The study of cultures in the African Diaspora is relatively young. Slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade brought numerous Africans, under forced and brutal conditions, to the New World. Of particular interest to many recent historians and Africanists is the extent to which Africans were able to transfer, retain, modify or transform their cultures under the conditions of their new environments. Three main schools of thought have emerged in scholarly discussion and research on this topic.
Some argue that there are no significant connections between Africans and African American communities in the Americas. Others argue that Africans retained significant aspects of their cultures. Similar to this argument, some have argued that Africans, responding to their new environments, retained and transformed African cultures into new African-American ethnic units. Detailed research done on slave communities in Surinam, South Carolina and Louisiana allow us to look deeper into the stated arguments.
Having recently addressed the same issues using Colonial South Carolina as a case study, I will focus largely on some of the arguments and conclusions drawn from this study. The evidence from South Carolina, Louisiana and Surinam supports the second and third arguments much more than the first. The third argument, that of cultural transformation, is the argument I find to be most valid. John Thornton’s analysis of this issue is extremely helpful. He addresses the “no connections” arguments in chapters 6, 7 and 8. He outlines the claims made by scholars Franklin Frazier, Stanley Elkins, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price.
Frazier and Mintz believe that the extreme trauma and disruption experienced by Africans during the process of enslavement and the middle passage minimized the possibility that they maintained aspects of their cultures in the new world. They argue that this process “had the effect of traumatizing and marginalizing them, so that they would became cultural receptacles rather than donors” (152). Mintz and Price have argued the slave trade had the effect of “permanently breaking numerous social bonds that had tied Africans together… ” (153).
Another element of the “no connections” argument claims that Africans did not receive enough associational time with each other or with those of similar ethnic backgrounds to ensure survival of cultural practices. Drawing largely upon the study of Anthropology, Thornton attempts to outline conditions for cultural survival and transformation. He contends these arguments stating that opportunities existed for viable communities to be formed, that there were prospects for passing on “changing cultural heritage to a new generation through training of offspring” and that there existed opportunities for Africans to associate with themselves (153).
Thornton finds much more evidence for cultural transformation than cultural “transplantation. ” He notes the tendency of researchers to focus on specific “Africanisms” rather than the cultural totality and stresses the fact that “cultures change through constant interaction with other cultures… ” (209, 207). I agree with Thornton’s analysis. As stated in a passage from our paper: It would be nave to think that after being enslaved and transported across the sea to a foreign continent African slaves were able to physically transplant their cultures in this new environment.
It would be equally nave to believe no elements of African culture made their way to this region... Africans were interacting with Europeans and other Africans of different ethnic groups, adapting to the realities of their new environments and transforming elements of both old and new into their own African-American culture. (Bright & Broderick 10). Evidence exists that shows Africans were allowed enough associational time to form viable communities, that they maintained strong family structures and that they exercised a large degree of control in the raising their own children.
An example for the argument of significant retention of Africanisms could be that of the Maroon communities in Surinam. In the film I Shall Molder Before I am Taken, we saw examples of African descendants separated from European masters, living largely isolated in the Jungle in a similar manner to that of their ancestors. The community was strikingly similar to the Asante communities described in the film Atumpan . There was much ceremonial detail in addressing the chief or headman of the village.
Just as with the Asante, citizens and visitors had to address the headman through an interpreter. Leadership was also determined through matrilineal lines as in Akan societies of Ghana. In felling a tree, the Saramaka would explain to the spirits how the tree was necessary for their survival and would be used wisely. They concluded by thanking the spirits and the forest for the tree and leaving an offering for its taking. The Saramaka also used mediums such as song, dance and stories to recreate and teach important elements of their history and culture.
All of these practices can be almost directly traced to their previous African societies. Still, the Saramaka Maroons lend sufficient proof to the argument of cultural transformation. Even after hundreds of years of isolation in the jungle, the Saramaka showed significant examples of cultural adaptation and borrowing. As witnessed in the Price Literature and Film, “everything from botanical medicines to basketry and fishing techniques was learned from the Native Americans” (Jason & Kirschensteiner 9).
Inquiring about the plants used by the medicine man to treat tendinitus, Price found that much of the treatment of disease and knowledge of medical plants was learned through Indians. The Maroon Creole language, consisting of a mixture of English, Portuguese, Dutch and African languages, is also symbolic of the cultural transformation that had taken place. Colonial Louisiana also provided opportunities for viable African maroon communities. The geographic environment of Louisiana with its bayous, thick swamps and intricate river system, contributed to the ability of Africans to evade capture and move about with relative freedom.
Gwendolyn Hall depicts how Africans created a network of “secret” communities in the cypress swamps surrounding plantations. These Maroons would hide out “for weeks, months and even years on or behind their master’s estates without being detected or apprehended” (Hall 203). Hall describes the creolization of Africans and Europeans in Colonial Louisiana: “Conditions prevailing… molded a Creole or Afro-American slave culture through the process of blending and adaptation of slave materials brought by the slaves… ” (159).
Lower mortality rates among slaves, levels of freedom gained through escape and survival in the swamps and a relatively small white population led Hall to characterize Louisiana as creating “the most Africanized slave culture in the Untied States” (161). Creole culture came out of a consolidation of African, European and Native American cultures. The dominance of African linguistic and cultural patterns made this culture predominately an Afro-Creole culture. Providing compelling evidence for the argument of transformations of African culture is the study of slave life in Colonial South Carolina.
Africans contributed tremendously to the successful settlement of the Colony and adapted and retained elements of their roots into unique African American communities. These communities included unique family and religious structures. Before the Stono Rebellion of 1739, slaves were allowed a considerable amount of freedom to associate among themselves. They were also encouraged to have families and allowed to exercise a large degree of autonomy in raising their children. As noted by Peter Wood, slave families; similar to African families, would serve an important function in passing down cultural heritage to the young.
In accordance with African tradition, South Carolina slaves relied on folk tales as the primary vehicle for education of young. Slaves modified these tales to fit their situation and environment in South Carolina. The traditional “trickster”, recurrent in West African folk tales, was replaced by the rabbit. In religious worship Africans adapted old traditions to their new situation. Many slaves in Colonial South Carolina became Christians. This was not done without adding elements of their previous beliefs systems.
Africans in Colonial South Carolina worshipped their new Christian god with ‘the kind of expressive behavior their African heritage taught them was appropriate for an important deity’ ” (Bright & Broderick 11). Slaves also used African forms such as dances, chants, trances and spirit possession in their practice of Christianity. The call and response pattern characteristic of West African music was adapted to this new religion. Sundays were designated as free days for South Carolina slaves and this day was often devoted to family, religious and community activities.
In this process of transformation there was also an element of rebellion. After having gained elements of community and family ethnic identity and freedom, slaves in Colonial South Carolina would not become totally accepting of their condition and would resist attempts to limit those freedoms they did have. An element of African culture that was modified for the purpose of rebellion was the use of poison. In the tradition of the West African Obeah-man, powers could be used to cure or to punish enemies. In this respect, poison could be used in a negative capacity.
The use of poison as a form of rebellion is visible in both the examples from Colonial South Carolina and Jamaica. Cases of death by poison in Colonial South Carolina leading up to the Stono Rebellion led to its inclusion in the Negro Act of 1740. The Act made poisoning a felony punishable by death. In conclusion, both significant African retentions and transformations took place in the early European settlement of the Americas. More recently, there has been a tendency to overemphasize or even romanticize the “Africanisms.
While acknowledging “Africanisms” did make their way into the Americas, I find the evidence from accounts of early slave cultures and the Anthropological background provided by Thornton on cultural transformation and change persuasive in suggesting the formation of Afro- American rather than “Afro-centric” communities. This approach to the slavery and the slave era is relatively young and will have to be developed. A conclusion that is clear after studying works of Peter Wood, Gwendolyn Hall and Richard Price, is that the early arguments suggesting no connection of African heritage to the Americas are entirely invalid.