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ENG 246: African American Literature I

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Amanda M. Leftwich

African Retentions (1400 – 1600)

This is the period prior to Colonial enslavement across the Americas. This period is marked by oral traditions (the telling of stories without writing). One important work from this period is the Epic of Sundiata or Sundiata Keita. This poem dates back to the 13th century and critiques of the work date back to the 1890s. The poem is an epic and focuses on the Mali Empire and a rivalry between two brothers in the royal family of  Sundiata Keita. It was translated in French by Djibril Tamsir Niane (told to him by Djeli Mamoudou Kouyate). Oral traditions are important to note during this time period. Griots or oral historians were vital to African traditions, as they knew the traditions and cultures of a country, town, and region. These stories would be passed down from griot to griot. 

African folktales are also important to the oral tradition. These folktales would shared lessons that the listener needed (i.e. helping community, anti-greed, anti-vanity, etc.). These messages would be passed down by griots to remind people of their importance. Such tales include Anansi the Spider, Mufaro's Daughters, Why the Sky is Far Away : a Nigerian Folktale, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, and A Story, A Story are shared to this day. Pre-colonized Africa was a thriving, educated, and healthy with important traditions and daily work. 

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Image: Anansi the Spider:  A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott published by Henry Holt & Company, 1972.

African Trading Posts 

The ancient Kingdoms of Ghana traded gold with the trans-Saharan African countries until they lost control of the region in 1050. When the Mali Empire took over (and took over control of Ghana as well), cowrie shells were introduced into the trading tradition (the shells became an symbol or wealth statues and were traded like coins). African countries has a strong gold trade in coins and were known for their gold. The Kings of Timbuktu were depicted with gold coins.  

Trading posts along the coasts of continent were strong. "Factories" (what we would call warehouses) were posted along the shorelines. African goods includes cloth, iron, copper, cowrie shells (a symbol of wealth), gold, spices, ivory, wood, and gum. African textiles were highly desired for its quality. The West African textile workshops were strong and had trade route beyond Europe. The Portuguese known for sailing and marine exploration were some of the biggest traders with the continent. Portugal had detailed maps of the Western coastline dating from 1492. 

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Image: Portolan chart of the Mediterranean, western Europe, and the African coast by Jorge de Aguiar, 1492. Image courtesy of the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Enslavement and the Quest for Freedom (1600-1865)

From 1525 to 1866, The Transatlantic Slave Trade shipped an estimated 12.5 million enslaved Africans to the Americas and Caribbean. Only 10.5 million survived the journey. About 388K African peoples were sent to North America. Enslaved Africans were used as agricultural, textile, labor to build a "New World". This journey from Africa to the Americans is called, the Middle Passage. The Middle Passage is named because of the middle section of the trade route taken by many of the ships. 

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Image: Diagram of a slave ship from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, 1790-1 (Public Domain)

Africans from various cultures and ethnic backgrounds were taken from their homelands. Each culture and ethnic background spoke different languages. Before the journey, they were separated in order to avoid an uprising (which did occur). During the Middle Passage, the enslaved were placed below the ships decks in closed spaces. Men were shackled in iron in pairs (example below) and placed closer together, sometimes on-top of one another to stop them from turning on their captors. The journey from Africa to the Americas took 13 weeks to complete. Most Africans would not survive the journey. They dead from either suicide, disease, or murder from the crew of the ships. Average losses were anywhere from 10-20%. 
 
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Very few accounts from the Middle Passage as stories were shared orally, and African languages were later forbidden from being spoken. Here's one account from Olaudah Equiano, "The shrieks of the women and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable" from The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano originally published in 1789. 
 
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Image: Public Domain. Project Gutenberg eText 15399 - http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/15399 

Enslaved Africans and their descendants always wanted freedom and fought for it through revolts, uprisings, attempted uprisings, and escape planning through this time period. The most importance uprisings were by Gabriel Prosser in Virginia in 1800, Denmark Versey in South Carolina in 1822, and Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. The Turner Rebellion (also known as Southampton Insurrection) lasted two days and caused enslavors to panic after several plantations lost120 enslaved people "labor" to freedom and 51 white people were killed. This panic led to restricted the rights of the enslaved further including, no right to assembly, no right to education, and no worship without a white person present in Virginia. Nat Turner was hanged for leading the Rebellion. This event is one of many to led to the Civil War. 

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Image: Public Domain. 19th Century woodcut depiction of the Southampton Insurrection. Note part of the upper part of this woodcut was later reused in 1835/1836 during the Seminole War at https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a04311/ Library of Congress.

Reconstruction and Repression (1865 – 1910)

The Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved Africans and their descendants. However most newly freed people didn't hear the news about freedom until June 19, 1865 later named Juneteenth. This era after the American Civil War is called the Reconstruction Era dating from 1863-1877. During this period, many African Americans exited the Southern states to the Northern and Westerns states for jobs and new opportunities. This is also known as the Black Exodus or the Exodus of 1879 (for those that moved from Mississippi to Kansas). Others stayed on former plantations and continued to work for payment. Others unfortunately, became sharecroppers and worked their former enslavers land for pennies. During this period, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments were passed giving African Americans more protections and freedoms than ever before. African American scholarship during this period soaked with protections in place and the freedom to be educated. 

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Image Copyright: Ho for Kansas! Nashville, Tennessee, March 18, 1878. Copyprint of broadside. Historic American Buildings Survey, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (5–13).