African American Comprimise In The New World
The African American culture has seen many transformations starting within Africa and evolving through their history into America. The history of the African spirit within America is a unique tale combining faith and struggle to create a group of people that is trying to find themselves in a society that was not made for them. One key element that remains constant in the studies of African religions is the use of music and dance. Within W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, this element is easily seen in how he structures his book to include a piece of musical score at the beginning of his chapters and at the end of the book as a whole. The use of music in this way by Du Bois reflects the idea of music as a language for the African American community. This form of communication is only one element within the history of this group of people that shows how their history as required them to compromise between their African roots and the American culture that was forced upon them. The African American compromises their African self with their American self through the use of both language and music.
The one defining event that shaped the African American life was that of slavery. In the Introduction to The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself Werner Sollors writes, “The total number of Africans who were forced into New World slavery from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century has been estimated at between eleven and twelve million.”(Equiano, ix). Since this time, many African Americans have been trying to regain their voice in the American world. Du Bois explores the idea of regaining this voice in The Souls of Black People by reflecting the early work of the Freedman’s Bureau between 1861-1872 (Du Bois 16). By the end of the Chapter Du Bois sadly states, “despite compromise, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free.” (42). It was this freedom that many African Americans struggled for throughout history, but in addition they were still trying to simply define themselves as both African and American.
One example of this is seen in The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written by Himself. Within this text by Olaudah Equiano, he tells the story of his life from his abduction from African into slavery to his adult life as a free man. As a child in the new world of European customs, he is forced to translate the world around him in the only language that he knows, his African culture. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores this idea in “The Trope of the Talking Book” by discussing how when Equiano, at a young age, sees someone reading a book and does not understand being illiterate himself.
The communication that he witnessed between man and books was nothing he had seen before, so using what he knew about the world he concluded that the books were actually talking to the person. When young Equiano saw this he states, “I have often taken up a book, and have talked to it, and then put my ears to it, when alone, in hopes it would answer me; and I have been very much concerned when I found it remained silent.”(Equiano, 48). This idea seems very strange for many of us, however this was how many slaves saw the world around them and tried to use language to compensate for what they did not understand.
According to Du Bois, another important element of the African American religion is music. Music of their religion “is that plaintive rhythmic melody, with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil.”(Du Bois 192). It was this music brought from Africa that helped tie African Americans to their African religious roots once they were brought in contact with the European culture. This occurred because it was the music that brought the African people together as a community. Charles Long emphasized this idea when he wrote, “by singing about how tough it is and identifying the forces that are against you, you bring meaning to the experience.” The struggles and the happiness that the African American people experienced through their history is expressed through the music.
This emphasis on music is something that we see comes from the African religious cultures from Africa. Equiano informs us of this in his narrative saying that Africa was “a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.”(21). It is apparent that these artistic ideas carried over to the America’s to help the slave communities cope with the struggles they were experiencing. It is important to recognize that though music holds some meaning to everyone, the meaning it holds for the African American community is distinctly different because it not only connects them to the music and to each other, but to their identity and history from the African country through slavery and finally freedom.
The African American culture is without a doubt very intricate and built on a history and a culture that not only defines their religious faith, but them as a people. Through tales of other African Americans defining themselves and the world around them, like Olaudah Equiano, we are able to see how difficult it can be to translate a new world in a language that is completely alien to your environment, but entirely familiar to the subject. This conflict of translation is often times compensated using a familiar bridge from African cultures like music. Through music, the African Americans make a place of themselves in a new world, helping make it a little more familiar.
Du Boise, W.e.b. The Souls of Black People. New York: The Modern Library, 2003.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano,or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. Ed. Werner Sollors. New York: Norton and Company, 2001.
Keller, Mary. “Religion, Discourse, and Hermeneutics: New Approaches in the Study of Religion by Charles Long.” Online.