African American Heritage & Ethnography African Nation Founders: African Systems of Meaning—Performing Culture in Music & Dance

Performing Culture in Music & Dance

Rhythmic music, movement, dancing, and syncopated and harmonious chants as part of African cultural traditions, have long been noted as integral parts of African American secular and sacred ceremonies, celebrations and rituals. The earliest accounts of colonial Africans’ secular festivities and religious ceremonies reveal that they held on to this aspect of their culture. Looking on with an ethnocentric gaze, English observers described the Africans’ performance of culture in disparaging terms:

“‘…nothing is more barbarous and contrary to Christianity than their…Idolatrous Dances, and Revels; in which they usually spend the Sunday. . And here, that I may not be thought too rashly to impune Idolotry [sic] to their Dances; my conjuncture is raised upon this ground…for that they use their dances as a means to procure Rain; Some of them having been known to beg this liberty upon the Weekdays… (Godwyn 1680 quoted in Raboteau 1978:64).’”

So wrote Reverend Morgan Godwyn long after his arrival in 1665 to minister in Marston Parish in York County, Virginia. Over a hundred years later in 1779 Alexander Hewitt made similar observation in South Carolina:

“‘The negroes of that country, a few only excepted, are to this day as great strangers to Christianity, and as much under the influence of Pagan darkness, idolatry, and superstition, as they were at their first arrival from Africa…Sundays and Holidays are days of idleness…in which they assemble together in alarming crowds for the purposes of dancing, feasting and merriment (Hewitt 1779 quoted in Raboteau 1978:65).’”

The Old Plantation. Artist unknown. Circa 1800. A slave dance in Lowcountry.

Feasts, dances and, as the English clergy observers called it “merriment” on Sunday afternoons were common activities among Africans during the colonial period. What the missionaries interpreted as merry-making may have been celebrations such as naming ceremonies, fellowship with the ancestors and as Creel suggests, possibly even initiation rituals (1988:101). Certainly not all ceremonies were religious and many were held at night, away from the critical eyes of the English. However, when the English inadvertently stumbled on such gatherings or Africans returning from them, they left written descriptions that tell as much about how the African’s behaviors disturbed them as they tell about the means Africans used to preserve their cultural traditions and identity.

George Whitefield, another 18th century Anglican missionary, while traveling through the South Carolina countryside at night became lost. Seeing a light through the trees he and his companions approached to find “a hut full of negroes.” Becoming fearful, Whitefield writes

“…[T]hey [the Africans] were some of those who lately made an insurrection…and had runaway from their masters”…and that he and his group…“thought it best to mend our pace”…As they galloped away they encountered “…another great fire near the roadside, and imagining there was another nest of Negroes, we made a circuit into the woods, and one of my friends”…wrote Whitefield. …“at a distance observed them dancing around the fire (Whitfield 1741:96).”

Africans living in Charleston traveled to rural areas to participate in countryside dances where they danced all night. Slaves continued to hold countryside dances at night throughout the 18th century, even after the Stono Rebellion in 1730 when slave dances were outlawed along with use or ownership of drums, horns and other loud instruments (Morgan 1998:580–582).

Enslaved Africans communicated with one another in calls derived from their musical tradition of call and response. Calls are as musical ways “to communicate messages of all kinds-to bring people in from the fields, to summon them to work, to attract the attention of a girl in the distance, to signal hunting dogs, or simply to make one’s presence known Courlander 1963:81).” Calls convey simple messages, or merely make one’s whereabouts known to friends working elsewhere in the fields. Many slave calls were modeled on African drumming After the banning of drums following the Stono Rebellion, many slave calls were modeled on African drumming. Slaves also copied the drum rhythms by ‘patting juba.’ This procedure involved “foot tapping, hand clapping, and thigh slapping, all in precise rhythm (Southern 1971:168).” From the perspective of heritage preservation it is interesting to note that patting juba was incorporated into an early 20th century dance called the Charleston. This “Africanism,” reappeared in the late 20th century in the dance choreography of the Broadway musical “Bring on the Noise, Bring on the Funk.”

18th century drawing of African musical instrument by Benjamin Latrobe.

Africans also made and played banjos made out of gourds. The banjo is a musical instrument that originated in Senegal and the Gambia region of West Africa. By the end of the 18th century banjos had become the most common musical accompaniment used by Africans for their dances. The first mention of it in North America is found in a 1749 account of a Christmas celebration of Africans from plantations along the Cooper River playing the banjo, dancing and making merry (Ravitz 1960:384; Coolen 1984:117–132). This famous watercolor painting The Old Plantation which portrays a slave dance in 18th century South Carolina illustrates one slave playing a banjo and another beating a drum.

Enslaved Africans learned to play European instruments as well. “A black Virginia born Negro fellow named Sambo,” who ran away in 1766, was a carpenter who made fiddles and played them. Gabriel, a weaver by trade…is fond of reading and plays well the violin,” so said his owner in a 1776 newspaper advertisement seeking his capture and return. A number of these advertisements for runaway musicians also note that they could read and some could write well enough to have possibly forged a pass. Other runaways were drawn to a different kind of cultural performance in the Christian church. Jemmy, a dark mulatto man was fond of singing hymns, Jupiter alias Gibb was a “great New Light preacher.” Charles, a sawyer and shoemaker by trade also “reads tolerable well, and is a great preacher, from which I…[his owner]…imagine he will endeavour [sic] to pass for a freeman(Virginia Runaways, 2004; Jupiter, October 1, 1767; Charles, October 27, 1765; Jemmy, September 8, 1775).”

Spiritual Life: Public & Secret

Capuchin missionary conducts mass, Kingdom of Kongo, 1745.

By the 18th century, many of the people brought from West Central African to be enslaved in the Americas were familiar if not converted to Catholicism. The first Africans arriving in Virginia were probably Catholics. Maryland was settled by 100 Catholics, 2 priests and a servant Catholic Negro aboard the Ark and the Dove ships that brought them to the New World. Before the American Revolution most Black Catholics lived in Maryland and in the areas that were to become Florida and Louisiana. In the American colonies controlled by Catholic powers—the Portuguese, Spanish and French-African slaves were baptized as Christians from the earliest days of slavery. But in the British-controlled, Protestant colonies, planters showed little interest in converting their slaves. Many feared that to accept Negro slaves as Christians was to acknowledge that “Negroes” were entitled to rights accorded other Christians—a dangerous message as far as they were concerned.

As early as 1654, the English made provisions for “negro” servants to receive religious instruction and education. Some planters made provisions in their will that their “negro servants be freed, that they should be taught to read and write, make their own clothes and be brought up in the fear of God.” By 1770, it had become the duty of masters acquiring free “negro children as apprenticed to agree to teach them reading, writing and arithmetic (Russell [1913] 1969:138).

Despite owner opposition and the inability of some Africans to speak or understand English, by 1724 Anglican clergymen had established small groups of African converts in a number of parishes in Virginia and Maryland. Their greatest success was in Bruton parish, Williamsburg, 8 miles north of Carter's Grove, where approximately 200 Africans were baptized.

Carter’s Grove enslaved people apparently chose to attend Bruton Parish church over other Anglican churches located nearer to their homes and attended by the Burwell Family. Although the journey to Willamsburg was longer it was also an occasion when they could meet with friends or relatives from Bray and Kingsmill Farm or other surrounding plantations or farms (Russell [1913] 1969:138). In the last half of the 18th century 1,122 “negro-baptisms were recorded” in Bruton Parish by the Anglican church (Wilson 1923:49).

The motivation for attending church was as likely to be a rare chance to meet without fear of planter intervention as it was spiritual. Christians came from different generation groups and were as likely to be field hands as they were to be domestic servants in the great houses. Christians included Africans and native-born African Virginians. For some, the motivation was a reward of larger food rations or additional clothing. For others it was an opportunity to learn to read.

Moravian Congregation 1757.

South Carolinian colonists were the first to make systematic efforts to Christianize enslaved Africans and African Americans in the early 18th century. Anglicans believed literacy was essential as Anglican missionaries reached out to enslaved Africans in South Carolina and Georgia they tried to teach at least a few to read. Planters were hostile to the idea of slave literacy. They resisted by passing a law in 1734 that slaves could not leave the plantation on “Sundays, fast days, and holy days without a ticket,” that is a pass. Always afraid of insurrection coupled with the knowledge that literate Africans taught by the Anglican clergy became leaders of slave insurrections in the Caribbean and later the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, resulted in passage of the New Negro Act of 1740 curtailing the missionaries’ freedom to teach slaves to read and write English. In spite of the law, Alexander Garden, an Anglican missionary, established the Charleston Negro School was established in 1743. The school lasted twenty years. Garden purchased and taught two African American boys to read and write and they became teachers of others. Over the next four years Garden graduated forty “scholars” At its peak in 1755 the school enrolled seventy African American children. This was a miniscule number given there were upwards of 50,000 Africans and African Americans in the colony. However, it was a start (Frey 1991:20–24).

Other protestant sects also reached out to African slaves in southern colonies. The Presbyterians established a church on Edisto Island, South Carolina between 1710 and 1720. Thirty years later, Moravians, mostly missionaries to American Indians, established a North Carolina church that received African slaves into the congregation (Old Salem n.d.).

The first Great Awakening of the 1740s brought Baptist and Methodist revivalist sect into the arena of proselytizing to enslaved Africans. The Baptist and Methodist did not insist on a well-educated clergy, a converted heart and gifted tongue were more important to the Baptists and Methodists. If a converted slave showed talent for exhorting, he exhorted, and according to Raboteau and others, not just to black audiences. As an outcome, the early independent African Churches in the Southern colonies were mainly established within the Baptist denomination (Raboteau 1978:133–134; Creel 1988; 78–80).

However religious acculturation was not universal and proceeded both slowly and unevenly. Artifacts uncovered by archeological excavation may mean that African American Christians on Sunday may well have continued to participate in African sacred and healing rituals the rest of the week (Jones 2000; Ferguson 1999).