Throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, millions of African slaves were brought to the American colonies. While slaves were strongly encouraged to assimilate into Western culture, they nonetheless brought and maintained powerful customs from Africa. These influences included important agricultural knowledge, culinary insights, musical rhythms and religious traditions.
Methods of farming in Africa were different from farming in Europe. African slaves introduced European colonists to their native ways of planting, harvesting and eating crops like rice. Those from Africa's west coast were accustomed to using intricate irrigation techniques to cultivate rice. There they built complicated systems of levees, ditches, floodgates and drains to regulate the amount of water on rice paddies, and they transported this technology with them to South Carolina in the late 1600s. In addition, they brought new crops such as okra, blackeyed peas and lima beans.
African slaves brought with them a rich musical tradition that held deep spiritual meaning. Slaves frequently generated their rhythms while they labored in plantation fields, a tradition that originated in Africa. Music from Africa consisted of a mix of singing, hollering, and call and response. Clapping and movement were also heavily integrated into the African rhythm. The slave influence on American music has lived on for centuries beyond slavery. Popular genres like ragtime, jazz, gospel and blues can all claim roots in the customs that slaves brought from Africa.
Voodoo and Religion
In the 1720s, slaves from west Africa brought with them a mysterious religious tradition known as voodoo. Voodoo finds its spirituality in a combination of god, spirits and ancestors. Voodoists believe that the visible and invisible world are intertwined. While slaves brought the voodoo tradition with them to the Americas, the religion tended to inspire fear and denigration among slave owners, who preferred that their slaves convert to Christianity. To their masters' dismay, slave Christianity incorporated African musical traditions and some aspects of voodoo.
African slaves often cooked both for themselves and for their masters. Along the way, they imparted African culinary techniques on Southern American cuisine. Stewing techniques were common in Africa, and they influenced American foods such as gumbo. In Africa, foods like fufu were popular but unavailable in America. Slaves improvised and created dishes like "turn meal and flour" and "hoecakes" as African-influenced substitutes. Slaves even left a mark on the English language, by contributing African words such as "okra."
- The Slave Rebellion: African Contributions to American Culture: Joseph E. Holloway, Ph.D.
- U.S. Department of the Interior: National Park Service: Ethnography Program: Africans in the Low Country
- PBS: Slavery and the Making of America: The Slave Experience: Education, Arts and Culture
- Huffington Post: What is Voodoo? Understanding a Misunderstood Religion
- U.S. History: 6g.: A New African-American Culture
- Deep South Magazine: The Real Roots of Southern Cuisine
- Jupiterimages/Stockbyte/Getty Images