African Heritage: An Overview

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African Heritage: An Overview

Throughout the entire history of slavery in North America, individuals who spoke African languages and could personally remember another life on that distant continent mingled with others who were at least a generation or two—and sometimes several generations—removed from that experience. The number of actual Africans varied in different eras, of course, and there were proportionately very few by the time the peculiar institution ended. It is also important to ask about what is meant by the term African to begin with. The word does not and never has indicated a nationality; Africa is and was a land of many different peoples, tongues, and cultures.

Usually before those Africans who experienced slavery interacted with other slaves who were Creoles in the sense that they had been born in the New World, they interacted with other Africans. Men, women, and children from different social classes, nations, languages, and religions were cast together in crowded holds and on auction blocks, now sharing a new life even if they could not all communicate with one another. Could this have served to strengthen traits that, as West Africans, their cultures may have had in common? As they learned to navigate their new reality, and to communicate in a new language, did they in turn reinforce Africanisms among those slaves born in the Americas?

These are simple questions. Historians' answers, however, have at times been murky and contradictory. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. historians—like most Americans of their time—took it as a matter of course that so-called uncivilized people had no culture to retain to begin with. Serious scholars have not made similar type claims in several decades; rather, they have tended to disagree about the extent to which African culture was retained. Was the slave community a mélange, a mixture of various African, European, and to a certain extent even Native American elements, which coalesced into something distinctly and uniquely African American? Or did it retain strong ties to its African roots throughout, in resistance to the dominant culture—in fact, even influencing white southerners without their knowledge? Or is the truth somewhere in-between?

There is no denying that a distinct African American culture did take shape. It took form over the course of long days toiling with comrades in the fields, or in the masters' kitchens, of nights spent with family in the slave quarters, telling stories and singing songs, and of Sundays spent seeking the Lord together. While scholars can argue about the extent of African cultural retention, it is clear that the slaves' worldview and aesthetics always bore the imprint of Africa. See individual entries under this heading to examine various elements of the slave community, from folklore to toys, and see the ways in which African heritage continued through in African American heritage.


Gornez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Thornton, John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

                                                Troy D. Smith

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African Heritage: An Overview

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