How African Are African Americans?: African Cultural Survivals in the USA

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There is often a great deal of focus on how much culture was taken from Africans in the diaspora. We lost our names, languages, religions, and other important parts of our culture. Despite this, there are many important elements of African culture which survived. As I will demonstrated in this article, African Americans did not emerge out of the experience of slavery as a people with no cultural connection to Africa, as some seem to believe. In fact, many aspects of African culture were able to survive the Middle Passage and the slave plantations. This article will provide a very quick overview of some of these survivals.

These cultural retentions are so subtle that many African Americans do not even realize that these aspects of their culture are even African. I will start with my favorite example, the “devil at the crossroads.” Most blues fans will no doubt recognize this story. As the legend goes, the famed blues artist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for musical success. It was not Johnson alone. William Bunch, who nicknamed himself “Peetie Wheatstraw”, claimed that he met the devil at the crossroads as well.

The devil at the crossroads that features so predominantly in blues lore is none other than Legba (or Eshu-Elegba), the trickster deity from West Africa — particularly Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. Legba is the guardian of the crossroads between the world of the living and the world of the spirits. Much like the devil at the crossroads, Legba is often described as appearing as an old man who walks with a limp because he has one foot in both realms. The association between the devil at the crossroads and music is not incidental either. Legba is also a master musician. The association between Legba and music exists in Haiti as well, where there was the Legba Choir which Lumane Casimir was a member of. The hip-hop group X Clan was also inspired by Legba as well. Brother J explained:

This group was formed at a crossroads in our life, where we had many options. But there is truly one path to walk, which is the golden path the Creator chose for us. Elegba represents being mindful of guidance at the road for us. You know, the Orisa sciences is powerful in our Ancestral history. You see as the album was universal, we came across many different sciences on that project, To The East Blackwards I am referring to that. But Elegba is the guardian at the road, is that person at the road you sit with to build and ask for that guidance, or which way to make your strut so to speak.

The blues artform offers another example of an African survival. This being hoodoo, which is a spiritual system among African Americans which is a combination of various different West African spiritual practices. Hoodoo among African Americans is used as a means of invoking spiritual or supernatural forces to improve the life of the person invoking these spirits. These spiritual forces can be invoked through the use of charms and talismans like a mojo bag. Muddy Waters sang about using a mojo bag to win a woman’s affection.

Aside from hoodoo, there is also voodoo, which is based on the West African religion of vodun. Voodoo in the United States is especially predominate in Louisiana. The video below discusses Marie Laveau, who was known as the “voodoo queen” in New Orleans. The video below also mentions that voodoo ceremonies were held at Congo Square, which was popular location for gatherings among enslaved Africans.

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A 18th century drawing depicting a dance at Congo Square

The documentary below mentions the link between the Gullah people and Sierra Leone, with a particular focus on the similarities between the Gullah language and Sierra Leone’s Krio language. Gullah speech is a Creole language which includes African loan words such as “nyam,” which means to eat and “unu,” which is an Igbo word that means you all or you (plural). The words nyam and unu are also found in Caribbean Creole languages as well.

“Day clean” is also a common African based phrase that is used in both Gullah Creole and Caribbean Creole. Day clean refers to the break of dawn and similar phrases are used in some West African languages to convey the same concept. For example, the Yoruba phrases “ojumo” means dawn, but could be literally translated into English as “face clean.” A report of a lecture that Maureen Warner Lewis gave on African cultural survivals in the diaspora explained: “In a number of West African languages the word for day is near to the word for face, so the expression of ‘day clean’ gives the metaphoric image of the light of the sun cleaning the face of the world.” The popular phrase “mumbo jumbo” comes from an masquerade tradition in West Africa.

Caroline explains what day clean means at 8:25

The African American folktales of Br’er Rabbit and Aunt Nancy have African roots as well. Br’er Rabbit comes from African stories about the trickster hare. Such stories exist in the Caribbean as well, including the French speaking islands where the character is known as “Konpe Lapin” which is French Creole for Br’er Rabbit. Alice Werner observed this connection. She explained:

Most, as is generally supposed, from the Congo; but there is evidence that slaves were frequently, during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, imported from Mozambique and other ports on the East Coast. “Mombasas,” are mentioned among the Negro slaves in Cuba; and many cargoes of slaves were smuggled from Havana into the southern states after the import trade had been declared illegal. This perhaps explains why the African hare (Kalulu of the Nyanja, Sungura of the Swahili) should be such a prominent figure in Negro folklore, while his place is taken on the Congo (where it appears there are no hares) by the little antelope known as the water chevrotain. The slaves of the British West Indies were chiefly West Africans (Yorubas, Ibos, Fantis, etc.), and their ‘Nancy’ stories are mostly concerned with the spider (Anansi).

The Aunt Nancy stories in African American lore are inspired by the above-mentioned Anansi stories from West Africa. Anansi stories are also common throughout the Caribbean as well.

John R. Rickford and Angela E. Rickford were two Guyanese who became very intrigued when they were in America doing graduate work and noticed that the black people there “cut their eyes” and “suck their teeth” like black people in Guyana did. The two conducted a research paper titled “Cut-Eye and Suck-Teeth: African Words and Gestures in New World Guise” which demonstrated that “cut eye” and “suck teeth” were non-verbal forms of communication in African culture which survived throughout the diaspora. The psychologist Na’im Akbar also noted that the non-verbal methods of communication among African Americans which is rooted in African culture and often misunderstood by non-African observers.

The African body language is a modality for maintaining
rhythm in expression as well as dramatizing that which the language
fails to communicate. In fact one might view the body
language of the African speaker as a highly exquisite form of
pantomime. One observation frequently is that there is a scarcity
of communication between parents and children within the African
home. This observation has been used to explain the alleged
language deficits of the African-American child when in fact such
an observation is a misperception of a highly intricate and intimate
imbedded communication pattern.

The mother who “cuts” her eyes at a “poked-out” child is
communication that occurs between that mother and child, which
transcends verbal communication. Despite the absence of words,
there is considerable communication going on between the two
parties. Most African-Americans recall vividly, instances of a
parent throwing a casual glance (as seen by an outside observer)at them from the opposite side of a huge room and having that
glance lead to immediate modifications in their behavior. The
instructions are not spelled out in explicit terms as they may be
in the typical Euro-American family setting, but the message is
clear and emphatic. The numerous connotations of shrugs and
head scratchings are quite pregnant with meaning far in excess
of the simplistic interpretations ascribed to those patterns by uninitiated
observers. The flexibility of frowns, grins, and eye-movements
would be too voluminous to catalogue. The child
described as “non-verbal” in the classroom has frequently baffled
unaware observers by his considerable popularity, leadership and
apparent communicativeness outside the classroom.

In “The Dozens: An African-Heritage Theory,” Amuzie Chimezie argued that the dozens verbal game among African Americans traces its origin to similar verbal games that are played in West Africa, specifically Nigeria and Ghana. Chimezie writes:

Among the Igbos of Nigeria, a game strikingly similar- almost identical-to the Dozens is played by children, adolescents, and teen-agers. It is usually played at night, after supper, under moonlight and in the presence of parents, siblings, and other adults and relatives. The aspersions or invectives are usually fancied; actual deformities are rarely used. The game is called Ikocha Nkocha, which means “making disparaging remarks.”

The final example that I will give here comes from Dr. John Henrik Clarke recalling his experiences in Africa. He explained that in Africa he found the origins of the both spirituals and the blues:

John Henrik Clarke speaks on historical memory at around 1:35:00


Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.

Dwayne Wong (Omowale) is a Guyanese born Pan-Africanist, author, and law student.

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