From the moment of capture, through the treacherous middle passage, after the final sale and throughout life in North America, the experience of enslaved Africans who first arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, some 400 years ago, was characterized by loss, terror and abuse.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 made it illegal to buy and sell people in British colonies, but in the independent United States slavery remained a prominent – and legal – practice until December 1865. From this tragic backdrop one of the most poignant American musical genres, the Negro spiritual, was birthed.
Sometimes called slave songs, jubilees and sorrow songs, spirituals were created out of, and spoke directly to, the black experience in America prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, that declared all slaves free.
West African roots
Spirituals have been a part of my life from childhood. In small churches in Virginia and North Carolina, we sang the songs of our ancestors, drawing strength and hope. I went on to study, perform and teach the spiritual for over 40 years to people across the U.S. and in various parts of the world.
Despite attempts, white slave-owners could not strip Africans of their culture. Even with a new language, English, and without familiar instruments, the enslaved people turned the peculiarities of African musical expressions into the African American sound.
Rhythms were complex and marked by syncopation, an accent on the weak beat. Call-and-response, a technique rooted in sub-Saharan West African culture, was frequently employed in spirituals. Call-and-response is very much like a conversation – the leader makes a statement or asks a question and others answer or expound.
An example of this is the spiritual, Certainly Lord. The leader excitedly queries, “Have you got good religion?” and others jubilantly respond, “Certainly, Lord.” Using repetition and improvisation, the conversation continues to build until everyone exclaims, “certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”
In Africa, drums were used to communicate from village to village because they could be used to mimic the inflection of voices.
As early as 1739 in the British colonies, drums were prohibited by law and characterized as weapons in an attempt to prevent slaves from building community and inciting rebellion.
As a result, enslaved people “played” drum patterns on the body. Hands clapped, feet stomped, bodies swayed and mouths provided sophisticated rhythmic patterns. This can be observed in Hambone, an example of improvised body music.
Some spirituals were derived from African melodies. Others were “new,” freely composed songs with a melodic phrase borrowed from here and a rhythmic pattern from there – all combined to create an highly improvised form.
The spiritual was deeply rooted in the oral tradition and often created spontaneously, one person starting a tune and another joining until a new song was added to the community repertoire. The sophisticated result was beautifully described in 1862 by Philadelphia musicologist and piano teacher Lucy McKim Garrison.
“It is difficult to express the entire character of these negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs,” she said. “The odd turns made in the throat; the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost as impossible to place on score.”
Textually, the spiritual drew from the Hebrew-Christian Bible, particularly the Old Testament, with its stories of deliverance and liberation. Songs like “Go Down Moses” direct the awaited deliverer to “go down” to Southern plantations and “tell ole Pharaoh” – the masters – to “let my people go.”
Songs of survival
For the slaves, the spiritual proved to be an ingenious tool used to counter senseless brutality and the denial of personhood. In order to survive emotionally, resilience was critical. In the spirituals, slaves sang out their struggle, weariness, loneliness, sorrow, hope and determination for a new and better life.
Yet these are not songs of anger. They are songs of survival that voice an unwavering belief in their own humanity and attest to an abiding faith in the ultimate triumph of good over systemic evil.
Interspersed within these seemingly hopeless texts are phrases that reflect the heart’s hope: the words “true believer” amid the acknowledgment that “sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” for example; and “glory, hallelujah” interjected after the text, “nobody knows the trouble I see.”
People whose every movement was dictated audaciously declared, “I’ve got shoes. You’ve got shoes. All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven.” In the same song they denounced the hypocrisy of the slaveholders’ religion: “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t going there.”
Spirituals weren’t simply religious music. In his seminal work, “Narrative Of The Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave,” published in 1845, the abolitionist explains,
“they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”
The spiritual served as a mediator between the dissonance of oppression and the belief that there was “a bright side somewhere.”
Four hundred years after the birth of slavery, as the world still struggles with racial division, injustice and a sense of hopelessness, spirituals can teach how to build hope in the face of despair and challenge the status quo.
“We may call ourselves African Americans but we are truly disconnected from Africa. I say WE because I’m not excluded! I thought ‘my people’ came from South Carolina … but this heritage was only a small part of my people’s journey that began in Ghana, a place that had kings well before Europe had theirs.”
These were the words of American actor and director Michael Jai White, who visited Ghana towards the end of 2018.
He and over 40 African diasporan celebrities took part in “The Full Circle Festival”, designed to attract visitors to Ghana. The list included Idris Elba, Boris Kodjoe, Naomi Campbell, Anthony Anderson, and Adrienne-Joi Johnson. During the visit, Akwamuhene Odeneho Kwafo Akoto III, the Akwamu Paramount Chief, enstooled White as Chief “Oduapong” meaning “Tree with strong roots that does not fear the storm”.
The Ghana government invited the celebrities as part of the “Year of Return, Ghana 2019”. The initiative involves a year-long series of activities. These include visits to heritage sites, healing ceremonies, theatre, and musical performances, lectures, investment forums, and relocation conferences. The aim is to promote Ghana as a tourist destination and investment opportunity.
This year marks the 400-year anniversary of the first enslaved Africans’ arrival in Jamestown in the US. The Year of Return represents an effort to “unite Africans on the continent with their brothers and sisters in the diaspora”.
In support, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo said:
We know of the extraordinary achievements and contributions (Africans in the diaspora) made to the lives of the Americans, and it is important that this symbolic year – 400 years later – we commemorate their existence and their sacrifices.
In commemoration, numerous visitors are traveling to Ghana. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will also conduct the Jamestown (Virginia, US) to Jamestown (Accra, Ghana) Memorial Trip.
Ghana is number 4 on CNN Travel’s 19 best places to visit in 2019.
African diasporans as “returnees” dates back to Ghana’s immediate post-independence period. Shortly after independence in 1957, President Kwame Nkrumah invited many well-known African diasporans to assist with nation-building. These included Julian Bond, Martin Luther King Jr., George Padmore, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Leslie Lacy, Muhammad Ali, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
In the 1990s, President Jerry Rawlings initiated heritage tourism based on the transatlantic slave trade and Pan-Africanism. Ghana’s coastal forts and castles became integral to heritage, tourism and development strategies. Events included the Pan African Festival of Theatre and Arts (PANAFEST) and Emancipation Day. All were dedicated to the promotion of Pan-Africanism and attracted African diasporans, notably African Americans.
As part of the nation’s 50th independence in 2007, President John Kufour partnered with the Discovery Channel and launched “Ghana – The Presidential Tour”. He introduced “The Joseph Project” that targeted middle-class, Christian African-Americans.
The forts and castles remained center stage. Additional plans included the development of commemoration gardens, DNA projects, and sponsored tours. It also involved developing an interfaith center at Assin Manso, where captive Africans had their last bath before being transported onto the slave ships.
President John Atta Mills continued with heritage tourism as a means of development. In 2009, the most high-profile African diasporan tourist and pilgrim, US President Barack Obama, visited Cape Coast Castle.
In 2015, President John Mahama sought assistance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for the forts and castles, and further development of heritage tourism.
Over the years, successive governments have also offered opportunities such as granting citizenship, dual nationality status, tax exemptions, and land grants to diasporans to encourage returnees.
Since Alex Haley’s 1980s popular novel and television series, Roots, African diasporans engaging in “heritage tourism”, “roots tourism” or “pilgrimage”, travel to Africa as tourists and pilgrims. This blurs the distinctions between travel, tourism, and pilgrimage.
African diasporans visit the forts and castles as the material embodiment of death, violence, and subjugation during the transatlantic slave trade. They are the sites where captive Africans forcibly departed the continent to be trafficked through the Middle Passage and enslaved in the New World. Interpretations over the histories told at these sites are frequently contested.
Diasporans also visit other sites such as Manyhia Palace in Asante that represent the glorification of an African regal past.
In 2018, Ghana secured $40 million from the World Bank to develop heritage tourism. It is hoped this will stimulate economic development.
Yet, ongoing debates view heritage, tourism, and development in various ways. Some view it as exploitative and destructive, replicating and perpetuating colonial forms of domination and structural underdevelopment. Others view it positively. A few remain ambivalent.
An act of reclamation
The Year of Return 2019 remains deeply embedded within a capitalist culture that engages with a complex set of practices, discourses, and meanings.
Commercialization of the “return” requires the saleability of the history of the transatlantic slave trade for African diasporan consumption.
Herein lies a painful irony: the commodification of heritage directed at African diasporans is based on a system that was once the commodification of people, through the transatlantic slave trade.
Descendants of the enslaved of the past are the heritage tourists and/or pilgrims in the present.
Still, constructions of Africa have always been central to African diasporic imaginaries. White’s comments resonate for many African diasporans. For many diasporans, the “return” symbolises an act of heritage reclamation. Africa is viewed as the motherland. It is considered a source of black resistance, pride and dignity.
For Africans and African diasporans such as White, knowing heritage pasts are important. But it remains to be seen how this will translate into critical and sustained engagement to realise the potentials for transforming heritage futures.