Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Afrikan culture, Christianity and the Drum

We know that the majority of Black people in North America today are largely the descendants of people taken from regions now associated with the modern nations of Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia (aka upper Guinea); the southern regions of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and eastern Ivory Coast (aka lower Guinea); and the western regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola (Central Africa).  When we consider the size of the continent, these areas represent only about %15 of Afrika's total area.  Each of these regions produced empires rich in cultural traditions as well as smaller kingdoms and city states.  There is a common misconception that slaves were taken from Afrika.  No, people were stolen, sold and then later enslaved.  They were not dull brutes or blank slates lacking culture, waiting for white people to write upon them.  These were individuals skilled in arts and trades that colonial whites knew nothing about, such as brick making, rice cultivation.  Though a great number of slaves performed back-breaking manual labor on large and small plantations, many others were highly valued for their skills, even to the extent that they were often hired out by the slavemaster to work for other whites in the area.  (This was the status of the great skilled and literate revolutionaries of the 19th century such as Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner; this made them a real threat to the established order.  Perhaps this explains why slave revolts were so common, and why travel was forbidden during slavery: white security and the maintenance of the system demanded it.)  Slavery was a system with a clear process on how to break, maintain, and breed free labor.  (Though the now famous 'Willie Lynch letter' has been exposed as a hoax, the practices it describes were most definitely part and parcel of the enslavement process.)  Those who survived the middle passage were then subjected to the brutal process of enslavement which began when they were chained in Afrika to be sold off to Europeans to be regarded as nothing more than livestock.  So we are talking here about people of diverse origins and trades, with differences in status and age.  These are people who were loved members of a community, parents, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, cousins.  They knew their family history and their cultural identity was intact.  In short, they were civilized peoples with their own languages, faiths, traditions, and concepts of law.  They were enslaved because of the need for cheap, skilled labor.  Their rich and highly developed cultures did not die out just because of a change of venue.  But it did bear the scars, the whips and the chains as it developed into a new branch of that same old Afrikan tree from which it sprung.  It was this Afrikan culture, taken from diverse groups from a relatively small area that is the soil from which Black culture grew into what it is today.  

Historical records tell us that Virginia was once known for the predominance of Igbo descendants among the enslaved population, and it is well known that the Gullah people of the Sea Islands are the descendants of Mande speaking peoples from the Senegambia region who were prized for their expertise in rice cultivation.  Records from 18 century Louisiana have revealed the presence of a large population of Yoruba as well as Bambara peoples from Mali.  Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, in her book, Africans in Colonial Louisiana, revealed that the municipal court of law in New Orleans paid interpreters to translate between Bambara and French.  The Igbo were also numerous, second only to the Bamana in Louisiana.  Prior to the British ban on slavetrading in the early 19th century, colonial America witnessed large populations of fully acculturated Afrikans who remembered everything from their previous lives as free, sovereign human beings in Afrika.  It was this memory of freedom that first had to be beaten and terrorized out of existence in order to make a good slave.  Though it has been often said, it still is true that we didn't get the blues until after we walked off the slave ship and into chattel slavery.  Leroi Jones writes in his masterpiece, 'Blues People', "Undoubtedly, none of the Afrikan prisoners broke out into 'St. James Infirmary' the minute the first of them was herded off the ship."  The blues came later as the culminations of the reactions of Black people and their culture to a series of traumas beginning with captivity and enduring through slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, discrimination and abuse by the dominant culture.  These first Afrikans surely had their own lamentations in their own tongue.  Even though the despair was surely there, there was no blues form to express it in this early period.  This would take generations to manifest, as the old generation of Afrikans died out and was replaced by those born into bondage in America who had no direct memories of the Motherland.  We can well imagine that the first trauma was of being captured, kidnapped and chained in Afrika, which led to the second trauma, the hell of the ma'afa (aka the 'Middle Passage').  It is clear that the ultimate trauma that welcomed these Afrikans was reaching the shores of the Americas.  For it was at that instant that the Afrikan was immersed in a foreign land, surrounded by aliens whose only intent was to use and abuse her.  At least on the ship there was the possibility of mutiny or at least suicide by jumping overboard.  In fact, the historical record shows that many ships were lost at sea and stories of noble Afrikans such as Cingbe and his comrades on the Amistad who overcame their captors to reach for freedom were not unheard of. 

In every one of the Afrikan cultures whose members were enslaved, the power of the word (written and spoken) was held in the highest regard and used with reverence.  Words were extemporized on the spot ('off the dome') and whole ancient texts and proverbs were memorized for recitation to music.  Drums, strings, and the rhythms played on them were central to their understanding of themselves and the cosmos.  Every song had its appropriate place and time for its performance, and every song told a story that became more profound the deeper one dug into its meaning.  Individual vocal styles were emotive and soaked in rhythm and the ancient call and response conversation between the lead vocalist and the people.  The Afrikans who disembarked onto North and South American as well as Caribbean shores were fully acculturated in every way.  They laid the foundation. In their cultures, the mark of humanity was for them one who had been raised in the ways of their ancestors and who acted accordingly through right words and deeds.  This was the cultural standard across traditional Afrika, before the forced introduction of Islam and later western Christianity.  Afrikan people created cultural traditions that were highly developed and marked by their civility and respect for the sanctity of human life.  Even though centuries of racist propaganda would urge us to believe otherwise, the long period of European and Arab-imposed chattel slavery was a massive setback for Afrikan peoples (from 800 AD until the 19 century or even later), arresting the natural progression of Afrikan culture as it had been developing for millennia.  As dub poet Mutabaruka says, "slavery isn't Afirkan history; slavery interrupted Afrikan history."  Afrikan civilization was invaded by alien savages (first the Arabs and then the Europeans) who set upon a concerted campaign to enslave, brutalize and destroy the memory of its past greatness.  Whole cities were laid to waste.  Shrines and monuments were destroyed.  Sacred artifacts were stolen and housed in large quantities in the museums of Europe.  Most of these items are still there.

Even though much was lost from enslavement, religion, language, kinship and mythology, not everything could be erased.  When Afrikans first arrived to the New World, all of this Afrikan culture was fully present in the minds and hearts of the people who were to be enslaved.  It took several generations for this to change.  In areas where there were large plantations, such as in the upper Mississippi delta, Louisiana, Arkansas and elsewhere in the Southeastern United States, Blacks greatly outnumbered whites and did not meaningfully interact with them on daily basis if at all.  (The obvious exception would have been domestic workers.)  It was only because of those who resigned themselves to at least the outward appearance of assimilation in the face of such terrorism, abuse and theft that the Afrikan element became subsumed or pushed under the rug.  Those who were too strong in their Afrikan culture were simply killed.  (Even in 20th century Mississippi the common sentiment was "kill a mule, buy another one, kill a nigger, hire another one.")  Prior to and for many years after the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807, Afrikans who were born in the Motherland lived alongside Afrikans whose families had been in North America for generations.  In fact, it was the en masse introduction of western, 'white Jesus' style Christianity in the early 19th century to Afrikans by slaveowners that ultimately diluted the stronger Afrikan element in many areas.  This was in addition to native-born Afrikans gradually dying out and being replaced by the succeeding generations.  Ultimately, it would be Black people's music which bore all the hallmarks of Afrikan culture that the slavemaster had so long attempted to wipe out completely by terrorism and conversion.

Afrikans were in North America for nearly two hundred years before any white slaveowner had any interest in making them 'christian.'  This is because for centuries, the word was used to differentiate between the races without using the terms 'black' and 'white'.  It was automatically assumed that christian meant white in an era when it was widely asserted that Afrikans were not even human.  Thus no white person who wanted to preserve white privilege would have supported Black conversion to Christianity.  It wasn't until the middle of the 18th century that this began to change in what was then still the North American colonies of Britain.  Afrikans in both Virginia and South Carolina established churches in these states by the end of the 1780s and individual conversions were becoming more commonplace.  It was during the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century in which we find the origins of the tent meetings that led to mass conversions among Afrikan populations in bondage.  It is not incidental that this time period coincided with the Haitian Revolution and immediately preceded the historic slave rebellions led by Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser.  Afrikan spirituality such as represented by the mighty Boukman in Haiti was ultimately the abiding and deciding factor in Black unity and eventual victory in that county's famous liberation struggle.  Slaveowners in North America were well informed about events in Haiti and the birth of the first Black Republic from the ashes of a slave revolution scared them to death.  

This fear is why the drum was outlawed in every slave holding region in the Americas, since it was a deep connection to the people's recent Afrikan past and their ancestors.  Drums were literally carriers of the spoken word and could project this information over long distances.  There was a direct connection between the tonal languages of Afrikans and the tones used to communicate on the the drum.  Thus we see the condemnation of Afrikan traditions (spirituality, drums, language) among politically astute whites and mentally enslaved Black Christians as being from 'the devil.'  (Interestingly enough, a survey of traditional Afrikan religious beliefs show that the 'devil' was an alien concept introduced by Europeans.)   First and foremost, Christian conversion of Afrikans was a strategic move to ensure white security.  Salvation of the soul had nothing to do with it.  Indeed, any Black preacher with a congregation during enslavement had to be approved by a white man who also censored his sermon to make sure he stayed on message.  The more 'Christian' one behaved in reality meant the closer one was to mimicking the religion, culture and values of the slaveholding class.  In the twentieth century, this same slur of being 'from the devil' would be applied to the blues by Black and white Christians alike.  Being the most overtly Afrikan in its tonality, rhythms and singing style, it was viewed as a clear threat to the established order.  (I recall my mother telling me there was a juke joint in her small town in Texas, but she was forbidden by her devoutly religious grandmother to go, who called the blues 'knocking at the back door music.')  By circumscribing a people's culture and identity, the slaveholding class sought to enforce the status quo.  Black people internalized these restrictions such that even today it is common to hear 'educated' Black Christians talking about Afrikan culture and spirituality as being 'demonic', just as earlier generations condemned the blues as being 'sinful.'  Bluesman Big Bill Broonzy was right when he sang, "if you white, you alright; if you brown, stick around; but if you Black, get back brother, get back get back.

1 comment:

  1. Blessings. I just discovered your blog and I love and admire what you do here. Blues and jazz are touchstone musical idioms for me (among others) and how eloquently you weave the histories of these forms of these musical expressions deserves the widest possible audience, in my humble opinion. It's important to know and understand this stuff as cultural history, regardless of one's affinity (or not) for the music itself. Looking forward to scouring your previous posts and continuing the conversation. Hearty thanks.