African American culture on the North American mainland was shaped by many forces. In addition to economic, geographic, and demographic factors, these forces included the extent of social contacts with other blacks, proximity to whites and Native Americans, and African cultures. Although different African American subcultures formed at various times in the separate regions of North America, American blacks still had much in common, especially their African cultural heritage. It shaped language, their views of how the world worked (which usually involved a religion), how people interacted, ideas of time and space, how they expressed themselves aesthetically, family relations, historical traditions, social customs, and work habits.
During the colonial era the most persistent patterns of African influence could be seen in the Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia and the coastal low country of Georgia and South Carolina. Not surprisingly, these regions received the overwhelming majority of nearly 300,000 Africans transported to colonial America. The first Africans sold on the North American mainland landed in Virginia in 1619. More would follow, but for decades most slaves were either trans-shipped from the West Indies in small lots or brought as bondspeople by European and West Indies immigrants when they migrated to America. Not until the late seventeenth century did demand for enslaved labor reach a level that would support regular direct shipments from Africa. By the time strife with Great Britain ended the colonial slave trade in 1775, an estimated 100,000 Africans, mainly from Senegambia, the Gold Coast, the Bight of Biafra, and Angola in West-Central Africa, had been transported to the Chesapeake. Farther south in Georgia and South Carolina, English slavers delivered another 130,000 people from Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Windward and Gold Coasts, and Angola.
Despite their variant ethnic backgrounds, when substantial numbers of Africans were able to make extensive social contacts with other blacks in an American community, live in families, and raise children, the creation of a new African American culture from a blending of African, Native American, and European elements began. For the black population of the Chesapeake, the transformation was well under way by the middle of the eighteenth century. American-born blacks, who made up 80 percent of the black population, had mastered English and adjusted to their new environment and work. As they became increasingly acculturated, African languages and names faded, but African ways were still present. These could be seen in the extended kinship networks slaves and free blacks formed, the pottery and pipes they made, and the colorful clothing and headgear they wore. African ways were also reflected in songs, which were often antiphonal in style, and dance, which was usually accompanied by Africanstyled instruments such as the banjo and drums. And despite strenuous efforts by Christians, African Americans were able to preserve some elements of African religious practices in their lives, evidenced by the prominent role of conjuring and folk medicine in everyday life, distinctive funeral practices, and expressive behavior in worship services.
In the Georgia and South Carolina low country, two different African American cultures developed. In Charleston, South Carolina, slaves and free blacks lived and worked closely with whites; by 1750 the urban African American subculture was tied closely to the European American culture of whites. On low-country rice and indigo plantations, where bondspeople had little contact with whites and Africans made up more than 40 percent of the black population for most of the eighteenth century, slaves created their own world. They lived in slave quarters that had the look and feel of a West African village. They established stable families, and elders assumed positions of authority. They continued African naming practices, and on the coastal islands they developed a distinctive Creole language, Gullah, spoken with a West African grammatical structure. The task system, in which slaves had to complete an assigned amount of work before their time was their own, allowed them to perpetuate African attitudes toward work. Slaves made baskets that incorporated African influences and continued to observe Old World religious beliefs. In almost every way, African American culture in the low country was linked much more closely to Africa than Europe or America.
The Revolutionary War disrupted the Chesapeake and low-country subcultures. In the Chesapeake thousands of slaves escaped, and even more were manumitted. Many settled in northern Virginia and Maryland and started new lives. Within a generation these free blacks were working steady jobs, had established households, and had founded their own churches, schools, and cemeteries, most of which bore the name "African." However, in the southern Chesapeake the commitment to slavery deepened, and slavery became more entrenched. As the slave population expanded, slave owners began selling "excess" slaves to slave traders, who took them to the West and Southwest. When the cotton boom hit at the turn of the century, the pace of the migration increased. In Georgia and South Carolina, slaves were also on the move. The war had wrecked slavery in the low country. Some 30,000 slaves, 30 percent of the prewar slave population of Georgia and South Carolina, either died, escaped, or were evacuated by the British. When the war ended in 1783, planters looked to the transatlantic slave trade for replacements, and Africans poured into Charleston and Savannah, Georgia. The influx of Africans, mainly from Senegambia, Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast, and West-Central Africa, reinforced the unique African American culture that had developed in the low country before the war.
Many of the 170,000 Africans who landed in America between 1783 and 1810 were sent to the interior of the Lower South and Lower Mississippi Valley. Although they were dispersed over a wide geographic area, and lived and worked closely with their white owners and American-born blacks, they left their mark. Old World names were common throughout the antebellum years. Hoping to win their freedom, many Africans participated in conspiracies and revolts. Although their intrigues failed, like many other Africans who came to America during the colonial and early national eras they contributed much to the formation of American culture.
See alsoAfrican Americans: African American Life and Culture; African American Religion; African American Responses to Slavery and Race; Chesapeake Region; Gabriel's Rebellion; Georgia; Music: African American; Plantation, The; Slavery: Slave Insurrections; Slavery: Slave Life; Slavery: Slave Trade, African; Slavery: Slave Trade, Domestic; South Carolina; Vesey Rebellion .
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Edited by Shelley Eversley. New York: Modern Library, 2004.
Morgan, Philip D. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Knopf, 1974; New York: Norton, 1975.
James A. McMillin