Digging deeper into the past for the sake of owning an identity
The 18th century enslaved people portrayed are not yet culturally or in citizenship African Americans. Hence, their expressive arts and material artifacts have not synthesized or creolized and are still dynamic in their living memory. Therefore I was rather surprised to read Shames’ assertion that “Language, dress, music and religion were gradually lost over the course of transport to, and life in bondage in the Americas” (17). That observation, unfortunately, is a noticeable contradiction to the Mende material artifacts depicted in the watercolor. Considering that the “Americas” include North America, the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, all of these Atlantic World places have visible evidence of African ethnographic retentions in culture, music, art, dance, oral folklore, foodways, language and religions (including Islam) that have survived, thrived or synthesized.
From early 20th century pioneering scholars such as Melville Herskovits, Jean Price-Mars and Lorenzo Dow Turner to contemporary archeologists, historians and anthropologists such as Ywone Edwards-Ingram, Theresa A. Singleton and Robert Farris Thompson, the consensus prevails that slavery did not totally obliterate African cultural survivals and dynamic replenishments in the New World African Diaspora. In the 1930s Turner researched, recorded and cataloged more than 3000 names, songs and words of West African origin among the Gullah of coastal Georgia and South Carolina. In 1942 during an extensive research trip in Bahia, Brazil, Turner wrote to Herskovits: “The field here is rich in African material and I am having no difficulty in finding it.”
Therefore, with anthropologists, archeologists and historians taking the lead, there is less focus on generalizations about African regional identifications and more on African ethnographical or micro-historical approaches for source identifications and interpretations. Shames indicates that Herskovits and Turner “failed” about their identification of the watercolor’s African subjects because they did not recognize that “the musical instruments and the activity were of far more widespread geographic origin in western Africa than the specific instruments and ethnic groups that they had suggested [for origin identification]” (Shames 23, my italics). To the contrary: As scholars working within the specificity of ethnography and ethno-linguistics, Herskovits and Turner understandably focused on ethnic groups and linguistic regions as opposed to what Shames favors: A broad generalization that cites “western Africa” for interpretive origins that might be identified in the watercolor (23).
Building on Turner’s extensive research, anthropologist Joseph A. Opala established that in the 18th century the British sent many African captives from Bunce Island (Sierra Leone) to Georgia and South Carolina. His work among the Mende in Sierra Leone is famous because of Mende transatlantic cultural and linguistic connections and retentions that he identified in coastal African American Gullah communities. Opala also found an amazing direct and unbroken Mende family lineage among the Gullah.
That is another area where Shames could have pushed the African boundaries of her investigative work. With verified information about the source of the gender-focused musical instruments, we can logically suggest that the enslaved women portrayed in the watercolor may very well have been Mende from southern and eastern Sierra Leone. Such rational interpretation places some cultural identity on women and men who were without the legacy of a known homeland and nameless in front of the ubiquitous colonial gaze of slavery.
Coming up for air in the 21st century
Finally, I suggest that the jury is still out regarding the speculation that the dance depicted is not a jumping the broom ceremony! White indentured servants from Scotland and Wales brought jumping the broom rituals to southern farms and plantations as early as the 17th century. The “poor man’s” marriage ritual became conveniently synthesized by enslaved Africans who could no longer perform their own traditionally elaborate and sacred marriage ceremonies. We need more contextualized speculations about traditional Mende and other West African ceremonial marriage dances that can be compared with jumping the broom expressions in the Atlantic African Diaspora.
“The Old Plantation” continues to intrigue and attract attention. At once an educated artist and slaveholder, John Rose reminds viewers down through the centuries about the slaveholder’s iconic gaze of mastery and power relations on the southern landscape: The river, “the big house,” the cabins for the enslaved, the river boat—all indicative of the power and wealth of the “plantation machine.” In particular, the river was essential to the livelihood, sustainability and wealth of the plantation. As a planter with a significant number of enslaved people to labor on his estate and as the ubiquitous “master of his black and white family,” Rose would not have aggrandized or paid homage to another plantation in the distance. John Rose’s slaveholding consciousness mandated that his plantation be seen in the vista of power, accomplishment and mastery even as he artistically enjoyed a group of enslaved men and women evoking memories of their African homelands through dance and music gratification.
When you visit Colonial Williamsburg, go and see “The Old Plantation.” Besides that, The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed is a great read. But you don’t have to take my word for it!
Opala, Joseph A. The Gullah: Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone–American
Connection. Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University Web
Shames, Susan P. The Old Plantation: The Artist Revealed.
Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2010.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1949.