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.

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