By Beatriz G. Mamigonian
February is Black History Month in the United States and in Canada; later in the year, in October, it is celebrated in the UK. Many other countries have dates to mark events related to slavery in their past and the African cultural legacies in their cultures. As a result, books, exhibits, conferences, TV shows, memorial markers, and school activities raise public awareness about themes that often remain at the margins of the school curricula and the mainstream media.
Praising the contribution of African descendants to the building of the various nations they belong to, recounting tales of resistance and survival amid oppression and exploitation, and keeping cultural traditions alive are certainly very important. However, to consider only Black History themes shaped by national borders is to miss out on a great opportunity to put one's history into perspective and find often forgotten connections.
We should not assume a common identity among African descendants throughout the world. However, the concept of Black Atlantic offers a framework to deal with the shared histories and complex links among the experience of African descendants in the modern world without freezing identity or keeping within national boundaries. The idea of Black Atlantic rejects the Eurocentrism embedded in the analysis of the emergence of the modern world as a European achievement. It considers that the slave system was central to the making of an integrated economic, social, and cultural space joining the various shores of the Atlantic, but also that it was significant because of its human consequences. As a massive forced migration that displaced people within Africa and dispersed millions of them across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean, the slave trade fuelled chattel slavery and left a legacy of race discrimination.
Recently, the "Black Atlantic" framework has been used as an alternative reading of modern history, a counter-narrative that addresses the cultural transformations, resistance, and struggles that peoples of African descent waged against enslavement, exploitation, racism, and other forms of oppression. This is the perspective adopted in The Human Tradition in the Black Atlantic, 1500-2000, a collection of biographies edited by Karen Racine and myself, newly published by Rowman & Littlefield.
The collection takes readers to a unique choice of places, periods, and themes. The chapters span the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, covering and weaving together the colonial Americas, pre-colonial and colonial Africa, and the more contemporary experience. The persons whose life histories are depicted in the collection were, with two exceptions, voluntary or involuntary migrants across the Atlantic themselves, thus experiencing the cultural encounters and the challenge of identity that placed them within this collective experience. Their lives were marked by change and fluidity. Among them, we find Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Anglicans who were always in contact with people who professed faiths other than their own. Their labor experience was quite diverse: from the watched routine of a rural slave to the mobility of being a cook in a slave vessel, from the waged industrial position in the Soviet Union to the precariousness of an illegal migrant’s work as a domestic servant. Some of them gained prominence among their peers: among them, we find Alonso de Illescas, a maroon leader in sixteenth-century Ecuador; Philip Quaque, a missionary in West Africa; a number of intellectuals and activists; and Romare Bearden, a renowned artist. Music, an essential element in the lives of Africans and their descendants, can be heard in the background throughout the book: Catholic prayers surely brought consolation to Gregoria Lopez, Harry Washington overheard the plantation slaves singing work songs, drumming and dancing animated the cabildo celebrations Buenaventura Lucumi attended, jazz inspired Bearden's work, drums and berimbau gave rhythm to the capoeira movements of Mestre Pastinha. The biographies presented in the book give a sense of how individuals took part in the cultural transformations and the struggles to overcome adversity that made up their shared history. In doing so, they call us all to move beyond our histories shaped by national borders and to consider the experience of African descendants from the perspective of the Black Atlantic.
Beatriz G. Mamigonian is professor of history at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil. She is the co-editor of The Human Tradition in the Black Atlantic, 1500–2000.