Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

Slave Culture Previous Next
Digital History ID 459



As brutal and destructive as the institution of slavery was, slaves were not defenseless victims. Through their families, religion, folklore, and music, as well as more direct forms of resistance, Africans-Americans resisted the debilitating effects of slavery and created a vital culture supportive of human dignity. As recently as 1964, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier claimed that "the Negroes were practically stripped of their social heritage." This view is completely wrong. Slaves were able to maintain a great deal of their African traditions and created a new African American culture that they successfully transmitted to their children. In addition, slaves exerted a profound influence on white culture: on speech, religion, music, cuisine.

The American language is filled with Africanisms. Such words as bogus, bug, phony, yam, tote, gumbo, jaboree, jazz, and funky all have African roots. Our cuisine, too, is heavily influenced by African practices. Deep-fat frying, gumbos, and fricasees stem from West and Central Africa. Our music is heavily dependent on African traditions. Sea chanties and yodeling, as well as spirituals and the use of falsetto were heavily influenced by African traditions. The frame construction of houses; the "call and response" pattern in sermons; the stress on the holy spirit and an emotional conversion experience--these too appear to derive at least partly from African customs. Finally, Africans played a critical role in the production of such crops as rice or sweet potatoes that English had not previously encountered.

Slave religious and cultural traditions played a particularly important role in helping slaves survive the harshness and misery of life under slavery. Many slaves drew on African customs when they buried their dead. Conjurors adapted and blended African religious rites that made use of herbs and supernatural powers. Slaves also perpetuated a rich tradition of West and Central African parables, proverbs, verbgal games, and legends. They also retained in their folklore certain central figures. Cunning tricksters, often represented as tortoises, spiders, or rabbits, outwitted their more powerful enemies.

In the realms of art, dance, folklore, language, music, and religion, slaves created a distinctive culture which blended African and European elements into a new synthesis. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slaves embraced Christianity, but transformed it to meet their own needs. Slave religious beliefs, a mixture of Christianity and African traditions, provided slaves with the patience and hope necessary to endure slavery. Slave religion also upheld a vision of the spiritual equality of all human beings that strengthened their hopes of eventual deliverance from bondage. Spirituals, like "Go Down, Moses," with its refrain "let my people go," indicate slaves identified with the Hebrew people who had overcome oppression and enslavement.

Through folklore, slaves also sustained a sense of separate identity and conveyed valuable lessons to their children. Among the most popular folktales were animal trickster stories, like the Brer Rabbit tales, derived from similar African stories, which told of powerless creatures who achieved their will through wit and guile, not power and authority.

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