During the long centuries of slavery, white planters have violently tried to etch away all specific features African Americans were having. They mocked the national dignity of blacks. In those areas of life where chauvinistic pressure and leveling were less, blacks created wonderful original cultural values, such as the Afro-American folklore, literature, and music.
The so-called group of American Blacks, being not fundamentally different physically from their fellow citizens, i.e. Americans, has nevertheless inherited a highly developed cultural unity. It was produced by a state of slavery, which had shared suffering, prolonged discrimination, and the denial of political and civil rights, especially the economic and social inequality. Mostly, this fact had determined the contribution of blacks to the American culture, i.e. their rhythm, music, folk songs, religious beliefs, and practices, their tribute to the American art and literature; their part in the defense of their country in every war on land and in the air. They had especially had contributed their hard and continuous work aimed at prosperity and wealth creation of the American continent.
Aspects of African Culture
The originality of Afro-American culture lies in the 60s of the 19th century (Levine, 1978). The people who had created it, what is essentially, were a single class of slaves. It had been expressed in their aspirations, dreams, and desire for freedom. The national culture of the Afro-American had been built up in a struggle against slavery and then in a fight against oppression and discrimination. It found its expression in a rich folklore, music, art of dance, theatre, visual arts, and so on.
The culture of the U.S. blacks is linked to its origin with the culture of the peoples of Africa. However, it is not a simple continuation of African traditions that cannot be directly built on them. Hence, for example, a genre analysis of folk songs of the Afro-Americans compared to African ones shows that only those genres are being consistent with the new conditions of life: work songs, household, and lullabies retained in America (Wilson, 1974). On the contrary, ritual and military songs quickly disappeared, as well as the songs of glory of ancestors, oral historical traditions, and so on. There are new genres, i.e. spiritual songs (spirituals) and protest songs that had appeared. Equally important, though being more difficult to establish are being those internal qualitative changes in the surviving genres; for example, in the work songs of the Afro-Americans in comparison with the songs of Africans (Wilson, 1974).
Musicologists talk about abrupt and unexpected changes of rhythm and tonality characteristics of black music. However, at the same time, they emphasized its rhythmic clarity and certainty. The individual parts of the work are clear in its rhythmic structure, but all the work, as a whole, can impress with its asymmetry (Levine, 1978).
Until the early 70s of the 19th century, Afro-American music had been little known in America. In 1871, a group of students of the Fisk University took a trip to the North and gave a number of concerts there. They were performing the songs of slaves and other works of folk art of blacks (Anderson & Stewart, 2007). Since that time, the Afro-American folk music and especially its rhythm had gained a great popularity in America.
In the 70s, there were the first collections of Afro-American folk songs, including spiritual songs (spirituals), a part of which had been collected and recorded by one of the first black composers, i.e. Harry Burleigh (Anderson & Stewart, 2007). Spirituals are the beautiful examples of the Afro-American folk music. Genuine spirituals are truly popular works. They are usually polyphonic choir and executed, often without any accompaniment. The singers harmonize the melody freely during its execution. Sometimes singing stands out among the soloist, and then it takes a form of spirituals and has a role of a singer to choir. Such execution of spirituals, as well as the fact that there is usually no canonical works of musical notation, provides ample opportunities for a variety of variations and collective improvising. Different streams of melodies harmoniously merge into one powerful stream, and each singing freely improvises, obeying the general rhythm. Therefore, each new execution spirituals is a way how eyewitnesses indicate a substantially new edition of the work.
Spirituals cover a large variety of themes and motifs. It is not only the hymns of Biblical scenes. Progressive Afro-American leaders of the 19th century, F. Douglass and G. Tubman spoke of the double sense of songs of slaves (Levine, 1978). Under the cover of religious imagery and motifs spirituals with a great force and beauty had expressed a tragic dream of freedom, a struggle, and a response to many of specific historical events: “Go Down, Moses,” “Children, We Shall Be Free,” “Heaven,” “Oh, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” and “Let My People Go.”
The activity of Afro-American literature has been prominent as well. Virtually all the literature of Africa vividly has reflected a keen interest in the problems of a man free from colonial conditions of existence. The works are based on numerous authors’ observations of a society. In most cases, they are based on the author’s own involvement in a real daily life. African writers share a desire to investigate the behavior of their characters in terms of a social change in a post-colonial period. Literary works make readers knowledgeable with real, not contrived controversies of the African reality.
No wonder, such a tendency was prolonged in the Afro-American literature. The core problem of slavery had acted as an acute issue of social life and literature of the United States. Not by accidental abolitionist journalism, poetry and prose had been so extensively and emotionally charged, that they had such a powerful force influencing the minds of Americans. Romance-abolitionists almost did not touch the question of the material and household shortcomings of the slave system. They were interested in the moral foundations of human consciousness. They at first loudly declared the corrupting influence of legalized slavery, slaves, and slaveholders.
Selling slaves and the disintegration of their families did not contribute to the strengthening of morality. The complete dependence on the hosts had created a fertile ground for lies and hypocrisy. At the same time, the permissibility of use of a physical punishment had developed some sense of cruelty in slave owners. Their unlimited power over the property of the blacks generally had usurped the sovereign rights of the Lord to dispose their creation of lives. This idea has permeated the poetry for many works.
Events to Overcome the Legal Limitations on Their Claims to Dignity and Self-Respect
There were plenty of cases where Afro-Americans tried to make the society treating them with the new nature and the nature of freedom and equality.
The black slave Dred Scott, who belonged to an army surgeon, appeared with his master in the fortress Rock Island, located in the territory where slavery had been prohibited. Upon returning to St. Louis in 1846, Dred Scott sued to obtain his freedom of the officials, referring to the so-called Missouri Compromise of February 13, 1819. According to it, the slaves, being on the territory of the Great Plains, could become free (The Library of Congress, n. d.). However, this law applies to the territory north of 36 ° 30′. In total, Dred Scott had sued for 11 years and reached the highest court. The Supreme Court began to review the case on February 11, 1856. On March 6, 1857, it put out its verdict. The people of African origin were not, cannot be, either now or in the future, the citizens of the United States. As property, they cannot sue.
The next case shows other efforts of Nat Turner who had concerned the reality slaves were living in and working on the plantations of America. The largest slaves’ revolt in the U.S. history began on August 22, 1831 in Southampton County in southwest Virginia (Greenberg, 2004). It was headed by Nat Turner. He had been motivated not by his own powerless slave position and personal dissatisfaction. He even had described his owner, the first victim of uprising as a gracious host but the conviction of his own special destiny. On the great judgment day, Turner with a small group of supporters was convinced that he was a prophet called by God to liberate their compatriots. They killed nearly sixty white men, women, and children. About seventy people joined him. They went to the main town of the county, where they were met by the local militia. Dozens of black slaves, selected at random, were executed. Forty of them were killed by the cavalry, who had planted their severed heads on spears. Approximately fifty of them were brought to justice; nineteen of them were executed, although Turner had been able to hide for the further eight weeks.
Despite the brutal repression and general panic, the Legislature of Virginia conducted a unique debate three months later. Being spurred with Governor Floyd’s rejection of slavery, its members began to seriously consider the question of abolition of slavery in order to prevent further performances.
Examples from Documents that Reinforce Arguments
These two cases are remarkable by the years spent and actions taken by their heroes to become free. Going back to verdict on Dred’s case, it somewhat had crossed the Bill of Rights. According to it, it applies the freedom of religion, of speech, the freedom of press, and a free assembly. It guarantees a speedy and public trial with an impartial jury, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (Cornell University Law School, n. d.). Turner’s case also reveals the partial implementation of the Bill of Rights since he in troth was judged. However, Afro-Americans had been considered as a property that could not be judged. The lives of the white killed people were the price to start the anti-slavery reality. Moreover, the Declaration of the thirteen United States tells, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” (National Archives, n. d.). By large, these cases are also applicable to these lines of the Declaration of Independence.
For two and a half centuries of the American history, the capitalist development in North America had been combined with the preservation of Afro-American slavery. It had arisen in the womb of capitalism and reflected the specific formation of a bourgeois mode of production in agriculture in North America. American planters due to the extreme narrowness of the market wage labor had resorted to the labor of black slaves. However, the use of their work had not been lost in the American rural bourgeoisie. It turned into a special class in which capitalists and slave features were crossed. Hence, as every class, it spawned its own ideology.
The Black Culture undoubtedly has experienced a great influence and impact of national cultures of other groups of the American population. However, it has not made it imitative. The influence of other cultures has creatively been refracted in the original Afro-American art and literature not destroying the unity and organic of the Black Culture, in general.
The cases of Dred and Nat have revealed the strong desire of Afro-Americans to prove their rights for better lives. These historic figures were among the prominent people who speeded up the American non-slavery future. It is interesting that the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, by fact, had been created to protect those. However, the society’s vision was controversial at that time. This controversy had taken many lives away.