The Black slaves of colonial America brought their own culture from Africa to the new land. Despite their persecution, the “slave culture” has contributed greatly to the development of America’s own music, dance, art, and clothing.
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It is understandable that when Africans were torn from their homes and families, lashed into submission , and forced into lifelong slave labor, they would be, on the most part, resentful and angry. Various forms of expression, clandestine yet lucent, developed out of these feelings.
One such form was music. Native African music consisted mainly of wind and string melodies punctuated by hand clapping, xylophones, and drum beats. Along those lines, an early type of slave music was the spiritual, which has its roots in Protestant hymns taught to the slaves. Spirituals were “long thought to be the spontaneous creation of African-American slaves and the only original folk music of the U.S.” Spirituals told tales of suffering and struggle, but these true meanings were often hidden. An example is in the song “Gospel Train” with the lyrics, “Get on board, little children/There’s room for many a-more/The gospel train’s a-leavin’…” The “gospel train” of the song likely represented an escape method, such as the Underground Railroad.
Another type of music distinct to African slaves was gospel. These songs originated in plantation fields as work songs, and were later sung in churches of Black congregations. They were intended to enliven a crowd, and employed bright music and joyful lyrics. Gospel music contributed to the development of musical genres historically considered “white”, such as rock’n’roll and country and western.
Before Blacks came to America, they had their own highly developed religious beliefs. Most cultures believed in one almighty God, and the ideas of good and evil. They also practiced “ancestor worship”, believing that dead family members could influence aspects of their lives. A main difference between African and Christian religions, however, is that Africans did not find it necessary to convert all other cultures to their religion. Thus Africans were rather resistant to the preaching of Christian ministers when they came to America. The Christian ideas they did absorb, however, were indoctrinated into their lives with the addition of culture such as gospel music (see Music). Later, a minister of mainly of African-American congregations would use distinctly “Black” preaching methods, as when “he begins to employ numerous stock phrases and ideas,” and, “Midway in the message the preacher begins to chant his words rhythmically.”
17th-century Africans had art forms that would be considered advanced even today. Most of their expression was religious in nature. But when they were brought to the New World, “…[slaves] could not do this because Protestants had always frowned upon religious imagery in the church as being worldly. Thus, there was little opportunity for the slave to express his creativity in graphic and plastic art for the church as he had done in Africa where religion and art were inseparable. Moreover, the slave was afforded few opportunities to carve on his own or his master’s time.”
This repression of the slave’s creativity doubtlessly impeded the development of an African-American art standard. Although slaves could be trained in the practical arts, such as typesetting or furniture making , they could really not fully express themselves until released from the bonds of servitude.
Incidentally, there was an outpouring of African-American art after emancipation. This was a time when former slaves could finally put their creativity to use, and the results were a genre individual in itself, yet complimentary to American art as a whole. Blacks became sculptors, painters, block printers, actors, and architects. But it would be a long time yet before Black art could be fully appreciated, or even accepted as mainstream.
America’s earliest African-American scientists and inventors are largely unknown — their contributions to America buried in anonymity…While historians increasingly recognize that blacks had a significant impact on the design and construction of plantations and public buildings in the South and that rice farming in the Carolinas might not have been possible without Blacks, the individuals who spearheaded these accomplishments remain anonymous.
The previous excerpt from The African-American Almanac describes an all too-common situation in African-American history: the accomplishments of Blacks are claimed as those of whites, or not recognized at all. Some scientific discoveries, however, are duly attributed to famous African-Americans.
One such invention was the grain harvester, historically credited to Cyrus McCormick. Though, as new research tells us, “Jo Anderson, one of McCormick’s slaves, is believed to have played a major role in the creation of the McCormick harvester…” On the other hand, much more credit for invention was given to freed slaves, such as Henry Blair, the patent-holder for a seed planter, and Augustus Jackson, for the invention of ice cream.
The sad truth of the matter is, as with accomplishments in art, early inventions and scientific discoveries by Blacks were simply not heralded with interest. It was not until much later, after the slaves were freed, that Blacks would be respected as scientists. It may be that Africans had scientific methods native to Africa that they brought to the New World, but these were overlooked by supremacist slave-owners and gradually disappeared.
Of course, African slaves had their own language before they came to America. But what happened to this language when they were taken from their homeland and immersed in English-speaking society? As would be expected, they adapted to the English language retaining distinctly African subtleties.
The changes made to English by Black slaves are still seen today in the African-American vernacular. This altered language is sometimes referred to as “Black English,” and is said to be “spoken at times by as many as 80% to 90% of African-Americans.”
“Much in Black English that seems grammatically incorrect actually represents the consistent application of African structural principles.” In other words, phrases such as “ain’t” and “wasn’t” that are wrong in English would have made perfect sense in an African language.
Considering that they had to start as slaves and “work their way up”, the contributions of Black Americans are astounding. Their advancements in music, art, religion, language, and science have helped shape American culture as a whole.
Angel, Stephen W. The African-American Almanac, v.4. Harper Publishing, San Francisco, 1984.
Internet: The Black Experience @gopher://wiretap.spies.com
Microsoft Bookshelf Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press, Chicago, 1995.
Rampling, Anne. Exit To Eden. Dell Publishing, New York, 1989
World Book Encyclopedia. World Book Inc., Chicago, 1992.