A professor of African American history once said, “The trauma of slavery stripped Africans of their culture and left them submissive and pliable. Thus black American culture is wholly derived from the experiences of slaves in America.” There is a problem at the very core of this thesis statement: It contains no concessions. Very few arguments can make such an absolute generalization and remain completely valid. One could easily argue that black American culture is partially derived from the slave-experience of their ancestors, but not wholly. So instead of wasting time attempting to prove a haughty, over-generalized thesis statement wrong, let us explore this concession, this partial cultural change. After all, it was not only the African culture that changed; the slaves boldly clung to their native languages, arts, and lifestyles. It was the European culture as well. The impact African culture had on colonial America proves on its own that the slaves, as a whole, did not submissively drop their culture when faced with slavery.
Without communication there is no culture. The slaves were careful to hold tightly to their native languages. While being held at the prisons on the coast, the slaves sought out others of their own tongue and culture, binding together to keep their memories and cultures strong inside their hearts. Later, during their journey on the Middle Passage, they created their own means of communicating with those who spokes different languages, by fitting together words familiar to both parties. When at last they arrived on plantations, they mixed English with the languages they already knew to effectively speak to their owners and each other. In his book Passageways: An Interpretive History of Black America Colin Palmer states that though “their ideas, hopes, dreams, and fears were being articulated in the language of their oppressors [. . .] [i]t is quite clear that the Africans, despite their grammatical difficulties, were able to retain for a time their languages” (42, 44). Ideas, hopes, dreams, and such human feelings, expressed in any language, are always the same; they did not lose these, even as they picked up on English words, and they did not lose their own verbal identity. This remains true in a new generation of slaves, as well. The slave’s children’s “speech patterns reflected the circumstances of their American birth and their African linguistic heritage as well” (Palmer, 44). It is obvious that this distinctly African style of communication survives longer than their slavery itself: Gullah, English words spoken with African sentence patterns, exists to this day in America.
Furthermore, British colonists of the 18th century, who were still forming a culture of their own, captured some African words in the net of their own vocabulary. Words such as “tote” and “sassy” are still used regularly.
Slaves carried more than just their language to America. Their hearts beat to the music of their homeland. Though in many cases slaves did not have access to the instruments used in Africa, they brought European instruments alive with the songs of their culture. The fact that musical slaves were prized in America shows that the colonists were moved by their songs. The music of a man’s youth remains in his heart forever; slaves used their melodies to inspire each other in the evenings after work was done as well as in slave-churches later on. They did not forget the power of their musical culture.
Above all, however, the slaves’ firm, if slightly subtle, resistance to their own bondage kept colonists consistently altering their own lives and laws to keep the institution under control. It is clear that the slaves were not passive or submissive. They burned outhouses and crops, mutilated themselves to lower their own monetary value, and ran away from work to visit friends. The colonists had to continuously alter their laws to legally restrict slaves from the small acts of resistance they habitually carried out. This shows not only the rebellious – yes, far from pliable – nature of much of the slave population, but also the large impact slave ideals had on colonial culture and life.
The slaves impacted American culture with African ideals in many ways. Porches, introduced to colonists through slaves who added them to their house, showed remnants of African culture in colonial America. European instruments played African folk songs; European tongues uttered African words. Today the effects are still evident in our own language, music, architecture, and fashion. The slaves certainly did not forget their African roots, they merely imbedded them in new soil.