Boyz N Da Hood and Bamboozled

Boyz N Da Hood by John Singleton and Bamboozled by Spike Lee are two films that give insight to Black popular culture and how Black stories are mediated. Issues which are brought up in discourse about Black popular culture is a focus on inauthentic story telling and stereotyping of Black people. This usually come down to “what sells” to the wider American audience.

Boyz N Da Hood is a movie which illustrates coming of age in South Central Los Angeles. It follows a group of young Black characters who are choosing their life paths amongst a backdrop of poverty and gang violence. Singleton explains in the documentary The Untold Story Behind the Making of Boyz N Da Hood that

It was the movie that when I was talking about going to film school to my friends in the neighborhood it was the kind of film that we always said that we wanted to see that we never saw at the movies.

Black centered entertainment was still centered on popular stereotypes or middle class families.

Bamboozled by Spike Lee is a film that humorously looks at how Black stories and media is mediated by major media. The lead character Pierre Delacroix becomes frustrated that he cannot get his television shows centered around the Black middle class to air so he devises an offensive minstrel show concept in order to get himself fired. It backfires though, and to his horror becomes a hit which he then feels he has to defend. The movie has a take-away point that Black stories are mediated to show and upkeep negative images of Black people.

The issues seen in Boyz N Da Hood and discussed in the documentary are still present today. Violence and poverty still affects many Black Americans and these stories are still not told often as it was in Boyz N Da Hood. Even though after the movie’s release there have been a growing number of films and stories like it they are not breaking into mainstream culture as well. This causes a disconnect between what is happening in these neighborhoods and with those outside of those experiences. When the recent cases of police violence towards young Black men and women because popular subjects and major mainstream news there was still a large amount of disbelief of the situations and blaming of the victims.

A post racial viewpoint and defense is very common today during conversations of race and racism. A lot of the arguments against racism are the same as the arguments given during a few scenes in Bamboozled. They can be heard in the conference room scene discussing writing for the minstrel show, the public relations meeting scene after the first airing, and the radio interview scene where Delacroix was misrepresenting how long ago slavery ended. These defenses are still used to defend offensive media. The defense that offensive media is supposed to be fun and that those offended need to “lighten up” are given by media creators and used by fans defending offensive media they enjoy.

These two films show two aspects of how Black popular culture is disseminated to a wider audience today. Boyz N Da Hood is a piece of authentic story telling, but the fact that in 1991 it was the first of it’s kind to hit a wide audience is telling of how little airtime these stories get. Bamboozled gives the reasons why this happens with it’s humorous take on the serious issue of white corporate heads choosing what does and does not air determined by ratings of what the largely white wider audience want to see.

A Critical Look at Hip Hop

Hip hop and the culture built around it has been under critical gaze for years. Though hip hop has its roots in reclaiming cultural expression and voicing political issues, by the time Sherley Anne Williams and Tricia Rose wrote their critiques and the documentary and panel Hip Hop vs. America aired the face of hip hop had changed. Three of the main issues of content and the environment of hip hop brought up by critics are the focus of money and commercialization, power and violence, and attitudes towards as well as representation of women.

The issue of violence in hip hop is talked about extensively by Williams in her article Two Words on Music: Black Community. She mentions the aspect of fantasy when she states

Rappers’ fantasies about killing white people, in general, or policemen, in particular, are no more than the letting off of steam about the almost unbearable racist pressure under which most of us live; these fantasies are not the ones that are acted upon.

She continues to explain how the violence in the community happens mostly in group and that, and the lyrical content which glorifies it, is what worries her. It is when the content turns from a tool of fantastical catharsis to a catalyst of community disruption and violence that it is acted upon and re-informs popular music to continue reflecting it.

During the Hip Hop vs. America panel Nelly and T.I. speak about another fantastical element of violence in hip hop; the popularity of it leading to many rappers who did not grow up in the violent and harsh environments they rap about. They both cite their experiences growing up in these communities as why they choose to speak about them in their songs. Black music, and music in general, is reflexive by nature in this way. A problem does arise though when lived experiences such as these are mediated and glorified by those who do not live them. It leads to a disconnect with politics and purpose and adds to the growing inauthentic nature of popular culture and for that to be taken, without critical analysis, as reality.

Sexism and the attitudes towards and representation of women were discussed in length in both Williams’ and Rose’s articles as well as during the Hip Hop vs America panel. In her article Black Texts/Black Contexts Tricia Rose states that

[misogyny in rap music is] a manifestation of a long-standing set of gender relations.

She disputes other writers and thinkers, such as Williams, who place misogyny in rap music as a result of the history of assault on Black America and suggests that it has been present in the Black community for a long time in different forms. She also speaks about the absence of Black women rappers which is better today but still a major issue. I can only think of three popular Black female rappers with recent releases; Nicki Minaj, Azealia Banks, and Angel Haze; and know of a possible future release by Missy Elliot. That is by all means not an exhaustive list as they are what I could list off the top of my head. I work in the music industry and I see possibly one Black female rapper come through the studio for every 50 or more male rappers.

During the Hip Hop vs America panel the panelists focus mostly on the representation of women in hip hop culture. The only Black female artists they mention are pop/R&B artists and in regards to the fact that they show more substance filled choreography with female dancers than is seen in male oriented videos. The absence of discussion of female rap artists during the panel echoes Rose’s statements. The panel touched on the hypersexualization of Black women in hip hop videos, the focus on body parts instead of personhood, and the lack of role representation other than as a dancer or model. Another link between Rose’s article and the panel discussion is when Dr. Michael Eric Dyson says that “the reduction of Black womens’ identity” did not start with hip hop but can be seen also in communities, especially churches, in the way that women do a lot of work without having access to leadership roles. He states, like Rose, that misogyny precedes hip hop culture and is the product of a long standing system of patriarchy. This system not only upkeeps harmful representation and attitudes towards women, but also lends to the absence of women rappers.

The effects of the commodification and commercialization of hip hop was brought up by Williams in the conclusion of her article. Though she doesn’t specifically mention the business aspect of hip hop she speaks of it’s influence as a form of major media on Black youth when she says

What trickles down to kids on my block is that what they’re doing must be all right because it is celebrated, not just in heir own songs, but in white people’s stories, rapped about by some heavy-weight dudes and sisters at colleges and conferences…

She nods to the mediation of hip hop by white executives and power holders in the industry as well as talking about how this content is normalized in her community.

In Hip Hop vs. America many of the panelists and interviewees talk about how, in 50 Cent’s terms, “racy” content sells whereas political and other more diverse content does not. When discussing the degrading representation of black women in hip hop videos T.I. gives an example that if he were to make a video with women dressed as school teachers wearing conservative suit jackets and long skirts that the video would not be accepted to be aired on BET. During the panel discussion Stanley Crouch mentions how 4 out of 5 hip hop albums sold are bought by white consumers. Though there is a lot of discussion about the relevancy of that statistic I believe it is telling of the fact that the consumer base who ultimately determine what content makes it to stores reflects the demographics of the US population as a whole. In other words I believe the responsibility of further mediation or critical analysis does not belong only on Black hip hop artists or the Black community.

This leads to the discussion of how these representations of money, power and violence, and attitudes toward women are reflected and impacted in American society. It’s cyclical, the content that becomes popular is was American society as a whole decides to buy. The socio-cultural factors that lead to popular content in rap are complex factors concerning all of American society. The reflexive story-telling nature of hip hop creators is not the same source or reasoning behind why middle class white males purchase their music. The wants or needs of society as a whole, with possible trends of reaffirming masculinity and yearning for the American dream of financial success and prominence, reflect in what becomes popular content in media. It is with this mediation that the inauthentic “reality” of popular media informs society and reinforces normalized violence and individualist attitudes which prioritize materialism over humanism.

This also leads to the further upkeep of misogyny in the Black community and American society as a whole. The objectification of women and reduction of their agency and personhood in media is upkept due to a long standing patriarchal system. These attitudes lead to the continuing high rates of violence towards women, rape and sexual assault, and discrimination which effect all women in American society but more so women of color due to the added intersection of race. This is something that needs to be continually challenged in every form of media and in communities and institutions.

Critical Concerns of Black Popular Culture

Black popular culture is not an easy thing to define or describe. Many instances of popular media come to mind such as Spike Lee films, rap and hip hop, or Octavia Butler novels. In reading Gina Dent’s introduction of Black Popular Culture by Michelle Wallace and listening to Bell Hooks analysis of race and gender portrayals in popular culture one can see that those examples are only a few manifestations of the effects of the cyclical social learning that informs Black popular culture. The criticisms and concerns of Black popular culture presented by Dent and Hooks center around the the propensity of it to be viewed too simplistically, ignoring many complexities and lacking in critical analysis by those it represents.

One complexity often ignored when analyzing and consuming Black popular culture is that of the lack of representation of intersectional participation. In other words Black popular culture is Black male centric. Heterosexual cis-gender Black male centric at that. This limits the scope and complexities of Blackness and Black culture. In Black Popular Culture Gina Dent states that the issues and interests shown in Black popular culture and marginalized cultures in general:

often results in overexamination of that single set of experiential narratives within a diverse but simultaneously oppressed community that are privileged along another axis. (white female, black male, gay white, even black gay male)

In essence, viewing each oppressed group separately instead of simultaneously intersecting ignores the layers of oppression and silencing of major intersections within each group. This skews the mediation process in the favor of those who hold privilege on one or more axes. Without critical analysis of media and popular culture and the lack of intersectional representations these forms of oppression within groups remain upheld.

Bell Hooks gives an excellent example of how ignoring these intersections can lead to false presumptions. During the O.J. Simpson trial she was asked to be a guest on Good Morning America to answer a question about the trial. When she was asked, in essence, if she believed Simpson to be guilty or not she responded with an assertion that she was not there so could not know but stated that it began and ended with domestic violence and condemned Simpson for that fact. She continued to describe how the cameras were turned off because that was not the answer they were looking for; they were expecting her to support O.J., as a Black woman. Though in that case she condemned him, as a woman, for upkeeping a patriarchal system of oppression by violence.

Another issue that Dent raises is that of a reconstruction of African culture in a detached American context and the effects of colonization and white supremacy within The Black community. She cites the book Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker as an example of an imaginative recreation of African tribal culture and female circumcision used to further the cause of Black people, Black woman, in the United States. Dent quotes Coco Fusco that Black media and culture should:

avoid retracing ‘intercultural’ patterns established by modernism, surrealism, and ethnography.

Bell Hooks agrees that recognizing these patterns is essential to decolonization and deconstruction of the white supremacist constructs ingrained across all groups. Hooks goes on to use the democratic capitalist American Dream and importance of money as another example of the effects of these systems. Both Hooks and Dent stress the importance of Black identity and pride not being centered on joy of becoming “successful” in spite of oppression since it relies on congruence with white supremacist value sets instead of being centered on a sense of self.

The last example of a complexity and issue of Black popular culture is that mass media is still controlled by white men. Thus, there is a significant amount of white male centric mediation and critique. Dent states that while discussing in-group criticisms of rap, Houston A. Baker:

points to our failure as cultural critics to account for the range of rap products.

This, as explained by Hooks, echoes both the lyrical content favored by white fans and the propensity of white critics to pick out what they wish to criticize. It completely ignores the political and cultural celebratory roots of hip-hop and rap and those continuing themes in modern rap genres.

Hooks also deals with the issue of “authenticity”. She states that the mediation, both of the silencing and overcritical statements of Black creators and the insertion of white creators presenting their versions of Black narratives, has led to a cyclical social learning of a contrived and commodified Black popular culture. She states that this upholds white supremacist capitalist patriarchal learning and values. This makes a question of authenticity, in a way, invalid. If the consumption of a commodified version of Black popular culture leads to cyclical replication then what are we comparing to determine authenticity?

Today I see a lot more critical analysis of media in general, especially with acknowledging intersections. It is very important to analyze media today, possibly more than ever because many of these issues are now more covert verses overt. We are constantly told we are in a “post-racial” society and a more equal society, but the truth is that though we have made progress many problems are still there but harder to recognize without being critical. Hooks began her talk with how I’m going to conclude this piece. Black popular culture and Blackness in mass media doesn’t need to be censored or even further mediated, but the use of critical thinking needs to be promoted among both youth and adults so that a critical view of this media and representation can be taken. A critical view can both help bring change and more defined authenticity to Black popular culture in mass media as well as bring self reflection and problem solving skills to individuals.

African Retentions in the Gullah Religion

The Gullah people of the South Carolina Sea Islands have retained many aspects of African culture. Their religion is a result of the acculturation of African belief systems of the Upper Guinea region with Christianity. The Gullah people relied heavily on religion to create community and keep order. Their humanistic worldview and transcendent beliefs of life and death also aided them spiritually and emotionally with the abuses and violence of slavery.

A specific example of a ontological retention of the Gullah people is that they “professed” Christianity and formed church based societies with leaders. These retentions reflect the Upper Guinea initiation processes and secret societies such as the Poro and Sande societies which helped maintain social order and belonging. According to Margaret Washington in Africanisms in American Culture:

The Poro council was supreme. It stopped village quarrels, tried and condemned social criminals, intensified holiday spirit, and gave permissions to declare war.

She goes on to explain how in the Gullah churches and societies “Elders and members scrutinized personal behavior, and the praise house functioned as a religious court.” This social organization that determines values and tries and punishes members largely resembles the Poro and Sande societies of Africa.

An example of a theological retention of the Gullah people is their view of Jesus (God) as a supreme deity and law giver. Washington says:

The laws of God were synonymous with correct conduct toward other members of the slave quarters.

Though there are parallels between the white Baptist beliefs and African beliefs of a supreme deity the way that the Gullah people showed respect to God is closer to African beliefs of community than Christian beliefs. The Gullah church centered on community and up-keeping good conduct between members. It was by being a good member of the community that the Gullah people showed respect to God, and not by offering prayer or tithing directly to God.

An example of a cosmological retention of the Gullah people is the burial practice of positioning the deceased with their face facing east. This is echoed in Central West African cultures. This signifies the belief of the sun marking the cycle of creation and life, of death, and of rebirth. In BaKongo afterlife beliefs the rising of the sun signifies creation and birth, the falling of the sun in the evening signifies maturity in life, the setting of the sun signifies death and midnight signifies when the sun is shining on the underworld which begins rebirth. The significance of burying a person so that they face the east is because that is the direction that the sun rises, and would be symbolic of the person greeting a rebirth.

Acculturation of the Gullah people took place in two phases. The first phase is that of acculturation between changing dominant African groups of the plantations in South Carolina. The slave holders changed preference between Upper Guinea and Kongo slaves over the years and retentions from cultures in both areas can be seen in the Gullah people such as the societies like that of Upper Guinea and burial and afterlife beliefs that reflect BaKongo beliefs. The second phase was acculturation of the Gullah people to white culture, in this case Christianity. According to Washington:

Memories of African social and spiritual traditions were often nestled within Christianity but were still making a forceful impact on Gullah life, thought, and culture.

In other words the Gullah people taking on Christian beliefs was not an example of assimilation but one of acculturation since the Gullah people molded Christianity to suit their needs and match their beliefs instead of converting completely to the white Baptist church.

These examples of retentions and acculturation give a lot of insight into the experience and evolution of African spirituality and religion in the New World. The mixture of retentions from different African groups shows the diversity of the African peoples who cam to the New World. Each example seems to be preserved dependent on what majority cultures were present and how complex the beliefs are for specific aspects, such as the major complexity of BaKongo afterlife beliefs. The acculturation into Christianity instead of straight assimilating conversion also shows the partial isolation and segregation of the Gullah slaves from white society. This acculturation and correlations between African beliefs and Christian beliefs also shows how syncretism was used to preserve African beliefs and practices without interference from oppressive white society.

The Gullah worldview of humanistic values and community shows how they used religion to deal with the abuses and violence of slavery and post-slavery. Using the church as a point of community allowed people to gain a sense of belonging and worth among their peers. Their views of death and the afterlife helped them to cope with the violence of war, slavery and violence because they believed in an afterlife and a cycle of transformation and rebirth. This made them fear death less and not have a view of it that was of permanence or morbidity. The appropriated viewpoint of a good heaven and bountiful afterlife was also helpful as it led to the belief that freedom would be attained at death if not in life.

Language Retention and Theories of AAL (Ebonics)

One major unifying aspect of culture is Language. AAL or Ebonics is the language of African American culture. Many scholars point out that African American Language (AAL) contains many retentions from African languages but is the result of many years of creolization and acculturation. An aspect of AAL and the relationship between it and mainstream English and African languages that is not commonly discussed outside of academic circles is the influence of AAL and it’s African retentions on mainstream English. There are relationships between AAL, mainstream English, African languages and what role they play in cultural community and structural discrimination.

Molefi Kete Asante’s theory of Black English is that African retentions are in the basic components and structure of the language and not based off of “artifacts” or specific words which had been a popular method of studying retentions by earlier scholars such as Turner, Herskovits, and Garrett. He says that to find retentions in artifacts is interesting and provocative but that,

It is cast in too narrow a mold and often depends on the continuity of specific words from several ethnic regions of Africa.

Language is always changing, so focusing on the use of specific words can become problematic to a theory of retention if the lexicon of a language changes and evolves yet the language still remains distinct. To have retention be a cause of language distinction it must be based on something other than these artifacts. Therefore Asante focuses on communication styles, sounds, syntax, and units of meaning. Though this somewhat holistic approach seems to be a better way to build a theory I find the high rejection of artifacts and contributions to the AAL and mainstream English lexicons to be a weak point in Asante’s theory. Many of these words are still in common use and even if they do disappear that doesn’t mean they were not an aspect of the language nor part of a larger system of retention.

Some of the specific examples of structural and communication style retentions of language that Asante notes are the Niger-Congo verb system’s conjugations and serial verbs (“he go, he gone, etc.; I hear tell you went home), tense-aspect usage of AAL and African languages (use of “done” in AAL likened to use of télèri in the Yoruba language), and tonal and call-and-response communication styles present in both AAL and African languages (strong accented words and interjected responses). Though I find Asante’s theory to be fairly solid and the evidence to be fairly convincing I am led to have the same criticism that he had of other scholars, that of the fact that there are many languages of Africa and that it is a bit hard to pinpoint the source of these retentions without using somewhat pan-West African or pan-Central African approach. Asante criticizes other scholars of not having enough familiarity with specific African languages but speaks many times of “African languages” and trends within them which is hard for a reader to understand without evidence of the trends.

Some videos I watched recently brought up many aspects of the usage of Ebonics or AAL. In African American English the intro states the long held belief that AAL is “bad english” and how it ties in with structural discrimination. This coincides with Asante’s statement of how AAL was viewed by many scholars as a “corruption” of English; something “childish” and substandard. The woman in the orange shirt in the video made a strong point when she said

It’s not about ‘This is bad and this is good’. We gotta get out that dichotomous thinking. It’s not bad and good. It’s about teaching our kids what will enable them to be more successful in life but not sacrificing what they already know.

Another strong point was in the African-American Language video where Howard Dobson states that the question shouldn’t be if people should use AAL or Standard English but that since language is used to negotiate the world that both languages should be inspected for merits. Some weak points I found in the videos was in the Inkspot video where Gavin Johnson states that the internal issue of Black people being criticized for “talking white” (using mainstream English) has nothing to do with external factors. I cannot speak from experience of this criticism but I cannot agree that that issue did not come about from external influence and I do not believe, at least from a simple outside viewed comparison, that an issue of criticism for not speaking AAL within a community has nearly as severe effects as the bias, vilification, and structural roadblocks speakers of AAL encounter if they do not code-switch. I also find that Perri Small’s comment in the video that presenting AAL and Ebonics as a language is “trying to justify bad English” is a weak point since she does not explain how it is “bad” other than the fact that it is not mainstream English.

Throughout history AAL has been labelled “bad” and “wrong” so I am not surprised that people both within and outside of the Black community label it as such. I personally consider it a legitimate language and since language is a major part of culture I consider it to be an important unifying aspect of African American culture and community. Though there are variations and dialects within AAL as Johnson pointed out in the Inkspot video I do not see that as proof against it being a language but as proof that it is a language since languages can have dialects which are distinct yet still follow the basic form of the language. The interaction between Standard English speakers and AAL speakers has also been a two-way relationship of sharing, which has made American Standard English different from other English dialects in it’s lexicon and from, what I’ve experienced, tonal inflections. The high amount of people rejecting it as a language I believe comes from the long history and trend of anti-blackness in America. Every aspect of Black culture is put under a microscope and criticized so why would language be any different? There are studies and personal experiences that prove that Black individuals are passed over for jobs due because of their name and many accounts of Black applicants being asked to change “unprofessional” natural hairstyles to get a position. The usage of AAL and association with it being “bad English” and a mark of being “uneducated” cause a related bias and discriminatory practices.

Another African retention was that of African naming conventions. Many naming conventions had to do with when the child was born or by descriptors of the environment at the time they were born, such as the weather. An example of an acculturation of naming a child after the day they were born would be the ex-slave quoted in the book, Thursday Jones. In this example Thursday’s name is an English word, but the naming convention is of African origin. Another example would be “Jack” or “Jacky” which was derived from the African name “Quaco” meaning a male born on Wednesday. This example is deriving a name from an African name that also resembles and English name. Another example like this is the female name Phibba (born on Friday) which later became Phoebe. Though African names were given in the earlier days of colonial America and the slave trade, they eventually were given in English or as derived versions which resembled European names. In the Gullah Story of Black English videos the narrator speaks of the influence of pidgin and creole languages on British literature and mentions the character Man Friday from the Gulliver’s Travels books as speaking pidgin as well as having a name from acculturated African naming conventions. The video also focuses on many words, phrases, and syntax that has been adopted into mainstream English such as “OK” and verb usage in the South.

Three terms of African origin that I found very intriguing are bad, guy, and zombie. Bad, used to mean very good, is very interesting in that the practice of using opposites to as intensifiers is used very commonly in AAL and mainstream English. Some other related examples would be using “wicked” for very good or “sick” for something great. Guy is an extremely commonly used word in mainstream English. It is definitely used in everyday speech. Zombie I found to be very interesting because a zombie is a “classic” monster used in mainstream media and storytelling. The origin of the word being African does not surprise me but it wouldn’t have been my first thought since it is such a popular figure in mainstream horror, stories, and folklore. These three words are excellent examples of the influence African words and language have had on mainstream English and culture.

Tracing Roots of the Wolof and Bantu Peoples and Africanisms in the U.S.

The transatlantic slave trade brought a number of African ethnic groups to the Americas. In North America many African peoples came from the West African coast and from the central Angolan region. Two cultural groups which had significant retentions and influences on American culture were the Wolof and Bantu peoples.

The Wolof peoples descend from the West African Wolof empire which covered parts of Senegal and Gambia. Around 1670 when the Wolof empire broke into smaller kingdoms which warred with one another the prisoners of war were commonly sold into the European slave trade and many were taken to South Carolina. The amount of Wolof people sold declined dramatically after the 17th century. Those who were enslaved were favored for work as house servants and artisans. Even though these positions led to much more interaction with the European settlers and colonists which made retaining African culture difficult they still contributed quite a few retentions and influences in the culture of the New World that can be seen today. In the “Origins of African American Culture” chapter of Africanisms In American Culture Joseph E. Holloway states that,

the Brer Rabbit, Brer Wolf, Brer Fox, and Sis’ Nanny goat stories were part of the Wolof folk tales brought to America.

He continues on to point out that many words influenced by the Wolof language were also picked up and some of which are still used today by many Americans such as OK, guy, bug, phoney, and yam.

The Bantu peoples descend from the Angola region of Central Africa. People of Bantu cultures were brought over from Africa in a high amount throughout the slave trade except for period after the South Carolina Stono Rebellion of 1739. The Bantu were favored for working in fields and were identified by Europeans as being larger and stronger than many of the West African peoples. Due to the isolation of working in fields and the homogenous nature of their cultures the Bantu peoples were able to carry over retain much of their culture including language, religion, music and food. According to Holloway,

[these retentions] gradually developed into African American cooking (soul food), music (jazz, blues, spirituals, gospels), language, religion, philosophy, customs, and arts.

Cultural interaction is the interaction and mixing of more than one culture. For instance many African crops were brought over by African people such as rice, okra, and blackeyed peas. Eventually these crops were not only cultivated and used by African people in the US but they became major parts of white cuisine in the south as well. Cultural integration is when one culture holds onto many characteristics of their culture while assuming some large aspects of a dominating culture. An example of a retention to illustrate this could be that of language. Wolof people had a lot of interaction with European colonists. They still continued to speak Wolof though and would use Wolof words mixed with English to the point that some were eventually picked up by the white population as well. This would be an example of both integration and interaction. Assimilation is when one culture begins to resemble another dominant culture. An example of an African retention which was strengthened by assimilation would be the assimilation of West African field workers to the dominant Bantu culture.

These retentions had a large influence on African American culture and cultural identity. Both the Bantu culture and African crops led to soul food and African American cuisine. The retentions of the Wolof language led to many words used by African Americans. The assimilation of West African field workers to Bantu influenced culture led to a culture with many aspects such as food, dance, religion and philosophy being retained and being a noticeable distinct identity from European American identities.

The Slavery and the Making of America video focuses mostly on the abuses of slavery and the contributions of the work by the African slaves to the infrastructure of the United States. You can see the retentions I mentioned referenced in the communities and activism during that time. The integration and assimilation that led to English being spoken commonly among African Americans allowed them to congregate and write and distribute literature. Many of the speeches given referenced their African roots. The integration of African cultures with European cultures allowed the slaves and free African Americans to communicate while retaining knowledge about themselves and a sense of identity distinct from the European Americans who oppressed them.

African Retention in The Americas

The introduction of Africanisms in American Culture by Joseph E. Holloway gives the reader many examples of African retention in the Americas. African peoples forced into slavery and their descendants held onto many parts of their cultures and related and mixed them with the majority white culture of the United States and mixed cultures of the Caribbean. Some examples that stood out to me were retention of language grammar, religious practices such as voodoo and dance and expression such as baton twirling and cheerleading.

AAL (African American Language) is distinct from mainstream “Standard English” used in the United States. It has it’s own grammar rules and structure. One thing I found especially interesting in the introduction of the book was the comparison of verb tense of AAL to the Yoruba language. Holloway explains in the introduction that:

[The Yoruba] do not distinguish between the past and present indefinite forms of a verb.

He continues on to explain that a distinction is made by using an adverb which designates time. This grammatical structure is echoed in modern AAL. Since Standard English does not use a grammatical structure like this and there are descendants of Yoruba people in the Americas this holds as pretty convincing evidence that there is African retention in the Black diaspora of the Americas.

Another interesting example of African retention is the practice of voodoo which became and remained popular in the islands and around New Orleans. Voodoo, also called vodu and hoodoo, is a Dahomean religion with roots in the African Kingdom of Dahomey which is now the African country of Benin. According to the introduction, vodu was so widely followed in New Orleans that it was recognized as a state religion. Jessie Ruth Gaston’s work and discussion on the complex religion are explained later on in the book. Holloway concludes that her insight and detailed studies of the religion shows “how the voodoo religion was transplanted almost intact from West Africa.”

The last example of African retention that really stood out to me was the retention and influence on dance and expression such as baton twirling and cheerleading. Roger Abrahams and John Szwed studied and talked about the origins of baton twirling and related cheerleading in their study and publication After Africa (1983). Near the end of the introduction Holloway hints at a discussion later on in the book about a baton-twirling dance form of African Haitians that strikes a “Kongo pose”. Furthermore, Holloway’s introduction states that:

in Mississippi, where many Kongo slaves resided, such groups has major impact. Mississippi has become a world baton-twirling center.

I found this extremely interesting because I’ve grown up seeing baton twirling and dances and had always associated it with white American culture. I find the origins of baton-twirling being in Africa much more believable since it’s just not seen much, nor are things such as drum-lines or cheerleading, in Europe.

In the CSPAN video Jubilee: The Emergence of African American culture Howard Dodson also supports the presence of retained African culture in the Americas but he stresses the sort of indigeneity of African American cultures as being “wholly new” citing that the differences from the many African ethnic groups needed to be overcome by creating new cultures. He speaks on many different cultural aspects that were derived from African traditions and cultures. Some examples he gives sustain specific African traditions. Others are mixtures of African traditions and appropriations and mixtures of African, American indigenous and European practices and cultures.

Dodson talks of the development of the early pidgin languages and how they have developed into the languages we are familiar with today. I found this to coincide with my earlier points about the Yoruba influence on language. A Yoruba influence would be very likely as the Yoruba people were a major group affected by the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Dodson also speaks of the African religious influence and cites an instance of intact religious beliefs:

In some parts of Brazil some of the Yoruba traditions that were so characteristic of the peoples who came to that particular geographical area were in fact able to sustain themselves in modified form.

He also briefly mentions the new modified forms of African religions including vodu which I had previously mentioned and how many religions were mixed into wholly new belief systems and traditions. Finally, he speaks of the African influence on pop culture and the arts, including dance. He cites the creation of the tango and samba as well as other dance forms as being African influenced. Dodson states that “few if any American popular cultural forms have not been influenced in some way by the presence of Africans in these Americas.”

The cultures of the New World had a tremendous amount of influence from the presence of African peoples. Though most of my focus has been on the influence of African traditions on Black communities those traditions have also had a long reach into other groups and cultures. AAL is used very extensively in urban areas across racial groups. African religions such as voodoo were, are still are to an extent, popularly followed in New Orleans and the islands to a large mixed group of people. The African American influence on Christianity has also radiated outward. As far as the arts and cultural forms go the influence on music, dance and food is extremely high. There is a high amount of Black and African influence with a low amount of credit given.