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).

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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
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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