonate with your family’s background and identity. The images should be arranged in a visually balanced style. Meaningful words or phrases can be incorporated as a motto.
There are no rules dictating what families can include in their coat of arms. The elements should be significant and respectful. You may wish to work with an artist or heraldry expert to refine the design.
Importance for the Black Community
Historically, coats of arms were exclusive symbols of white nobility not accessible to people of African descent. Today, blacks have reclaimed this tradition to commemorate their heritage on their own terms.
Creating family coats of arms allows black families to proudly embrace their identity and leave a lasting symbol for future generations. The tradition represents acknowledgement of progress in overcoming past discrimination.
|Honoring heritage||Coats of arms allow honoring family origins, values, and achievements.|
|Claiming status||Bearing a coat of arms enables black families to assert their dignity.|
|Teaching youth||The symbols in a family coat of arms visualize history for children.|
|Building legacy||Coats of arms create an enduring record of family pride for future generations.|
Coats of arms affirm that black families can now enjoy the same rights of heraldic recognition that were historically denied to them. The tradition allows black families to take pride in their collective experiences and progress.
Heraldic Principles and Design Tips
For those interested in creating a coat of arms, there are some traditional heraldic principles to keep in mind:
The design should be simple, bold, and easy to recognize. Limit the number of colors and avoid overly intricate details.
Each element should have symbolic meaning related to your heritage, values, accomplishments, or identity.
The same coat of arms design is used by all family members and passed down across generations.
Standard heraldic colors include red, blue, black, green, purple, gold/yellow and silver/white. Choose colors with significance.
The shield outline can be divided into sections using lines or patterns with symbolic meaning.
Charges are images like animals, objects, crosses, and geometric shapes. Each charge should represent something specific.
A crest sits atop the shield, usually consisting of an object like a bird, animal, plant, helmet, crown, etc.
A motto is a short phrase with aspirational or identity-related meaning. It is placed on a scroll under the shield.
Some coats of arms feature supporters—figures that flank and “support” the shield. These are often animals or human figures.
By following basic heraldic conventions while personalizing your coat of arms with symbols relevant to your family, you can create a meaningful and effective emblem. Display your family coat of arms proudly as a testament to your heritage.
Famous Black Families with Coats of Arms
While coats of arms are not as widely used among black families as other ethnic groups, some notable families have adopted them. Here are a few examples:
This musically renowned family includes singer Beyoncé, rapper Jay-Z and their daughter Blue Ivy. Elements in their crest include a bee, diamond, lion ram and lovebirds.
The Knowles Family
This is the family of Beyoncé’s mother Tina Knowles. Their coat of arms features three crowns said to represent father, mother and child.
The Cheeks Family
Entertainer KC of KC & JoJo has a coat of arms representing his family’s Louisiana roots with a fleur de lis, crawfish, trumpet and Mardi Gras colors.
The Royal Family of Akuapem
The Ghanaian royal family has a coat of arms with traditional Adinkra symbols, elephant, swords and eagle.
The Shackleton Family
Relative of explorer Matthew Henson has a coat of arms with polar bear, compass rose and Arctic motifs honoring Henson’s achievements.
The Walker Family Crest
This coat of arms represents the lineage of Madam C.J. Walker – pioneering black entrepreneur and philanthropist.
While not as historically ingrained in black culture as European nobility, coats of arms are increasingly embraced as representations of pride, hope and leadership. For modern black families, creating a coat of arms is a way to celebrate how far they have come. The tradition allows them to memorialize their origins, chart their own course, and leave a legacy for future generations. A coat of arms serves as a reminder of the triumphs, innovations and contributions of blacks throughout history.