From Africa to the Americas: New Directions in Afro-American Anthropology

Advanced Seminar

April 10–16, 1999

“The study of the African diaspora begins with an enigma,” said Kevin Yelvington, chair of this year’s advanced seminar on From Africa to the Americas: New Directions in Afro-American Anthropology. “The transatlantic slave trade was an unprecedented and unparalleled migration of people, linked to a confluence of political, economic, and historical events different from other fields of anthropology.” To forge new directions in this field, contemporary investigations into the nature of African-derived cultures in the New World must be located within that context, and take into consideration the traditional concerns of scholarship on the African diaspora.

Eleven advanced seminar participants reviewed the debate begun in the late 1930s between the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits and the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, which has continued to define the field’s terms of reference. “Herskovits traced what he saw as African cultural ‘survivals’ in religion, language, the family, and other cultural forms to the New World,” Yelvington explained, “while Frazier argued that Africans were stripped of their cultures in the enslavement process inventing new aspects of culture on the spot, on the ashes of their previous cultures.” Although there have been efforts to transcend this debate (the major theoretical attempt by Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, a seminar participant, was written more than twenty years ago), contemporary scholars tend to be placed into two competing camps: “Afrogenetic” versus “creationist” or “creolization” positions.

Rather than developing another “master narrative” on the nature and provenance of African-derived cultures in the Americas, the seminar participants discussed the importance of context for the subsequent development of black culture. “This means that attention must be paid to historical specifics such as the nature of colonial systems and slave regimes and their effects on local African-derived lifeways, pointing to the implausibility of once-and-for-all, generalized theoretical statements,” said Yelvington. “Historical evidence on the diversity of contexts in which Africans found, and find, themselves in the Americas indicates the utility of a more plural perspective for the 21st century.” Related to this, the group considered historical evidence of on-going relationships between African and new World societies during and after the slavery period encapsulated with the metaphor of “dialogue.” The back and forth movement of people and ideas has heretofore hardly been integrated in Afro-Americanists’ theoretical conceptions.

A series of key points guided the sometimes contentious and heated discussions during the seminar week, including a critique of mechanical and essentialized notions of culture, a perspective in which culture is conceived of as a process, and a consideration of the differential insertion of communities of blacks into the global political economy and transnational cultural flows. Participants also reflected upon the distinction between African “survivals” and discourses about such “survivals”; the idea that cultural values and practices are often appropriated from their originators; a re-evaluation of the West African “sending societies;” and a consideration of ideologies of race, ethnicity, and nationalism in the construction of blackness. “We asked, who gets to define what is African, who determines what becomes part of the canon, and what voices have been and are being silenced by this determination,” said Yelvington.

The central issue of the seminar emerged as a question: “How is the culture reproduced and by what means?” The idea of an underlying “grammar” for Afro-American cultures was subjected to close scrutiny by seminar participants. While a complete consensus was not reached, several theoretical points were refined during the course of discussion. Yelvington said, “We began to ask whether culture itself was an appropriate concept, and if we should go beyond culture in our investigation.”

This advanced seminar was made up of an interdisciplinary group of scholars, including an archaeologist, a linguist, social and cultural anthropologists, both established and younger scholars, a balance of men and women, and scholars from diverse ethnicities. Yelvington anticipates that a volume in SAR’s advanced seminar publication series, tentatively titled Afro-Atlantic Dialogues: Anthropology in the Diaspora, will result from this gathering.

Kevin A. Yelvington, Chair Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida The Invention of Africa in the Caribbean: Political Discourse and Anthropological Praxis, 1920–1940
Faye V. Harrison Discussant, Department of Women’s Studies, University of South Carolina
J. Lorand Matory Department of Anthropology, Harvard University The “New World” Surrounds an Ocean: On the Live Dialogue Between African and African American Culture
Robert Price Department of Anthropology, College of William and Mary On the Miracle of Creolization
Sally Price Department of Anthropology, College of William and Mary Artworlds of the African Diaspora
Sabiyha Robin Prince Department of Anthropology, American University Urban, African American Professional-Managerial Workers and Their Diverse Kin Networks
John W. Pulis Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan The Jamaican Diaspora: Moses Baker, George Liele, and the African American Migration to Jamaica
Joko Sengova Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida Gullah Roots in the New World: Interpreting the African American Experience Through a Creole Language
Theresa A. Singleton Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History Smithsonian Intitution Archaeology and the African Diaspora
Arlene Torres Department of Anthropology, University of Illinois Puerto Ricans in Search of Africanity, Blackness, and the “Nation” in Unusual Spaces, Places, and Locales
Peter Wade Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, England Understanding “Africa” and “Blackness” in Columbia: Music and the Politics of Culture

Sponsored by The Wenner-Gren Foundation

Follow us: