West African Influences

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West African Influences

Before the 1940s historical interpretations of slavery suggested that the experience of the long and brutal voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and the humiliating and dehumanizing effect of enslavement destroyed the enslaved Africans' identity and severed them from their culture. The anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits challenged this interpretation in his 1941 book, The Myth of the Negro Past. Based on the structural similarities between West African cultural practices and the cultural traditions of African Americans, Herskovits's research revealed that enslaved Africans in the new world, and the United States, had indeed not been divorced from their culture and that West African cultural influences were present in African American culture during slavery, through emancipation, and beyond.

Focusing on West African influences present in the cultural practices of enslaved African Americans, historians have offered new interpretations of the institution of slavery and its effects on the enslaved. As George Rawick (1972) argues, "if we are to understand the develop-ment of African American culture and community, then we must have some understanding of the role African experience played in the making of the American black people" (1972, p. 14).

It is important to remember that enslaved blacks' African ancestors did come from diverse areas and ethnic groups along the western coast of Africa. Despite the geographic and ethnic variation among Africans transported to the United States, the historian Lawrence Levine suggests that, "though [enslaved Africans] varied widely in language, institutions, gods, and familial patterns, they shared a fundamental outlook towards the past, present, and future and a common means of cultural expression which could well have constituted the basis of a sense of common identity and world view capable of withstanding the impact of slavery" (1977, p. 4). The shared cultural practices of the diverse West African ethnic groups brought to the United States through the middle passage had a powerful impact on the culture of enslaved African Americans, most evident in slaves' folklore, music, religion, rituals, and language.


African American musical styles have been and continue to be the strongest vehicles for the preservation and evolution of West African cultural characteristics arriving in the United States, by way of the Middle Passage, some four centuries ago. Not only has African American music carried traces of West Africa, but importantly West African cultural characteristics have helped to connect several different styles of African American music over time. While the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop are unique styles of black musical production with different social meanings and uses, they all share elements that can be traced back to the ring shout and plantation gang-labor work song. One of the most prominent of these shared characteristics is the A-B-A-B-C-C lyric pattern that originated in the work songs of enslaved Africans. Initially this lyric pattern helped to coordinate and synchronize movements of enslaved Africans while collectively working. This lyric pattern persisted in the post-emancipation moment as the emerging blues musical style adopted it. This same lyrical structure can often be found in the hooks of many jazz, rhythm and blues, and hip-hop songs being produced in the early twenty-first century.

SOURCE: Baraka, Amiri. Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York: William Morrow, 1963.


As John Blassingame notes, "African scholars have traced many slaves' folktales directly to Ghana, Senegal, and Mauritius and the lore of such African peoples as the Ewe, Wolof, Hausa, Temne, Ashanti, and Ibo" (1972, p. 32). One of the common threads among these folktales is the trickster figure—commonly in the form of an animal such as a tortoise, rabbit, or spider—who uses intellect and cunning to outwit a physically stronger foe. In the 1920s Zora Neal Hurston, the novelist and anthropologist, researched and documented the folklore traditions of southern African American communities along the Gulf Coast. Based on her interviews with African Americans either who had experienced slavery as a young child or who were a part of the first generations born after emancipation, she showed that the West African trickster continued to be an important element of black folklore. In the folktales of these Gulf Coast communities, the trickster figure often took the form of the rabbit, who time after time outsmarted his physically stronger foe, the fox. Some suggest that enslaved African Americans saw the relationship between the rabbit and the fox as a metaphor for the relationship between the enslaved and the slave owner.

Music and Performance

Structural elements of West African music and performance, including call and response, group participation, bodily expression through dance, polyrhythmic complexity, improvisation, harmony, and tonal quality, became the foundations of the music created by enslaved African Americans. Lawrence Levine (1977) observes that the song style of African Americans, during the slavery era and following emancipation, retained and reflected West African styles of music and performance. By relying on the West African tradition of call and response in "work songs," enslaved African Americans were able to adjust to gang labor systems. Work songs helped the enslaved coordinate their collective energy and effort to work more efficiently. As they simultaneously worked and sang, their individual parts in the call and response pattern of the song told them when to execute their specific work function.

The "ring shout," an essential part of West African ritual performance, was another important influence on the cultural practices of enslaved African Americans. According to Sterling Stuckey, "an integral part of religion and culture was moving in a ring during ceremonies honoring the ancestors…. Wherever in Africa the counter clockwise dance ceremony was performed,… the dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and gods, the tempo and revolution of the circle quickening during the course of movement" (1987, pp. 11-12). Perhaps the most celebrated instances of this West African tradition in the United States were the ring shouts performed on Sundays in New Orleans' Congo Square until federal troops put a stop to the practice during the Civil War. Enslaved Africans congregated to sing, dance, worship, and pay homage to their ancestors. Like the work song, call and response and collective participation governed the structure of singing while a layered multitude of rhythmic beat patterns produced by many drummers kept time for the dancers. Gary Donaldson notes that "these rings represented various African tribes and nationalities as they danced, sang, and played the various instruments of their homeland" (1984). Each West African ethnic group represented in the circle usually had a specific part in the call and response pattern and a distinct drum cadence. As the various voices and cadences formed one collective song, an ethnically diverse group of Africans were transformed into African Americans. The roots of jazz, argued to be the most uniquely American musical form, have been traced back to the ring shouts of Congo Square.

West African culture had its most pronounced influence on the culture of enslaved African Americans in areas—namely the Gulf Coast, New Orleans, the Gullah Coast, and the islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina—where slaves had less interaction with white Americans and the desire to assimilate into white culture was minimal. With the closing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808, ending the importation of individuals who experienced West African culture first-hand, the growth of the free black population, and their assimilation into white society and culture, the prominence of West African influences began to fade. Yet these influences did leave their mark on African American and American culture. West African words like "goober," "yam," "cola," and "tote," introduced into the United States by enslaved Africans, have become common usage in American English.


Blassingame, John. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Donaldson, Gary A. "A Window on Slave Culture: Dances at Congo Square in New Orleans, 1800–1862." Journal of Negro History 69, no. 2 (1984): 63-72.

Herskovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. New York: Harper, 1941.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Mules and Men [1935]. New York: Perennial Library, 1990.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Rawick, George P. From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1972.

Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

                                       Nicholas Gaffney

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West African Influences

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