Through the Prism of Slave Art: History, Literature, Memory, and the Work of P. Sterling Stuckey
Young, Jason, The Journal of African American History
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." (6)
In this way Stuckey provided a generation of scholars with the tools necessary to decipher and distinguish cultural behavior from cultural meaning. Though some enslaved Africans adopted the behavior of Christianity, the meanings that they ascribed to it were often different, if not outwardly oppositional to the meanings espoused by members of the master class. Nearly forty years ago, Stuckey first articulated the significance of the distinction between behavior and meaning in his consideration of the Spirituals and folk tales. Building on the work of Sterling A. Brown, Stuckey struck a blow at those scholars who had long argued that evidence of enslaved Africans' contentedness could be found in the ubiquity of slave song and dance. To the notion that the enslaved sang because they were happy, Stuckey referred to Frederick Douglass who long ago maintained that slaves sang, not because they were happy, but rather sang "when they were most unhappy"; that singing soothed the pains of slavery "only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears." (7)
To the idea that when slaves sang of freedom, they meant only what whites meant, namely the freedom from sin, Stuckey put forward the revolutionary idea that the arts of the enslaved constituted the seedbed for black resistance to slavery. Even more, Stuckey suggested that their arts, especially the tradition of the Spirituals, offered bondsmen and women an opportunity to relate "to divinities on terms more West African than American." (8) In this sense, enslaved Africans not only used their artistic traditions to oppose …
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Publication information: Article title: Through the Prism of Slave Art: History, Literature, Memory, and the Work of P. Sterling Stuckey. Contributors: Young, Jason - Author. Journal title: The Journal of African American History. Volume: 91. Issue: 4 Publication date: Fall 2006. Page number: 389+. © 2008 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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