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Free to Dance Behind The Dance

Gimme De Knee Bone Bent
By Peter H. Wood, associate professor of American history at Duke University in
Durham, North Carolina
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Drawing of slaves
by E. W. Kemble.
In the five centuries since Caribbean residents received Columbus, North America's newcomers have come from all over the world. Our foreign ancestors arrived at different times and under diverse circumstances, from Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia. And all of our remote or recent immigrant forebears, whether they disembarked as enslaved, indentured, or free persons, have undergone what Shakespeare called a "sea change" in the transition -- individual and collective -- from one world to another.

Often the cultural shifts have been rapid and obvious: one language learned and another lost, strange clothes acquired and familiar dress discarded, a new food adopted and an old recipe forgotten. But sometimes old forms have endured in the New World: songs retained, stories remembered, religions rekindled. In pondering the complex way in which our varied social quilt has come into being, not enough attention has yet been given specifically to the early evolution of dance in America and to the underlying process of body language in general.

In part, the innocence of social historians regarding styles of movement can be explained by the scarcity of historical records, whether written or visual. It also reflects the fact that patterns of bodily movement are deeply ingrained at an early age and are passed on tenaciously, and often unconsciously, long after more obvious changes have occurred in speech, diet, or costume. Enduring characteristic motions of hand and hip, head and knee, are not simple to trace back through time, and subtle shifts are not easy to discern.

But significant changes in the study of American history over the past generation have opened up new possibilities. Traditional biases favoring the elite as a class, the Northeast as a region, men over women, and whites over nonwhites have been rapidly offset by exciting research in new directions. And with this new movement has come a fresh interest in exploring nontraditional sources -- pictures, for example, as well as manuscripts -- and a desire among social historians to interact with scholars in other disciplines, such as anthropologists and historians of dance.

With regard to black history, the results have already been dramatic, for the specific contours of the forced African migration to the New World generally, and to North America in particular, are becoming increasingly clear. As scholars finally grasp the scope, if not the unfathomable human pain, of the Atlantic slave trade, striking demographic facts emerge, which provide a context for considering the emergence of American forms of movement.

Viewed in the context of the New World population as a whole, the proportion of enslaved blacks brought to North America appears small, though the number rose rapidly from the earliest days. We now know that of more than 12 million Africans transported to the New World, scarcely 5 percent of them -- one of every 20, or fewer than 600,000 -- came to the North American mainland. Most "salt-water Africans," as the newcomers were called, lived and died on the sugar cane plantations of the Caribbean and Latin America. (Predictably, therefore, observers have always found richer evidence of African music, dance, religion, and folk life in Havana and Rio than in Savannah and Philadelphia.)

Moreover, when taken in the context of the entire African Diaspora, which was well under way by 1550, these North American newcomers crossed the ocean relatively late, with only a few thousand arriving before 1700. But in the context of U.S. history, the West African contingent was large and arrived relatively early. Do you recall in ROOTS, the television miniseries dramatizing African-American writer Alex Haley's exploration of his own family history, that his "furthest-back-person," Kunte Kinte, stepped ashore at Annapolis in the 1760s? But how many realize that among today's African Americans, this arrival date is typical for their first New World ancestor?

Haley's family tree is indeed typical. With the slave trade officially curtailed by 1807, the average moment of first arrival for black ancestors falls in the decade before the American Revolution! By contrast, for families tracing most of their roots to Europe or Asia, the "furthest-back-person" arrived well over one hundred years later on average, several decades after the Civil War, or sometime late in the 19th century.

Now add a third dimension. Not only were Africans a large and early component of the colonial population in North America; they were heavily concentrated in the South. Though race slavery had been legalized in all the English, French, and Spanish colonies on the mainland, more than four out of every five African Americans lived in the Southeast during the 18th century, and they were further concentrated in the coastal regions of Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Louisiana, where large plantations exploited their labor.

What implications do these contours of black migration have for the history of dance and body language in America? According to social geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, wherever an ethnic migration is early, sizable, and concentrated, numerous cultural forms will take hold and prevail. Hence in South Carolina, the only mainland colony where the population was more than half black at the time of the American Revolution, West African languages combined with English to form the enduring dialect of Gullah in the isolated Sea Islands. Similarly, the crops of rice and indigo -- more familiar to the West African majority than to the European minority -- became the lucrative staples of the "Low Country" region. Such foods as shrimp and okra, well-known on the coast of West Africa and in the Carolinas but unfamiliar to Englishmen, became established as local delicacies, which they remain to the present day.

Photo: Courtesy of the Joe Nash Collection.

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