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.
Singing, drumming, and dancing resurfaced in new, transformed rhythms and musics in slave communities and societies.
The Pan-African synthesis started on the slave ships evolved into even greater syntheses in the Americas. In places where there were heavy concentrations of enslaved Africans from a single ethnic or national group, the music and dances of these peoples would come to dominate the musical and dancing practices of their community.
Even in such settings, however, Africans from other ethnic and national groups made their contributions to the developing new cultural form.
More typically, Africans from a number of different ethnicities and nationalities created something new out of the cultural and material resources found in their new environment. They built their religious and secular rituals, festivals, and social gatherings on the foundations of song, dances, and rhythms they invented to cope with and express their New World realities.
Neo-African religions—Santería, Shango, Umbanda, Vodou, etc.—all rely on African-based rhythms, musics, and dances.
Carnival and adjunkaroo festivals trace their musical and dancing roots to these neo-African traditions. Indeed, most contemporary musical forms and vernacular dances of the Caribbean and the South trace their roots to the musical and dance heritages of their enslaved African ancestors.
In the United States, the dominant forms of contemporary American music and vernacular dance are also derived from America's African-based slave legacy. This has occurred despite the fact that drums, the rhythmic foundation of African music and dance, were outlawed in many slave communities in the United States.
When slave "masters" and overseers in the United States discovered that drums could be used as a secret means of communication, they were banned. But African rhythmic sensibility would not die. Nor could it be suppressed.
In the place of drums, enslaved Africans in the United States substituted hand clapping, "pattin' juba," and tapping the feet in polyrhythmic cadences to reproduce the complex rhythms of African drumming.
Vernacular dances such as jigs, shuffles, breakdowns, shale-downs, and backsteps, as well as the strut, the ring shout, and other religious expressions, were danced to the accompaniment of these drum-less rhythms and to the fiddle, the banjo, bows, gourds, bells, and other hand or feet instruments—all New World African inventions by enslaved Africans.
During the slavery era, enslaved Africans became the musicians of choice for white and black celebrations and festivities because they were recognized by whites and blacks as the best musicians in their locales.
Ironically, the most frequently reported occupation of fugitive slaves in New York during the colonial era was "musician," by a very wide margin. Two indigenous African-American musical forms—the spiritual and the blues—were created by enslaved Africans during the slavery era. African-American religious and secular songs trace their roots to the spirituals and the blues, respectively.
Enslaved African craftsmen and visual artists laid the foundations of the African-American visual arts tradition during slavery as well. Slave craftsmen made furniture and other utilitarian objects, some of which carried unique New World African visual arts expressions.
Carvers and stone sculptors have left utilitarian objects and artworks of surprising aesthetic quality.
Quiltmakers fashioned objects of beauty from scraps of cloth, and stone milliners and tailors were among the nation's pioneer fashion designers.
Enslaved Africans left their cultural stamp on other aspects of American culture. Southern American speech patterns, for instance, are heavily influenced by the language patterns invented by enslaved Africans.
Southern cuisine and "soul food" are nearly synonymous. Both are African-American cuisines from the slavery era. Sermons, oratory, and other forms of oral literature in the African-American vernacular idiom, including contemporary rap, trace their roots to genres developed by enslaved Africans during slavery.
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.