My father (may he rest in peace) was a good man. Raised in the deep woods near the Tennessee-North Carolina border in the 1930’s, poverty was a way of life. Their home had a dirt floor, quilts served as both bedding, a table covering, curtains and art, a huge crock of sauerkraut steeped in the corner, a still dripped silently and hidden in the back forty, and yes, he often went to school barefoot. I realize that these descriptions of my father and his life in rural Tennessee are all typical stereotypes of Appalachian culture, but in the case of my father, who migrated to Detroit in the 1950’s to work in the new and well-paying Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant, this was a way of life. As a white man, who had never traveled, was marginally educated, and who was raised to believe that blacks were inferior, my father struggled to assimilate into the urban and ever- increasing tense climate of Detroit during the Civil Rights movement. He was a stranger in a strange land, and I’m quite certain if you had asked him what parts of his identity and culture he shared with his black co-worker on the assembly line, he would have scoffed and said “none.” To him, terms like cultural interaction, integration and assimilation were a complete unknown.
Of course, my father was wrong. A simple look at his weekly diet of collard greens, yams, corn bread, hominy, black-eyed peas with ham hock, and cookies sweetened with black sorghum and speckled with ground goobers would show a wonderfully rich diet of foods brought to the United States from West Africa at the very beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade of the 1600’s. While the deep Appalachians were a conglomerate of Highland Scottish and Cherokee cultures, they were also an area where the culture of the South Carolina lowland African American culture met the Northern Georgia plantation African American culture. It was (and remains today) a sort of “Southeast meets Deep South” converging point.
But African American culture is much more than black-eyed peas and yams. Was it possible for enslaved Africans to carry their culture with them into the New World? The answer to this is a definitive and resounding yes. Despite the extreme and traumatic conditions of the voyage and new life of slavery, Africans “arrived in the New World capable of using Old World knowledge to create New World realities”[i] This knowledge included everything from dairy farming, animal husbandry, folk medicine, dance, folklore, agriculture, and of course the abovementioned cuisine.
The interaction, integration and assimilation of African culture into the New World was based on both the geographic region in which the enslaved Africans arrived from and the geographic region they were sent to. One cannot think of Africa as an entire continent of like-minded culturally homogeneous peoples. Rather, Africa was and is rich with cultural “zones” as Herskovits broadly classified them, including but not limited to the Guinea Coast, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Dahomey, The Bight of Benin (the Niger Delta), and present day Gambia, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Each geographic area held peoples varied in tradition, culture and in some cases physical attributes such as shade of skin pigmentation, height and facial features.
Slave traders transported the Africans to ports in South Carolina, Virginia and Louisiana based on demands by the slave purchasers. These demands were based on needs and the slave owners (albeit) limited understanding of physical attributes that would best serve their needs. This explains why African American cultural identity varied greatly between the Africans of Charleston, who where mainly from the Angola region and skilled in net weaving and rice farming, both skills that served the lowland, marshy humid climate very well, and the Africans of the Georgia Plantations and the rest of the deep south, who were mainly from Central Africa and of a large, strong and sturdy physical constitution that was well suited for labor intensive peanut and cotton farming.
The process of how one’s culture interacts, integrates and assimilates in its New World diaspora is an interesting and complicated manner. I believe the process for the enslaved Africans was greatly influenced and affected by the living conditions and obvious suppression that was endured. What would an African American cultural identity be today if slavery in the South had not existed? My guess is it would be very different. Yet what I do know is the culture that remains is rich and varied. I am thankful for the African contributions that became a part of my father’s life in rural Appalachia, and through him, are now a part of me.