” Chapter Five: pgs. 110-142
Chapter Five of the book “Myths of Negro Past” deals primarily with the various and complex ways Africans transposed their culture to adapt to their new lives in both the North American, as well as the South American, continents. Though the chapter as a whole overall shows how African culture was distributed and assimilated, as well as preserved though the America’s, it definitely proves without a doubt that these customs carried over from West Africa by the slave trade were much better preserved in the Central and South American regions.
The chapter opens with the information that it is a generally accepted notion that Afro-Americans are likely to trace their roots only to a specific region or country, rather than to a specific cultural traditions within that region. It also presents a logical reason for this–the oppression of African-Americans have forced them to identify in a more loose way with each other, connecting by the injustices they faced. The author contrasted this idea with the ability to trace specific African cultural traditions seen in the Caribbean and South America to more specific tribes and rituals. This is the overt theme of the whole chapter–American blacks are less able to culturally identify with their African roots than many Caribbean and South American blacks.
The author also presents another interesting argument as well that further strengthens their idea. The author cites Central and South American, as well as Caribbean languages that parallel languages traced back to, and even still heard in West Africa today. Closer examination showed a great many of the roots of South American languages were indeed West African-based. This is obviously not the case in North America, where the slave trade was more prolific. This is due to many factors; some socioeconomic, some psychological, and some location-based.
The chapter presented the idea that some of the undisturbed South American tribes that exist today are nothing more than transplanted West African culture. Firstly, the geographic elements of South America are very similar to the jungle-dwelling tribes of West Africa. This made a situation conducive for assimilation into their new surroundings, while maximizing cultural integrity at the same time. The author illustrated this idea by bringing up slave revolts, and comparing the success of them as a whole.
Here the author clearly showed that climates conducive for guerilla warfare, or with the maximum amount of natural boundaries defined the outcome of the revolt. Citing a successful slave revolt in Haiti, the obvious foil is America, and its quashing of almost every revolt–other than Native American-aided in the hills of the Appalachian Mountains–another climate conducive for guerilla warfare. The main point is that these transplanted Africans were able to keep to their cultural roots more effectively in topography similar to what they were accustomed to.
Topography is not the only factor named in the success of preserving African culture in South America compared to its neighbor from the North. In general, simply because the slaves in North America were working in a closer proximity to their Western owners, they took on Western customs–in many cases resulting in an overt culture blending. At the same time, this detracted from the preservation of West African customs in North America.
The final very important reason the Chapter cites as a reason for a lack of the preservation of African culture is the necessity for skilled workers in North America. Very often these slaves were not just laborers, but blacksmiths, metalworkers, or skilled laborers. They were taught these skills by working in close proximity to their Western owners. These Western cultural values were then instilled on their own children.
Overall, the chapter was very effective in conveying the idea that African culture was better preserved in Central and South America than in America.
Chapter Six: pgs. 143-206
While Chapter Five analyzed cultural traditions carried from West Africa to the Americas, Chapter Six primarily illustrated how, and where, in South and North American cultures that African influence can be seen in. These range from social conventions, to new versions of old African traditions, and show the assimilation of West African culture.
With regards to the time period during and right after slavery, West African traditions can be clearly illustrated in many ways, both within and outside the United States. There are methods of farming that were used on West Indian Islands, as well as the American South, that are completely identical to those found to this day in West Africa. Although now in servitude, it is clear these people were able to use their knowledge obtained in West Arica, and translate it to their new tasks.
A perfect example of one of these tools and traditions is the use of a mortar and pestle. This is, and has been, tradition in West Africa for much longer than even the slave trade began. This idea of a mortar and pestle was clearly outline by the author as a very clear example of how Africans transplanted their knowledge, tools, and some customs to their new situations. Another example of this is the carrying of jugs or pots on heads. The author explained that it is an African tradition to carry one’s burden above their head. This behavior is seen by blacks on both sides of the Atlantic.
The author explained that to this day African customs could be seen assimilated into black cultures in the Americas. Traditions such as a strong female in the household, or the matriarch, that can be seen in black culture has its roots in West African tradition. The elaborate hair decoration seen in both black women and men today, especially as a priority, also has its roots in West Africa. Again, the braiding of hair is also an example of something commonly seen in black culture today that the author explains has its roots in traditional African cultures.
Another tradition, such as averting of the eyes while laughing, has roots in West African cultures and can also be seen throughout the Caribbean and in South America. Originally with the purpose of respect, it has its roots in not directly laughing in another persons face. Though a small example, it is still an example of places that African culture has survived by assimilation, or the perpetuating of customs.
There is one thing in particular that has carried from West Africa and is reflective of blacks throughout the Americas in different ways. The importance that African culture places on the burial of a dead loved one, as well as the commemoration and remembrance of the person has translated in many ways to black cultures in both South and North America in different ways.
In North America this has proven to be an add on to the Christianity that many blacks adopted. This is important because it shows how these people clung to their roots as heavily as they could, keeping any tradition possible. The fact that this is still seen within the black community today shows how some customs were able to survive in North America.
In South America, however, the burial customs shown by some indigenous tribes to this day parallel those still seen by West African tribes. Therefore in this instance, the custom was able to translate both places, just much more heavily in South America.
Chapter Seven: pgs. 207-260
In Chapter Seven of “Myths of Negro Past” the author continues to build on the burial customs idea introduced at the end of the previous chapter by introducing the various different ways that West African religious practices have translated themselves onto black populations in both North and South America.
The author presents the readers with the West African cultural tradition of religion as an integral part of everyday life, and compares that to the Christian black populations in North America, with specific respect to the Baptist Church, and its overwhelming black population. The author creates a parallel that illustrates what drew blacks to the Baptist Church in particular.
By nature, the Baptist Church’s structure was the closest to West African religions. Slaves, and then subsequently free blacks in the United States were treated horrifically, which perhaps gives insight as to the overwhelming numbers of black Baptists. The Baptist Church embodied many things this population of mistreated blacks yearned for. The Church itself was known as a “church of the masses”, and has never historically discriminated.
A major theme in Baptist sermons is in fact equality itself, and how Jesus preached it. In addition, the preachers generally gave a message implying social mobility through hard work and perseverance. In many cases this was a positive message that benefitted the black community, so frequently trodden upon in America–proverbially a light at the end of the tunnel.
Moving on with the theme of black Baptists, there are other reasons the church was attractive. In addition to creating a tight-knit community, very accepting of outsiders, the Baptist Church encouraged a more “democratic” view towards Christianity. The hierarchy of a sect such as Catholicism did not exist. Contrasted with the lack of control these people had over their destinies on the outside of the Church’s walls, it is easy to see why Baptism would be attractive.
The Baptist Church was also the first church that allowed blacks to preach. In addition, paralleling many West African religions, Baptist Church’s encouraged the participation of the churchgoers. Many West African religions use forms of chanting, singing, dancing, and animated gestures in their “sermons”. This is seen very easily even in the modern Baptist Church.
In addition, African customs snuck their way into Baptist faith in the same way. Even today there is a belief, and somewhat of a deference for the occult in Baptists, and black Baptists in particular. This acceptance of the supernatural is a direct product of the rituals seen in West Africa–even called demon possessions in both places, and resolved in the same exorcism-type ritual.
Overall, this chapter illustrated how North American Africans in particular assimilated their religious beliefs into established Western traditions.