- Africa in Florida: Five Hundred Years of African Presence in the Sunshine State ed. by Amanda B. Carlson, Robin Poynor
edited by Amanda B. Carlson and Robin Poynor
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014. 480 pp. 127 color ill., bibliography, index. $79.95, paper
The West African proverb "Sankofa," which means to "return to the root," expresses the approach and perspective of Africa in Florida in terms of understanding cultural heritage, historical significance and contemporary interpretations of African influences. Africa in Florida, edited by Amanda B. Carlson and Robin Poynor, is a modern and inspiring text comprising eighteen essays written or cowritten by twenty different authors. Much of the research is original and presented by scholars who are experts in the fields of art history, anthropology, history, and religious studies.
The study's well-developed essays are grouped into five parts. Part I, "Introducing Africa in Florida," discusses Africa and its connection to the forthcoming analysis of four historical periods, the antebellum, Civil War, Jim Crow, and civil rights periods. Part II, "Seeking Freedom in and out of Florida," provides a historical review of African captives and slavery, an examination of beadwork and black townships that connect African and Seminole communities, and a discussion of the famous Kingsley Plantation. Part III, "Forging New Identities," examines African and African-descendant identities. We are reminded, conversely, that not all Africans in America came in chains under the yoke of slavery. We learn of Tomas de Saliere Tucker, who came in search of opportunities. He earned a BA degree from Oberlin College in 1865 and a law degree at Straight University in New Orleans. Tucker [End Page 92] relocated to Florida, where he served as director of schools for colored teachers. We also learn of Laura Kofi, the daughter of an Asante king in Ghana, who was sent to the United States to educate and repatriate American blacks to Africa. Before being assassinated, she had been a rising star in the Florida branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).1
Africa in Florida really comes alive with the fourth and fifth parts. In Part IV, "Connecting Across the Caribbean," scholars examine cultural traditions in West African communities and their adapted versions in New World societies. This includes the examination of crowns as emblems of Catholic saints and Yoruba kings and the ways in which crowns are used in the veneration of orisha. Another interesting discussion is on Ekpe, a forest spirit associated with the Cross River regions of Nigeria and Cameroon, which was transplanted to Florida via the transatlantic trade. People in Florida celebrate aspects of Abakua (a society rooted in Ekpe) by holding festivals and parties. This unit makes a significant contribution to our understanding of African cultural retentions in African diasporas.
Part V, "(Re)Making Africa in Florida," is innovative because the essays present original research along with captivating stories of black people who live and practice the African experience. For most people, this means learning about African cultures and customs. Serious African American scholars, such as Onabamiero Ogunleye, travel to Nigeria for knowledge and inspiration. Robin Poynor and Ade Ofunniyin explore such reconstructions of African American identity by observing Ogunleye as a follower of Yoruba religion and his efforts to create sacred spaces that are reflective of who he is and what he believes. They refer to Ogunleye as "Baba," a term meaning "godfather"—one who is of great knowledge and who mentors or teaches others. The writers described Ogunleye as a self-taught sculptor who found inspiration from Robert Farris Thompson's Black Gods and Kings2 and who perfected his artistic skills primarily through experimentation. After becoming rooted in African religious traditions Ogunleye was able to bring forth carvings symbolic of specific Yoruba gods. The text describes Ogunleye's home (an Ifaloa compound) as a place where his sculptures (Esu, Ogun, and Obatala) are arranged in ways that create ritual space conducive for orisha worship, as well as generate a spiritual environment favorable for living the African experience. According to Poynor these spaces are based on how sacred...