Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dreams of Africa in Alabama

How important are cultural roots to personal self-worth? In Dreams of Africa in Alabama, historian Sylviane A. Diouf explores this question by telling to story of an incredible group, the last African slaves in America.

The slaveship Clotilda arrived (illegally) in Mobile, Alabama in 1860, a few months before the Civil War and only five years before the 13th Amendment freed them. By that time, most slaves in America had been born here. They were Christian, spoke english, and were more-or-less Americanized, even accepting lies about all Africans being naked cannibals. The slaves of the Clotilda, however, still spoke the African languages of Yoruba and Fon and still valued their African culture and traditions.

Diouf writes:

Humiliation was an integral part of the process of enslavement to try to kill off any sense of self-worth in its victims. It left many people emotionally scarred. It can be argued that Africans were better armed than many of their American-born companions, including their own children, to resist the onslaught. They had grown up not knowing racism. Their appearance, culture, and education had been objects of pride, not shame. As a close observer stated, even though enslaved, the Africans "are proud, arrogant, and disdainful, and they have such a good opinion of themselves that they think they are as good as or better than the masters they serve."

To give an example of their pride, the first night the Clotilda Africans learned they were free again, they celebrated by building a drum--something forbidden to them before. As one of them, Cudjo Lewis, explained in an interview years later, “After dey free us, you understand me, we so glad, we makee de drum and beat it lak in de Affica soil.”

But their story only gets more incredible after their freedom. Unable to return home, the Clotilda Africans were nonetheless determined to cling to their identity. They established a small settlement along the banks of the Alabama River, running it according to customary laws and customary values of shared work and property. By pooling their resources, they were able to eventually buy the land they lived on, something very rare for blacks in the south at that time.

Dreams of Africa in Alabama wasn't really written with teens in mind. It's a fairly dense, serious history, but it's also well written, deeply emotional, and full of interesting facts and insights. I think any teens interested in the African Diaspora or the intersection between cultural and personal pride will find it fascinating.

(Cross-posted on my blog.)

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