African Americans

The history of Africans in the Americas began long before the famous sale of twenty Negars to Virginia’s John Rolfe in 1619. African slaves participated in Spanish expeditions throughout the sixteenth century and were present in large numbers in Spanish, Portuguese, and other European colonies throughout the Atlantic world. By the time of the American War for Independence, African American men and women were present in every British colony in North America, although their numbers were largest in the plantation societies of the Southern colonies. Both enslaved and free, they worked in a striking variety of rural and urban jobs. Through the horrors of the Middle Passage and nearly two centuries of colonial enslavement, Africans in America forged a new cultural identity, blending remembered traditions from all over Africa with borrowed European American practices. It is impossible to imagine how colonial America would have grown, especially economically, without the institution of black slavery and the contributions of African men and women. Atlantic Slave Trade and Early Generations Four centuries of contentious race relations in North America have made it difficult to reconstruct the first meetings of diverse groups of Africans and Europeans without imagining the people concerned as white and black. Distinctions like European and African also fail to represent the situation accurately, since, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, few people identified themselves with their continent of origin; instead, they thought in terms of nation, tribe, or clan. The first African Americans in the British colonies date to 1619, when John Rolfe had twenty Negars transported from Africa to the Jamestown colony. Black slaves also are believed to have been part of earlier Spanish and Portuguese explorations. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania) Europeans in the fifteenth century were unable to penetrate the African interior and raid for slaves. Rather, they entered into commercial relationships with traders on the coast of Africa. European and African traders, merchants, and monarchs all benefited. Slavery was a fact of life in West and West Central Africa the regions from which most African Americans were imported but there were several key differences between African slavery and its American cousin. First, slavery in Africa was rarely hereditary. Indeed, slaves were often adopted or married into the master’s family, clan, and tribe. Most importantly, slaves in Africa were physically identical to their masters. Thus, no permanent stigma of slavery was attached to them. (None of this applies, however, to the slave trade with the Arab world, where slaves were often reduced to nothing more than property, much as they were in the Americas.) The barracoon (slave compound) and the infamous Middle Passage were crucial first steps in the creation of African Americans from the myriad ethnicities of Africa. Disoriented and surrounded by disease and death, Africans forged bonds that transcended ethnicity and religion and began to approach race consciousness. Approximately 10 million slaves arrived alive in the Americas over the four centuries of the trade, out of an estimated 20 to 30 million captured in Africa, the rest dying somewhere en route. Of those who lived, about 400,000 ended up in British North America before the trade stopped in 1808. The Caribbean and Brazil received far more slaves than North America. The legal status of the first group of Africans in English North America is not precisely clear. In the earliest years of the English colonies on Chesapeake Bay, Africans mainly men worked alongside English and Irish servants in various states of semi-freedom. Some Africans were able to gain their freedom and operate tobacco farms, complete with their own servants and slaves. Even when they could not reach such heights, Africans created their own vibrant, independent economy of small farmers, laborers, and artisans. Many of the legal obstacles that faced later generations of African Americans were not yet in place. For instance, Africans could sue and testify in court. Some of the earliest laws regarding race were an effort to stop sexual relations between black and white people, indicating Africans’ presence in the community. In South Carolina, where slavery was the norm from the outset, frontier conditions allowed for a rough equality as both masters and slaves worked together to create plantations in a subtropical climate. Maroon, or run-away, communities, though never as numerous or populous as those in the Caribbean, existed in the Southern backcountry during these early years. In sparsely settled Spanish Florida, Africans maintained a greater level of autonomy than in the English colonies; this balance continued until the British took control of the area in the late eighteenth century. In urban areas of the Northern colonies in the seventeenth century, such as Dutch New Amsterdam, New York (after 1670), Boston, and Newport, Africans plied a variety of trades and experienced freedom of movement that would be unheard of on the established plantations farther south later. African Americans in the Northern colonies were primarily agricultural laborers, like most of their European neighbors. A minority laborer might work in mines, tanneries, and iron furnaces. Because of their experiences around the Atlantic world, Africans also participated in shipping and associated jobs in northern port cities. The earliest generations of Africans in America lived at a crossroads of sorts. They were African-born, but had close ties to European colonists. Because of their small numbers and their relationships with Europeans, they picked up a variety of trades and a deep understanding of European culture, including Christianity. Slave Culture in Mature Colonial Societies In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, drastic changes took place in the African American population. While the first generations of Africans in America were generally not directly from Africa, but had spent time in other European colonies, increasing numbers of people came directly from West and West Central Africa. The first generations had experienced some level of autonomy and equality, but the spread of the plantation worsened the conditions of African American life. African Americans struggled to maintain family ties and were isolated on large plantations. Because of the strenuousness of plantation life, they also died younger. Race took on new importance, and racist laws and policies began to emerge, curtailing Africans’ activity in several arenas. As they confronted the harsh realities of plantation life, Africans created new institutions and worldviews that allowed them to survive slavery. In the process, a distinctly African American culture emerged. The shift to plantation agriculture affected African American communities differently, depending on the region. In the Chesapeake, plantation agriculture developed slowly over several decades in the late seventeenth century. As a result of planter demand and improved conditions in the British Isles, African slaves, bound for life, gradually replaced white indentured servants. Slaves came increasingly from the interior of Africa, from provincial areas rather than from the coast and other areas around the Atlantic world. Men outnumbered women even more than they had decades earlier. As a result, the large plantations of the Chesapeake began to resemble parts of Africa in speech patterns many Virginian slaves spoke variants of Igbo, for instance music, food, and religion, both polytheistic and Islamic. Movement between plantations came under tighter control, and African Americans fell victim to increasingly harsh punishments as planters strove to legitimatize their power. Plantation life also became increasingly regimented as planters devised new ways to maximize their profits. Slaves resented the rising power of planters and resisted them at every turn. Although large-scale uprisings were rare, slaves could, and did, withhold labor, slow down, and feign ignorance to negotiate the terms of their bondage. While earlier generations could hold out hope for freedom, property ownership, and some legal rights, plantation slaves could not. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Chesapeake’s African American population underwent another dramatic transformation. Africans born in Africa became a minority and a new generation of African Americans rose to prominence in the slave quarters. Slave health improved, and American-born slaves lived longer and had more children than their African parents. Slave families, though under constant threat, did achieve some measure of stability. The new generation of African Americans also picked up the precepts of evangelical Christianity. They generally shunned white instruction, taking control of their own religion and shaping it to their particular needs, combining remembered African concepts with a redemptive, egalitarian vision of Christianity. Skilled black preachers became powerful within African American communities. In South Carolina, similar change occurred, but more rapidly and to a greater extent. South Carolina’s planters crafted a society based upon the holding of large numbers of slaves. In the first decade of the eighteenth century, the black population surpassed the white population. In several crucial ways, South Carolina was, in the words of one Swiss settler, more like a negro country than one settled by white people. Rice production lent itself particularly well to the task, as opposed to the gang, system of labor, whereby individual slaves were given a set of tasks to accomplish. Once the tasks were accomplished, slaves had the remainder of their time to themselves. Interestingly, low country planters learned from their African slaves how to grow rice. While most South Carolina slaves were from Angola, skilled slaves from the rice-producing area between the Senegal and Gambia rivers were particularly sought after. Most white planters found plantation life distasteful, and they moved to Savannah, Charles Town, and Beaufort, leaving their plantations in the hands of managers, overseers, drivers, and slaves. A class of free, light-skinned African Americans and urban slaves grew up in Charles Town, but the vast majority of black men and women in the low country were plantation slaves. South Carolina’s plantation slave population was large, restive in 1739, they launched a frontal assault on slavery at Stono and overwhelmingly African. Planters laid out the designs of their plantations, but slaves altered these plans, constructing African-style dwellings and filling them with objects representing a mix of European, African, and Native American cultures. Slaves in South Carolina spoke a variety of African languages, and their influence can still be heard in the distinctive Gullah and Geechee languages of the Sea Islands. Carolina slaves also braided their hair in traditional ways and continued to file their teeth, mark their faces and bodies, and name their children in accordance with older cultural mandates, rejecting the names given to them by their generally absentee masters. Christianity made slight inroads among low-country slaves in the first half of the eighteenth century, as African traditions remained powerful. When Africans accepted Christianity, they did so on their own terms, often adapting the new beliefs to older forms, such as the ring shout. At the same time as the plantation model gained strength in Carolina and the Chesapeake, it was undermined in the sugar-producing areas of the lower Mississippi Valley. French planters had established largescale plantations there, but, in 1729, the Natchez chiefdom allied with some 200 slaves, mainly Bambaras, to kill slightly more than 10 percent of the French population. The revolt did not end slavery in the region, but it altered its tenor considerably, and planters gradually ceased their importation of new slaves. Some Africans were employed by the government to retaliate against the Natchez. There were significant numbers of free African Americans, who in their employment as slave catchers and soldiers grew close to European American society. Some free people of color were even able to make modest moves up the social ladder. This happened in Louisiana to a greater extent than anywhere in British North America, although the process was not unheard of elsewhere. In Louisiana, African Americans, both slave and free, participated in a flourishing economy independent of the planters, and Louisiana’s slaves had a greater chance of attaining their freedom than their counterparts in African American Women Domestic Violence & Child Advocacy Center alltravel8Making a difference 12 African Americans who are greening the … alltravel8HPV Vaccines May Be Less Effective in African American Women … alltravel8

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