Feature: Slavery and Africa's stolen heritage
So often, the dominant interest in history is focused on looking back in retrospect, attempting to answer questions of our origins.
The first people of Nigerian ancestry in what is now the modern United States were taken to America by force as slaves. Calabar, Nigeria, was a major point of export of enslaved Africans to the Americas during the 17 and 18th centuries. Most slave ships frequenting this port were English descent.
After 4 centuries in the United States, a lack of documentation due to enslavement, freed slaves now tagged African Americans, have found it impossible to trace their roots back home. The 2016 American Community Survey, ACS, estimates that about 380,000 US residents reported Nigerian ancestry. The 2012-2016 ACS estimates that another 277,000 American residents were born in Nigeria
Some Nigerian ethnic groups, such as the Yoruba, and some northern Nigerian ethnic groups, had traditional, cultural identification markers such as tattoos, body incisions and scarification designs. These could have assisted a kidnapped and enslaved person who escaped in locating their kinsmen, but only a few of them managed to escape captivity.
In the colonies, slavers tried to dissuade the practice of traditional tribal customs. They also mixed people of different ethnic groups together to make it more difficult for them to communicate or gang-up in rebellion.
Unfortunately, studies of slavery rarely mention the valuable skills and tangible creations of the millions of Africans brought to the New World. Much is made—and rightly so—of African talents in storytelling, music, and dance but these modes of creative performance do not adequately describe the full range of Africa’s contributions to the widely acclaimed “American culture.”
They also possessed a wide range of skills, which they had used for generations, to wrest a living from the land, and among these millions of unwilling immigrants were many skilled artisans. They included; builders, who erected houses for their families, and other structures that sheltered their annual harvests.
When confronting the challenges of living in the dense tropical forests of their homelands, they turned to their local blacksmiths who forged the necessary tools required to clear and maintain their farmlands.
Basketmakers provided them with carriers for harvested crops, which are then stored until when needed. Potters turned local clays, found most often along the banks of numerous rivers and streams, into cooking and storage wares. Other utensils like serving bowls and drinking cups, could be fashioned from gourds of varying sizes and baskets were made from reeds, palm leaves, and a wide variety of other vegetal materials. Over the course of several millennia, African populations developed the means to live comfortably within a challenging environment of extreme heat, prolonged rain, and dense forests. Labeled by Europeans as savages, they possessed a wide array of tangible skills that would ultimately prove to be precious gifts that would later contribute to the making of the Americas.
Archaeologists, who have probed the grounds on old plantation sites dating back to the seventeenth century, regularly unearthed fragments of unglazed earthenware pottery. Seemingly very crude when compared to the stoneware vessels commonly in use in Euro-American households, these items were initially presumed to have been made by Native Americans of the colonial period who perished shortly after the arrival of the first European settlers. Initially labeled as Colono-wares, it is now clear that many of these artifacts were fashioned by Africans.
Consequently, these rough earthenware vessels should be recognized as Afro-Colono pieces if not, in some cases, simply as examples of African pottery. During the colonial era, South Carolina’s enslaved blacks outnumbered white people by a ratio of four to one and, given this numerical dominance, planters found that they could only effectively supervise their slaves when they were out in the fields.
However, the routines carried out in their domestic quarters could—and did—reconnect them to some of the practices of their African homelands, as they fashioned their own clay vessels and used them to cook their meals, according to their own preferences. The African quality of their domestic routines was so evident to one eighteenth-century visitor that he would write that “Carolina looks more like a negro country than like a country settled by white people.” At plantation sites across Carolina, low country archaeologists have discovered that over ninety percent of the ceramic evidence consists of fragments of Colono-ware, a finding that suggests that slaves controlled far more of their domestic routine than was previously suspected.
Also, contemporary African-American folk artists find themselves faced with the possibility of honoring the legacy of the past even as they look for a way to make their own mark. Philip Simmons, a renowned blacksmith, who worked in Charleston, South Carolina for seventy years, was trained by Peter Simmons (not related), a man who was born a slave. Peter Simmons’ history in ironwork traces back at least as far as the first decades of the nineteenth century. But when asked about the importance of this history in carrying on his ancient trade, Philip Simmons suggests that the future always held more of an attraction for him because of the appeal of the unknown: “After all those many years [of working], I’m still learning things. I’m still doing things I have never done before. There is always something you can learn. Blacksmithing, there’s always something new to learn.”
While the study of historical records is important, Simmons encourages us to alter our perspective and to consider how the great arc of history also reaches forward to contemporary generations. He suggests that if we have a good understanding of older precedents and the desire to look at them with care, we might be able to see how historical influences can move beneficially on into the future.
Simmons’s suggestion about the utility of traditional knowledge in the present can be seen daily in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina. Every morning, African-American basket weavers return to their chosen street corners where they ply their centuries-old trade of making coiled baskets. As early as the 1690s, their ancestors made rice fanners, three-foot-wide trays, fashioned with thick coils, that were used to clean the rice before it could be cooked. They also made a wide assortment of containers that were used both in their homes and in the fields. The baskets made for home use tended to be smaller and thus their coils were thinner and their shapes more elegant than the baskets used for field tasks.
When a series of hurricanes at the end of the nineteenth century destroyed the vast rice fields that stretched from North Carolina to Florida, there was no longer a need for most work baskets but the more resourceful basket makers began to focus on flower baskets and other decorative forms that might be sold to tourists. Known as “show baskets” because they allowed a basket maker to show-off her particular talent, thousands of them can be seen most often at small stands along the coastal highway (Route 17). Consequently, the public presence of basket sewers has become an exotic feature of the local scene that can lure tourists to Carolina Lowcountry.
According to the United States Census Bureau, 4 percent of Nigerians hold a Ph.D. degree compared to 1% of the general US population. 17% of Nigerians hold a master’s degree and 37% have a bachelor’s degree.
Since the mid-20th century, particularly after Nigeria gained independence, many modern Nigerian immigrants have come to the United States to pursue educational opportunities in undergraduate and post-graduate institutions. In the 1960s and 1970s after the Biafra War, Nigeria’s government-funded scholarships for Nigerian students and many of them were admitted to American universities. While this was happening, there were several military coups, interspersed with brief periods of civilian rule. The instability resulted in many Nigerian professionals emigrating, especially doctors, lawyers, and academics, who found it difficult to return to Nigeria.