- Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links
When Alex Haley's Roots appeared in 1976 it set off a storm of excitement among African Americans about the possibilities of tracing their ancestry to a particular African homeland. The success of the television series based on the book, which attracted more viewers than any series up to that time, fanned the flames and spread an interest in African heritage beyond the African American community, inciting curiosity if not genuine concern. Of course, for every popular action there is an equally popular counter-action. While many enthusiastically embraced the notion that a personal search was plausible and useful, others were just as firm that the idea was misplaced and a waste of time. Africans were so mixed among themselves, so blended with Europeans, so lacking in reliable documentation, and so bereft of much worth remembering anyway, that it were better to focus on the future and to give little more than a perfunctory nod to the past. The television program, if not the book, did at least get people to consider that past—an Africa that contained sentient and feeling human beings and a grasping system of labor that sought to repress and dehumanize that population—but for most people the generalities were sufficient, and controversies that developed around the research of the book vitiated the case for those who desired to find their own ancestral village. Yet Roots marked a public recognition among black and white Americans that there was an African past, however one marked or defined it, and scholars, a few of whom had a long-standing interest, redoubled their efforts and tripled or quadrupled in number. Despite the significant number of academic books that have [End Page 116] appeared since that time, controversy still abounds over the level of specificity that can be approached in connecting Africa and America.
Gwendolyn Hall's book "challenges the still widely held belief among scholars as well as the general public that Africans so fragmented when they arrived in the Western Hemisphere that specific African regions and ethnicities had little influence on particular regions in the Americas." This assumption continues to exist despite the proliferation of studies that, in one way or another, argue the contrary. These range from books that seek a scientific link through use of blood types and gene pools (as, for example, William S. Pollitzer, The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, 1999), to those that posit occasionally romantic, even mystical, connections through various manifestations of culture and outlook (as some of the essays in Joseph E. Holloway, ed., Africanisms in American Culture, 1991). Simultaneously, there have been a number of historical, anthropological, and archeological monographs that seek to document this background by careful archival research and fieldwork. The task has been immensely eased by the appearance of two important databases available on CD-ROM : David Eltis, et al., The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (1999) and Hall's own Louisiana Slave Database, 1719–1820 (2000). These search engines make it possible, in one case, to follow slave ships from an African region to an American one, and, in the other, to go from an American region to an African one using the self-identification of slaves. Hall argues that the French were more solicitous about recording the ethnic origin of their bound African labor over a longer period of time than other European groups, and much of what they recorded came from the Africans themselves. The English were least concerned and, in contrast to the prevailing situation in, say, Virginia or South Carolina, the longer an African remained in early Louisiana, the more likely his ethnicity was to be identified.
The subject is of unusual interest because it lies at the intersection of a public and an academic concern and because it has a political component. African Americans began a widespread embrace of their African heritage and of their "black" complexion in the 1960s as an offshoot of the Civil Rights Movement, and while the...