The Gifts of Africans


Slaves planting tobacco by Ann O’Hanlon


The African gift to the world was culture itself. Archaeologists indicate that civilization began in the great river valleys of Africa and Asia.

For some 600,000 years Africans and Asians led the world... Blacks or people who would be considered black today were among the first people to use tools, paint pictures, plant seeds, and worship gods.

In the beginning, then, and for a long time afterwards, black people marched in the front ranks of the emerging human procession. They found empires and states. They made some of the critical discoveries and contributions that led to the modern world.

-Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 5


The founders and creators of civilization were bound into servitude with little compunction on the part of European “civilization” because they were an uncivilized and inferior race by European standards. Even if this mythology was invented to justify the colonizers’ economic needs for a strong laboring class that would facilitate the expansion of empires, the myth would endure and form the racist basis of white superiority.

W.E.D. DuBois confronts the myth of white cultural superiority by listing the cultural gifts Africans brought to America two hundred years before the Mayflower even landed.

Your country?  How came it yours?  Before the Pilgrim landed we were here.  Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the spirit.

-Quoted in Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 29


These three gifts then, story and song, labor, and the gift of the spirit, came from a people who were branded, ‘buked, flogged, raped; whose children were torn from their mothers; who were castrated and hanged if they resisted; and who, in the twentieth century, were attacked by police dogs, clubbed, hosed, imprisoned, and beaten to death. 


Story and Song

Slaves sang in the hissing fields to lighten the burden to toil from sunup to sundown, sang spirituals that told the burden of their suffering, sang in chain gangs breaking rocks under the guns of Southern prison guards, sang in swamps and backwoods.  No sorrow was sufficient to stop their singing.

Music was everywhere and it was grounded in two techniques which survived in the “new world”: polyrhythmic percussive technique and the call-and-response pattern (leader and chorus alternating).  The poetry of tom-toms, the symphonies of synchronized bodies: these ebbed and flowed with the rhythm of life.  Men and women danced because dancing had a social and religious meaning and because dancing was meaning, was life itself.  This attitude came to America too.

-Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 5


Story is the basis of African American aesthetic expression.  Oral tradition remembers the beloved culture, the people’s suffering and their resistance to their colonizers.  Such an aesthetic is grounded in the community and is accountable, not to the art/literary world, but one’s people  For the African American, story addresses the concerns of people; the literary character’s journey is immersed in the people’s struggle.  Western aesthetic does not require this accountability, rather the opposite.  The hero or anti-hero is distinctive because he or she achieves independence from the family, the community.  The character’s personhood (usually manhood) is achieved through separation from the crowd or from constraints.

The song and story the Africans gave America was communal and integral to the life of the people. “Art and aesthetic expression were collective experiences in which all the people participated.  Art, in short, was not for art’s sake, but for life’s sake (Bennett, 25).

Story is a crucible which reinvents culture for each generation.  Each village in the Caribbean had its storyteller carrying on the African tradition of story and myth-making.  In Guyana, children gathered beneath the silk cotton tree where the storyteller “would chant poem hymns to accompaniment of drums, repeating stanzas over and over until his head felt light as air and his body became a house of dreams; then the tales would unravel themselves” (Carew), 121).

It was the storyteller who conveyed the folk archetype myths from East and Central Africa that became part of the slave mythology of the Americas.  The stories of Brer Rabbit and B’ra Anancy in the Caribbean islands were tales of resistance and strategic cunning in impossible situations.

Bree Rabbit and Freedom

Tar-baby is an archetypal symbol of the oppressed--black and indestructible, endowed with he strength and powers of resistance of both male and female. Its tormentors were themselves worn out raining blows upon its head and in the end the aggressor becomes the victim. Tar is black, plastic, capable of being poured into any mold; the harder it becomes, the more vulnerable it is, the more easily it can be pounded into dust; its strength lies in appearing to be soft and yielding. For the slave the rabbit was a communal creature, swift, fragile, cunning, its habit of procreation legendary. It had survived down the ages when stronger and more ferocious enemies had in their pride rushed into extinction. The rabbit, too, was gentle, loyal, loving. Although each warren was fortress unto itself, it lived and survived in groups.

For slaves anxious to conceal their persistent longing for freedom, the animal story was a perfect vehicle. To those unschooled in the subtleties of an oral tradition in which speech inflections, facial expression, gestures and the infinite variety of feelings that weave themselves in and out of the storyteller's narrative, animal stories could easily be dismissed as infantile, but because of this, political, historical and cultural messages could be more safely woven into a seemingly amusing or innocuous story. the storyteller could also implant in every tale the idea of the moral right of the weak to struggle against the mighty by any means necessary.

-Jan Carew, Fulcrums of Change, 84-85


The black gift of labor was the gift of wealth to other nations—a gift all but invisible.  While the Incan Indians of Potosi transmuted the world economy, African labor and agricultural skills built Caribbean and North American Empires.  There could have been no agricultural economies without slaves to work the lands of the “new world.”  And land was the basis of power.  When that human labor source was withdrawn, as happened with the slave revolts in the Caribbean, the European world economic order was threatened and altered.  Moreover, the slave revolts contributed to the “movement for freedom, equality, and democracy, while they foreshadowed the movement against capitalism itself…the results…formed part of the political opposition to European capitalism” (Genovese, 84).


And my special geography too; the world map made for my own use, not tinted with the arbitrary colors of scholars, but with the geometry of my spilled blood.

-Aime Cesaire, Collected Poetry, 77

To Love the Land

Marko, a Grenadian farmer, describes the human labor from “breast to death” that sustained the land and people as they toiled for colonizers from generation to generation, and how his “heart humped” when the young Grenadian, Maurice Bishop, came to power. The old farmer’s hopes were pinned on the new government, which successfully initiated land reform and an educational and health care system geared to the needs of the Grenadian peasants. Sadly, Marko’s reflections preceded the United States’ invasion of Grenada, resulting in the death of Bishop and his entire government cabinet.

Ah can’t tell you how long we wrestled with these hills and valleys from breast to death... this land makes you old before your time, grey hairs your life while you’re still young... and if it’s not one thing it’s the other—hurricane, landlords, drought, flood—farmers are going to have to make a better living or this country will die. This is a country of youths, and yet the age of the average farmer is fifty-five... part of it is that before you can buy enough land to make a living you’re too old to work it well... but all that is changing. The morning after Fairy fell, I heard Brother Bishop say, “This is a revolution for land, for jobs, for liberty,” and I felt my  old heart jump... This time, me, and all the farmers around, those with land and those without, are part of the settlement... we will take over the land from those who owned it since long time past days, and who used it so badly... Anyway, only He who created the land got a right to own it, land is for all of we...

-Jan Carew, Fulcrums of Change, 158


As for the gift of the spirit, never before in the history of the United States did a movement of such spiritual force confront the moral contradictions of the white world than did the Civil Rights movement.Singing through that struggle with its beating and bombings, clapping and dancing to a God who would deliver the people from the “Pharaohs” of this land, the spirit of black people revealed, and some would say redeemed, the diseased soul of a nation. That eruption of spirit was not the genius of a charismatic minister named Martin Luther King, Jr. He was only one voice that remembered with his people the moral resistance they’d continued from Africa to plantation cabins, from farm shacks to storefront churches.

It would be hard to name popular music forms that remain separate from or unaffected by this spirit. Negro spiritual inspired blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, much of folk music, and currently, rap.

Civil Rights March

…l’ouverture / Dessalines on horseback /

You will ride back thru here / invoke those

Same spirits you called on at the citadel /

There are half-naked women sleeping at

Your fee / children begging under yr

Bridled stallions / what 3 horses would

Balk at / one black man carries on his

Back / his sweat falls into the streams of 


Where are you  now

Haiti’s in need….

-Ntozake Shange, A Daughter’s Geography, 34

The Gift of Resistance

Maroons contributed not only a fighting spirit, but also a demonstration of the power of resistance. Historian Eugene Genovese argues that the maroon establishments, such as Palmares in Brazil, sought to reconstruct the communal traditions of Africa but failed to overthrow the colonial powers that continued to hold other blacks in slavery. The desire of runaway slave communities to restore traditional ways limited their political and/or economic impact. Even so, “however traditional or backward-looking the world of the Palmarinos, every blow they struck at the Dutch and the Portuguese forced some slight alteration in the course of European capitalism” (Genovese, 84). The San Domingo revolution, led y Touissant l’Ouverent, however, provided the world with a revolution which led to a modern black nation capable of export trade and entrance into the world market.

The great revolution marked the turning point in the history of salve revolts in the “new world.”  The people of San Domingo successively humiliated the Spanish, British, and French and inflicted wom of the heaviest losses those supreme imperialists ever suffered... W.E.B. Du Bois argued that the revolution in San Domingo enormously strengthened the anti-slave movement in England and prepared the way for its flowering in America; that it ended Napoleon’s dream of American empire and led him to the sale of Louisiana, which doubled the size of the United States; and that it influenced, perhaps decisively, the decision of the Southern states to close the African slave trade... Haiti stirred the slaves and free Negroes to rebellion under a modern ideology  that posed a new and more dangerous threat to the old regimes that anything else previously encountered... The revolution in San Domingo propelled a revolution in black consciousness throughout  the “new world.”

-Eugene Genovese, From Rebellion to Revolution, 87, 93, 96


That revolution in black consciousness which has sparked slave revolts and uprisings in South Africa, Algeria, the Frontline nations of Africa, and the Civil Rights movement in the United States remains an every-present dangerous memory that could ignite and burn away the economic and political cages that enslave the black world.

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