Hidden in View: African Spiritual Spaces in North American Landscapes. (Research)

By Ruppel, Timothy; Neuwirth, Jessica et al. | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Hidden in View: African Spiritual Spaces in North American Landscapes. (Research)


Ruppel, Timothy, Neuwirth, Jessica, Leone, Mark P., Fry, Gladys-Marie, Antiquity


The most significant shift in the study of American slavery and free African Americans in the last 15-20 years has been the movement away from the view of enslaved and free Africans and African Americans as passive victims who were stripped of their culture, and who subsequently derived their identity solely from the white world. Focusing on slavery as a totalising and dehumanising institution, this assimilationist interpretation shapes the view that 'most ante-bellum slaves showed a desire to forget their African past and to embrace as much of the white civilisation as they could' (Stampp 1956:363). Over the last few decades, this approach has been replaced with an emphasis on cultural forms of resistance, the creolisation process, and the presence of African continuities. Within the last year, archaeologists working in New York City have uncovered the latest in a series of discoveries that indicate the strength of African cultural beliefs under slavery, and throughout North America. Arthur Bankoff, Professor of Anthropology at Brooklyn College, led a small team of archaeologists who excavated within a slave dwelling attached to the main house owned by the Lott family of New York (Staples 2001). The house in its present configuration dates to the early nineteenth century and was home to twelve slaves until the end of the 1810s. Beneath the floor boards in a cramped garret that housed the Lott family's slaves, five corncobs were found arranged in a cross or star pattern. Other associated objects recovered included a cloth pouch tied with hemp, an animal pelvis bone, and an oyster shell. Twenty years ago such finds would have been dismissed as the idiosyncratic work of one person, or as domestic debris. However, in the context of new scholarship on African and African American cultural continuity, this discovery in New York City can now be seen as the paraphernalia of Hoodoo, the North American variant of Vudon, derived from West and West Central Africa. These artefacts, both in placement within the room and in content, have much in common with objects used by different African groups in religious practices geared toward the invocation and use of the spirit world. The continued recognition and documentation of such finds has fed the growing study of African cultures in diaspora.

United States historical archaeology touched these issues for the first time in the late 1960s, but achieved recognition in the 1980s with work on slave plantations and urban environments. The first contribution was that slaves had an archaeology. It still remains for the field to come to terms with the impact of its findings on the notion of culture, and perhaps more centrally, its impact on African Americans. The emergence of the idea of African America is new in this context and invokes the creation of new African and European identities in the African diaspora, including within the United States.

Recent studies have examined areas like naming practices, religious attitudes, language, and archaeological patterns in order to examine the presence of Africanisms in the Americas (Holloway 1991; Mullen 1994; Morgan 1998; Gomez 1998; Singleton 1999). Although these scholars have differed in the conclusions about the extent of assimilation or resistance, their intent has been to dislodge the thesis of the absolute power of the master and to insist, to various degrees, upon 'the preservation of African values in slavery' (Stuckey 1987:15). As a result of this shift in interpretation, we now see that Africans and African Americans did not derive their identity solely from masters, nor did they heedlessly internalise the values of the dominant culture. Instead, they refashioned social practices within spaces to accommodate two cultures, African and European, in one environment, including its landscape. Here we write about landscapes because archaeologists can know them. In American landscapes, initially derived from Europe as scholarship has shown for so long, we describe how Africans and African Americans built their own, itself unique to the North America diaspora. …

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