Jubilee: New Book Celebrates U.S. Black Culture

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.

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