Jubilee: New Book Celebrates U.S. Black Culture

Howard Dodson
January 31, 2003
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Celebrating the development and emergence of a truly unique African-American culture out of the bonds of slavery, Jubilee delivers a poignant, hopeful, and important message.

A new book by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library,
Jubilee: the Emergence of African-American Culture (National Geographic Books, February 2003), shows how these diverse peoples united, forged their own new identity, and laid foundations for unique social, cultural, political, and economic expressions. This is the first of five excerpts from the book.

Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture presents a new perspective on slavery and the slave trade. Unlike many previous accounts, it does not focus on blacks as victims. Rather, it focuses on the cultural, political, economic, and social activities that enslaved Africans took in the midst of slavery to redefine themselves and their world and reshape their own destinies.

It is the story of the ways in which enslaved African human beings made themselves history- and culture-makers and transformed themselves.

Drawing on the most recent scholarship on slavery and the slave trade, Jubilee offers the American public—black as well as white—a unique opportunity to discover a compelling history of the American past–facts that, until recently, have been unavailable to the public for study and reflection.

Of the first 6.5 million people who crossed the Atlantic and settled in the Americas during the colonial period (1492-1776), for instance, only 1 million were Europeans. The other 5.5 million were African.

Equally intriguing is the fact that only some 450,000 of the 10 million Africans who survived the Middle Passage during the transatlantic slave trade settled in the continental United States. Nevertheless, these 450,000 had grown to more than 4 million people of African descent by 1860, and more than 40 million today.

For more than two centuries, slavery was a central factor in the development of American life. The transatlantic slave trade's more than 300-year history shaped the modern world as we know it. It fueled the economic development of Europe, disrupted Africa's economic and political and social life, and provided the labor force that laid the economic foundation of the Americas, including the United States. Together, the slave trade and slavery were the two most powerful forces shaping the development of the American nation. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Americans—black and white—know very little about the nature and character of these people-shaping, nation-building institutions.

Most Americans have avoided any serious study of these institutions. Whites have shied away from any earnest attempts to really know what happened during slavery because they fear that they will be implicated in its horrors. They fear that they will find their ancestors' behavior and actions repugnant and that they will be obliged to shoulder the burden of guilt. Blacks avoid such study because they fear that they will be further demeaned or embarrassed by such knowledge. Much of this fear and avoidance stems from the images of slavery and the slave trade that most Americans have come to believe are the essence of slavery and the slave trades history and legacy.

What Americans know or think they know about slavery and the slave trade has been shaped by the images of these institutions that have been handed down to us over the past 500 years. They are images of helpless, defenseless victims of unthinkable cruelty. They are images of long lines of bound captives being driven by armed captors from the interior of West and Central Africa to coastal holding pens.

They are images of hundreds and at times thousands of these enslaved African captives being held in jail cells and other prisonlike settings until enough have been captured to fill a slave ship. They are images of men, women, and children in shackles and leg irons. They are images of hundreds of these African men, women, and children packed spoon-fashion on slave ships. They are images of brutalized, exploited slaves working under unbearable conditions on tobacco and cotton plantations in the United States and sugar plantations throughout the Americas. They are images of downtrodden, degraded people—perennial victims—who were stripped of their culture and humanity and forced to live out their lives in slavery as pawns in vicious, all-powerful systems of human degradation.

Ironically, most of these images of slavery were fashioned and promulgated during the heat of the abolitionist struggle against slavery prior to the Civil War. Fugitive slaves, free blacks, and abolitionists alike created and focused public attention on such iconic images in order to hasten the destruction of the slave trade and slavery. To counter the slaveholders' perspective, which painted benign, "paternalistic images" of the peculiar institution, slavery's opponents documented and presented for public consumption every instance of brutality and victimization in the slave-holding South. Seeking to appeal to the moral consciousness and sensibilities of ordinary citizens, churches, governments and principalities of power, abolitionists and anti-slavery proponents created graphic visual and narrative pictures of the brutal and dehumanizing nature of the slave trade and slavery. More critiques of the behavior of the slave traders, masters, and overseers than accurate portrayals of slavery in the lives and culture of the enslaved African captives, they were nonetheless effective resources in the propaganda war between the proponents of slavery and abolition that preceded the Civil War.

This almost singular focus on black victimization has, until recently, dominated scholarship and public thinking about the slave trade and slavery. Over the past three decades, however, scholars have posed a variety of new questions about the nature and functioning of both institutions. The slave trade has come to be seen as more than a set of oppressive relations between villainous slave-ship captains and crews and cowering African victims. And slavery is now understood to be more than a cruel history of day-to-day acts of brutality and unrequited labor.

The slave trade and slavery laid the foundations for the development of Europe and the Americas as well as the underdevelopment of Africa from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Of even greater significance, as Jubilee makes clear, is that it was in the context of slavery that enslaved Africans invented and reproduced themselves and laid the foundations of African-American social, political, cultural, and economic development. Though victimized, exploited, and oppressed, enslaved Africans and their progeny—both slave and free—were active, creative agents in the making of their own history, culture, and political future.

Studying their lives can teach us much about the capacity of human beings to develop even under dehumanizing conditions. It can teach us some of the diverse ways in which oppressed human beings confront and transcend oppression. It can teach us about living, surviving, and winning in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Jubilee documents and interprets these obstacle-ridden but life-affirming experiences of enslaved African peoples in the Americas, especially in the United States.

Jubilee is divided into three parts. Part One traces the origin and development of the slave trade and slavery. Using graphic visual images and selected narrative documents, it describes and interprets the context in which enslaved Africans remade themselves and their world. Part Two documents the processes of social, cultural, political, and economic change that enslaved Africans fashioned in order to create and affirm their new identities and humanity. Chapters within this part explore the transformations wrought by enslaved Africans in such areas as language, religion, family life, expressive culture, and politics. Part Three relates how Abraham Lincoln's presidential decree, the Emancipation Proclamation, placed the U.S. government on the side of freedom. Essays by distinguished authorities complement the visual and textual narratives that compose the heart of each chapter.

The Schomburg Center is pleased to join forces with National Geographic to present this book. Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture is based on an exhibition organized by the Schomburg Center as part of its 75th-anniversary celebration in 2000-2001. Most of the objects presented in the book are drawn from the collections of the Schomburg Center.

Collectors Sample Pittman, Danny Drain, Eugene and Adele Redd, and Gene Alexander Peters contributed to the success of the exhibit and this publication by lending items from their collections. Artists Rod Brown and Tom Feelings also loaned artworks on slavery and the slave trade. To all who participated, I extend my thanks and appreciation.

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

Part Two: How Slavery Helped Build a World Economy
Part Three: Understanding Slavery in Terms of Black and White
Part Four: America's Cultural Roots Traced to Enslaved African Ancestors
Part Five: The Emancipation Proclamation: An Act of Justice

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