African Reflections on the American Landscape: Identifying and Interpreting Africanisms
By Brian D. Joyner. Washington, DC: National Park Service, 2003; 64 pp., maps, tables, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index; paper, free of charge.
In his 1925 poem "Heritage," the black New York City public schoolteacher and writer Countee Cullen (1903-1946) plaintively asked, "What is Africa to me?" Brian Joyner's follow-up to the National Park Service's 2001 conference on "Places of Cultural Memory: African Reflections on the American Landscape" vibrates with a salient though unarticulated question that might be framed as, "What is America to me?"
From his position in the office of Diversity and Special Projects in the National Park Service's National Center for Cultural Resources, Joyner aimed to highlight West and Central African cultural contributions to the built environment in the United States—at least as cultural resource programs have documented and recognized them. The undertaking is simultaneously ambitious and modest, for while confined to places recognized by the National Park Service, it probes a conflicted past and reaches beyond the position of race in United States history to touch the core of America's character and the cast of its culture.
Joyner's undertaking contrasts with discussions of European contributions to America. The reality of a conscious re-creation of European community resonates throughout the United States in place names such as New England, New Rochelle, New York, Portsmouth, Paris, and Rome. From architecture to folklore to linguistics, Europe's position in America's sense of self has been central. But to what degree has such centering resulted from psychological self-serving or from tangible fact?
Until almost 1900, the Americas were a child of forced immigrants from Africa and indigenous peoples. The size of Africans' and Indians' share in and subsidy of the European-ruled New World has since been an issue more of politics than of actual measuring.
Standing apart as something of an exception to New World polities where people of color predominated in the populations, the United States has long inhaled and exuded an air of being "a white man's land." What has come to be called "political correctness" may have shifted the terms of speech at different times, but the substance has been consistent. The question hardly arises anew as to what enslaved Africans carried from their mother continent to the Americas in their heads and hearts and then made material again in shaping the New World environment in general and the United States built environment in particular.
The West and Central African catchment areas where the bulk of the peoples enslaved in the United States and its colonial predecessors originated had cultures rich in science and technology. The peoples dragged here brought knowledge with them. Such knowledge taught colonial planters in the Carolinas and Georgia how to produce rice, for example, as historian Daniel C. Littlefield documented in his now-classic 1981 book, Rice and Slaves.(1)
In summary fashion, Joyner selects and sketches United States places of Africanisms, defined as "elements of culture found in the New World traceable to an African origin." The definition is historian Joseph E. Holloway's, from Africanisms in American Culture, which aimed at "a new and comprehensive examination of Africanisms in America and especially the United States."(2) Joyner diagrams the architecture of shotgun houses and other arrangements of space. He savors diet—gumbo, okra, rice, and other foodstuffs and foodways. He fingers fiddles and other instruments and arts. He reaches to religion and cosmology. He notes language elements. In all he suggests a tracing to African origins and, in perhaps the book's best contribution, he lists historic properties, arranged by program and state, where the National Park Service has documented Africanisms. He points to rich cultural sites such as New Orleans' Congo Square and New York City's African Burial Ground and Louisville's Smoketown Historic District.
Sweeping in time and space within 4 chapters and a bare 50 pages of text, Joyner skirts much of the complexity and overt contentiousness of his subject. His first chapter introduces terms and conditions for understanding the African presence in America. His second and longest chapter identifies specific sites where the National Park Service has documented Africanisms on the American landscape. Then he offers a chapter on interpreting African cultural heritage at historic sites. The last chapter is an appendix listing a bibliography and National Park Service properties that document or recognize Africanisms. Throughout, Joyner skips mechanics of cultural continuity or survival. His interest appears more in "what is" than in "how" Africanisms came to be in these places.
Writing for the general reader, Joyner leaves unmentioned in his text many issues of methods and meaning. His endnotes go a bit deeper and do well at pointing to appropriate literature. He offers most to readers interested in locating historic places of African-inspired cultural expression. He offers least to readers seeking guidance in discussing how to identify, measure, and interpret cultural continuity or distinctiveness. Or to readers interested in shifting historical consciousness.
Joyner declares that "Africanisms must become much more visible to historic preservation/cultural resource practitioners. In order to reach this visibility, preservationists must direct their efforts toward non-European historical sources." The goal is worthy. His work reveals a diverse and inconsistent array that leaves much distant and isolated at present. It shows, too, that sensitivity alone will not suffice.
Only gently, if at all, does Joyner stir outmoded assumptions and too dominant visions of America's having a unilineal cultural descent from Europe. The joinder of issues here is not one of the persistency of African ways; it is not one of rhetoric or arts, language, religion, nor of abstract or generic transmission of traditions. The fundamental discussion lies beyond recognizing and identifying African linkages in the culture of the United States. It lies in interpreting the links. And that matter is ultimately political, for it reaches backward and forward to the power relations that have defined the identity and image of the United States.
The easier part in identifying elements in the built environment is what we see. The harder part is what we say about what we see. And there Joyner offers too little. Perhaps there are only questions to be raised: Who do Americans think they are? Who do Americans think America is? Who do Americans think made America what it is—and how? In that context we may ask: To what have African Americans given shape with their backs and hands, with their hearts, minds, and souls?
Thomas J. Davis
Arizona State University
1. Daniel C. Littlefield, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981; Reprint, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).
2. Joseph E. Holloway, ed., Africanisms in American Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991).