greg carr on africanness in the contemporary era


Great piece. An exerpt. Full text on the ASCAC [Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations], website.

(ASCAC) [...] The African personality in the imagination has thrived because African life was a subject of the first-hand experience of many Blacks who survived slavery and lived on into the twentieth century; their associations and first-generation relatives passed down African customs, names and languages, and an unshakable African kinship was formed. Indeed, the question should be rather put in reverse: when did we stop being African?

Africans taken from the African continent went through a cultural bonding or essentialization process. From various ethnic groups, they had to adapt cultural practices across indigenous African languages, a process made even more complicated by the imposition of European languages. This process was made easier for those ethnic and cultural groups which were able to preserve relatively large blocs, such as the Yoruba and Ibo in Brazil and the Caribbean. In the United States, however, ethnic group dispersal was much more prevalent and effective. Over the course of the trade in enslaved Africans, which lasted from 1502 to 1888, millions of Africans were ripped from the African continent and strewn throughout the Western Hemisphere and Europe by both European and Arab enslavers. An estimate of 10 to 15 million Africans became forced labor during this period. Another estimated 4 million perished in the "Middle Passage," never making it to the Americas. Further, countless millions, in excess of one third of all Africans captured in some reports, perished during the marches to the Atlantic coast from areas in inland Africa.

Africans were taken by force and were held in coastal fortresses until the slave ships came for them. Almost every seagoing European nature had interests in the enslavement of Africans at one time or another, participating in what became known as the "triangle trade." Ships departed from Europe (where they were often financed by small businessmen, communities and even municipalities, all of which grew rich on the trade), picked up Africans along the so-called "Guinea, Gold and Slave coasts" of Africa, and sailed to South America and the Caribbean, where Africans were brutally assimilated into enslavement and relocated throughout the hemisphere.

Upon their arrival in the West, Arwin D. Smallwood notes that the trade in enslaved Africans can be broken down with regard to percentage into the following relative dispersal of Africans: 33% went to Portuguese Brazil, 20.3% to the French Caribbean, 11.7% to Spanish America, 6.7% to the Dutch Caribbean, 5.4% to British North America and 0.4% to the Danish Caribbean. He notes further that, unlike the relationship between Africans and Native Europeans in British North America, other Europeans often intermarried with Africans and created mixed-blood classes, including mulattos and mestizos, "developing a social economic system based on various shades of skin color. " Further, the largest ethnic groups to remain relatively intact in the relocation process came from West Africa, the source of over 60% of the Africans taken to the Americas. Orlando Patterson identifies six major areas of the West African coast as the major sources of Africans taken to North America, Brazil, Barbados, Jamaica and elsewhere. The first was the Senegambia, which produced the Manidingo, Fula, Wolof and Jola grous, who were taken throughout the western hemisphere. The second was the Sierra Leone and Windward Coast, which comprised the Bakwe, Bassa, Belte, Dida, Greobo, Dru, Sapo, Wobe, Temme, Gola, Kissi, Bullom, Guru, Mende and Kono peoples. This was never a major source for African labor.

The next area was the Gold Coast, home of the Twi-speaking people, the Akan, Fanti, Gae, Guang, and Adangme, as well as the more inland Mamprusi,Dagomba, Nankanse, Talense, Isala, and Lober. British and Dutch labor supplies dominated the direction of Africans taken from here. The fourth (and the busiest) area was the Dahomey area, known as the "slave coast" and home of the Ewe, Yoruba and Bini. Most of these Africans went to French territories. The fifth area was Benin and the Niger Delta, including the Ibo, Ibibo, Edo, Igo Atisia, Ogony and the Epie. Most of these Africans went to Portuguese and Brazilian traders. The sixth and final area was South-Western Africa, which included Cameroon, Congo, Angola, Gabon and Zaire, the largest supplier of Africans to Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean. Many of the Africans from this region were Ibo, Kongo and Ovimbundu.

In the United States, the upper colonies (New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina) tended to be most heavily populated by West Africans (Senegambia, Sierra Leone, Liberian and Slave Coasts, Niger Delta) and the lower colonies (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) from Central Africa (Bakongo, Malimbo, Bambo, Ndungo, Balimbe, Badongo, Luba, Loanga, Luango, Ovimbundu) . The templates of African identity in various west Atlantic sites were forged along broad cultural lines, ranging from commonalties in musical form and instrumentation to similar culinary, agricultural and clothing/adornment techniques to similar spiritual practices and uses of narrative form and convention. Didactic literature, prevalent in Africa in the form of proverbs and wisdom tales, employed the familiar tools of animal imagery to convey life lessons. Additionally, the adult Africans dispersed throughout the Western hemisphere were relied upon by their enslavers for a range of intellectual abilities and professional skills. In Africa, many had served as master agriculturists, blacksmiths, healers, builders, spiritualists and musicians, among other vocations.

William Banks notes that, of the pre-enslavement vocations practiced by Africans, the two largest professions which survived enslavement were the "priest" and the "healer. " Additionally, African planters introduced irrigation and planting techniques which led to the maximization of plantation crop use and profit. African architects and builders teamed with enslaved survivors of blacksmith guilds to construct many of the private and public buildings of South and Central America, the Caribbean and the southern United States. H.E. Boubou Hama has commented in relation to the African view of history that "a people that has long been victorious does not have the same consciousness of its past as one that has long been subjugated."

Africans fought to preserve images of victory so that they could point to a historical narrative of triumph to strengthen their efforts to reestablish an order consistent with historical and social optimism. While oppression and exclusion from emerging Western societies shaped and informed the resistance of enslaved Africans, it was not then nor is it now the central defining characteristic of Africana worldviews. Cedric Robinson makes the distinction between the sources of African resistance and the conditions that made that resistance necessary over the past five hundred years. In noting that Africans had to generate frameworks of resistance to respond to European oppression, he correctly observes that "this experience, though, was merely the condition for Black radicalism-its immediate reason for and object of being-not the foundation for its nature and character." Stressing, therefore, that African traditions of resistance to oppression and exclusion cannot be understood merely within the contexts of their genesis, he continues, writing that "it is not a variant of Western radicalism whose proponents happen to be Black.

Rather, it is a specifically African response to an oppression emergent from the immediate determinants of European development in the modern era and framed by orders of human exploitation woven into the interstices of European social life from the inceptions of Western civilization ." Nevertheless, the role of oppression and exclusion in the modern Africana historical experience does extend beyond providing a galvanizing force against which Africans organized and resisted. African cultural practices adapted various elements of Western thought and culture and turned them to use in resistance struggles. Many of these initial vestiges of oppression and exclusion remain embedded in African-American cultural practices to this day. Rhett Jones identifies four distinct stages through which African cultural practices passed, "each representing a synthesis or fusion of events in the previous stage."

He contends that the first synthesis was the fusion of the many cultures the enslaved Africans brought with them, saying that they soon realized that, "in addition to important differences among them, there were certain underlying cultural similarities. " The second synthesis came "as a result of the need of blacks to meet the challenge of Christianity," a need made immediately vital because of the disruption of African spiritual practices which were heavily dependent on family lineages, most of which had been severely or totally disrupted. Jones notes that, "as late at the 1730s, the vast majority of slaves and many free blacks were not Christians," and that, until the mid 18th century, enslavers were not generally concerned with African religious practices. The third synthesis, accomplished after Africans had assimilated some forms of Christianity, was the modification of the syncretic religious traditions received through combining African and European practices to reflect the larger role black women played in African cultural life.

The final synthesis, which took full root in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was the incorporation of European political thought, such as the struggle for concepts such as "liberty," "individual freedoms" and the like into African frames of reference . Many students of the African-American historical experience examine the oppressive and exclusionary nature of American civil society and its intellectual and cultural foundations without paying sufficient attention to the stages transformation and incorporation which Jones describes, particularly the fourth stage. Africans in the United States did not arrive as "blank slates" ready to be filled with the concepts of "liberty and justice for all." Rather, they assimilated the high rhetorical pronouncements of the Franklins, Jeffersons, Madisons and Adamses into pre-existing African worldviews. In this manner, then, elements of European oppression and exclusion were actually turned by Africans to serve their goal of securing political and cultural autonomy.

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