African Retentions

African Retentions


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


Home  There are Africanisms, too, in American folklore.  American classics such as Uncle Remus and the Tar Baby contain stories that some claim are of West African origin and with not very much transformation.  These stories, they point out, have maintained plot, sequences, and events identical to those in West African folklore.    ]]>


African Retentions & Black Contributions

A Cultural Exchange in America

You change your steps according to the change in the rhythm of the drum.

                                                                                                                   – African proverb



The Negro was an enchained section of America’s peasantry and has unrepentantly and greatly molded  American culture.  There have been both folk and formal contributions in  politics, labor, education, religion, sports, art, and music. 

Slavery was a crucial dilemma, in which contact between blacks and whites were close and often intimate, though an outer show of social distance and social untouchability existed. There was a reciprocal cultural exchange.  In the South especially, there was a subtle and an unrecognized effect of blacks upon a developing American culture.  Often there has been an energetic and clashing interaction of black culture with the rest of American culture.

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African Retentions in Language and Folklore

Like others, Africans brought with them their culture to the New World.  In the British colonies and the USA, those cultures did not land in a receptive soil so that which was not usable for survival was lost.  But many argue the existence of African survivals, an argument which is less convincing for the USA than the Caribbean and Latin America, places that had a greater tolerance for difference than Protestant (and puritanical) America.

Africans who spoke the same language were often separated from one another to suppress insurrections.  There remain, some believe, verbal and nonverbal African communications in American culture:

1. The nonverbal sounds Americans used to say “yes” (um hum), “no,” and “I don’t know.”

2.  Certain exclamatory sounds which indicate delight or disgust such as “umph, umph, umph!”, smells good “um,” smells bad “um” with different intonations.

3.  Intonations of exclamatory words (the manner and the style of the exclamation rather than the words themselves are African survivals) “lawd!”, “chile.”

4.  Carryovers of specific words from various African languages, including goober nut, gumbo, tote, yam, okay (or OK), jitterbug, jazz, dig, honkie, and so forth.

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With their own language patterns, Africans came to this country and learned the English and the French vocabularies, using them often to the dictates of their own language patterns.  This carryover also occurs, it is argued, in American pidgin and Creole:

1.  In several African languages, urgency is expressed by repetition.  In Wolof, the word “now” is leegi, pronounced “legi.”  Consequently, to express “right now” in Wolof, one says leegi, leegi.  In pidgin English this feeling of urgency is expressed by saying “now, now.”

2.  In several African languages no distinction is made between the letter “L” and the letter “R.”  Consequently, “fried” potatoes in pidgin becomes flied potatoes.

3.  Few African languages have a th sound; consequently, “that” and “those” become dat and dose.

There are Africanisms, too, in American folklore.  American classics such as Uncle Remus and the Tar Baby contain stories that some claim are of West African origin and with not very much transformation.  These stories, they point out, have maintained plot, sequences, and events identical to those in West African folklore.

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African Retentions in Art

African art can be found in modern Western art.  Picasso, Braque, Modigliani were struck by the powerful rhythms, abstract forms, and artistic vision of African art in the ethnological museums of Europe. African ideas thus initiated the Cubist movement and altered the course of modern art.

The modern expressiveness of radical simplicity and distortion of the human figure, some have argued, replicates the vision of African artists.  Some modern artists use “interior” space in their sculpture, similar to that of African sculpture.  The African custom of painting images on their buildings may have also influenced the popularity of mural painting in America.

African Retentions in Music

In American music both song and dance, some argue, often include Africanisms.  African polyrhythms are the foundation of jazz, with its intricacies, repeated themes, syncopations, embellishments, and improvisations. As with African music, performers have the freedom of individual interpretation and embellishment.

American songs, particularly spirituals, some point out, show traces of Africanisms in rhythm and vocal style.  The “call-response” and “leader-chorus” songs prevalent among American spirituals are direct African carryovers.

American dances which feature a combination of active head-and-hand, body-pelvic movements are suggestive of African dance.  It is said that the American Charleston is nearly identical to an Ashanti ancestor dance.

Black American Contributions: Exploration

Initial contributions came in exploration of the Americas: Pedro Alonzo Nino, in the fifteenth century, explored America, sailing to the New World with Columbus.  Estevenico, in the fifteenth century, explored America’s southwestern territory.  Jean Baptiste du Sable founded present-day Chicago. 

Black American Contributions: The Economy

By the simple act of survival, blacks made an inestimable contribution to posterity: cleared lands, planted crops, built houses and cities.  The Negro made possible the existence of a leisure class, that included George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other Southern leaders.  Developing the Southern economy and culture, the Negro contributed also to the economic and industrial development of the North. 

Black American Contributions: Inventions and Discoveries

Blacks received more than 5,000 patents, ranging from machine guns and electronic devices to method of utilizing atomic energy.  

1. Granville T. Wood’s telephone transmitter.

2.  Jan Matzeliger’s shoe-lasting machine. 

3.  Garret Morgan’s traffic lights and gas mask.

4.  Norbert Rillieux’s sugar evaporating machine. 

5.  Dr. Charles Drew’s process for the utilization and storage of blood plasma.

6.  Dr. Daniel H. William’s pioneer work in open-heart surgery. 

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Black American Contributions: Democracy

In the republic established by the founding fathers, slaves, women, children, and men who did not own property were not allowed to vote, and considered incapable of the full responsibilities of citizenship.  Through resistance, eloquence, and persistence, the Negro moved America closer to its professed ideals and basic principles.  

1.  Toussaint L’Ouverture established Haiti as an independent black-ruled state, causing Napoleon to give up his idea of an American empire.

2.  Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem,. Salem Poor, and many hundreds of others fought in the American Revolutionary War.

3.  Frederick Douglass struggled throughout his life for the rights of blacks.

4.  Sojourner Truth exemplified the role of blacks in the Women’s Suffrage movement.

5.  Black Reconstruction officials supported the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments.

6.  W. E. B. Du Bois’s contributions include the Niagara Movement, NAACP, and his writings. 

7.  Martin L. King, Malcolm X, leaders of SNCC, CORE, and so forth.

The Negro has been in combat for America in foreign and domestic wars.  Black people fought to oppose the so-called enemy of their country and for justice for all black people.

1.  In the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the American black hoped to gain freedom from bondage.  He thought if he put his life on the line for this country, he would surely gain his freedom.

2.  In the Civil War, he fought in the hope that, as a reward, he would gain his freedom.

3.  In the Spanish-American War of 1898, he showed concern over American involvement abroad by fighting gallantly, hoping America would open its doors to him when he returned; it didn’t.

4.  World War I saw the black man in segregated units, receiving less pay and performing menial jobs, away from the front lines where he mighty received too much recognition and too much honor.

5.  World War II was, for him, practically a repetition of World War I.

6.  The Korean conflict saw the black man in integrated units, but treatment of him was the same in Korea as it was when he returned home:  oppressed.

7.  Vietnam saw the highest percentage of black soldiers fighting on the front line for America and not for themselves, because upon their return home, they still had to fight discrimination and oppression.

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Black American Contributions: Arts & Sciences

Blacks and black-white relations have long been the subject of great American literature by white authors, including Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, novels of William Faulkner, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, poems by Walt Whitman, essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so forth.

Contributions of black poets, playwrights, novelists, historians, essayists and others are long and impressive.

American music includes spirituals, jazz, and rock.  Black musicians have given modern American music its form, its direction, and its “soul.”

Benjamin Banneker, astronomer and mathematician, wrote a dissertation on bees; he constructed what was probably the first American-made clock.  A Georgia slave was in part responsible for the invention of the cotton gin, Jo Anderson helped Cyrus McCormick develop his reaping machine.  Norbert Rillieux invented a vacuum cup which revolutionized the sugar refining industry.  Elijah McCoy of Detroit received more than fifty patents for devices concerning telegraph and electricity.  Jan E. Matzeliger created the shoe-lasting machine.  Matzeliger’s patent was purchased by the United Shoe Machinery Company of Boston.  It reaped millions of dollars, but Matzeliger died in obscurity.

Lucy Terry

Popular songs attributed to blacks, such as “Roll Jordan, Roll” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” were not the first attempts at verse by blacks in the United States.  An Indian raid on the Massachusetts town of Deerfield in 1746 was documented in couplets by Lucy Terry, a semiliterate slave girl, it was called “Bors Fight.”

August ‘twas the twenty-fifth

Seventeen Hundred Forty-Six

The Indians did in ambush lay

Some very valiant men to slay

The names of whom I’ll not leave out

Samuel Allen like a hero fout

And though he was so brave and bold

August ‘twas the twenty-fifth

Seventeen Hundred Forty-Six

The Indians did in ambush lay

Some very valiant men to slay

The names of whom I’ll not leave out

Samuel Allen like a hero fout

And though he was so brave and bold

His face no more shall we behold.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

In 1896 Dunbar, son of former slaves, presented Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896), a book which won for him a national reputation.  Aware of the minstrel tradition, Dunbar wrote first his poems written in the dialect of plantation folk.  Others of his writings are in the tradition of Robert Burns, treasured by literate black Americans who emerged from plantation slavery.  Dunbar’s writings have never been out of print, including dialect poems that made him famous. 

An angel robed in spotless white

Bent down and kissed the sleeping night.

Night woke to blush; the sprite was gone.

Men saw the blush and called it Dawn.

James Weldon Johnson

A contemporary of Dunbar was James Weldon Johnson.  Johnson was known mainly for his pop song lyrics, including 

Lift Every Voice and Sing

Lift every voice and sing,

Till earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the list’ning skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.


Sing a song full of the faith

That the dark past has taught us;

Sing a song of the hope

That the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on ‘till victory is won.


Stoney the road we trod,

Bitter the chast’ning rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat,

Have not our weary feet

Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?


Source: Bain, Mildred, et al. From Freedom to Freedom: African Roots in American Soil. Milwaukee, Wis: Purnell Reference Books, 1977.

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The African Diaspora Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery—By Paul E. Lovejoy—The process of creolization comes much more in focus when the merger of cultures—European and African—is perceived in terms that are more equal than is often the case. The Africa that entered the creole mentality was neither static nor ossified. We can go beyond the pioneering work of Herskovits and his students, who identified sets of cultural traits—”survivals”—that provided colour to the sub-culture of slaves and their descendants. This anthropological approach explores the formulation of distinct societies in the context of slavery; current research is adding an historical perspective to this analysis. For many slaves in the Americas, Africa continued to live in their daily lives. That experience included a struggle to adapt to slavery in the Americas and to re-interpret cultural values and religious practices in context, but frequently maintaining a clear vision of the African past and more than a fleeting knowledge of developments in Africa after arrival in the Americas. Only when fresh arrivals stopped coming from a specific homeland did the process of creolization take root.

As I have suggested, enslaved Africans sometimes interpreted their American experience in terms of the contemporary world of Africa, and consequently, efforts to understand their situation in the Americas has to take full cognizance of the political, economic and social conditions in those parts of Africa from where the individual slaves had actually come. That is, the conditions of slavery were shaped to a considerable extent by the personal experiences and backgrounds of the slaves themselves. They brought with them the intellectual and cultural lens through which they viewed their new lives in the Americas, and they made sense out of their oppression through reference to Africa as well as the shared conditions of auction block, mine and plantation. How to get at this carry-over of experience presents difficulties for historians and other scholars, but there is no reason to doubt that there was a transfer of experience, any more than was the case with other immigrants, whether voluntary or involuntary. . . .

Rather than maintain a few cultural “survivals” that are quaint and symbolic, enslaved Africans brought with them political issues and live interpretations of their own predicament. It is worth stressing that there was a continuous stream of enslaved immigrants coming from Africa during periods of growth and prosperity. Hence individual colonies in the Americas often received slaves from the same places in Africa, thereby updating information, rekindling memories and reenforcing the African component to the cultural adaptations under slavery. The extent to which linkages with Africa were maintained or declined into insignificance needs to be established. The ways in which enslaved Africans subsequently interpreted their conditions in the Americas and the Islamic world lies at the heart of the African contribution to the process of creolization, the forms of resistance, and the extent of accommodation with the slave experience.

There are in fact different paradigms for considering the communities of enslaved Africans in the diaspora than those currently being used: Besides being slaves, Africans in diaspora belonged to immigrant populations and they constituted what amounted to refugee communities, forced to migrate in different ways than modern refugees, who themselves are frequently forced to move. Like immigrant communities and refugees in other times and other places, enslaved Africans identified with communities which maintained links with their countries of origins in a variety of ingenious ways. Enslaved Muslims in Bahia, for example, considered themselves as belonging to the world of Islam; their educational system and common prayers were not “survivals” but active attempts to maintain and extend that world.—Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, II, 1 (1997)—YorkU

posted 11 August 2008

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Go, Tell MichelleAfrican American Women Write to the New First Lady

Edited Barbara A. Seals Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope

and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation

By Rosa Parks

Parks, one of the U.S.’ authentic living legends, is the black lady who on December 1, 1955, refused to surrender her bus seat to a white man, was arrested under the Jim Crow law that required blacks to make way for whites, and thereby launched the yearlong bus boycott by blacks in Birmingham, Alabama, which led to the national overturning of that city’s and similar segregation laws across the nation. In this tiny collection of what seem like outtakes from oral-history tapes, she rehearses her great day (as it seems from the perspective of history; Parks remembers it as “not a happy experience. . . . I had not planned to be arrested”), stressing that it wasn’t, as many have romanticized, because her feet were tired that she didn’t move, but because she was “tired of being oppressed . . . just plain tired.” Her remarks, disposed somewhat arbitrarily into sections topically named “Fear,” “Pain,” “Character,” “Faith,” “Values,” reflect her lifelong commitment to justice for black Americans and to peace and equal opportunity for all.

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Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change

By John Lewis

The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the protest culture we know today, and the experiences of leaders like Congressman Lewis have never been more relevant. Now, more than ever, this nation needs a strong and moral voice to guide an engaged population through visionary change. Congressman John Lewis was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He is the author of his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement, and is the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the Lincoln Medal; the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Lifetime Achievement Award (the only one of its kind ever awarded); the NAACP Spingarn Medal; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, among many others.

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Let Freedom Ring:  A Collection of Documents

from the Movements to Free U.S. Political Prisoners

By Adolfo Perez Esquivel and Matt Meyer

Within every society there are people who, at great personal risk and sacrifice, stand up and fight for the most marginalized among us. We call these people of courage, spirit and love, our heroes and heroines. This book is the story of the ones in our midst. It is the story of the best we are.—Asha Bandele, poet and author of The Prisoner’s Wife As a convicted felon, I have been prevented from visiting many people in prison today. But none of us should be stopped from the vital work of prison abolition and freeing the many who the U.S. holds for political reasons. Let Freedom Ring helps make their voices heard, and presents strategies to help win their release.—Daniel Berrigan SJ, former Plowshares political prisoner and member of the FBI Top Ten Wanted List.

Contributors include Mumia Abu-Jamal, Dan Berger, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, Bob Lederer, Terry Bisson, Laura Whitehorn, Safiya Bukhari, The San Francisco 8, Angela Davis, Bo Brown, Bill Dunne, Jalil Muntaqim, Susie Day, Luis Nieves Falcon, Ninotchka Rosca, Meg Starr, Assata Shakur, Jill Soffiyah Elijah, Jan Susler, Chrystos, Jose Lopez, Leonard Peltier, Marilyn Buck, and many more.

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Race, Incarceration, and American Values

By Glenn C. Loury

In this pithy discussion, renowned scholars debate the American penal system through the lens—and as a legacy—of an ugly and violent racial past. Economist Loury argues that incarceration rises even as crime rates fall because we have become increasingly punitive. According to Loury, the disproportionately black and brown prison populations are the victims of civil rights opponents who successfully moved the country’s race dialogue to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime. Loury’s claims are well-supported with genuinely shocking statistics, and his argument is compelling that even if the racial argument about causes is inconclusive, the racial consequences are clear.

Three shorter essays respond: Stanford law professor Karlan examines prisoners as an inert ballast in redistricting and voting practices; French sociologist Wacquant argues that the focus on race has ignored the fact that inmates are first and foremost poor people; and Harvard philosophy professor

Shelby urges citizens to break with Washington’s political outlook on race. The group’s respectful sparring results in an insightful look at the conflicting theories of race and incarceration, and the slim volume keeps up the pace of the argument without being overwhelming.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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