African Americans in the British New World

6g. A New African-American Culture

Kwanzaa Stamp
Kwanzaa is an African American and Pan-African holiday which celebrates the best of African history, thought, and culture.

When immigrants reach a new land, their old ways die hard. This has been the case with most immigrant groups to the New World. The language, customs, values, religious beliefs, and artistic forms they bring across the Atlantic are reshaped by the new realities of America and, in turn, add to its fabric. The rich traditions of Africa combined with the British colonial experience created a new ethnicity — the African American.

Much controversy arises when attempts are made to determine what African traditions have survived in the New World. Hundreds of words, such as "banjo" and "okra" are part of American discourse. Africans exercised their tastes over cuisine whenever possible. Song and dance traditions comparable to African custom were commonly seen in the American South. Folk arts such as basket weaving followed the African model. Even marriage patterns tended to mirror those established overseas.

Phillis Wheatly
Phillis Wheatly's poetry reflected the slavery experience on the cusp of the American Revolution.

Much of African history is known through oral tradition. Folk tales passed down through the generations on the African continent were similarly dispatched in African American communities. Some did learn the written word. Poet and slave Phillis Wheatley is still studied. Her writings vividly depict the slave experience on the eve of the American Revolution.

Many devout British colonists saw conversion of slaves to Christianity as a divine duty. Consequently, the Christian religion was widely adopted by slaves. The practice of Christianity by slaves differed from white Christians. Musical traditions drew from rhythmic African and melodic European models. The religious beliefs of many African tribes merged with elements of Christianity to form voodoo. Spirituals also demonstrate this merger.

Despite laws regulating slave literacy, African Americans learned many elements of the English language out of sheer necessity. Since the planters' children were often raised by slaves, their dialects, values and customs were often transmitted back. This reflexive relationship is typical of cultural fusion throughout American history.

On the Web
Harlem, 1900 to 1940
Harlem was once considered the "culture capital" of African America. This outstanding site prepared by the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, at the New York Public Library, looks at the people and events that shaped African-American culture in the early 20th century.
Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture
Kwanzaa is a new holiday based on ancient traditions. This website is the product of The Organization Us and its founder and chairman, Dr. Maulana Karenga, who is also the creator of Kwanzaa. Here you can learn about its African roots, symbols, seven principles, celebration, and much more from "the authoritative keeper of the tradition." Hmmm. If culture is dynamic, ever-changing, can there be only one way to follow a tradition? Think about it as you explore this rich and fascinating site.
Sounds of the South
An encyclopedia of southern music from Black Gospel to Zydeco from the University of North Carolina's Center for the Study of the America South. Hear a selection from each of 20 distinct musical genres and read about the African threads which are woven throughout.
Kwanzaa is a 12-day celebration, honoring 7 principles: Umoja, Kujichagulia, Ujima, Ujamaa, Nia, Kuumba, and Imani. If you don't understand Swahili, check this site for the English meaning, and much more about Kwanzaa.
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