Publication Date

April 1, 1995

Despite impressive advances in scholarship on slavery in recent decades, the complexity of the cultures from which Africans were taken as slaves is still not fully appreciated or understood. This is hardly surprising when one considers the relative infancy of African studies as a field of formal study and the enormity of anti-African propaganda, building over centuries, in America. Consequently, the negative thrust of the treatment of Africa has been felt not only in high schools but in colleges and universities as well. What we find at the upper-division and graduate levels is in some respects no more sophisticated than what we find at the level of the survey course, which suggests, considering the gravity of the problem in social terms, that all teachers of American history should begin drawing on the best scholarship, irrespective of discipline, on various aspects of slavery.

Fortunately, the best scholarship on slavery can be used with relatively few problems since it often addresses themes vital to understanding the whole of American history. When covering music, for example, the relevance of slave artistic expression to the musical forms of the 20th century, and to forms of nonviolent social protest, should be obvious. When discussing the economy, the relevance of slave contributions should be no less obvious. It is important to understand, however, when speaking of new approaches to slavery in survey courses, that the object is not the mere "integration" of blacks into American history but the larger one of reconsidering the history, private as well as public, of the country.

Since in American life deeply felt beliefs about oneself are frequently related to, if not founded on, what one thinks of blacks, Americans should understand that some emotional and spiritual risk will be involved when they look at themselves in the mirror of the past. Teachers and students need to understand that African slaves, through largely self-generative activity, molded their new environment at least as much as they were molded by it; that African Americans are descendants of a people who were second to none in laying the foundations of the economic and cultural life of the nation. They need to understand, therefore, that honest American history is inextricably tied to African American history, and that neither can be complete without a full consideration of the other.

Slave Religion and American Culture

Nowhere is the role of Africans in America more evident than in the realm of slave religion, which profoundly affected slave art. Though many assert it, evidence has yet to be presented of Africans as late as the antebellum period abandoning, in significant measure, their guiding religious or artistic values. On the contrary, there is mounting evidence of the power and scope of African religion in slavery, even in the North. In any event, when a creative and influential minority of slaves embraced Christianity neither Christianity nor the African religious values brought to it remained the same. Still, the transformation of faiths was carried out almost entirely by and among slaves, and has flowered over time, artistically and spiritually, mainly among their descendants.

The influence of the slave past in our time could hardly be more immediate than in the realm of slave religious music. The Negro spiritual, for example, was at once profoundly artistic and deeply religious, and its impact has been felt for over a century since slavery. Just as spirituals gave slaves inspiration to struggle against attempts to destroy their self-confidence, the descendants of slaves used that music, at times with selective word changes, in campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s to desegregate lunch counters, buses, and other places of public accommodation. The spirituals were not only things of beauty, therefore, but deeply functional, enabling blacks to confront injustice with open eyes and redoubled will. When faced with violence that was at times savage, blacks drew on that music, as their ancestors did, in an attempt to conquer fear. In fact, as the Reverend Wyatt T. Walker, an assistant to Martin Luther King, Jr., has noted regarding the nonviolent movement, "There could have been no movement without that music."

To oppose oppression without bringing down the wrath of the slaveholder, blacks appropriated Old Testament experience, and with subtle use of symbol turned such experience to their own purposes: "Didn't my Lord deliver Daniel/Then why not every man?" Or: "Rich man Dives, lived so well, don't you see/Rich man Dives, lived so well/When he died he found a home in Hell/He had no home in that rock, don't you see." Sung to the rhythms of sacred dance as slaves moved counterclockwise to hand clapping and to the percussive sounds of their feet, a new- old religion was being practiced. Circle Dance associated with ceremonies in honor of the ancestors was a widespread practice in areas of Africa hard hit by the slave trade to the Americas.

To Africans dance was as sacred as prayer. Hence, the sacred context of the spirituals, a music created to and regulated by the rhythms of dance in a circle, a dance referred to in America as the Ring Shout. In that way, Christianity was turned against the slaveholder, and consequently was enriched, especially when, as James Baldwin observes in The Fire Next Time, some of the greatest poetry since Homer appeared in song: “After God’s powerful voice had rung through heaven and down in hell/My dungeon shook and my chains fell.”

Whether sung to the percussive sounds of dance in a ring or to bodies swaying, for slaves who embraced Christianity the result was a religion at once deeply Christian and deeply African. Such dance and dance motion, harbored by the black church, has radiated out to the whole of American popular culture in this century without being thought of, except rarely, as religious in origin. To understand this failure to grasp the ironic religious foundations of the dominant forms of American "popular" dance, it is necessary to consider the opposition to sacred dance, and its meaning to slaves, in the antebellum period.

At that time, sacred dance was viewed as a threat by missionaries, and their attempts to suppress it failed signally. Very few slaves who converted to Christianity abandoned dance and reverence for the ancestors, both of which were ideals and practices affirmed across black Africa. Such reverence was the basis for their respect for the elderly, who were closest to being ancestors. Special courtesy, Frederick Douglass argued, was the rule, with young slave men taking off their hats in the presence of older slaves.

But an important matter must be taken into account if we are to understand the hold of sacred dance on slaves, and that concerns perhaps the most intriguing feature of African religion: its guiding values, mainly expressed artistically, make it difficult to distinguish between what is sacred and what is profane. So it was in the American slave community where religious art in song, dance, sermon, and tale somehow satisfied the recreational needs of slaves. Within the constricted limits of slave life, room was found in slave religion for forms of social activity considered nonreligious by white Christians. Perhaps as much as anything else, that helps explain why it was so difficult for whites to get slaves to abandon sacred dance, perhaps the most vital feature of slave religion and slave culture.

The commitment of slave women, and often of slave girls ranging from three or four years of age into their teens, was mainly responsible for the survival of the Ring Shout. Indeed, the sources show that at times black women resorted to violence against black preachers who opposed both spirituals and sacred dance. Without the courageous will and creativity of slave women, for they constituted the majority of those in the circle dancing, the history of black religion, and therefore of American art, would be significantly different.

How, then, might one account for the insistence of scholars that Christianity was the most powerful religious force in the lives of slaves, especially when their own estimates of converts seldom number more than 20 percent and when exslaves, none more powerfully than Frederick Douglass in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, argued that the master class was staunchly opposed to the conversion of slaves? For one thing, the Christianity of a creative minority of slaves, essentially recognized late in slavery, might have led to their faith being confused with that of the majority of slaves. For another, it is likely that, after slavery, the brilliance of the slave spiritual, for the first time widely known, and the easy accessibility of the black church led scholars, black and white, to conclude, as they looked back in time, that slaves as a whole had affirmed that faith.

It is more likely, however, that the underestimation of African culture in America, indeed its very denial, was even more decisive in leading generations of scholars to imagine rather than to demonstrate the power of Christianity in slavery. We should never forget that slave respect for Christianity was balanced by and indistinguishable from respect for the ancestors. Nor should we forget that spiritual recreation, largely through dance, song, and folktale, distinguished slave religion from modern Christianity even as it absorbed essentials of that faith. How else can one explain the dramatic song artistry of an Aretha Franklin or a Mahalia Jackson?

By the end of the 19th century, the Ring Shout, despite continuing attempts of preachers to dislodge it from Christian worship, remained vital to black life and influenced the birth of jazz and the continuing development of the blues. Hence, the black church, in rural and urban areas, North as well as South, has been one of the most important schools for music and dance in the recent history of the world, and vast segments of the world's people have responded to its "secular" forms without being aware that the impulse that brought them to life was originally, and in some cases continues to be, sacred. Here is one of many opportunities for the teacher, abreast of such cultural history, to reveal the compelling relevance of such insights to the everyday lives of their students.

A classic example, together with jazz and the blues, of religion being a force in the creation of particular art forms is the Charleston. Perhaps the chief ornament of the so-called Jazz Age, the Charleston was an African ancestor dance that served deeply felt "secular" needs and spread from the black community to much of white America as the main "social" dance of the twenties generation. But just as the grandparents of today's students could not escape the influence of slave culture in dance and music, that influence is no less profound in our time as the nation's principal musical and dance forms, drawing on traditions rooted in slave culture, are created in the black communities of the land.

Despite the fact that slave art, and the art of the descendants of slaves, has left a major imprint on American culture, it does not appear that white Americans regard themselves, in any degree, as Africans culturally, a matter seldom discussed even in specialized studies of slavery. Few scholars, white or black, have so much as touched on this subject. So teachers might at least ask themselves which black artistic forms influenced them in their formative years and later. They might also note, as historian David Roediger does in his pathbreaking piece on the subject, that generations of white students were influenced by the birth of the cool movement, pioneered by Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, and Miles Davis.

Cool has as much to do with style, attire, and physical presence as with sound: There was always about it, at least in appearance, the suggestion of what Hemingway called "grace under pressure." It might be noted, in this regard, that the prototype for the cool in slavery and later was Brer Rabbit, whose grace under fire and sophisticated view of the world can be sensed when reading his tales or when listening to his exploits being recounted by William John Faulkner, the great storyteller. In fact, Brer Rabbit tales, in America alone, are centuries old and are part of a great tradition with roots in ancient Africa.

Countless young Americans are under strong African American cultural influence. The foundation of rock music, a multibillion-dollar industry, is the blues, and the blues mood and some of its essentials as a musical and linguistic form were developed in slavery. But the failure of most scholars to think of such matters is consonant with the refusal of the nation to credit much of its wealth to slave brawn, to say nothing of slave work skills. The quality and magnitude of slave labor to the nation, and its cost to Africans, deserves reconsideration at every level of historical discourse.

The Contribution of Slave Skills to Building the Nation

Slaveholders in colonial America knew there was a large area of West Africa known as the "Grain Coast," where Africans worked various crops, among them rice. Moreover, European travelers such as Mungo Park, in Travels into the Interior Districts of Africa, wrote of abundant fields of tobacco among the Bambara and other African peoples and of plantations of corn in areas of Africa that were affected by the slave trade. Black abolitionist Martin Delany read travel accounts of Europeans in Africa, such as Park’s, and was among the first to relate such findings to slave skills in the South. Because many Africans possessed skills when they arrived in America, it was often not necessary for Africans to know English to perform skilled labor. Besides, when taught English they were usually taught by other Africans, for during the 400 years of the slave trade, Africans, not Europeans, bore the burden of languages. (Africans were sent to Europe to learn various European languages so that the slave trade might be prosecuted more easily.)

Slave women were extremely valuable workers, often combining, as did Frederick Douglass's grandmother, Betsey Bailey, skills in workshop and field. Indeed, when African work practices and slave spiritual and artistic realities are borne in mind, it is evident that the traditional division between the field hand and the skilled artisan tells us little about how slaves related to each other in the cultural sphere. In fact, no one was more creative than generations of field hands, and no one was more aware of this creativity than skilled slaves and domestics. Indeed, field hands were the source of most of the tales, music, and dance that defined slave spirituality and identity. This was so in significant measure because a complex web of relations brought together workshop, field, and religion in black Africa, thereby helping to prepare the ground for reciprocity of interests among blacks on the plantations of the South.

"Gifts" such as blacksmithing, said by West Africans to have been "brought down from heaven" to them, should not be divorced from the work of the sculptor or farmer in West Africa or from anvils worked by slaves in this country. Moreover, spinning, weaving, and fishing by people who farmed was widespread in black Africa, and there was no absence of work in those realms, as we see in the life of Frederick Douglass's grandmother, during slavery in this country.

Of special interest also is the fact that Dutch merchants, sailing into Gold Coast ports as early as 1590, relied on African carpenters and blacksmiths to make repairs to their ships and on African navigators when sailing along the coast of Africa. The slave trade hit with particular force in this area of West Africa, and Africans with such skills were undoubtedly among those brought to North America. African intelligence as well as brawn were forces on the plantations of the South, and it is time for this to be considered in survey and other histories of the nation.

In teaching Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and his views on handicrafts and slavery, it is essential to know that there was hardly a skill on his plantation, including the manufacture of nails and brick making, that was not performed by his 200 or more slaves, or for that matter by their ancestors in Africa. Yet Jefferson argued that slaves learned all handicrafts from whites. Moreover, he thought blacks were without “even an elementary trait of … sculpture” when, instead, a tragedy of slavery was that blacks who were sculptors in Africa were forced to respond to the crude demands of the plantation economy. Jefferson’s failure to give slaves any credit for their work skills, since he attributes all to white instruction, was not unlike his failure to acknowledge anything positive about blacks, even the genuineness of their grief, which he thought transient: “Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them.” Yet in this as in other areas he tried to have it both ways, arguing that the “ten thousand recollections … of the injuries [blacks] have sustained,” together with “deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites,” precluded any possibility of the races living together in America.

Born into a different world, Andre Malraux, archaeologist, art critic, and novelist, held views radically different from those of Jefferson. In the music of southern blacks, Malraux heard "the eternal voice of affliction." And in lines relevant to American slavery, he wrote of the slave's ancestors:

Finally, the greatest of African arts: sculpture. … This is where African art finds its supreme justification. This is what commands our recognition. When Africa is in her own realm of spirit and form, we are no longer concerned with just one more art, or even with what was once called … primitivism. We are concerned, when confronted by the genius of Africa, with nothing less than the nature of world art. And inevitably world art acclaims the genius of Africa as part of its own. *

African History

Ancient African history, of course, receives little or no attention in relation to African Americans, no doubt because many Europeanists, perhaps out of ignorance, still think black Africa was devoid of meaningful history in the ancient world, a point of view Afrocentrists are correct in opposing. Despite the excesses of some Afrocentrists, most do not use history in the Eurocentrist way, to read whole peoples out of history. In any event, one has only to go to St. Clair Drake's monumental Black Folk Here and There for confirmation of the lengths to which some scholars are willing to go to deny the achievements of blacks in ancient history.

Scholarship that helped American scholars shield themselves from such achievements crossed the Atlantic to the Americas. German scholars in particular were extremely influential in denying the contributions of Egypt to Mediterranean civilization. Martin Bernal, perhaps the foremost living authority on the subject, in Black Athena, suggests that this attitude appears to have been an expression of northern European insecurity, of an unwillingness to accept other peoples’ contributions to human civilization. Students of survey courses will note the immediate relevance of the concerns of Drake and Bernal to discussions of Africans in Jefferson’s Notes, and to defenses of slavery by the American School of Anthropology.

Work and Culture

A sad reality is that the Founders, as Constance Rourke wrote in The Roots of American Culture, thought there was too much work to be done for whites to be seriously concerned with the arts, this despite the fact that vast numbers of whites were spared work they otherwise would have had to do had Africans not been enslaved. Yet the African attitude toward work could scarcely have been more different: Africans and their descendants in America went on creating while working as before. With such a heritage of fashioning art while working, of seeing no conflict between the two, artistic expression was largely regarded by slaves, as it had been by their ancestors, as part of the life process, like work itself. Small wonder that blacks, except for Native Americans the most oppressed people in American history, and preeminently a working-class people, have remained at the forefront of artistic creativity in modern world history. Since their ancestors worked with iron for millennia, it is not surprising that, in the dense shadow of slavery, on chain gangs, the songs of blacks resonated back through time, and into the future:

Dis ole hammer
Ring like silver
Shine lak gold, baby,
Shine lak gold.
Take dis hammer
Throw it in de river,
It’ll ring right on, baby,
Ring right on.
Captain, did you hear
All yo’ men gonna leave you,
Next pay day, baby,
Next pay day?

Art was a means of resistance, the very act of creating in another language an extraordinary achievement. In the process indigenous artistic forms of wide appeal were brought into being. Some forms, such as the spirituals and the blues, achieved universal appeal; such music provides the chief means by which the internal history of black labor will be recorded in this country. And there are few historical instances of a people, largely in the language of another, creating universal art.

Since Africans came from cultures in which cotton, tobacco, and rice were grown, and some from cultures that gave them enormous advantages in America with respect to hunting, fishing, and, in some cases, the herding of cattle, one can understand why they were especially valuable to slaveholders. Yet their unrequited toil remains largely ignored. W. E. B. Du Bois's reference to the slaves' "gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness and conquer the soil" has yet to be fully acknowledged even in specialized studies of slavery.

Surprisingly little is ever said, in survey and other courses, of the leisure slavery afforded slaveholders, of its role in enabling them to achieve a certain measure of civilization for themselves and for whites as a whole. Slaves saw with lyrical clarity the low level from which many planters rose but never really left: "Long summer day," sang the slave bard, "makes a white man lazy/Long summer day." The leisure provided slaveholders requires particular attention, for it was often the decisive factor in levels of education and culture achieved by the slavemaster and his sons. Hence, the emphasis on that dimension of slavery in Sterling Brown's "Strong Men":

They dragged you from homeland,
They chained you in coffles,
They huddled you spoon-fashion in filthy hatches,
They sold you to give a few gentlemen ease.
Clearly it is time, in survey courses, for the profound impact of slavery in the nation’s past and present to be acknowledged, time, in other words, for the kaleidoscope of American history to reflect, from its radiating core, elements essential to understanding our collective past.

— is professor of history and religious studies at the University of California at Riverside. He is the author of Slave Culture (Oxford, 1987) and Going through the Storm: The Influence of African American Art in History (Oxford, 1994).


* Andre Malraux, “Behind the Mask of Africa,” New York Times Magazine, August 16, 1967.


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