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African American Roots

map of Africa 1500In 1619, twenty black people landed by boat at Jamestown, in the British colony of Virginia. A Dutch captain had brought them from Africa and exchanged them with the English colonists for supplies, food and water. This arrival marked a momentous event in American history. People from three different continents now occupied a tiny sliver of land in North America and their paths would be forever intertwined. Many questions still remain about these first Black slaves brought to America. We do not know their sex, where in Africa they were  from, or even their legal status. We do know however, that these first Black Americans brought with them pieces of their history and culture.

In the 1600s Africans were not the only slaves or indentured servants. Many poor Englishmen arrived as indentured servants, They traded several years of free labor in exchange for their passage, and it appears many of the early Africans were given this same option. Native Americans were also treated lowly and often made to work for white families in the colonies. The main difference with the African slaves was that they were brought here against there will. 

In the beginning some Africans could legally raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom. They raised families, marrying other Africans and sometimes intermarrying with Native Americans or English settlers. By the 1640s and 1650s, several African families owned farms around Jamestown and some became wealthy by colonial standards. As the 17th century wore on, though African immigrants were legally defined as chatted and denied basic rights.

For the first 100 years after Africans had been brought to Jamestown, African born people dominated the emerging slave society in British colonial America. But by the mid 18th century, American born blacks were forging a new culture, one that combined the African heritage of their ancestors with the new World in which they were born. By the 1760s these "new' people had laid the foundation of black America.

As much as 33 percent of the slave population came from West Africa.  The majority of the ancestors of African Americans, it seems, came from a part of Africa bounded by the river Senegal in the North and by Angola in the South. The area of catchment, the known area from which the slaves were taken, extended along the West African coastal line from Senegal to Angola and perhaps as far as 500 miles into the interior.  That area included a variety of ethnic groups. 

Africans sold to North America came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.  About 25 percent came from ethnic groups such as the Bakongo, the Tio, and the Mbundu, groups from the Congo-Angola region.  About 23 percent came from the Yoruba, the Fon, the Nupe, and the Ibo, ethnic groups from an area from the Benin River to Cape Lopez, now contemporary Nigeria, Toga, and Gabon.   About 16 percent came from the Alkans, who inhabited the Gold Coast, now contemporary Ghana.  The Wolof, the Fulbe, and the Serer, Senegambian captives, made up about 13 percent.  Another six percent of captives came from Sierra Leone, four percent from the Blight of Benin, and less than two percent from Mozambique and Madagascar. 

Africans used a variety of insturments for musicWest Africans neither viewed themselves as a single people nor shared a universal religion. In each area of Africa, there was cultural expression in song, instrumental music, dance art and literature. Singing often took the form of chants, festive tunes, lullabies and sacred songs. Traditional African musical instruments included the flute, harp, violin and guitar. Dancing was a part of religion, recreation and some rituals. Because of the many languages found in West Africa, even in a single empire, writing was limited and most writings found today are in Arabic. Instead of written books most information was shared orally in West Africa during the 1500's-1700's. Literary forms such as myths, fables, and legends told from generation to generation flourished. As early as the fourteenth century, the Griot, a professional storyteller appeared. This elder usually collected and recited tales for a living.

In art utilitarian, ceremonial, and religious themes were prevalent. Cookware, eating utensils, latches and pulleys were often decorated. Carvers produced masks, dolls and statuettes. African art was often non representational, distorting natural shapes, such as the human figure, with marvelous plasticity achieving a truer artistic reality.

Many of the  African slaves obtained by Europeans were sold or traded by other Africans for clothing, rum, weapons, or supplies. Guns were a precious commodity between neighboring African tribes at war with each other. Other black slaves were captured by traders on the continent, pirated from ships,, or kidnapped elsewhere, including Europe.

The Euro-American slave trade continued into the 1800's. Although the exact number of enslaved Africans is unknown, the most reliable estimates range from ten million to twenty million blacks. Between 400,000 and 1,200,000 of this total arrived in North America.

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