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Slavery and the Making of AmericaPhoto of African-American children reading
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

The Slave Experience: Education, Arts, & Culture
Intro Historical Overview Character Spotlight Music in Slave Life Personal Narratives Original Docs
Historical Overview Education, Arts, & Culture
Education, Arts, & Culture
By: Kimberly Sambol-Tosco


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During the colonial and Antebellum periods, enslaved blacks pursued the right to express themselves using education, the arts, and craftsmanship against pragmatic, customary, and legal restrictions. From the earliest colonial settlements, folktales and fables circulated within slave communities in the South, reflecting the oral traditions of African societies and incorporating African symbolism and motifs. The rabbit, for example, was borrowed from African stories to represent the "trickster" in tales told by the enslaved. Folktales such as the popular Brer Rabbit adventures not only gave slaves a chance to create alternate realities in which they could experience revenge and other forbidden impulses, but they also imparted practical knowledge and survival and coping strategies to listeners.

Photo of an African Shereke
African Shereke. Andy Holiner & Alice Johnson, www.CommunityArtsAdvocates.org
Folktales were not the only form of cultural expression African slaves brought to America. Archaeological finds dated from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries demonstrate that slaves crafted objects in accordance with African traditions as well. Retention of African traditions were strongest during the early colonial period and in areas of high slave concentration, particularly large plantations in the South. Slaves manufactured drums, banjos, and rattles out of gourds similar to those found in Africa. Enslaved women in South Carolina made baskets using an African coiling method and in Georgia they plaited rugs and mats with African patterns.

Like the colorful quilts female slaves sewed for warmth, utilitarian objects such as baskets, rugs, bowls, and pipes were outlets for creative expression that enlivened the sober conditions of slave living quarters. Skilled male slaves brought artistic vision to their crafts as well.
Photo of a quilt using traditional African-American patterns
Quilt using traditional African-American patterns. "Slave Quilt Exhibition: Secret Codes in Slave Quilts." www.NSA.gov
Wrought iron gates and grilles, for example, provided a common form in which metal workers would display unique aesthetic sensibilities and sophisticated skill. Runaway advertisements hint at the great number of highly talented black craftsmen and artists, including blacksmiths, woodcutters, pressmen, and musicians of all types. On occasion, material culture could also become a mode of covert communication between slaves. Some scholars believe, for instance, that quilting patterns encoded directions for navigating the Underground Railroad.

During their limited leisure hours, particularly on Sundays and holidays, slaves engaged in singing and dancing. Though slaves used a variety of musical instruments, they also engaged in the practice of "patting juba" or the clapping of hands in a highly complex and rhythmic fashion.
Illustration of a couple dancing
A couple dancing. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
For slaves, music and dance held both secular and spiritual meaning, and talented black musicians and singers were praised by whites as well as other blacks. Although some slaveholders appreciated African-American music making and others allowed singing and dancing in the slave quarters for practical reasons, from the early colonial period on many whites were leery of the subversive potential of these activities. In 1739 South Carolina went so far as to prohibit the beating of drums for fear that their rhythms would be used to incite rebellions like the one that occurred in Stono earlier that year.

Despite such obstacles, slaves crafted a rich musical tradition that had enormous impact on the development of American music. In Northern and Southern American cities, black communities played a type of music from which ragtime later descended. On Southern plantations, the roots of gospel and blues were introduced in work songs and "field hollers" based on the musical forms and rhythms of Africa. Through singing, call and response, and hollering, slaves coordinated their labor, communicated with one another across adjacent fields, bolstered weary spirits, and commented on the oppressiveness of their masters. Meanwhile, another form of the "shout," influential in the development of jazz, was practiced within the context of praise and prayer. An African-inspired dance, the "ring shout" consisted of dancers singing, clapping, and moving in a circular fashion until reaching a state of spiritual ecstasy. Both the ring shout and spirituals expressed the joy and hope, pain and sorrow of the enslaved. Both also grew from a fusion of European and African culture. However, whereas the shout made Christianized an African mode of dance and song, spirituals were sometimes modified versions of songs circulating in the white, Christian community.

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