An Africanism is any cultural (material or nonmaterial) or linguistic property of African origin surviving in the Americas or in the African diaspora. The study of Africanisms in the Americas has sparked much debate over the survival of African culture in North America.
Avenues of Transmission
The transatlantic slave trade was the main avenue for the transmission of African culture to the Americas, establishing a permanent link between Africa and North America as Africans sold into slavery transplanted their culture to North America. Africanisms survived in North America by a process of cultural transference, cultural synthesis, and cultural transformations. Africans, unlike European immigrants, were deprived of their freedom to transport their kinship structures, courts, guilds, cult groups, market, and military. However, Africans made substantial contributions in agriculture, aesthetics, dance, folklore, food culture, and language.
African cultural retentions were found at various levels of the plantation work force. Some of the earliest groups to have a major impact on American culture were the first Africans—Mandes and Wolofs from Senegambia—arriving in colonial South Carolina. Between 1650 and 1700, the dominant group of Africans imported to South Carolina were Senegambian in origin, and they were the first Africans to have elements from their language and culture retained within the developing language and culture of America. David Dalby has identified early linguistic retention among this group and traced many Americanisms to Wolof, including bogus, boogie-woogie, bug (in-sect), dig (to understand), guy, honky, jam, jamboree, jitter-(bug), jive, John, juke(box), fuzz (police), hippie, mumbojumbo, OK, phony, rooty-toot(y), and rap, to name just a few.
African culture also survived in the form of folklore. Brer Rabbit, Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Sis' Nanny Goat were part of the heritage the Wolof shared with other West African peoples such as the Hausa, Fula (Fulani), and Mandinka. The Hare (Rabbit) stories are also found in parts of Nigeria, Angola, and East Africa. Other animal fables that remained popular in North America include the Tortoise stories found among the Yoruba, Igbo, and Edo-Bini peoples of Nigeria, and the Spider (Anansi) tales, found throughout much of West Africa, including Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The latter have reappeared in the United States in the form of Aunt Nancy stories, which found their way into American culture through Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, as well as through more authentic African-American sources.
Many slaves, including Mande house servants in South Carolina, served as intermediaries in the acculturation of both the planters and the field slaves. The house servant incorporated African cultural patterns into the culinary, religious, and folkloric patterns of the planters. At the same time, the slaves learned European cultural standards. So while house servants drew their European heritage from the planters, planters drew their African heritage from their black servants.
Reciprocal Acculturation and Isolation
The acculturation process was mutual as well as reciprocal: Africans assimilated white culture and planters adopted some aspects of African customs and practices, including African methods of rice cultivation, African cuisine (which had a profound impact on what became southern cooking), open grazing of cattle, and the use of herbal medicines to cure diseases. For example, Africans are credited with bringing folk treatments for smallpox to America, as well as antidotes for snakebites and other poisons. Through the root doctor, Africans brought new health practices to the plantations. The African house servants also learned new domestic skills, including the art of quilting, from their mistresses. They took a European quilting technique and Africanized it by combining an appliqué style, reflecting a pattern and form which is still found today in the Akan and Fon textile industries of West Africa.
In South Carolina and Louisiana, the field slaves were mainly Angolan and Congolese, and they brought a homogeneous, identifiable culture. They often possessed good metallurgical and woodworking skills, and had a particular skill in ironworking, making the wrought-iron balconies in New Orleans and Charleston. But as field workers, the Angolans were kept away from the developing mainstream of white American culture. This isolation worked to the Angolans' advantage in that it allowed them to escape acculturation and maintain their cultural homogeneity.
Angolan contributions to South Carolina and Louisiana include not only wrought-iron balconies but also wood carvings, basketry, weaving, baked clay figurines, and pottery. Cosmograms, grave designs and decorations, funeral practices, and the wake are also Bantu in origin. Bantu musical contributions include banjos, drums, diddley bows, mouthbows, the washtub bass, jugs, gongs, bells, rattles, ideophones, and the lokoimni, a five-stringed harp.
After 1780 the Angolans had a substantial presence in South Carolina and other areas of the southeastern United States, including Alabama and Louisiana. In areas such as the Sea Islands of South Carolina, the Angolans were predominantly field hands or were used in capacities that required little or no contact with Euro-Americans, so they were not confronted with the same problems of acculturation as were West African domestic servants and artisans. Living in relative isolation from other groups, they were able to maintain a strong sense of unity and to retain a cultural vitality that laid the foundation for the development of African-American culture.
Much of Mande culture was transmitted to white Americans by way of the "big house." African cooks introduced deep-fat frying, a cooking technique that originated in Africa. Most southern stews (gumbos) and nut stews are African in origin. Gumbo (kingombo), a soup made of okra pods, shrimp, and powdered sassafras leaves, was known to most southerners by the 1780s. Other southern favorites are jambalaya (bantu tshimbolebole) and callaloo, a thick soup similar to gumbo.
Another African dish that was recreated by the descendants of Africans in North America is fufu, a traditional African meal eaten from Senegambia to Angola. In South Carolina, it is called "turn meal and flour." Cornbread was mentioned by slavers as one of the African foods provided for their African cargo. From this fufu mixture, slaves made hoecake in the fields. Later hoecake evolved into pancakes and hot-water cornbread. As early as 1739 American naturalist Marc Catesby noted that slaves made a mush from cornmeal called pone bread. He also noted that slaves used Indian corn hominy and made grits (similar to the African dish eba.) Other African dishes that became part of southern cuisine are hop-n-johns (rice and black-eyed peas cooked together) and jollof rice (red rice).
Some important crops brought directly from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade were gathered for Africans on board slave ships, including okra, tania, blackeyed peas, and kidney beans. Other crops introduced into North America from Africa are coffee, peanuts, millet, sorghum, guinea melon, watermelon, yams, and sesame seeds.
Soul food goes back to the days when plantation owners gave slaves discarded animal parts, such as hog maw (stomach), hog jowl, pigs' feet, and ham hocks. To these, African Americans added African cooking methods and a group of African foods that included collard greens, dandelion greens (first recorded in 1887), poke greens, turnip greens, and black-eyed peas (first brought to Jamaica from Africa in 1674 and to North America by 1738).
Agriculture and Livestock
The first rice seeds were imported to South Carolina directly from Madagascar in 1685. Africans supplied the labor and the technical expertise, and Africans off the coast of Senegal trained Europeans in its cultivation. The methods of rice cultivation used in West Africa and South Carolina were identical.
Africa also contributed to American cattle raising. Fulanis accustomed to cattle raising in the Futa Jallon in Senegambia oversaw the rapid expansion of the British-American cattle herds in the middle of the eighteenth century. They were responsible for introducing open grazing patterns, now practiced throughout the American cattle industry. This practice is used worldwide in cattle culture today. Open grazing made practical use of an abundance of land and a limited labor force.
Longhorn and shorthorn cattle were common across much of western Africa, particularly in the River Gambia area. Many Africans entering South Carolina after 1670 were experienced in tending large herds. Eighteenth-century descriptions of West African animal husbandry bear a striking resemblance to what appeared in Carolina and later in the American dairy and cattle industries. The harvesting of cattle and cattle drives to centers of distribution were also adaptations of African innovations, and Africans introduced the first artificial insemination and the use of cow's milk for human consumption in the British colonies.
The historian Peter Wood has argued that the word cowboy originated from this early relationship between cattle and Africans in the colonial period, when African labor and skills were closely associated with cattle raising. Africans stationed at cow pens with herding responsibilities were referred to as cowboys, just as Africans who worked in the "big house" were known as houseboys.
Much of the early language associated with cowboy culture had a strong African flavor. The word bronco (probably of Efik/Ibibio and Spanish origins) was used centuries ago to denote Spanish and African slaves who worked with cattle and horses. The word buckra (a poor white man) is derived from mbakara, the Efik/Ibibio word for "white man." Buckra described a class of whites who worked as broncobusters—bucking and breaking horses, perhaps because planters used buckras as broncobusters when slaves were too valuable to risk injuring. A related term of cowboy culture is buckaroo, another Efik/Ibibio word also derived from mbakara. Another African word that found its way into popular cowboy songs is dogie, which grew out of the Kimbundu words kidogo, "a little something," and dodo, "small."
Africanisms are not exclusive to African-American culture, but contributed to an emerging American culture. One area that has been largely ignored in the debate over African cultural survival in the United States is the survival of African culture among white Americans. Many Africanisms have entered southern culture as a whole, including the banjo, the elaborate etiquette of the South with respect for elders, its use of terms of endearment and kinship in speaking to neighbors, and its general emphasis on politeness. White southerners have adopted African speech patterns and have retained Africanisms from baton twirling and cheerleading to such expressions and words as bodacious, bozo, cooter (turtle), goober (peanut), hullabaloo, hully-gully, jazz, moola (money), pamper, Polly Wolly-Doodle, wow, uh-huh, unh-unh, daddy, buddy, and tote, to list a few.
These are only some of the ways in which African culture contributed to what was to become American culture. Americans share a dual cultural experience—one side European and the other African.
Dalby, David. "The African Element in Black English." In Rappin' and Stylin' Out, edited by Thomas Kochman. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972.
Gamble, David P. The Wolof of Senegambia, Together with Notes on the Lebu and the Serer. London: International African Institute, 1957.
Holloway, Joseph E. Africanisms in America Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Holloway, Joseph E., and Winifred K. Vass. The African Heritage of American English. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.
Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Levine, Lawrence. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Wood, Peter H. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion. New York: Knopf, 1974.
joseph e. holloway (1996)