America's Cultural Roots Traced to Enslaved African Ancestors

February 5, 2003

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This is the fourth in a series of excerpts from Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrels' lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
James Weldon Johnson,
"O Black and Unknown Bards"

Most traditional West African societies, the sources of the vast majority of enslaved Africans in the Americas, had dynamic, vibrant, expressive cultures. The languages spoken were unusually animated, by most European standards. Peppered with proverbs, they were sources of moral and ethical training as well as simple vehicles of communication.

Everyday conversation, as well as storytelling and oratory during sacred rituals and other performance events, was filled with energy and dynamism.

Indigenous musics, which were extremely complex, permeated all aspects of traditional African social life. They were used to establish and maintain the rhythms of work. No festival or life-cycle celebration was complete without the presence of music, the moving rhythmic center of traditional African social and cultural life.

Dancing to these rhythms was equally pervasive. Such dancing challenged the rhythmic sensibilities of talented performers. Led by acrobatic leaders, who were frequently priests dressed in masks and elaborate costumes, communities of dancers frequently involved all members of society regardless of age, sex, or social status.

When combined with the spiritual forces that frequently accompanied or were invoked by the singing, drumming, and dancing, the dancers themselves became the embodiment of the rhythms and the spirits. Whether in sacred religious ritual or day-to-day routines, music and the rhythms it evoked were constant, energizing, engrossing partners. And where music was heard, dancing was usually not far behind.

On board slave ships during the Middle Passage, enslaved Africans were frequently forced to dance. Once a day, some of them were brought up from the hold and encouraged to drum, sing, and dance. Slave captains believed that dancing enlivened the captives' spirits and reduced their sense of pain, suffering, and longing.

Dancing was also seen as a form of exercise, which helped to preserve and maintain the captives' health during the tedious voyage. Ultimately, the slave captains were not really concerned about the health and wellbeing of their captives. Rather, they took whatever measures that were necessary to protect their human cargo to ensure that they would get a good return on their investments when the slaves were sold in the Americas.

Unbeknownst to the slave-ship captains, the daily dancing and exercise regime likely provided one of the bases for the continuity of African-based expressive culture in the New World. For the rhythms and dances preserved during the Middle Passage became the roots of New World African musics and dances.

Continued on Next Page >>


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