Treasure in the Terror: The African Cultural Legacy in the Americas
C. Daniel Dawson
African Art Historian
The contemporary Americas have benefited from the intellectual heritage of three major cultural groups, i.e., the Native American, the European and the African. This paper is concerned with the African contribution. Much of the scholarship concerning Africans in the Americas has functioned under the myopia of the “Deficit Model,” a term frequently used by Robert Farris Thompson to explain the tendency of scholars to view African cultural contributions as nonexistent, or at best, deficient. The Deficit Model presumes that because of their lack of material goods and deprived social conditions under the yoke of chattel slavery, Africans were unable to contribute in any significant way, other than their labor, to the formation of the cultures in the Americas. Because of the forced or involuntary nature of the African Diaspora, it is often forgotten that these migrating groups, in this case enslaved humans, carried with them more than their bodies. They brought their cultures, religious traditions, artistic forms, philosophies, social mores, and ideas about governance and political organizations. Similarly, writing about Karl Marx and the Black radical tradition, historian Cedric Robinson eloquently states that:
Marx had not realized fully that the cargoes of laborers also contained African cultures, critical mixes and admixtures of language and thought, of cosmology and metaphysics, of habits, beliefs, and morality. These were the actual terms of their humanity. These cargoes, then, did not consist of intellectual isolates or deculturated Blacks---men, women, and children separated from their previous universe. African labor brought the past with it, a past that had produced it and settled on it the first elements of consciousness and comprehension.
In other words, Africans brought with them to the Americas their most important possessions, their minds. Those minds were and are essential in the formation of the world we now inhabit. Those minds, functioning under the terror of slavery and continued oppression, also contained the treasure of African (i.e., Yoruba, Kongo, Mande, etc.) art, philosophy and spirituality. This treasure--although often unacknowledged, misattributed or seen as only popular culture without specific historical or cultural connection to an African root--has become the vibrant enlivener of world culture. As we shall see, much of the planet thinks, prays, plays, dances, and sings using the models created, established and disseminated by Africans and the African Diaspora.
Resistance to Slavery
Africans in the Americas had various ways of resisting slavery and oppression including, but not limited to, work slowdowns, breaking of tools, escape, and revolt. Revolts and runaways gave the Americas numerous heroes particularly in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Some exceptional leaders are still celebrated: Captain Lemba in the Dominican Republic; Yanga in Mexico; King Zumbi in Brazil; King Benkos Bioho in Columbia; King Bayano in Panama; Queen Grandy Nanny and Captain Kojo in Jamaica; King Miguel Guacamaya in Venezuela; Makandal and Boukman in Haiti; and, although not as well known as the others, John Horse (aka Juan Caballo or Gopher John) in the United States and Mexico. Many of these maroon leaders claimed a royal heritage, hence their titles of king and queen. Given the royal intrigue in many African kingdoms, their claims of an aristocratic heritage may well be true. More importantly, the popular imagination has offered them a coronation by consensus in which legends and songs have declared their nobility.
Zumbi of Palmares was celebrated in recent recordings as a king and as a lord. As Brazilian pop singer Jorge Ben put it:
I want to see what will happen
When Zumbi arrives.
Zumbi is the Lord of war,
Zumbi is Lord of demands.
When Zumbi arrives
It will be he who commands.
Beginning in 1978 members of the Black Movement and other activist formally celebrated Zumbi of Palmares as the national hero of Afro-Brazilians.
Liberated African communities were called by different names depending on their location. The English word “maroon” comes from the Spanish cimarrón, which in turn has an Arawak (Taino) origin.
Cimarrón originally referred to domestic cattle that had taken to the hills in Hispaniola, and soon after it was applied to American Indian slaves who had escaped from the Spaniards a well. By the end of the 1530’s, the word had taken on strong connotations of being “fierce,” “wild” and “unbroken,” and was used primarily to refer to African-American runaways.
Cimarrón became cimanól which in turn became “Seminole” in English. Many enslaved Africans brought with them the skills used in the process of maroonage. In the Kingdom of the Kongo, for example, those affected by the continuous civil wars between 1641-1718 had to learn how to mobilize troops or even whole villages, evacuate an area and re-situate in a protected or unreachable location. These logistical skills were exactly the ones necessary to establish maroon communities.
In most of the Spanish-speaking Americas, maroon societies were known as palenques, Spanish for “arena, enclosure, palisades,” although in Venezuela, they were also called cumbes. Creole language scholar Ian Hancock explained that the strongest continuations of African-influenced languages found in the Americas occur in areas that contained maroon settlements. It should then come as no surprise that some of the names for these types of settlements are in African languages. In Brazil they were known as quilombos from the Kikongo and Kimbundu kilombo meaning respecitvely “troops, military unit” and “capital, town, settlement, confederation.” Brazilians also called them mocambos from the Kimbundu mú kambu meaning “hideaway.” Many of these specific communities had and have names that indicated their geographic affinities in Africa, for example El Calunga in Cuba and Kalunga in Brazil, indicates a Bantu or Central African origin for at least the name. Kalûnga, as it is written in Kikongo, is an important word in South American, Caribbean and Central African religious thought. In Kikongo it can mean “ocean, sea,” or “god-of-change” with the implications of vastness and completeness. Runaway communities produced major problems for the system of slavery and were described by plantation society as the “chronic plague” and “gangrene.”
Longing to Be Free and the Reclaiming of Resistance
If a slave is defined as “a person held in servitude as the chattel of another,” then once they have run away, they are no longer slaves. Most texts refer to “ex-slaves” which privileges their potentially temporary social position of enslavement over their permanent humanity. The other inaccurate term is “runaway slave” which by definition is illogical. In discussing the maroons, I prefer the term "self-liberated Africans." These self-liberated Africans established thousands of communities in the Americas. For example, in the Cuban province of Pinar del Río, during a five-year period (1837-1842), one maroon hunter attacked 41 different palenques. Many maroon societies exist today with Brazil having the largest amount. Just one state, Maranhão in northern Brazil, still has over 400 quilombos with only nine officially recognized by the government. Suriname and French Guiana in South America also have vibrant maroon communities whose main groups are the Ndyuka, Saramaka, Matawai, Aluku (Boni), Paramaka, and Kwinti. Owing mainly to the scholarship of Richard Price, Sally Price, and Kenneth Bilby, there is an excellent body of work in English documenting the maroons of Suriname and French Guiana. The history and concerns of Jamaican and other Caribbean maroons have also been well recorded by Kenneth Bilby, Mavis Campbell, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, and Karla Gottlieb. .
Africans, in their longing to be free, also established other models for all inhabitants of the Americas, including Europeans. As Cuban scholar and social activist Carlos Moore has written:
"After being cut off from the motherland for almost a century, the black slaves had lost all hope of returning to Africa. They now recognized this land, Cuba, as their land – their home. But this process of “Cubanization” on the part of black slaves, taking place in the midst of the harshest of conditions imposed by slavery, did not involve the Spanish in any way; in other words, the blacks were becoming Afrocubans, whereas the whites were remaining Spanish."
Europeans were sending their children to Paris, London, Madrid, etc., to be educated and acculturated. As Moore indicated, the ideas of independence in this new environment were established by Africans. In some cases, these ideas were Native American, as in the example of the Iroquois League and its influence on the constitution of the United States.
Moreover, I would like to point out that the models for independence were the quilombos, palenques and maroon societies. In an academic journal, appropriately titled Cimarrón, Rafael Duharte Jiménez states, “ Palenques in Cuba were islands of freedom in the sea of colonial oppression.” In the early 1600’s while the Europeans in Mexico were still in alliance with Spain, there already existed an independent, non-indigenous republic led by Yanga in Vera Cruz. In Brazil, while the Dutch and Portuguese were fighting over Amerindian land, the African based but multiracial, Quilombo dos Palmares (Quilombo of the Palms), existed for approximately one hundred years (1595-1695). The motto of Palmares was “Quem vier para amor à liberdade, fica” (Whoever comes for the love of liberty, stays). While celebrating the 300th anniversary of the death Zumbi, the leader of Palmares and now the most celebrated Afro-Brazilian hero, Ambassador Raymundo Souza Dantas pointed out that, “Palmares deve ser lembrado como o primeiro movimento social onde a noção de cidadania começa a surgir” (Palmares should be remembered as the first social movement where the notion of citizenship began to arise.) Africans longing to be free established the models for Brazilian independence that are still relevant to African Brazilians in the 21st Century. This is illustrated by the recent creation of numerous groups using quilombo in their names: e.g. Quilombohoje (Quilombo Today) a group of Afro-Brazilian writers; Gremio Artístico e Recreativo-Quilombo (Quilombo Artistic and Recreational Association), a samba school and movement created by Candeia, Nei Lopes and Martinho da Vila; and Quilombismo (Quilomboism), a socio-political project organized by Afro-Brazilian writer/political leader Abdias do Nascimento. By choosing these names, these groups are consciously reclaiming resistance as a necessary part of their daily lives.
In the mid 1970’s a debate arose in Brazil regarding what would be the appropriate date to celebrate Afro-Brazilian heritage. The Brazilian government chose May 13th the day Princess Isabel signed the papers supposedly freeing the enslaved population. Afro-Brazilians disagreed saying that liberation never came, and if anything, Princess Isabel was forced to sign because of their fierce resistance to slavery, not out of the kindness of her heart. They instead chose November 20th, the day when Zumbi was killed, as Zumbi Day or the Day of Black Consciousness . Capoeira Angola master Pedro Moraes Trinidade (Mestre Moraes) wrote a ladainha, a song used to open the ritual of play or joga in capoeira, to discuss the issue of emancipation and to celebrate Zumbi:
King Zumbi of Palmares
History deceives us
Says everything contrary
Even says that abolition
Happened in the month of May
The proof of this lie
Is that from misery I do not escape.
Long live the 20th of November
Moment to be remembered
I don’t see in the 13th of May
Anything to commemorate
A long time passes
And the black man always will struggle.
Zumbi is our hero
Zumbi is our hero, old friend
Of Palmares he was the leader
For the cause of the black man
It was he who fought the most
In spite of all the fighting, my friend
The black man did not liberate himself, comrade!
Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art, used historically to resist slavery and oppression, so it is understandable that a capoeira master like Mestre Moraes would write such a homage with a grounding in the past, but also expressing the continuing problems of today.
The reclaiming of the past to restructure resistance in the present is an ongoing process in Brazil. On a trip in 2001 to the Quilombo Santa Joana in Itapecurú, Maranhão, a group of Afro-United Statesian scholars and tourists, were treated to a song by the quilombolas, the inhabitants of the quilombo. The song told of the pride and bravery of the quilombolas and celebrated the life of Zumbi. Founded in 1821, the Quilombo Santa Joana has a long history of resistance. As it so happened, their song was not originally from the quilombo, but was created in 1992 by Akomabu, a Bloco Afro located in the capital city of São Luis, Maranhão. A bloco afro is a community carnival group that uses African themes. The name, Akomabu, is from the Ewe language of Ghana and Togo. It means, “a culture should not die.” In this case a bloco afro, inspired by the history and socio-political legacy of the quilombos, created a musical tribute to them. This musical homage was recognized by the quilombolas themselves as an honest and worthy appreciation of their lives and struggles. They in turn accepted the tribute, and incorporated it into their daily lives as a tool for developing self-esteem and to reinvigorate the moral of the quilombo.
Haiti provided one of the most important models for Africans living in the United States. News of the Haitian revolution in 1791created “the black scare” in the Caribbean and southern United States and led to the doubling of the population of New Orleans in a decade. Most of this new population was fleeing Haiti and Cuba, making New Orleans truly a Caribbean city. This same news had the opposite effect on African Americans in the United States. Among other things, it inspired the rebellions of Gabriel Prosser (1880) and Denmark Vesey (1822), encouraged members of the first black Masonic lodge formed by Prince Hall, and led to celebrations in remote black towns like Nicodemus, Kansas, more than a century after the end of legal chattel slavery. In 1973 José Luciano Franco wrote Los palenques de los negros cimarrones (The Palenques of the Black Maroons), which quickly became the definitive book on the maroons in Cuban. According to Ivor Miller, the appearance of Los palenques changed the socio-political discourse in Cuban society. In 1976, Cuban president Fidel Castro was inspired to declare Cuba as having a Latino-African culture and people. The ideas of the quilombos, palenques and maroon societies are still alive and informing our lives, whether as found in an independent and secure organization/community/country, or in a more abstract manifestation as a safe intellectual haven for ideas and cultural/artistic production.
Some of the most important treasures hidden in the cultural cargo of Africans shipped to the Americas were their ideas concerning music and dance. This is especially true for the people of Central Africa, in particular the Bakongo from the old Kingdom of the Kongo. Parts of this kingdom now form sections of the current countries of Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa and Gabon. The Bakongo, and those in their sphere of influence, made up the largest percentage of enslaved Africans coming to the Americas. They in turn had a powerful influence on the musical cultures of the Americas. One Bakongo scholar, Fu-Kiau, philosophizes about the place of music and dance in Kongo tradition:
Drumming, singing and dancing are a source of inspiration, energy and joy. Kôngo people drum, sing and dance to raise their families with the balance provided by the sound of music. They drum, sing and dance to moan their dead; they drum, sing and dance to strengthen their institutions. Furthermore, African people drum, sing and dance because “Life itself is a perpetual melody” (Zîngu kiau-kibèni i kumu diakwâma). They produce music, and enjoy it, to be in peace with themselves, nature, and with the universe as well. Drumming, singing and dancing form a powerful “spiritual medicine” (n’kisi) that helps one to excel at work, at war, even under oppression.
If, as Fu-Kiau asserts, music “helps one to excel at work, at war, even under oppression,” then it was and is a necessary medicine for Africans in the Americas, who developed this medicine to a powerful therapeutic dosage, and then administered it to a needy planet. Although one could make a case for other musical influences in the Americas (e.g., a West Central Sudanic influence on the blues in the United States, or a Yoruba and Arabic-Islamic contribution to rumba vocalizing in Cuba ), I will stress the Central African effect on national musics because, as stated earlier, it is probably the most important.
Samba and Tango
The national dance and music of Brazil is samba, which in the Kikongo language can mean, “to pray” or “a type of dance.” Taken together, these two definitions can also represent a process in African Brazilian ritual performance, in which a sacred Candomble or Umbanda ceremony ends and becomes a secular samba party. The word can also be written as nsàmba with the same meaning as “a type of dance.” A cognate word in Brazilian Portuguese is bamba, which can mean “an important person in the samba world” or “an authority on any topic.” The word bamba is derived from kibamba, which in Kikongo and Kimbundu can mean, “champion, hero, courageous.” The instrument most identified with Brazilian samba is the cuica, puita or onça - a type of friction drum from Central Africa where it is known as kwika, or pwita, obviously related to the American instruments. A similar drum is known as kinfuiti in Cuba.
Argentina and Uruguay are known for the music and dance tango, which is an outgrowth of other older African-based dances and musical forms of milonga, candombe and canyengue, and habanera, a rhythm from Cuba. It is interesting to note that the most prolific writer of milongas was the Afro-Argentinean, Gabino Ezeiza (1858-1916), with more than 500 compositions to his credit. In Kikongo the term related to tango is tanga, meaning “feast, festival, banquet” which is exactly how the word ‘tango’ was used in Afro-Argentine newspapers. In the early 1800’s both Buenos Aires and Montevideo had weekly dances or parties referred to as “tangos de los negros” (tangos of the blacks.) Another associated term is tangana , which means “to go, to walk like a chameleon” with the idiomatic sense of “to walk that walk or to strut.” Although there were numerous earlier tangos, the first tango with a known author was El Entrerriano (The Person from Entre Ríos), written in 1896 by Rosendo Mendizábal, an Afro-Argentine accordionist. Despite the abundant musical and etymological evidence in Argentina and Uruguay, the African cultural contribution is obscured through racism and poorly constructed history.
In Cuba the African contribution is now celebrated as in President Castro’s declaration of Cuba’s Latino-African ethos. The rumba is generally considered the most influential secular music and dance form in Cuba. Its Central African roots are obvious from the word ‘rumba’ itself to the type of drum, conga, used to perform it. The word is probably derived from the Kikongo lùmba (to go, walk, ‘work out’ or ‘get down’). There are three basic styles of rumba: yambú, a slow, elegant couples dance; guaguancó, a dance of flirtatious competition between male and female dancers; and columbia, a fast solo demonstration of athleticism performed by males. Yambu is derived from the Kikongo dyambu (word, opinion, thought, judgement, etc.) The plural of dyambu is mambu, which is the source of the word and the dance mambo in Cuba. Guaguancó is most likely derived from the Kikongo phrase kwa wa kó, literally ‘you never listen’. The phrase is also an onomatopoetic rendering of the playing of a drum or the clicking of sticks together. Interestingly, the clave, the basic rhythmic pulse of rumba, is maintained by striking together a pair of hard wooden sticks, also known as ‘clave.’
In rumba the standard drum is called the ‘conga drum’ because of its Congolese cultural origins. Within the rumba instrument ensemble the largest drum with the lowest pitch is called the tumbadora, most likely derived from the tumba or ditumba drum of Central Africa. Both words are from the Kikongo and Kiluba languages. In 1998 Lubangi Muniania, then Director of Education at the Museum for African Art (NYC), produced a lecture and concert, From Ditumba to Tumbadora, to celebrate the Central African heritage in Cuban music. Tumba Francesa is the name of a song and dance form performed by Haitians living in eastern Cuba. Making a return trip to Africa in the late 1950’s, Cuban rumba became rhumba in the Congo and functioned as the foundation for the popular music created by musicians and singers like Tabu Ley and Franco.
Cumbia, Bomba and Reggae
Cumbia is the most representative music and dance of Colombia, but it has also become popular throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. The name ‘cumbia’ is derived from the Kikongo verb kumba (to flow, to move like a current, to carry in great quantity). There is also the noun kumbi (an institution for female initiation, candidate for initiation, a dance performed during the initiation process, a person who carries knowledge), leading to kumbia-kumbia (a way of moving in the dance). The cumbia of Columbia is closely associated with the Palenque de San Basilio, in which Palenque, a Kikongo-based language is still spoken.
In Puerto Rico the national musical genre most associated with the islands’ African roots is the bomba. It may have originated in St. Dominigue (Haiti) and migrated to other Caribbean islands after 1815. Some scholars have speculated that its African origin is in Ghana, but because of the word itself and the style of drumming and dancing, a Kongo origin for bomba seems more accurate. In Kikongo bomba means “to exhort, to persuade.” Another dance-related term in Kikongo is bumbakana, meaning “to dance face to face bumping (hitting) into each other,” a description that is true for both bomba in Puerto Rico and rumba in Cuba. The drumming style of sitting astride a horizontal drum while playing it, is similar to other Central African derived forms of drumming, as in gwoka music of Martinique and Guadeloupe, Kumina religious and secular musics of Jamaica, and the rural style of merengue in the Dominican Republic.
A genre like reggae, although a relatively young musical form, has roots in other Afro-Jamaican musics, like mento, rock steady, ska, Revival and Nyabingi, as well as gospel, rhythm and blues, and pop songs from the United States. One of the most important elements in reggae is the Nyabingi drumming style which, because of Jamaica’s strong connection to Akan culture, was thought to be rooted in Ghana. In reality, Nyabingi drumming is more closely connected to two older Kongo-based traditions, Buru and Kumina. Buru is a secular percussion style found in the parishes of St. Catherine and Clarendon. Kumina is a Kongo-based religious form brought to Jamaica by indentured servants in the mid-1800’s. Kumina practitioners belong to what they call the “Bongo Nation” and have their own language termed “Country,” “African” or “Kongo language,” most heavily influenced by Kikongo in grammar and vocabulary. Like many Kongo-based religions in the Americas--e.g., Palo Monte Mayombe in Cuba, Umbanda and Cabula in Brazil, and Candombe in Uruguay and Argentina--Kumina centers on possession by the spirits of the dead.
The title of this paper “Treasure in the Terror” is a dramatic stating of an often-unacknowledged reality; that is to say that even in the darkest moments of enslavement, Africans brought with them and maintained their cultural treasures. By doing so, they greatly enriched their new environments in the Americas. To restate an important point in the introduction, succinctly put by Henry Drewal, “When Africans were brought against their will to the Americas they may have come empty-handed, but they didn’t come empty-headed.” Those African heads (and minds) were and are filled with intellectual histories and proclivities, and they were full of creative potential desiring to be fulfilled. However, because of ongoing racial oppression in the Americas, in particular in the United State, the African intellectual and artistic contribution in the forming of contemporary cultures is rarely discussed or taught. There is only the brief consideration given to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, as though African history and thought began with European contact and ended with a few minor social reforms.
We are afflicted with a continuous generational amnesia regarding Africans and their place in American societies. The reality that we live is, however, quite different. According to Prince Brown, Jr., “America is a multicultural society sheathed in a European veneer.” This is true for all of the Americas. We are prevented from learning about and celebrating the African legacy because of this “European veneer,” which was created and perpetuated by a blindly Eurocentric educational structure, and because of White Supremacy as a pervasive international philosophical system. This veneer also negatively affects the appreciation of the offerings of Native American and non-European immigrants as well.
“Treasure in the Terror: The African Cultural Legacy in the Americas” has offered only a cursory discussion of the African ideas regarding politics, music, and religion as found in the Americas. It has looked at how through their resistance to slavery and through their aspirations for liberation, Africans helped construct American ideas concerning freedom and the socio-political structures now found in this hemisphere. This paper has also focused on their musical contributions in Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Uruguay. It has not discussed the rich legacy of Africans in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Peru, United States, or numerous other nations where there were also major cultural and philosophical offerings. Yet even with this brief description and in spite of its omissions, we can see that without the African contribution, there could be no contemporary Americas as we know them. Through worldwide telecommunications and the Internet, and through the distribution of recordings and cinema, the cultures of the African Americas have been shared with a greater international audience. Using their philosophical, artistic and religious creations and continuations, Africans in the Americas have made this planet immeasurably richer. It is time to honor the treasures they have shared with us all.
C. Daniel Dawson
New York City
December 26, 2002
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