The Retention of African Culture

Melville J. Herskovits



Melville J. Herskovits, the father of New World African studies, was seen as the scholar who broke the ice and paved the way for larger study of African history/culture. (1) Herskovits wrote “The Myth of the Negro Past” in 1941. We were less knowledgeable on the topics of Africanism in American culture in the 40s, but Herskovits built a strong foundation for us to continue to build on. Since the original edition, scholars have added essays to supplement his work. Joseph E. Halloway has contributed 3 new essays for a newer volume of ‘The Myth of the Negro Past”. The first essay, “What Africa Has Given America,” was written in honor of Melville j. Herskovits. (1) This essay focused on the changes of African culture over time in terms of the diaspora. Halloway discussed the effects that slavery, forced labor, and racial discrimination had on African Americans. Did these things strip us of our African heritage? We still suffer certain forms of slavery and we definitely suffer racial discrimination in our modern day. So the real question that should be asked is, do these things affect our ability to identify with our African heritage and culture?

Many people, places and experiences have kept blacks from identifying with African culture and heritage in my opinion. This has sparked major debates throughout time. Franklin Frazier, the author of “The Negro Church in America”, and Melville Herskovits debated on the topic. They both had very valid points, but Herskovits seemed to have come out on top. Frazier believed that black Americans lost their heritage during slavery; (3) because of this, he felt that African American culture evolved independently of any African influence. In short, Frazier argued that slavery was so devastating in America that it destroyed all African elements among black Americans. (3) Frazier goes on to explain how we as blacks were stripped of our cultural infrastructure and hierarchy at the time of slavery. We learned new patterns of thought and behavior once we came into contact with whites. (3) We became frightened at the thought of expressing ourselves in a culturally different way. In “The Myth of the Negro Past”, Herskovits illustrated many African influences to American culture. He expressed the many consistencies between West African culture and African American culture. This debate was a huge boost to the discussions of Africanism in American culture.

Life began in Africa, rather people want to believe it or not. Science has proved this theory. We have established that Africans were brought to the Americas against their will, and many horrible acts were done to them for years. That being said, it is easy to agree with Frazier, in terms of Africans being stripped of their identity. In a lot of ways Africans were stripped of their identity. They were stripped of their dignity, their pride, their freedom, but they were not stripped of their spirit and faith. The same faith and spirit they possessed living free in Africa, was very present while dealing with oppression in America. These facts dismantle Frazier’s theory. The slaves had songs, stories etc. Spirituals and stories that are even still taught to our children today. Many elements of African culture continue to thrive. Newbell Puckett wrote “Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro” which presented over ten thousand folk beliefs of southern blacks that had connections to African origins. Puckett discussed the preservation of African traits in African American burial customs, folk beliefs, and religious philosophy, including beliefs in ghosts, witchcraft, voodoo, and conjuration. (4)

Several other early scholars, such as W.E.B Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, listed several African survivals. We retained technical skills, arts, folklore, spirituality, and attitudes toward authority, a tradition of generosity, influences in religion, music, dance, drama, poetry, and oratory. If explained by W.E.B Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Herskvits, or Puckett, African Americans lived and are living in the image of African culture. Numerous scholars have conducted various studies to support their theories. Guy Johnson, the author of “Drum and Shadows,” produced an examination of African retentions with a study to corroborate his theory. His study was a part of the Federal Writers Project that recorded the testimony of ex-slaves. (4) The goal was to use oral history to analyze the Africanism in North American Culture. This was a very accurate approach. Lorenzo Turner, who was a student of Herskovits, documented Africanisms in the speech of Americans. His linguistics approach proved that West African cultures shaped and molded African American Culture. There have been many studies to support the theory that African culture has influenced blacks. I would go even farther to say that African culture has influenced American culture in several different ways. Although, I don’t think the masses would openly admit the contributions that African culture has provided to modern America.

The CSPAN discussion on “Jubilee: – The Emergence of African-American Culture” was a very informative broadcast. The Author, Howard Dodson did an excellent job articulating the horrendous terrors that our ancestors lived and died through. Capitalism has run rampant and it is an age-old engine that simply cannot be stalled.

Dodson listed a series of percentages that would shock the average African American. 40% of African slaves were shipped to Brazil, with only 5% being shipped to North America. Herskovits focused a lot of his attention, in terms of African retention, in the Caribbean and Brazil. It would seem sensible to analyze the Brazilian culture for signs of African retention since it was the home of the largest population of African slaves. It would be impossible to think that African culture could not have broken through in the western world, when Africans made up the largest immigrant population. Africans have created the identity of the Caribbean Islands etc. Dodson also stated, that the African continent is the home of many different African cultures. These different cultures were interconnected foundationally, but were forced to blend all together when they were forcibly sold in to slavery and relocated to the west. That favors a part of Frazier’s argument, that Africans were scrubbed of that heritage upon arrival to the west. According to Dodson, there are many facts and statistics that have become available to us over time. Many of our scholars were ahead of this topic 50 years ago. They all had valid points. African culture has influenced western culture greatly. A lot of advancements have been taken from the Ancient African communities and modern African/ African American communities alike.

The Retention of African Culture

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