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The Legacy of African Culture in North America


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The Legacy of African Culture in North America

  1. 1. The Legacy of African Culture in North America<br />Michelle Babb<br />Mrs. Corning<br />U.S. History <br />19 January 2011<br />The Legacy of African Culture in North America<br />When the Africans were shipped from their homeland and forced into slavery in North America during the 16th through 19th centuries, they lost their homes, their families, and their rights as human beings. Despite being torn away from their native cultures in Africa, the slaves, many of whom suffered endless physical and mental anguish, tried to maintain the African culture and way of life even while living under the oppression of their European American slave-owners. As a result, cultures from their homeland developed in North America as the slaves spread the traditional customs of their African heritage. Characteristic African traditions, such as a belief in the supernatural and its folklore, the importance of music and dance, and particular family principles and values such as family, religion, and language then developed into some of the most distinguishing aspects of African-American culture in North America today.<br />While in North America, the African slaves sustained both their beliefs in the super-natural and the traditional customs of storytelling through native African folklore. To adapt to the cultural shock of their new surroundings, the slaves began to involve the traditional African belief of ghosts and of spirit possession into their lives. For the African slaves, “beliefs [in ghosts or spirit possession] resembled the African concept of the living dead” (Norton 252), who were deceased relatives that inhabited the Earth until the process of dying was achieved (Norton 252); these beliefs extended throughout the North American continent during this time. In the Caribbean, the integration of the physical and spiritual became imperative, and “ancestors, spirits, and deities played an active role in the daily lives of the living” (Smith). Jamaican slaves, in particular, “brought their belief in duppies from West Africa” (Lyons 39); duppies, to these slaves, were regarded as ghosts who haunted the living (Lyons 39). Traditional African folklore also became integral in slave societies throughout North America. While the slaves from Africa “were torn … [from] their families … and their languages and customs” (Hamilton ix), they “clung to the familiar stories of their homelands” (Lyons 3) and performed their beloved stories to their children and grandchildren (Lyons 3). These folktales from the slave societies were directly passed down from traditional African stories; “in most Black English folktales … the reader seems to be part of the story, [as] … tale-tellers kept the African custom of speaking in the present tense” (Lyons 6) so that “the story sounds as if it is happening today” (Lyons 6). The African slaves also added their native rituals and ceremonies to those of the North Americans’. In North America, “slaves joined [into a] … story by singing, laughing, and correcting the tale-teller” (Lyons 3), as “storytelling has been a vital part of black African culture” (Lyons 1) for centuries. Storytelling for the slaves became a ceremony, even a ritual, for those who had everything stolen from them. While in North America, “the slaves told stories for entertainment when there was little else to cheer them up” (Lyons 3), and “as best they could, they built a community knit together by stories” (Norton 252). By sustaining cultural beliefs in ghosts and spirit possession as well as the storytelling of African folklore, slaves from Africa were able to maintain their native culture in North America.<br />The slaves’ cultures spread throughout North America as the Africans united through the music and dance that bonded the slaves through their common misery. In the slave societies in North America, slaves began to integrate many styles of dance originally found in the homeland of Africa. Even though it was forbidden to do so, “African slaves … practiced elements of their social and cultural heritage, and this included dance” (“Types of Dance”). Customary aspects of native African dancing, such as “swiveling, pulsing, and jutting hips, shoulders, and heads to strong rhythms” (Cooper 59) became apparent in the styles of dancing that began in the New World during this time of slavery. Particular styles of dancing also began with “roots in African drumming patterns; when slaves were not allowed to use drums, they used their feet to make the intricate rhythms of their ancestral land” (Cooper 59). Dances that began in North America after the arrival of African slaves “consisted of steps which were easily disguised in their everyday work – but had distinct elements which were African in origin” (“Types of Dance”). Singing also evolved from distinct African origins. In the fields of the plantations, songs “to pass the work day evolved into a new type of music, gospel” (“African Diaspora”), which “ combined the themes of salvation and freedom of Christianity with a native style of singing and dancing” (“African Diaspora”). Many gospel songs, which were “referred to later as the sorrow songs” (Norton 253), included “lyrics [which] covered many themes, [including] … imminent rebirth” (Norton 253). African details eventually found place within musical instruments in North America, where “slaves were forbidden to play the drums” (Cooper 59); they were able to “retain many memories of the West African talking drum, kpegisu, kora, and other instruments” (Cooper 59) to make “instruments with carved motifs that resembled African stringed instruments” (Norton 252). African slaves were able to sustain their traditional culture by retaining distinct aspects of song, dance, and musical instruments during their enslavement in North America.<br />Principles and values established in the African household, such as the concepts of family, religion, and language, developed in North America as slave families united to maintain these aspects of their native African heritage. The African slaves strongly believed in forming different family traditions than those of their Caucasian slaveholders. The Gullah, “a group of people living on the Sea Islands, off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina” (Cooper 58) preserved “from Africa … the concept of family” (Cooper 59). For the Gullah, “one’s “family” is one’s extended family, including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins” (Cooper 59); this idea, which differed from Caucasian families’ “nuclear family (father, mother, and siblings)” (Cooper 59) in North America, “can be found in many societies in Africa” (Cooper 59). These large, linking networks of “extended families held life together in many slave communities” (Norton 254). These networks undoubtedly united the slaves despite obvious language barriers and, as such, provided these slaves with an important foundation for a community. In addition, “following African kinship traditions, African Americans avoided marriage between cousins” (Norton 254), which was “commonplace among aristocratic slaveowners” (Norton 254). In North America, slave children, either born with two enslaved parents or an enslaved mother, were named “after relatives of past generations” (Norton 254) to emphasize “family history” (Norton 254). Furthermore, “slaves continued African naming customs in the New World” (Lyons 72), where those like the Gullah bestowed upon “their children “personal” names, or nicknames, derived from African words” (Lyons 72). In addition, the rush of traditional African ideas also impacted religion in North America. The religion of “Christianity spread rapidly throughout the slave communities” (“African Diaspora”). Africans identified stronger with Christianity’s more “mystical and magical elements” (“African Diaspora”). According to West African beliefs, supporters are occupied by a god that replaces the human’s own personality (Norton 253). The slaves “adapted Christianity to African practices” (Norton 253) to such an extent that “Christian slaves [began to] experience possession by the Protestant Holy Spirit” (Norton 253). Additionally, the slaves required communication between one another, yet the various African dialects began as a barrier for the slaves who wished to unite against their Caucasian slaveholders. As a result, “they mixed African words and rhythms with their captors’ languages” (Lyons 4) so that “the slaves [could] … understand one another” (Lyons 4). The Gullah’s entire dialect is even “a mixture of African and English words” (Cooper 58), while “ebony phonics, or ebonics” (Kuntz) evolved from “African languages and standard English” (Kuntz) with “African structure [and] grammar” (Kuntz) and has “origins which can be traced back to the time of slavery” (Kuntz). Family and societal values important to the African household and community, like the concepts of family, religion, and language, were retained as the African slaves in North America fought to maintain stability in their volatile and foreign environment. <br />The African slaves, exploited as forced manual labor in North America from the 1500s until the 1800s, were undoubtedly afflicted with cultural shock upon reaching the foreign shores of the continent. Seized from their native lands in Africa, the slaves lost their entire livelihoods, including their family and homes, and were left to fend without even the most basic human rights. In spite of this, the practice of slavery did not cause the loss of hope and the desire for unity between these inspired Africans. The slaves managed to maintain their native culture with stories of folklore, the supernatural, music and dance, and family virtues, thus integrating deep into the thralls of North American culture and society. Such amalgamation has developed into some of the most distinguishing features of African-American culture in North America today.<br />Works Cited<br />“African Diaspora.” Colorado College Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. <br />Cooper, Adam Merton, and Anne E. Johnson. A Student Guide to African American Genealogy. <br />Phoenix: The Oryx Press, 1996. Print.<br />Hamilton, Virginia. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. New York: Alfred A.<br />Knopf, Inc., 1985. Print.<br />Kuntz, Elizabeth. “Ebonics in Schools.” Welcome to Eugene Matusov’s Webs. N.p., <br />28 Apr. 2006. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.<br />Lyons, Mary E., ed. Raw Head, Bloody Bones: African-American Tales of the Supernatural. <br />New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991. Print.<br />Norton, Mary Beth, et al. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States Volume 1 to <br />1877. 8th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2010.Web. 8 Nov. 2010.<br />Smith, Frederick H. “Spirits and Spirituality: Alcohol In Caribbean Slave Societies.” Jay I. <br />Kislak Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.<br />“Types of Dance: A History of Social Dance in America.” American Antiquarian Society. N.p., <br />2007. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.<br />