“To do something and to understand the historical origins of that something, or its larger context, are not the same.”
The black people who arrived to the Anglo-American, Spanish and French colonies from the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth are generally referred to as the ‘Old African Diaspora’ in the scholarly literature. In its formative period, the United States had Africans, and thousands of them. It is something that truly, if we are honest, is hard to capture – this idea that the blacks who were here in the antebellum period were in a state of ongoing transformation, moving between the poles of ‘salt water negro’ (new arrivals from the Atlantic crossing) and ‘creole,’ – African and American. Not African Americans. This was not a three-week, or even a decade-long transition, though it is still not well understood by the general public that all the Africans did not come at once. Not one group arrived 400 years ago, but many groups, continuously arriving, for two centuries at least. Some Africans were here earlier than others, some arrived later, most arriving between 1760 and 1810. That is a bit more recent than ‘400 years ago.’ Although this information is accepted as historical fact in some circles in the United States, it is still hard for people to grasp the cultural ramifications of this drawn out process of intermittent injections of diverse African cultures into American society and the United States landscape.
As a society (by this I mean all Americans, particularly those of three and more generations in the United States) we have blocked out much of the social history of the nineteenth century. We discuss diversity as though the brown people, the Asians, and the blacks only recently came into view. We have conveniently forgotten that many Chinese families have been here for almost two centuries, that Spanish speakers and Native Americans were always with us, and that the very foundational cultural life of the United States is intricately tied to the presence of African slaves and their descendants. We also pretend that those non-white groups remained among themselves, or that they had no cultural impact on the larger society, in spite of the intimacy implied by the kind of work that was relegated to their communities. Many cultural practices that have their origins in the intersection of these different cultural enclaves have become so embedded in American culture that they are no longer recognized as anything but “American.” Further, the racialist agendas of the nineteenth century would not allow any recognition of cultural activities or preferences that came from, or were influenced by, “the blacks,” except perhaps in minstrel and eventually vaudeville shows. Even among black Americans, it is only with difficulty that people can look at their families or themselves and think that this action, or that preference, is here because of African antecedents. Such was the strength of the social sanctions against Africa and Africans in America’s nineteenth century. The inability or discomfort to name practices according to where they came from has to do with how we were subjected to cultural pressures from Europeans. It is evidence of an ongoing performance of colonial power, as has so eloquently been discussed by the BLM author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor .
For black Americans, over the 19th century, there were increasingly rare occasions to remark that a way of walking, a way of telling a story, or even beliefs in ‘haints,’[i] — anything not reducible to material evidence (like hair) –were inherited from an African ancestor. Henry Louis Gates’ recent PBS documentary on the black church chronicles this beautifully. It is only through music, whose beginnings were in the sacred, the celebratory and the spiritual, that we are in agreement that ‘something’ came from Africa. The drums, we agree, came from Africa. The use of the fiddle, violin, and the voice in African registers and melodies are less well known as having a strong West African genealogy. Yet, as all anthropologists know, to do something and to understand the historical origins of that something, or its larger context, are not the same. African Americans and other Americans may indeed have cultural proclivities that have their origins in African practices, but they do not understand or often care about where such practices come from. This does not change the historical itinerary of cultural practice, though, but rather only our current understanding of what we do.
[i] Spirits, from “haunt”