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Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Donna M. DeBlasio


The acculturation of newly arrived enslaved Africans to the New World involved the interaction between Europeans and Africans. In this complex process Africans were often able to fuse their native culture with that of the Europeans who were their new masters. Indeed, elements of African traditions survived in many forms, including religion, dance, music, folklore, language, decorative arts, and architecture. With the closing of the slave trade and a decreasing number of native-born Africans, intense acculturation abated. Over time both cultures, European and African, were transformed by their coexistence and sharing of traditions. The richness and variety of American culture owes much to traditions brought by Africans to the New World.

Religious practices and beliefs were central to both the Africans and the Europeans. Early in slavery's history in North America, many whites actually opposed converting slaves to Christianity. They believed that baptizing African slaves might give them ideas about some day achieving freedom. By not converting slaves, Christian slaveholders also assuaged their consciences because it was more acceptable to hold heathens in chains than it was other Christians. Over time opposition to Christianizing slaves diminished, as religion came to be seen as a means of control. Some organizations, like the Anglican Church's Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, believed it was their mission to evangelize among blacks. Indeed, many whites believed that biblical exhortations such as “slaves, obey your masters” were useful for keeping the increasing numbers of Africans and African Americans in their place.

The historian John W. Blassingame notes that traditional African religious forms adapted easily to Christianity, with God taking the place of the Creator and Christ and the Holy Spirit replacing the lesser deities of African religions. Dances, music, amulets, funeral ceremonies, and other rituals from Africa found expression in European Christian religions. As Africans became Americans, the names of the gods and the origins of religious practices were lost to subsequent generations. However, African traditions such as call-and-response are even today identified with African American congregations. The passion and emotion blacks infused in their Christian religious services are also remnants of African ritual. White writers like Frederick Law Olmsted noted that slaves expressed themselves “with an intensity and vehemence almost terrible to witness.”

African spirituality included a belief in spirits and charms, much like other folk religions. In My Bondage and My Freedom Frederick Douglass relates the story of his encounter with Sandy, “a genuine African,” who “had inherited some of the so-called magical powers, said to be possessed by African and eastern nations.” Sandy told Douglass about an herb that could be found in the woods that would help him by making it impossible for a white to ever whip him. At first Douglass rejected the idea, calling it “very absurd and ridiculous, if not positively sinful.” Sandy pointed out to him that for all his intelligence and learning, Douglass was still being whipped by his master. Douglass agreed to take the root because “Sandy was so earnest, and so confident of the good qualities of this weed, that, to please him, rather than from any conviction of its excellence, I was induced to take it.”

Folk tales and legends from Africa also survived the Americanization process. Stories centering on the trickster figure—the weak or slow animal that outwits the faster or more sophisticated creature—abound as part of the oral tradition. Besides the folklore itself, African languages also survived the Middle Passage to the New World as late as the 1830s and in many areas evolved into a local patois. One of the best known of the Creole dialects is the Gullah of the South Carolina Sea Islands. Creole dialects had discernible African-language patterns and were often unintelligible to others. Douglass talked about the Creole dialect spoken on Captain Edward Lloyd's plantation; he referred to it as “a mixture of Guinea and everything else you please.” He added, “I could scarcely understand them [Captain Lloyd's slaves] when I first went among them, so broken was their speech; and I am persuaded that I could not have been dropped anywhere on the globe, where I could reap less, in the way of knowledge, from my immediate associates, than on this plantation.”

Music played a central role in African culture and is distinguished by its complex rhythms. African rhythms combined with European music and the trials of slave life to produce a distinctive African American musical tradition. Blacks even adapted their musical instruments to the New World; for example, the African mbanza became the banjo. The spiritual was a powerful expression of the slaves' hatred of enslavement and was a covert way to communicate their desire for freedom. There were songs for nearly every occasion. Songs sung during work helped to break the monotony of toil. Other songs sung during religious services expressed the faith and spirituality of African Americans. Many songs were filled with the desire to end their bondage and become free people. The songs made a great impression on Douglass, who attributed his first stirrings of desire for freedom to them: “To those songs I trace my first glimmering conception of the dehumanizing character of slavery. I can never get rid of that conception. Those songs still follow me, to deepen my hatred of slavery, and quicken my sympathies for my brethren in bonds.” By the 1890s the musical heritage preserved in African American culture would give birth to ragtime, jazz, and, later on, rhythm and blues and rock and roll.

North American architecture displays elements of the building traditions of West Africa and the West Indies. Architectural historians attribute the shotgun house to the arrival of immigrants in New Orleans from Toussaint Louverture's rebellion in Haiti at the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century. Shotgun houses are one story tall, one room wide, and two or three rooms deep and have a front-gabled roof, a window and door on the facade, and usually a full-width front porch. Supposedly, the shotgun house acquired its name because the front and back doors are aligned and one could shoot a gun through the front door directly through the back and never touch a wall. Architectural historians believe the name may actually be a corruption of togun, which is a Yoruban word meaning “house.” From New Orleans shotgun houses spread throughout the South and later to the North as a result of migration. Because they were narrow, shotgun houses were well suited to city lots and could be found in urban areas as well as on farms and plantations. Usually of wood frame construction, shotgun houses were relatively easy to erect; thus, they were often built for workers in company towns in the Ohio River and Mississippi River valleys. Variants of the shotgun house include the camelback house, which has a two-story rear addition, and the double shotgun house, which consists of two adjacent shotgun houses under one roof. While essentially of simple construction, a shotgun house could have elaborate decorations, such as gingerbread on the eaves of the roof or intricate scrollwork on the front porch.

Acculturation is a complex process, and it is often difficult to prove what survived from Africa and became a part of African American culture. Comparing African American and African traditions has been useful in determining the connections between the old and new worlds. Holding onto African culture and traditions was one way enslaved men and women could retain a sense of their own identity. Even in the later antebellum period, when there were fewer newcomers from Africa, slaves and free blacks maintained some of the cultural constructs of their ancestry. Over time African American traditions influenced and added to the diversity of American culture.

See also Africa, Idea of; African Diaspora; Black Church; Black Family; Caribbean; Dance; Demographics; Douglass, Frederick; Ethnology; Haiti; Haitian Revolutions; Identity; Language; Literature; Lloyd Family; Lloyd, Edward, V; Music; My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); Race, Theories of; Religion; Religion and Slavery; Slave Trade; Slave Trade, Domestic; Slavery; and Toussaint Louverture.


Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. Rev. and enl. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Still one of the classic works on slave life, Blassingame gives excellent examples of acculturation.Find this resource:

    Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Antebellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956. One of the earliest accounts to take seriously the connections between African and African American culture.Find this resource:

      Upton, Dell. Architecture in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

        Vlach, John Michael. The Shotgun House: An African-American Architectural Legacy. In Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture, edited by Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. Vlach's work on shotgun houses is critical to understanding their origin and diffusion.Find this resource:

          Donna M. DeBlasio