African-American Slave Art the African-American Experience Thesis

Pages: 5 (1585 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Black Studies

African-American Slave Art

The African-American experience is different from any other because of how Africans were introduced to America. Diaspora encouraged a tight bond between family members and friends. African-American heritage is one that is close to the heart because, in many situations, what existed a slave's heart and soul was the only thing that kept him or her going. Art has always been a representation of something - for enslaved African-Americans, art became of form of expressionism, hope, history, and therapy. From ordinary tools to literature, African-American art represents an era of struggle and survival.

Oral traditions go back as far as Africans do. While it might have been frowned upon in America, the tradition can be continued with songs and story telling. These stories and songs became specific to the African-American experience and they tell us so much about the endurance of slaves. Songs were used as tools of education as well as entertainment because reading was discouraged. Songs were not always sad as one might guess. While some songs told tales of agony and oppression, many were songs of hope that obviously lifted the soul in difficult times. We can learn about the tenacity of the human soul thought some of these songs. For example, one song asks, "didn't my Lord deliver Daniel... And why not every man." 1

Similar songs of freedom might have been the only hope that slaves could cling to when their lives seemed the darkest. How African-Americans sang is also significant because dance is very much a tradition that lives today.

While African-Americans might have adopted some of the white man's religion, this does not mean they abandoned their own. They simply merged the two. Many slaves became Christians but they did not adopt the belief that dancing was sinful. A typical African-American dance that could be seen during the times of slavery is commonly referred to as "ringshouting." 2 in this dance several people would stand in a circle and stomp their feet while others would walk around the ring, "singing in unison." 3

Bailey even asserts that modern dancing, such as the Charleston derived from this form of dancing. While dancing might not seem an important aspect of life today, we must remember that African-Americans did not have televisions, radios, or any other form of entertainment. Dancing was not just "something to do," it was a form of expression and communication; it was also a way to bond with others of the same mind. Musical artifacts from that era prove that art does emerge from even the worst scenarios. Norton claims that slaves would make musical instruments with "carved motifs that resembled some African stringed instruments." It is also clear that slaves drew from their African heritage for the drumming and dancing. Their dancing was something that amazed many whites. Norton reports that a ritual dance included a "ring of singers" 4 that sang a "melodious chant, which gradually increases in strength, and in noise, until it fairly shakes the house, and it can be heard for a long distance." 5 as African-Americans became acclimated to America, they began to find other forms of art.

Artists craft with what tools they have available to them. For African-Americans in slave America, tools were scarce but this did not prevent slaves from expressing art in some form or another. Rodriguez claims "art is best understood within the context of the material culture of slaves -- the physical items that they created and used as part of their daily existence" (Rodriguez). Constructing "things" might have been difficult because African-Americans had so little. Bailey notes that slaves often "forged a common culture and finding a psychological weapon with which to resist their masters and preserve their dignity" 6 as a means of retaining what culture they could remember. While slaves were often overworked and had very little to call their own, a "vibrant culture flowered" 7 among them. They might not have had time to craft trinkets for a shadowbox but they have a need for tools and this became an outlet for their creativity. Tools needed for daily chores were crafted with originality. Richard Powell observes:

Several wrought-iron figures, dozens of ceramic face vessels, and a few examples of domestic architecture found among enslaved black communities in the southern United States have been singled out for their similarities with comparable crafts, functional objects, and structures in West and Central Africa. 8

Tools became more than tools because of their cultural significance. Rodriguez maintains, "A slave might fashion a calabash into a dipper for drinking water, but the intricate carvings or painted images that are attached to the simple item make it a more valued item" 9(Rodriguez). He adds, "art objects play an essential role in passing from generation to generation the learned heritage of the past... It was the only certainty that they knew. It was the responsibility of the artisan to pass the traditions and styles on to others and not to let the forms die, regardless of the circumstances in which the artisan might find himself" 10(Rodriguez). Here we see how art became significant as a means of survival because that was a language that African-American understood. Their tools, their songs, and their stories all demonstrate how they are survivors.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating art form to emerge from times of slavery is writing. Slaves were not taught to write. In fact, they many were punished if they were caught trying to read or write. Perhaps one of the most prominent writers known during this time is Frederick Douglass. A slave, Douglass served as an example for everyone because he learned to read and write and did not give up on his quest for freedom.

Douglass' narrative exposes the horrors of slavery. James Levernier claims there are many reasons why the piece has survived, adding, "Unlike many of the other works of its kind, the Douglass Narrative... was written by Douglass himself, without the assistance of an editor or ghostwriter. As such, the Narrative possesses the genuine force of eyewitness conviction that was often lost in similar accounts." 11 This fact about the book adds to the plight of slaves everywhere. Douglass fought against everything everyone tried to tell him. Living with the Auld's was seen as an act of God that put Douglass on the right track. Mrs. Auld began teaching him to read. While her husband forbade her to continue, this experience shined a small light upon Douglass' dream of becoming free. He could not turn of the desire that filled him and Mrs. Auld "gave him the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell." 12 Douglass did learn to red and he used that as a way to gain freedom not just for himself but also for his fellow slaves. After finding freedom in New York, Douglass found other abolitionists and there he discovered the Liberator, an anti-slavery newspaper that inspired him to spread the word of freedom. He writes that he "got a pretty correct idea of the principles, measures, and spirit of the anti-slavery reform." 11 Douglass went to meetings and pleaded for the "cause of my brethren." 13 His story is one that reveals the greatest effort of art in that it gave its creator a way to express himself and it provided those that were exposed to this art a sense of empowerment.

The art from the days of slavery does not need to be depressing or somber. When we look at just a few of the pieces from this era in American history, we see how art is more uplifting than anything else is. Art serves more than one purpose and when we look at songs, tools, dance movements, and literature from this time period, we see… [END OF PREVIEW]

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