Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era: Beyond the Formal Horizons

By E. Quita Craig | Go to book overview

TWELVE
THE WEST INDIAN INFLUENCE

IT IS A NOTABLE testament to the enduring and sustaining qualities of the African cosmological mystique and culture that wherever Africans have been subjected to the rigidly enforced reorientation of Western slavery their spiritual vitality, and in some cases even their traditions and customs, have survived.

Because of the varied laws, customs, religious beliefs, and military capabilities of the colonizing European nations, the conditions of slavery varied greatly throughout the Caribbean and American colonies, yet recent field studies -- such as those done by Roger Abrahams of the University of Texas1 -- have recorded parallel survivals and even some similar developments in the West Indies and in Afro-America. In both areas, the expertise of the African oral tradition is still highly prized: it licenses the "broad talker"2 to perform the anti-ritual of the community, while stories of the tortoise, Anansi the spider, and the signifyin' Monkey still clothe the timeless wisdom of Africa with infinite variety, and on street corners of Island towns and villages, as in Harlem, young males still learn to manipulate the rhythmic, imagistic, and other qualities of language in that most exacting of linguistic competitions, the "dozens."3

To those who are familar with both areas, other survivals and developments are apparent. At cane-field crossroads, or on the quays of West Indian fishing villages, black youths speak their silent greetings, strike their rapping stances before dark beauties, and advertise their social and sexual desires in the very rhythms of their walk much as they do in black American communities.4 At dayclean,5 Island fishermen hoist their sails and glide out to sea with the same rhythms of Africa on their lips that vibrate over the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia, and at sundown, in informal groups, Islanders translate religion, politics, sex, the rigors of yesterday's labor, or the kiss of the golden moon on whispering, blue-black waters, swaying palms, and cane arrows into the poetic imagery of Africa while a guitar plucks the spiritual mood into existence, or fingers and feet tap it alive just as those of Gus Smith's hoopers did in a Florida turpentine camp.

Everywhere in the Islands, the generative power of Nommo and the

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