- Kongo across the Waters ed. by Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee
“See that host all dressed in white. God’s a-going to trouble the water. The Leader looks like the Israelite. God’s a-going to trouble the water.” Like most slave spirituals, “Wade in the Water” reflects one way in which Americans of African descent drew on African and European traditions to reinvent themselves in the New World. On one level, the song makes use of Christian religious beliefs. Identifying with the Old Testament Exodus story, African American slaves imagined themselves as modern-day Israelites. They also drew on the New Testament for inspiration. In the chorus of the song, for example, they invoked John 5:4 in which a blessed stream cured all who entered. On another level, “Wade in the Water” reflects African traditions. Among most West African cultures, water symbolizes purification, transformation, and healing. In Kongo across the Waters, Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, and Hein Vanhee highlight the contribution West Central Africans made to the development of African American culture in the United States.
A companion to the traveling exhibition of the same name in which the University of Florida’s Harn Museum collaborated with the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, Kongo reveals a compelling story about what survived the tragic middle passage. Divided into three parts, the book explores the precolonial history of the Kongo people of modern-day Angola and the Congo republics, the artistic culture of those taken from that region and brought to early America, and the continuation of Kongo traditions in contemporary African American art. As early as the fifteenth century, John K. Thornton and Linda Heywood explain, Africans in the West Central region had created a complex creole civilization that adopted Portuguese Christianity in part (17–22). In the belief in a Supreme deity (Nzambi Kalunga), the meditating role of prophets and diviners (ngunza), nature spirits (bisimbi), and a didactic afterlife (mpemba), West Central [End Page 393] Africans founded common ground with their foreign European counterparts. But with this exchange of ideas came trade, as John Janzen and Wyatt MacGaffey’s contributions demonstrate, and eventually with growing trade conflict, war, and ultimately slavery (132–41; 172–79). Drawing from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database and other archival sources on both sides of the Atlantic, Kongo across the Waters reveals that almost one-fourth of all Africans brought to America were taken from West Central Africa (3). Because the people in that part of the continent were largely homogeneous—linguistically, ethnically, and culturally—West Central Africans were able to maintain several traditions that became the source of many African American traditions in the United States. From conjure bags to pottery to gumbo to basket-making to the shimmy dance to yard décor, Kathryn Deeley, Christopher Fennell, Birgit Ricquier, Jason Young, Dale Rosengarten, Freddi Williams Evans, Grey Gundaker, and others discover traces of Kongo in nineteenth-and twentieth-century America (240–44; 229–37; 262; 266; 271; 274–83; 300–07). Through the contemporary art work of Renée Stout, Radcliffe Bailey, and Edouard Duval-Carrié, Kongo across the Waters reveals other examples of how Kongo beliefs and traditions shaped and continue influence the behavior of Americans of African descent in the U. S. (370–89).
While Cooksey, Poynor, and Vanhee have compiled a visually rich and intellectually stimulating account wherein West Central Africans played a pivotal part in the development of African American life in the United States, Kongo overlooks the eighteenth century. Despite its many scholarly contributions, none address, at least not significantly, how Kongo traditions informed colonial American slave culture. Missing, for instance, is an analysis of runaway-slave advertisements that in addition to revealing African day names, filed teeth, scarification, and other country marks, demonstrate other aspects of Kongo across the water. For instance, throughout British North America, notices for absconded slaves rendered bimpampa, gestures that reflect the complexities of West Central African traditions. A gesture in which persons of Kongo descent avert their heads...