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THEMATIC ESSAYS

Gimme De Knee Bone Bent
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Thanks to recent research, we can be even more specific. Sullivan's Island in Charleston Harbor, where enslaved Africans were quarantined before their sale to Carolina planters, has been called "the Ellis Island of black America," since no single port of entry saw a larger influx of African peoples. Records show that many of the new arrivals came from the Angola region, during the colony's formative years. As a result, the Bakongo culture of the Congo River area was well represented in South Carolina's early African-American majority, as evidenced by similar ideas about death, and specific burial practices and graveyard decorations, on both sides of the Atlantic.

If the spoken language of the Sea Islands retained much from West Africa, so did the body language, and the characteristic ring shouts, which became known throughout much of black America, had their greatest visibility in the Low Country. And just as Bakongo beliefs in "honoring the ancestors" had an effect on burial customs in the Carolinas, so too did the angular movements that characterize West African dance generally and Bakongo styles in particular emerge and persist in the dance motions of the Sea Islands.

For example, one slave song that endured in the Gullah dialect exhorted dancers to "Gimme de knee bone bent." White masters probably heard this line as a compliant acceptance of the need for a Christian posture of prayer. But slaves themselves no doubt understood the phrase more fully as clear reinforcement of their own ancestors' values. Many West Africans believed that straightened knees, hips, and elbows epitomized death and rigidity, while flexed joints embodied energy and life. The bent knee bone symbolized the ability to "get down."

If Africans and Europeans had trouble understanding one another's spoken languages and chosen beliefs, they had difficulty comprehending dissonant body languages as well. Historical white descriptions of African Americans dancing, whether in pictures or print, were full of incomprehension and the derision that often accompanies misunderstanding. But it is possible to pinpoint some of the elements that intrigued non-African onlookers, often repelling and attracting them at the same time. Just as African-American music presented distinctive scales, rhythms, and instruments, which white society would reject and mock, then imitate and absorb, so too did black body language suffuse the wider society in stages.

The Old Plantation.
Dance on the plantation.
Much of this can be illustrated through images. Consider the rare watercolor of THE OLD PLANTATION, painted in South Carolina in the late-18th century. The African musical heritage of these first- and second-generation slaves is clear in the use of a gourd-bodied banjo. (About this time Thomas Jefferson commented of blacks, "The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.") And the dance movements are as African as the music, with ankles, knees, hips, and elbows all sharply bent.

If this watercolor illustrates the survival of African dance movements in the early South, a wood engraving made two generations later by the famous New England artist Winslow Homer captures a crucial moment of transition. A BIVOUAC FIRE ON THE POTOMAC appeared in HARPER'S WEEKLY in December 1861, nine months after the shelling of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and soon after slaves began risking their lives to escape to Union lines, seeking protection under the ruling that they were legal "contraband" in wartime.

The northern public, for the most part, greeted this initial glimpse of the black plantation world with interest and fascination. A NEW YORK TIMES correspondent who had accompanied Union forces to Port Royal, South Carolina told of Sea Island contrabands "dancing and singing around fires" to celebrate their deliverance. And a young minister sent to aid refugees at Fortress Monroe in Virginia wrote back to New York about a spiritual that he had heard one evening among the contraband tents. His transcription of "Go Down, Moses" was soon published and popularized as the "Song of the Contrabands."

Photo: Courtesy of the Joe Nash Collection.

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