An Oct. 5-9, 1999 conference sponsored by
NYU's Institute of African-American Affairs
Coverage by undergraduate journalism students


Panel explores African cultural traditions

By Lauren DeCarlo

"Make sure that no person on Earth ever goes up into space in a slave ship," Jayne Cortez admonished. The writer and co-founder of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa was explaining why NYU's Institute of African-American Affairs and the Africana Studies program had decided to host a week-long scholarly conference on the impact of the slave trade: to raise awareness and prevent a recurrence of such inhumanity on earth or anywhere else.

And yet, in a panel discussion on Oct. 6 with about 200 attendees at Hemmerdinger Hall, scholars examining the phenomenon could not ignore the way new cultural forms emerged on foreign soil as Africa's rich cultural heritage entwined with the slave experience. Slaves brought with them a distinct African way of life that infused the language, dance, music, food, and religious practices of the non-African cultures where they wound up.

For example, Doudou Diene, director of the division for intercultural projects of UNESCO, described the significance of the "ring shout," a ceremonial dance in which slaves moved in a circular pattern to the beat of tambourines. Diene said it was significant in the development of later musical forms and lay as the root of the work song, which slaves sang in the fields. Diene suggested that this improvisational technique helped spawn the highly structured genres of blues and jazz. Diene described the social circumstances during the time of slavery as a "blue mood" and said the core elements of the blues emerged from this time.

Dylan Penningroth (left), a historian and author who specializes in slavery and property ownership, spoke of the strong African characteristics that survived the slave experience. As an example he cited the verbal skill of African women, who traditionally used their loud voices strategically, mostly in public places. Penningroth said that after the Emancipation, freed women slaves began to use their powerful verbal skills as a means of attaining what was rightfully theirs.