Through the Prism of Slave Art: History, Literature, Memory, and the Work of P. Sterling Stuckey

Article excerpt

  Black Americans were sustained and healed and nurtured by the
  translation of their experience into art above all in the music. That
  was functional.... My parallel is always the music because all of the
  strategies of the art are there. All of the intricacy, all of the
  discipline. All the work that must go into improvisation so that it
  appears that you've never touched it. Music makes you hungry for more
  of it.... It slaps and it embraces, it slaps and it embraces. The
  literature ought to do the same thing. I've been very deliberate about
  that.... I have wanted always to develop a way of writing that was
  irrevocably black. I don't have the resources of a musician, but I
  thought that if it was truly black literature, it would not be black
  because I was, it would not even be black because of its subject
  matter. It would be something intrinsic, indigenous, something in the
  way it was put together--the sentences, the structure, texture and
  tone--so that anyone who read it would realize [it].... Sometimes I
  hear blues, sometimes spirituals or jazz and I've appropriated it.
  I've tried to reconstruct the texture of it in my writing--certain
  kinds of repetition--its profound simplicity.... What has already
  happened with the music in the States, the literature will do one day
  and when that happens, it's all over.
  Toni Morrison (1)

During my first semester as a graduate student, I had a conversation with Professor P. Sterling Stuckey that--unbeknownst to me--was to change the direction of my graduate studies. He asked me how it came to be that I so readily accepted the critical importance of Africa in the study of the Americas generally, and in the study of American slavery in particular. I responded, "it never occurred to me that it could be any other way." Later, I realized something of the immensity of the debt that my response implied. While reading Stuckey's seminal article "Through the Prism of Folklore," I came to understand the manner in which Stuckey, and a mere handful of others, so resolutely--and in the face of tremendous opposition--proclaimed the absolute necessity of Africa for American slavery studies. (2) Only those monumental efforts allowed me to speak of Africa's importance so easily, so casually. In the years since our first meeting, Professor Stuckey has revealed to me in innumerable ways not only the importance of history, but more importantly, the importance of memory--the importance of remembering. The following, then, is intended as a reflection on the memories mobilized by enslaved Africans, and of our memories of them.

To begin, we are well to remember that things had been very different. One historian argued in the first decades of the 20th century that enslaved Africans' engagements with Christianity were primarily mimetic, that "the [N]egroes merely followed and enlarged upon the example of some of the whites." (3) By mid-century, scholars still asserted that most so-called Africanisms were lost within a generation because of the general decay of African culture in the Americas. Of those aspects of slave spirituality that ran counter to evangelical Christianity, one historian wrote: "There is no need to trace back to Africa the slave's ... dread of witches, ghosts, and hobgoblins, his confidence in good-luck charms, his alarm at evil omens, his belief in dreams, and his reluctance to visit burying grounds after dark. These superstitions were all firmly rooted in Anglo-Saxon folklore." (4) To the contrary, Stuckey argued, nearly twenty years ago, in Slave Culture, "Christianity provided a protective exterior beneath which more complex, less familiar (to outsiders) religious principles and practices were operative." (5) In the singing of the Spirituals, the dance that characterized worship, and even in the baptismal ritual itself, Africans in the Americas engaged in a Christianity imbued with "deeper African religious concerns. …