American chattel slavery

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The experience of American chattel slavery was largely one of near-total cultural erasure. Among most enslaved Africans, little remained of the traditions of their homeland. From this great negation emerged a search for Africanisms, aspects of African culture that survived slavery. There has been a great deal of scholarly work done in this area, but there has been only limited success. In most regions, Africanisms have emerged piecemeal, isolated remnants of a culture that had largely been lost. One notable Africanism is the culture of rice cultivation that originated in West Africa and expanded to the Low Country via American slavery. A more complete retention of African culture can be found among the Gullah, who reside on the Sea Islands of the southern Atlantic coast of the United States. A unique set of historical circumstances allowed the Gullah to retain more of their African culture than the vast majority of enslaved Africans in North America. One can see among the Gullah what was robbed from most enslaved Africans. The Gullah culture is an assertion of agency of an enslaved people, but its exceptional nature serves to further cement the brutal reality of American slavery.
The history of rice cultivation in the American South is complex. As noted by Dr. Judith Carney in the journal article “The African Origins of Carolina Rice Culture,” rice cultivation began in Virginia, and was initially practiced with a different method than the one which would become common later in South Carolina. From the beginning, colonists made clear the connection of rice cultivation with Africa. Carney quotes a 1648 pamphlet sent from Virginia to England which demonstrates evidence of this connection:
The Governor Sir William [Berkeley], caused half a bushel of Rice (which he had procured) to be sowen, and it prospered gallantly and he had fifteen bushels of it, excellent good Rice, so that all those fifteen bushels will be sowen again this year; and we doubt not in a short time to have Rice so plentiful as to afford it at 2d a pound if not cheaper, for we perceive the ground and Climate is very proper for it as our Negroes affirme, which in their Country is most of their food, and very health- ful for our bodies.
In Virginia, colonists grew rice using a rain-fed method, where rice is planted in dry soil like any other crop. This method of rice cultivation is less efficient than the method that would later become favored in South Carolina, where rice is grown submerged in water. This method of rice cultivation would not have been known to English colonists, but it would have been known to the enslaved Africans who had originated in Africa’s “Rice Coast.” Carney attributes the success of rice cultivation in the Low Country to African rice, and to the knowledge of rice cultivation retained by enslaved Africans.
The Gullah people, also known as the Geechee, reside on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida’s northern Atlantic coast. The Gullah of the Sea Islands have same beginnings as the rest of the enslaved Africans of the Low Country, but were far more isolated. Dr. Josephine Beoku-Betts observes in the journal article “We Got Our Way of Cooking Things: Women, Food, and Preservation of Cultural Identity among the Gullah” that the isolation of the Sea Islands both before and after slavery allowed the Gullah to retain much of their African culture. Dr. Beoku-Betts performed an ethnographic study of the remaining Gullah in 1995, focusing on their food practices. 90% of the participants in the study described rice as a central component of their diet. Many of the Gullah women interviewed described meals not centered around rice as snacks rather than meals. Dr. Beoku-Betts observed a method of rice preparation in which the rice is picked through for possible debris and meticulously washed by hand, a practice she recognized from her own childhood in Sierra Leone. In these food traditions, evidence of African culture can be found among the Gullah people.
There are many additional instances of cultural retention of the Gullah, but two are particularly notable. The first of these Africanisms is the Gullah language, and the second is a basket weaving tradition that has its roots in West African rice agriculture. The Gullah language is a creole of English that shares vocabulary and sentence structure from a variety of African languages. In an article for the journal The Black Scholar, Gullah community leader Emory Campbell explores the legacy of Lorenzo Dow Turner, whose influential work introduced the academic world to the Gullah language and culture. Before Turner, the Gullah language was viewed by scholars as simply a substandard form of English, rather than the remarkable instance of retained African culture that it represents. Gullah basket weaving is today largely a source of income for skilled artisans who sell decorative sweetgrass baskets to tourists. Like so many other features of Gullah culture, this tradition was born in West Africa. The original form of the now-decorative baskets was the fanner basket, an implement used for the threshing of rice. Pounded rice was tossed in the air using wide woven baskets, allowing the breeze to carry away the loose rice hulls. In a picture from the College of Charleston’s Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, three baskets can be seen, all of which are immediately visually identifiable as having come from the same craft tradition. One came from the Drayton Hall plantation and was made before the Civil War, one was made in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina in the early 2000’s, and another was made in Senegal.
Over time, the scholarly consensus on Africanisms has shifted. In the early 20th century, the consensus held that slavery erased African culture entirely. Scholars like Lorenzo Dow Turner helped shift this consensus to one which recognizes the Africanisms retained during slavery and by the descendants of enslaved Africans. In recognizing this nuance, one must not forget the brutal nature of American slavery. The Africanisms of the Gullah people are of such interest to academics precisely because they are unusual. The relative isolation of the Sea Islands and the particular features of the rice growing culture in the Low Country allowed for a degree of cultural retention that far exceeded what could be found among other enslaved Africans and their descendants. In this sense, the Africanisms of Gullah represent what was taken during slavery, and the cultural inheritance so many descendants of the enslaved have been denied.

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