SLAVE CULTURES AND SLAVE RESISTANCE

BECOMING AFRICAN-AMERICAN

The nearly 300,000 Africans brought to the mainland colonies dining the eighteenth century were not a single people. They came from different cultures, spoke different languages, and practiced many religions. Eventually, an African-American people would emerge from the diverse peoples transported to the British colonies in the Middle Passage. Slavery threw together individuals who would never otherwise have encountered one another and who had never considered their color or residence on a single continent a source of identity or unity. Their bond was not kinship, language, or even “race,” but slavery itself. The process of creating a cohesive culture and community took many years, and it proceeded at different rates in different regions. But by the nineteenth century, slaves no longer identified themselves as Ibo, Ashanti, Yoruba, and so on, but as African-Americans. In music, art, folklore, language, and religion, their cultural expressions emerged as a synthesis of African traditions, European elements, and new conditions in America.

For most of the eighteenth century, the majority of American slaves were African by birth. For many years, they spoke African languages and practiced African religions. Advertisements seeking information about runaways often described them by African origin (“young Gambia Negro,” “new Banbara Negro fellow”) and spoke of their bearing on their bodies “country marks”—visible signs of ethnic identity in Africa. Indeed, during the eighteenth century, black life in the colonies was “re-Africanized” as the earlier Creoles (slaves born in the New World) came to be outnumbered by large-scale importations from Africa. Compared with the earliest generation of slaves, the newcomers worked harder, died earlier, and had less access to freedom. Charles Hansford, a white Virginia blacksmith, noted in a 1753 poem that he had frequently heard slaves speak of their desire to “reenjoy” life in Africa:

I oft with pleasure have observ’d how they

Their sultry country’s worth strive to display

In broken language, how they praise their case

And happiness when in their native place...

How would they dangers court and pains endure

If to their country they could get secure!

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