How were blacks in American slavery formed, out of a multiplicity of African ethnic peoples, into a single people? In this major study of Afro-American culture, Sterling Stuckey, a leading thinker on black nationalism for the past twenty years, explains how different African peoples interacted during the nineteenth century to achieve a common culture. He finds that, at the time of emancipation, slaves were still overwhelmingly African in culture, a conclusion with profound implications for theories of black liberation and for the future of race relations in America.
By examining anthropological evidence about Central and West African cultural traditionsBakongo, Ibo, Dahomean, Mendi and othersand exploring the folklore of the American slave, Stuckey has arrived at an important new cross-cultural analysis of the Pan-African impulse among slaves that contributed to the formation of a black ethos. He establishes, for example, the centrality of an ancient African ritualthe Ring Shout or Circle Danceto the black American religious and artistic experience.
Black nationalist theories, the author points out, are those most in tune with the implication of an African presence in America during and since slavery. Casting a fresh new light on these ideas, Stuckey provides us with fascinating profiles of such nineteenth century figures as David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, and Frederick Douglas. He then considers in detail the lives and careers of W. E. B. Dubois and Paul Robeson in this century, describing their ambition that blacks in American society, while struggling to end racism, take on roles that truly reflected their African heritage. These concepts of black liberation, Stuckey suggests, are far more relevant to the intrinsic values of black people than integrationist thought on race relations.
But in a final revelation he concludes that, with the exception of Paul Robeson, the ironic tendency of black nationalists has been to underestimate the depths of African culture in black Americans and the sophistication of the slave community they arose from.
Slave culture flowed from an essentially autonomous value system that made the ancestral African past central to blacks in America, Stuckey argues. The common culture slaves achieved, despite coming from diverse ethnic groups, created a Pan-Africanism that has given blacks identity and ideology, he says. To show the culture in the making, he employs a broad, interdisciplinary approach that fuses his noted skills as a historian with the use of anthropology, folklore, linguistics, and musicology. To show the culture's extent, he focuses on the lives and works of David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Paul Robeson. The result is a rich, provocative, and in many ways seminal interpretation that may force a reconsideration of the neglected depths of African culture in America. Thomas J. Davis, African American Studies Dept., SUNY at Buffalo