On 18 December 2023, Governor Mohammed Umaru Bago of Niger State in North-Central Nigeria banned the state’s civil servants from wearing flowing gowns, otherwise known locally as kaftan or babanriga, during working hours, instructing that “civil servants are permitted to wear only English attires during the working days” except on Fridays. Although this directive received wide public backlash, it aligns with the general adoption of European languages (particularly English and French) for academic instruction and government business across Africa while despicably treating African languages as ‘vernaculars.’ In my view, debates around Africa’s shortcomings in preserving its cultural heritage, and, by extension, defending its way of life, call to mind the experience of enslaved individuals and communities in the Americas, which presents invaluable lessons in cultural preservation amid a rapidly globalising international system.
Resisting cultural assimilation
The trans-Atlantic slave trade was an extremely dark historical chapter in human history. In the British colonial South Atlantic and Caribbean economies—which were exclusively dependent on slave labourers from mainly Central and West African slave markets—the preservation of cultural identity among the enslaved Africans in the Americas was a key feature of the resistance against cultural assimilation. It is also a testament to their resilience, creativity and adaptability. In his review article published by the University of Chicago Press, R. L. Watson attributed the survival of much of that culture to, among other things, the ratio of blacks to whites, the organisation and operation of the plantations, and the predominance of rural settings. Beyond these, however, the will to resist cultural assimilation, which seems absent in many African countries today, was the determining factor. Despite oppressive and harsh working environments, the enslaved Africans devised various ways to maintain their cultural practices, traditions, languages, religions and values. Some interconnected ways by which enslaved African communities preserved their cultural identities in America included oral traditions, language and communication, music and dance, religious practices, craftsmanship and arts, cultural retention in New World festivals, and resistance and rebellion, among others.
The centrality of culture in the resistance against the violence of slavery and colonialism
While Africans today seem keen on rejecting their cultural heritage, the enslaved Africans in the Americas made the opposite choice. For instance, they used oral traditions to pass down their cultures, values and histories from one generation to another. Oral traditions embody story-telling, folktales, proverbs and oral histories. Following their forcible dislocation from their ancestral homes, these communities carried only recollections of their way of life as they faced an uncertain future amid excruciating living conditions. Hence, oral traditions were used to retain ancestral knowledge that straddles spiritual beliefs, medicinal practices, agricultural techniques and communal values. As such, oral traditions were deployed as a form of resistance against cultural alienation and the oppressive conditions imposed by slavery. The act of sharing stories, songs and rituals fostered a sense of community and belonging among the enslaved communities in the Americas. Suffice it to say that oral traditions were central to the achievement and preservation of their cultural integrity.
These enslaved Africans from diverse ethno-linguistic and cultural backgrounds were also able to create a unique syncretic culture, with oral traditions being a medium through which these cultures blended with indigenous, European and other influences, forging new identities while preserving core elements of their origins. Indeed, the preservation of cultural heritage among the enslaved communities was a complex interplay of various forms of language and communication. While many enslaved Africans were forced to learn and use English, they maintained their native languages through creolisation processes. Creole languages, which form from pidgin languages, emerged as a fusion of African languages with English and other European languages. This enabled the enslaved communities to communicate covertly and preserve elements of their linguistic heritage. Creole languages such as Gullah in the Southeastern United States or Papiamento in the Caribbean became vital tools for communication and cultural preservation within these communities. The blending of elements of African cultures with new influences in the New World led to the development of syncretic practices that merged African traditions with European and indigenous cultures. The enslaved communities also developed secret languages, symbolic expressions, codes and signals to communicate covertly, evade detection by slaveholders, share information about escape routes, warn of impending dangers or organise acts of resistance. In other words, the enslaved communities created unique cultural expressions that served as a form of resistance and identity affirmation.
Not only did these communities also use music and dance to preserve their African cultural practices, but they also used music and dance as tools of resistance. They inspired revolts, as seen in events like the 1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, where drums played a role in signalling and motivating participants to action. Similar to drums, certain songs contained hidden messages or instructions, while dance movements could signify plans or warnings. Songs about freedom, liberation and resistance served as anthems that fuelled the spirit of rebellion and collective action. Within the confines of enslavement, music and dance offered solace, expressed resistance, and maintained a sense of community. The music culture evolved into various genres, such as blues, jazz, gospel and various Afro-Caribbean rhythms, which have deeply influenced contemporary American music.
Music and dance were also integral components of African-derived spiritual practices such as Vodou in Haiti or Candomblé in Brazil. Through spiritual songs, chants and dances, enslaved communities were able to connect with their ancestral spirits and sought their protection amid their traumatic conditions. By celebrating weddings, births, funerals and other significant life events through music and dance, they asserted their cultural values, beliefs and traditions, even as they adapted to new circumstances. In sum, Richard C. Rath presented an account of how African music of Angolan and Koromanti origin endured in the West Indies, especially Jamaica, during the 17th century. The study surmised that the titles of each piece of music call into question any contention that all was lost in the process of African enslavement.
The enslaved African communities also used their religious practices, which emerged as a syncretisation of Christianity with indigenous religious beliefs, to preserve their Afro-cultural identity. These religious practices, a consequence of enslaved people’s intricate negotiations of the political, cultural, legal, social and religious landscapes in the Americas, are a testament not only to their rich cultural heritage but also their enduring resilience. Indeed, the community cohesion guaranteed by such religious gatherings also catalysed resistance against oppression by enabling them to plan revolts, share information and organise escapes.
Furthermore, the enslaved communities in the New World used ceremonies and festivals to preserve their cultural heritage and build a sense of community. Using these festivals, enslaved Africans brought diverse traditions and cultural practices (such as culinary practices) from their respective regions in Africa. Over time, they adapted these traditions using local ingredients, resulting in the emergence of distinct linguistic “cuisines” like Creole, Gullah and Cajun, which reflect a blend of African, European and indigenous influences. Also, African cooking techniques, spices and flavours influenced the development of distinct culinary traditions in the Americas, especially soul food in the American South or Bahian cuisine in Brazil. These cultural expressions not only served as mechanisms for resistance against cultural assimilation but also laid the foundation for the rich and diverse cultural landscapes that exist in the Americas today.
The enslaved communities in the British colonies witnessed one of the most tumultuous periods in human history. Despite the horrendous conditions they endured, they demonstrated remarkable resilience. The preservation of their cultural heritage was not merely a passive act but a defiant and intentional endeavour to maintain their identity, resist oppression and foster a sense of community and belonging. This experience offers invaluable lessons for Africa today, highlighting the importance of resisting the cultural assimilation that African elites appear so keen to impose on their people. By embracing these lessons, Africa can strengthen its cultural heritage, foster unity and solidarity, defeat neo-colonialism in its various forms and navigate the complexities of contemporary global challenges as an international actor with roots in its rich histories and traditions.