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.


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