Throughout their entire history as a people, African Americans have created themselves. They did so in the context of the transatlantic slave trade and two-and-a-half centuries of chattel slavery—a structure of overwhelming inequality and brutality characterized by the sale of human beings and routine rapes and executions. They constructed their cultural identity and notions of humanity in a country that denied them citizenship and basic human dignity for hundreds of years. Beginning as enslaved Africans from various locations and ethnic and language groups across the continent of Africa, within several generations they found their voice, meaning, and consciousness as a special people.
Those captured from Africa were not people without history and culture. They were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and descendants of ancestors; they were religious specialists and supplicants, chiefs and commoners, cooks, musicians, metalworkers, scribes, farmers, and grioles; they belonged to states, clans, lineages, age grades, men’s and women’s associations, artisan guilds, and secret societies. Their memories of how life should be lived, of womanhood and manhood, of beauty and aesthetics, of worship and spirituality, were not annihilated by the Middle Passage. But what they could do with these memories was very much constrained by the conditions in which they found themselves—the racial and class structure of enslavement. To paraphrase a well-known observation, African Americans created themselves, but not just as they pleased, not under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. It was in the context of their African history and the prevailing social and economic relationships that African Americans created culture, religion, family, art forms, political institutions, and social and political theory.