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Monday, June 4, 2012

Transformed African Retentions and their Influence on American Culture

Historians of the African diaspora have long debated whether African slaves in the Americas retained or lost their African identity upon arrival to the New World. Many Anthropologists and scholars cite language and naming practices, planting techniques, cuisine and religion as evidence that slaves who survived the Middle Passage preserved fragments of their former societies in Africa when transported to the Caribbean and North America. Conversely, other scholars questioned how the heinous environment of slavery could allow African men and women to maintain their homeland culture and traditions. After reading Africanisms in American Culture, it is clear to me that African slaves in the New World retained many of their African cultural facets, including aspects of language and religion. However, these retentions were impacted by the conditions of slavery, resulting in an entirely new cultural phenomenon, which is what we currently understand as purely African American. In a nutshell, African customs did not survive, they transformed. This transformed, newly labeled “African American culture” in turn then transformed white American heritage, culture, and linguistics. This treatise seeks to examine how retentions of African language and religion were impacted and transformed by the oppression of slavery, and how these newly transformed retentions created common facets of American culture.
In his essay The African Heritage of White America, John Edward Philips argued that the main triumph of the text Africanisms in American Culture was that it caused increasing acceptance of the idea that much of white American culture comes directly from Africa [1](Philips 372). One path to understanding or accepting this claim by Philips is to ask if one is seeking to find what makes black Americans different from white Americans or what makes black and white Americans alike? What, then, makes Americans both black and white uniquely American? To discover these truths, do we seek to find African retentions amongst African Americans and white European influences amongst African Americans, or do we seek to find African or African American influences amongst American whites? It comes as no surprise to me that the answer to this last question is a resounding “all of the above.” Philips stated: “scholars trained in European studies have tended to regard many aspects of African American culture as of European origin, while scholars trained in African studies have considered the same traits to be of African origin. Those trained only as Americanists seem to have accepted uncritically whatever they read, or whatever fit their prejudices…{therefore} a scholar wishing to write a definitive history of African cultural survivals must acquire a triple expertise: as an Americanist, an Africanist, and a Europeanist”[2](Philips 391).
Upon trying to grasp this theory, I attempted to conjure metaphors for the newly transplanted African, the oppression of slavery, and the impact of these on white America.  Let us say then, the Africans upon arrival to the New World were beautiful, pure, and perfect pieces of unadulterated Carbon. White America itself was then the rock (environment) in which this Carbon was relocated to. The oppressive, unjust, and cruel hardship of slavery then bore down upon the Carbon, exuding heat and pressure. The Carbon, which had slowly formed into its current state over a history of three billion years, was then transformed into a diamond, something that looked entirely different, yet was elementally the same. (Please note this is NOT to imply that the oppression of slavery turned the Africans into something better than what they were before. That is not my intent at all.  This metaphor is meant to illustrate the change that occurred to the carbon, all while maintaining some of its sameness. Please assume both the carbon and the diamond are of equal beauty and value.) The impact of this change from carbon to diamond directly changed the surrounding rock and landscape forever.  Part of the carbon and the heat from the magma was released into the surrounding rocks, making them elementally the same, yet different in shape, form and structure.   All involved in the process were forever changed: the carbon, the diamond, the surrounding rock and environment, and even the heat that caused the transformation. They were elementally the same, but now forever intertwined due to the experience. The diamond had to adjust to its new appearance and it’s new environment, the heat was lost in the transformation process, and the surrounding rock and environment took on the emitting carbon and became something new and different.  None involved would be the same if not for the direct influence of the other. Let us then examine some of the African retentions that transformed into a part of African American culture, as well as the conditions in which this occurred. 
            It goes without saying that living and working conditions of the African American slaves were deplorable, especially in the Southern states, where slavery thrived after the American Revolution as a result of the booming cotton industry. Prior to the revolution, most slaves in both the Northern and Southern United States were indentured, meaning that after an agreed-upon period of usually three-four years, the slave could freely go, having “paid-off” their passage to the New World.  Indentured servants were both black and white, and were treated with at least a moderate level of decency. This is a stark contrast to “chattel slavery” which was the predominant system in the South after the Revolution. In the Chattel system, the slave, (men and women and their descendants) were “owned” by their masters for life. Key to the chattel system was the belief that slaves were to be black and masters were to be white. In this system of slavery, (by far the worse of the two), slaves were subjected to terrible living conditions, poor nutrition, and psychological maltreatment. Men were beaten to instill fear, and deter rebellion and escape. Women were frequently raped and forced to bear children in order to increase the slave population. Children were oftentimes traded to other plantations, separating them from their mothers care.   Gatherings were prohibited, for fear of mass revolt.  The slaves were treated as merely working animals, rather than the human beings that they were.  Clearly, by any definition, slavery in eighteenth century America was a mass violation of what now is commonly accepted as base- level human rights, and a shameful part of America’s past.   
It is easy, then, to at least consider the argument of E. Franklin Frazier in regards to African retentions.  How could Africans possibly retain any of their culture, heritage or tradition among the devastating conditions of American slavery? The answer to this is question is now clear (as mentioned above.). It was by the African American slave’s ability to adapt or transform important, key elements of their African culture and tradition into new cultures and traditions that were a mixture of the past and the present, all while under intense scrutiny and oppression. The resulting cultures and traditions reflected a little of the old, a little of the new, and a little of something entirely different. The clearest example of this exists in the linguistic patterns of African Americans, referred to in the twenty first century as Ebonics. In this newly formed language, it is possible to see a lexicon and verb conjugation pattern that is consistent with African language, a lexicon framework that is based on the Standard English of the white Americans, and intonations and inflections that are of completely unknown origin, that is, they are new and unique to this demographic.
In his essay African Elements in African American English, Molefi Kete Asante made a very plausible argument in defense of the retention of African linguistics in the linguistic behaviors of African Americans. The primary strength of his argument existed in the flow he created documenting the West African languages of Niger-Congo, to Pidginization, to Creolization, to Englishizatioin, (or Ebonics.)  Asante exemplified how Ebonics contains structural remnants of certain African languages while maintaining an overwhelmingly English vocabulary.  These structural elements are particularly noticeable in the use of aspect rather that tense in many verb conjugations and constructions. One example of this is the Niger-Congo tense-aspect of present (he go), near past (he gone), remote past (he been gone), future (he going to go), aspect of progress (he going), aspect of completion (he done gone), and past aspect of repetition (he been going.)  This pattern of West African verb conjugation is obvious in American Ebonics.  The relationship between the verbs within a given construction is also of great importance and a major difference between American Ebonics and English. Asante explained: “In some sentences Ebonics speakers use several verbs, whereas Standard English has available a single verb to express the completed action”[3](Asante 75). Examples of this include “Turn loose and drap down from dar” (Come down from there),  I hear tell you went home” (I hear that you went home), “Go home and see about those children” (go home and attend to those children) and “he picked up and went to town” (he went to town) [4] (Asante 76). Asante pointed out that giving every action a verb and using verb tenses that are grammatically incorrect in Standard English is a common practice by African Americans.  In the sentences  He clumb de tree to shake de simmons down whilst I be pickin em up” and “Fore I knowed it I done fell slap to sleep”, examples of African origin in the sentences include “he clumb”, “I be pickin em up”, “de”, and “I knowed it.” In the very same sentence, white European Standard English origins are notable in “whilst”. An entirely new and previously unknown (at that time) linguistic pattern which became a mainstay in current Ebonics is seen in these sentences in the insertion of new words, meant to shorten the existing Standard English lexicon, such as “simmons” (for persimmons), and “slap” (for straight).
The theory of cultural retention of African linguistics is more controversial in the twenty-first century than ever.  In 2009, the 11th annual Harlem Book Fair hosted a panel discussion entitled "We Be You Are They Is: Black English, Language, and Culture”, which was filmed and now available for viewing.  The panelists discussed whether a nonstandard language such as "Black English" should be deemed inferior, and the problems of transferring between languages. The discussion highlighted three main features of language: the concept that language provides a sense of identity and defines ones sense of placement within society and time; the difference between they style of language we use in personal and intimate relationships vs. the language used in more formal academic or workplace environments; and the great variety of English spoken across this country and this world, of which Ebonics is but one.
            The major points of this panel presentation were very consistent with the writings and theories of Asante, in that the panelists agreed in the importance of the connection that Ebonics provides to blacks, both with their African past, and with each other.  Speakers of African English, according to the panelists, are no different than any other American who speaks English as a second language.  The strongest argument that was made by the panel was the need for black children to learn when to use Ebonics or what they referred to as “rap culture English” and when to use Standard English. Exemplified in the discussion were the differences between home language and culture, and school language and culture, as well as the media and the lack of respect for Africa, and African American people in this country.
            Upon critically examining why the slaves of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and black Americans today accept and frequently adopt a different linguistic pattern, similarities of circumstance arise.  First, we must not dismiss tradition. The African American slaves desperately needed to hold on to some semblance of their past, and language provided for them a connection to something familiar in a very unfriendly and unfamiliar new world.  Likewise, African Americans today, who like all Americans are adjusting to new a social structure which places families at great distances from one another, can find a connection with their personal pasts through language shared with other blacks, albeit not family members. Second, The African slaves needed a way to communicate with each other in a way that white slave owners would not understand, thereby protecting themselves from potential harm in precarious circumstances.  Some African Americans today also feel the need to be able to communicate in a manner in which surrounding whites will not understand.  As a white female, I can only speculate as to why this is necessary.  Possible reasons include protecting each other in situations where they are threatened by racist acts of violence or discrimination, or to make light, or find humor in the differences between blacks and whites.  Lastly, and what I believe to be most importantly, African Slaves felt the need to connect with others who were like them and find solace and comfort in the fact that they were not alone, but were suffering together as a group.  The same can be said for African Americans today.  One merely needs to look at some of the bleak statistics of life as a twenty-first century African American to understand why solace and comfort are needed. High incarnation rates, low education levels, widespread poverty, and large numbers of children abandoned to the foster care system illustrate a black America that is suffering.  To the African American, it could seem as though the world is against them.  Sharing the bond of language, then, provides unity and a show of resilience against all hardships.
            In addition to retaining some of their African culture, (as the aforementioned example of linguistics illustrates), African Americans also adapted some of their African retentions as a process, or technique for survival.  This is most clearly exemplified in the religious practices of the slaves of the Sea Islands of coastal Georgia and South Carolina.  Known as the Gullah, the African Americans of the Sea Islands retained the primary cosmological and ontological theologies known to them in their religious and spiritual life in Africa.  These core concepts, which when combined formed the basis of the Gullah religious experience, included recognition of the creator of the universe (known as the Supreme Being), recognition and acceptance of the Spirits (both of evil and of ancestors), the respect and value of human life, the use of plants and animals (in the creation of talismans and as recognized members of the universe), and in the phenomena of special powers (associated with non-living things.) The Gullah religious worldview was rooted in African spirituality. In reading Margaret Washington’s essay Gullah Attitudes towards Life and Death, one comes to the conclusion that the Gullah were a people who were totally immersed in their religion.  In fact, life and religion could not be separated.  One could not “be” without the other.  To be detached from the religion of ones family, as Washington writes, “is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships, and the entire group of those who made him aware of his existence.  To be without one of these elements in life is to be without the whole picture…African peoples do not know how to exist without religion”[5](Washington 152)
Known as mysticism within the realm of spirituality, the concept of the Supreme God within all created a connectedness between humans and all living things.  This is pointed out in Washington’s essay, as she explained how humans really consisted of two entities: the outer and the inner being.  Known as the outer being, the body was just a shell, which was created to eventually rot and decay. The inner being was divided into two parts: one’s personal life, and more significant to this discussion, the Kivuumuni, which was the agent of life and breath.  Neither death, nor evil spirits nor hoodoo amulets or charms could destroy it.  This Kivuumuni was the very essence of life itself, and was the mystical notion of the experience of the Supreme Being, or the Ngewo within.  It was this connection that allowed Africans of several geographic areas to acculturate with each other before they acculturated with the native whites thereby providing a sense of connectedness and hope in what seemed like a hopeless situation.  Although from different regions of Africa, the slaves shared amongst them the same creator, and breath of life. As time passed, and as the Methodist, Episcopal and Baptist missionaries worked hard to convert the Sea Islands, the concept of the Supreme Being became the “Jesus” of the Christians. While the religion of voodoo and it’s hoodoo practices thrived and melded with the Roman Catholic base in amongst the Africans of New Orleans, the Gullah adapted their religion and their concept of the Supreme Being with the more Pentecostal Baptist, Methodist, and later the Episcopalians.  This sometimes created conflict and disconnect amongst the older Gullah and the younger more acculturated Gullah. The film Daughters of the Dust, directed and produced by Julie Dash, illustrates this conflict in one of its scenes. The women of the family were gathered and lamenting over the “old ways” of Nana Peazant.  The outspoken daughter –in-law Haagar objects that Nana  “doesn’t even pray to Jesus~, she still believes in the magic of her old tin can”.  The daughters and granddaughters of Nana stay silent on this, as they seem to understand that Nana’s God is the same God as this Jesus, or at least is experienced in the same way, which at the end of the day is what really is important.
Another way in which the Gullah adapted their religious traditions in order to survive was the African ritual of using water in religious ceremonies.  Holloway wrote about this in his essay The Sacred World of the Gullah, comparing the use of water in baptism amongst the missionaries to the water spirit cults of Ibibio, Calabar, Ijaw, Yoruba, and Grebo of Liberia, who all visited the river to immerse in the water in order to purify themselves (rid themselves of any spirit possession)[6](Holloway 207).  The spirit possession rituals of the Gullah involved shouting, dancing, and entering trance-like states. This was picked-up by the missionaries and became a popular theme amongst Southern Pentecostals, where even today dancing and speaking in tongues can be a part of the worship experience.   Several of the characters in Daughters of the Dust make reference to the spirits of ancestors, or their own future spirit afterlife.  Specifically, we see Nana Peazant showing the family the treasured hair of her mother, and presenting to them the hair, wrapped in herbs and twined to a Bible, for the family to take with them to the mainland.  Nana tells the family this hair is the presence of her mother in their life, (their “history”) and when she (Nana) passes on, her spirit will be with that of her mothers in the amulet she created. In this example, we see retentions of the African religious experience, providing hope and encouragement and connectedness from one soul to another,  thereby emphasizing survival.
The importance placed on the family and the strong sense of kinship exhibited by the Gullah illustrates their understanding and appreciation for a human life worth living in alliance with each other. Holloway wrote, “The patrilocal extended family consisted of a patriarchal head, his wife or wives, his unmarried children, his married sons, and their wives and children”[7] (Holloway 189).  Another common family unit was much more matrifocal family, as the matriarchal traditions of Africa were reinforced by the forced separation of men and women by the slave owners. Because of this forced separation, African American families were able to adopt others outside of the immediate family, and embrace them in the same way one would a sister or brother.  Daughters of the Dust clearly illustrates the strong bonds between extended family, as the families are portrayed as living together, and celebrating the return of a cousin (Cousin Mary) who had moved to the mainland.  We also see exemplified in the Presenze family, a household seemingly led by the grandmother of the family, containing far more women than men.  In one scene of the film Eula reveals to the family her true feeling about the family leaving the island, and she expresses how Yellow Mary is a part of her, a part of all of them. For Eula, her reliance and love of her family is her way of survival. In order, then to exist in the new and oppressive world of slavery, the Gullah had to find a way to adapt their beliefs to keep their religiosity in order to survive. As mentioned above, the Gullah could not separate life from religion, so therefore their religion had to be adapted to what was deemed more acceptable to the native whites in order for the Gullah themselves to survive.
Sadly, many look at the linguistic and religious practices of modern African Americans from the lens of the twenty first century, with no thought, consideration, or knowledge of the past.  Unfortunately, both white and black Americans share this ignorance. Many take specific issue with American Ebonics, stating it is the “language of the uneducated”, and “proof that African American families do not place education at a high level of importance.”  While this may be the case for some African American families, the same could be said of many white families, who are illiterate and cannot read above a first grade level.  Many also look to the black churches as a breeding ground for negativity and promotion of the continuation of segregation, especially in urban areas.  Walk into any church in the city of Detroit or its suburbs and you will find a congregation that is either ninety percent white or ninety percent black. Dancing, clapping, and speaking in tongues intimidate traditional white liturgical churches, and very little inter-denominational work is done between white and black parishes.  What, then can be done to inform, educate and make more Americans (both white and black) knowledgeable of how much of both of their cultures was influenced by African retentions, and how a new American culture was created by the transformed African retentions? The first response to this question by most is, of course, education.  But how can we achieve this when many schools today struggle with the most rudimentary basics such as ABC’s and 123’s? An idea much broader than just school education and that may have some impact is a National, federally funded three-year long celebration of the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865. During these three years, there could be celebrations in every town with traveling museum exhibits, local celebrations of African music and dance, culinary festivals featuring low-country cooking, mini-series documentaries, free family -tree searches by heritage societies and foundations, reduced travel rates to important sites in African American history, such as Charleston, New Orleans, Harlem and stops along the Underground Railroad.  Black and white churches could unite in service projects to help poor black communities, and the popular media and Hollywood could take “African retention awareness” as its new cause.  Hopefully, after three years of information flowing through schools, government and social celebrations, the population could be flooded with information, resulting in a greater appreciation for the African traditions that have contributed to the culture of both white and black Americans.
            A remarkable challenge facing historians of African American slavery is to examine the specific retentions of American slaves in order to understand the ways in which they were able to adapt to their new environment, and to carefully discern specific ways in which these retentions were transformed by the horrific circumstances of slavery. As demonstrated above, African slaves in the New World retained elements of African language and religiosity.  These retentions were transformed by the hardships of slavery to become a language and religion that is uniquely African American, which in turn transformed aspects of white America as well.  It is in understanding this shared past that we may come to understand each other.  

[1] John Edward Philips, The African Heritage of White America Chapter thirteen of classroom text. Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 372
[2] John Edward Philips, The African Heritage of White America Chapter thirteen of classroom text. Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 391
[3]Molefi Kete Asante, African Elements in African American English Chapter Three of class text: Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 75
[4] Molefi Kete Asante, African Elements in African American English Chapter Three of class text: Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 76
[5] Margaret Washington, Gullah Attitudes toward Life and Death Chapter six of classroom text. Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 152
[6] Joseph E. Holloway, The Sacred World of the Gullahs Classroom Text Chapter Seven, Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 207
[7] Joseph E. Holloway, The Sacred World of the Gullahs Classroom Text Chapter Seven, Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms In American Culture. 2nd. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ Pr. 2006.
Pg. 189

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