Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

A Question of Origins: The Social and Cultural Roots of African American Cultures

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

A Question of Origins: The Social and Cultural Roots of African American Cultures

Article excerpt

The question of African survivals in African American cultures in the New Worlds has been the subject of a long and intriguing controversy among scholars, with the emphasis of late being placed on the tracing of origins. Some scholars have argued that the question of origins is unimportant with regard to understanding the development of African American cultures. (1) This indifference to the historical roots of African American culture in the U.S. found expression in Lawrence Levine's Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Black Folk: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Levine contends that "we have gradually come to recognize not merely the sheer complexity of the question of origins, but also its irrelevancy for an understanding of consciousness." (2) Yet W. E. B. Du Bois with regard to the black church reminds us:

  First, we must realize that no such institution as the Negro church
  could rear itself without definite historical foundations. These
  foundations we can find if we remember that the social history of the
  Negro did not start in America. He was brought from a definite social
  environment--the polygamous clan life under the headship of the chief
  and the potent influence of the priest. His religion was nature-
  worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences,
  good and bad, and his worship was through incantation and
  sacrifice. (3)

For Du Bois, we cannot explain the roots of African American culture without reference to Africa because African values, beliefs, and practices played a crucial role in the formation of African American cultures. (4) It is basically these "historical foundations," as this essay will show, that many scholars fail to take into account in their treatment of the origins of African American cultures in the New World. Small wonder we have been saddled with accounts that maintain that African captives, in the dehumanizing experience of the Middle Passage, lost their cultural heritage and simply became acculturated to Euro-American customs and beliefs.

Although much has been written to demolish this misguided notion for upholding white cultural hegemony, it is unfortunate that some authors still make that argument. For example, Sidney Mintz and Richard Price in The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective declared that "we do not believe ... that those Africans who were enslaved and transported to the New World can be said to have shared a culture, in the sense that Europeans colonists in a particular colony can be said to have done so." Mintz and Price believed that African captives came to the Americas as "more or less heterogeneous cargoes."

  The Africans who reached the New World did not compose, at the outset,
  groups In fact, in most cases ... it might even be more accurate to
  view them as crowds, and very heterogeneous crowds at that. Without
  diminishing the probable importance of some core of common values, and
  the occurrence of situations where a number of slaves of common origin
  might indeed have been aggregated, the fact is that these are not
  communities of people first, and they could only become communities by
  processes of cultural change. (5)

According to these authors, African captives were a "heterogeneous crowd" made up of "disparate cultures and unintelligible languages with no prior contact." Whereas in European immigration, various groups of people from similar regions traveled and lived together, the African captives were so dissimilar culturally and linguistically that they could not communicate with one another well enough to form communities. Mintz and Price do acknowledge that during the Middle Passage, African captives began to create an entirely new social structure and organization in the form of the "dyad" of two slaves sharing one space on the slave ship. "Various shreds of evidence suggest that some of the earliest social bonds to develop in the coffles, in the factories, and especially during the long Middle Passage were of a dyadic (two person) nature. …

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