Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America

By Williams, Vernon J., Jr. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 1990 | Go to article overview

Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America


Williams, Vernon J., Jr., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America

Sterling Stuckey's long-awaited volume, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America, is a significant work of intellectual and cultural history. The book should be read by all scholars concerned with the nagging and perennial problem of race in the United States and its global implications during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The cogency of Stuckey's arguments and the longevity of his interpretations, it should be stressed, will perhaps depend more on the political atmosphere in the United States during the next twenty years than on the merits of the yeomanlike service which he has performed.

Slave Culture is a study "in irony." Stuckey argues that Afro-American nationalist theorists such as David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, Martin Delany, W.E.B. DuBois, and Paul Robeson underestimated "the depths of African culture in America." (ix) Not only were nationalist theorists "unaware...of the sophistication of the slave community," Stuckey argues, but they also did not understand how African cultural themes "might contribute to the surge toward the liberation they wanted to initiate." (ix) Nonetheless, Stuckey gives them high marks for "reconciling the theory and practice of black culture in America." (ix)

As cultural history, Slave Culture has both tremendous strengths and weaknesses. Stuckey seeks to recreate the first assimilation. He argues that during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries African peoples differing in appearances, traditions, and language became a single people. Stuckey demonstrates that Mandingos, Ashantis, Dahomeans, Yorubas, Ibos, and other peoples from West and Central Africa, in their resistance to slavery and their quest for freedom, began to share common cultural themes. He identifies the "ring shout" as "the main context in which Africans recognized values common to them." (16) Stuckey's emphasis on the sharing of common African values, however, detracts from the problem of cultural pluralism within the Afro-American group that resulted from mixing and mingling of transplanted Africans with non-African peoples. Several historians have demonstrated that during the years before the nineteenth century, Africans, Indians, and whites were involved in a kind of three-way acculturation. The net result of this process, which has yet to be fully examined by scholars, created groups of mixed ancestry whose values were similar to those described in E. Franklin Frazier's The Negro Family in the United States in 1939. …

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