African Diaspora In the New World


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 naïve 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 naïve 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 

 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 

 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.


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