Could anyone deny that the people brought from various geographic points of Africa, despite their enslavement, influenced the development of various cultures or the cultural configurations of the Caribbean? Frankly, that would be impossible. Nobody can deny the survival of the African presence in the Caribbean region. It is worthwhile, however, to take another look back and analyze the conditions in which these influences occurred. This is essential in order to look beyond the boundaries that have dominated this kind of discussion for many years.
Traditionally, the African influence in the Caribbean has been seen as a set of practices, conceptions, and things that were “brought” by the Africans and simply deposited into what many still insist on calling the “Caribbean culture” (despite the problems with precisely identifying what is the “Caribbean culture”). Even worse, these “deposits” have often been seen as unabridged “deliveries,” or in other words, as direct transfers not qualified by major transformations. That “African” influence on Caribbean cultures was, for a long time, seen as homogenous and monolithic, as if it consisted of one single piece. Given this, it is necessary to reconsider whether all of the above stands up to scrutiny in light of diverse and innovative research that has appeared in recent years and has been the center of discussion and even important changes.
First, a reconsideration should question the uniqueness of what the expression “African influence” refers to. There should also be a critical look at the ways in which categories such as “influence” or even “heritage” can be re-examined in reference to that which is “African” in the Caribbean. On one hand, it should be clear that it is impossible to think of Africa as a single territorial or cultural unit. Although it is one continent, it obviously contains great topographic, geographic and cultural diversity within it. So it makes no sense to think that there would be a single African influence.
That which came from Africa must therefore be diverse itself. In this sense, we must be careful to speak of “African influences,” because the plural form introduces important and relevant connotations. That which is generally called “African” in the Caribbean does not come from the entire continent, but rather from just certain areas that are only a small part of it. Among these are the areas that are the current countries of Ghana, Senegal, the Republic of Benin, Nigeria, Angola and Mozambique, among others. Some of the ports on the coasts of these countries served as the departure points for many slaves who were sent to points in the Caribbean. Traditions, knowledge and other cultural elements thus came to the Caribbean from cultures such as the Ashanti (Ghana), Akan (Ghana), Ewe (the Republic of Benin), Fon (The Republic of Benin), Yoruba (The Republic of Benin and Nigeria), Efik (Nigeria), Ibibio (Nigeria), Kongo (Angola) and Ovimbundu (Angola), among others.
At the same time, it is also necessary to review the use of the word “influence.” Its meaning expresses the idea of producing a certain effect. The question immediately arises: Can the production of a certain effect occur only in a conscious and thought-out way? This is an essential question in this discussion.
Generally, when reference is made to the “African presence” in the Caribbean, it is done as if the millions of slaves had an agenda or plan to deliberately influence a culture that some insist on calling “Caribbean.” Influence is tied to the word “heritage.” The word implies, however, an intention to hand down an inheritance, something that is very unlikely to have been an important element in the preservation or survival of cultural elements that came to the Caribbean from a variety of points on the African continent.
A reconsideration implies, therefore, that now more than ever the categories of influence and heritage are linked to resistance and survival. If we go back and analyze the living conditions of the vast majority of the slaves in various parts of the Caribbean, we will have a clear idea of how to re-evaluate the concepts mentioned above. Although it cannot be suggested that all slaves lived the same experiences or experienced them with the same intensity, it can be said that the vast majority were brought forcibly to the Caribbean to satisfy the need for labor on the plantations. Many of them lived in truly vile conditions. From the number of hours they worked, the working conditions, and the treatment they received from the foremen, to their position in the plantation society, in which everything was considered from the standpoint of the interests of the colonial powers and in which no slaves had any rights that would allow them to live a life of dignity. All of these situations left no other possible way of life than resistance.
To resist was to live in continual confrontation, literally or symbolically, with the representatives of the society that intended to keep the slaves in their condition, regardless of what the slaves wanted. Acts of resistance went from one extreme to another. Common forms of resistance ranged from escaping to working slower, or losing tools or doing work other than what the foreman had ordered and then pretending not to have understood the orders. Other forms of resistance had to do with religion, dance and music. By practicing the religions that they brought with them from Africa, many slaves sought to empower themselves in a setting that was intended to strip them of all agency or ability to act.
Something similar occurred with music, dance and food. In their free moments, the slaves got together to play their richly poly-rhythmic music, to dance and to eat food made to their tastes, not what was given them on the plantation as if they were beasts instead of human beings. These were also acts of resistance. Building identities based on the ideals of that which they had left behind in Africa was a show of resistance in a setting in which it was thought that slaves should not show any cultural differences from the way the slave-owning societies of the Caribbean wanted them to be.
But, in all of these processes, was there really an intention to influence or to hand down cultural elements? Without being absolutist on the issue, it should be noted that in most cases the intention was merely to survive. African influences, therefore, occurred in a way that was not necessarily planned. Much less was there a concept of handing down “African” cultural values to they could be preserved for and enjoyed by future generations. If anything was intentionally handed down, it was the means for empowerment and survival.
Secondly, it is relevant to reconsider the ways in which the practices and knowledge came to the Caribbean from Africa. When we read much of the research on this topic, we see that some authors, through the language they use, appear to believe that the African influences in the Caribbean are cultural elements that came across the Atlantic intact. Generally, references to African “legacies” in our region give the impression that they were passed down without taking into account essential facts: that no group of persons arrives with a complete set of cultural baggage and that these elements do not stay the same after they arrive.
It is important to note that the “African influences” referred to in this text are, first of all, fragmentary. If the people who brought their cultures with them were diverse, then so were their cultural practices. This diversity combined, however, with discontinuity. In other words, much of what would eventually come to be “recognized” as “African” in the Caribbean had, in many cases, gone through a series of transformations that would make it difficult to find the same elements anywhere on the African continent.
In other words, the fragments that arrived from Africa with millions of slaves over the course of four centuries were rebuilt and reshaped under the new and difficult living conditions the majority of the slaves faced. All of this implies that what eventually became known as “African” was not really entirely “African” and more likely was the result of a series of mixtures and constructions that took that name but was based on what Africans were creating in our region. This is not meant to say or even remotely suggest that these constructions are not valid or should not be taken into account in an analysis of Caribbean cultures.
It must be considered that there are no cultures or natural cultural configurations that are not subject to continual and diverse transformations. There are no pure cultures. There is nothing purely “African.” There are only imaginations: creations that arise from the sum of all that we believe exists or could be. Being an imagination does not mean it is not a real cultural construction. Traditionally, the thinking was that the imagination was not real. However, the imaginary becomes real when it begins to work and operate in terms of how we understand cultural agents in relation to the various cultural configurations. If we use certain elements of “Africa” to demarcate certain identities, whether personal or national, the imagination ceases to be merely thought and becomes a tool used in specific ways. With the passage of years and the centuries of creation and recreation, today we can only imagine that which the slaves brought with them to the Caribbean. In fact, if we look more deeply, we can see that what was formerly called the cultural baggage of the Africans who came to the Caribbean since the 16th century can also be called African imaginations, not original African elements that were distorted in the Caribbean. If we can see today that “African” elements still exist in the Caribbean cultures, it is precisely because the strategies of resistance spurred processes of cultural creation of imaginations that allowed affirmation of that which was “African” as part of the Caribbean cultural configurations. Finally – and this should be made clear – this general reconsideration is not necessarily the only one possible.
Author: Dr. José Alberto Cabán Torres
Published: December 20, 2011.
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