In the New World, the slaves moulded mixed cultures to find the strength to survive, integrate and resist. They continue to be a well-spring of creativity.
Ripped from their ancestral lands branded by the foreigner with a hot iron, shipped to the other side of the ocean and condemned to live in a concentration camp universe ruled by the law of profit. Where did the slaves get the strength to survive in the New World?
It would be too simple to just state that their African culture allowed them to resist.
"I don't think we can say that the African cultures were in themselves an instrument of resistance, " says Ladnnec Hurbon, a specialist in Haitian voodoo and Caribbean cultures. "Rather they transformed themselves in order to produce something new. " It's an opinion shared by Brazilian Joel Rufino Dos Santos. "Culture is essentially dynamic. From this point of view, the concept of cultural resistance is deceptive. In Brazil, the complex whole of African cultures was more the founding element of an original process of civilization than a factor of resistance. During the entire slavery period to abolition in 1888, there was a permanent, complex and marvellous interaction between different cultures. "
SURPRISE AND SUFFERING
"In the mind of the African who doesn't know where he's going, many things occur during the voyage, " continues Hurbon. "He emits a cr , v of astonishment, surprise and suffering, to quote the Martinique writer Edouard Glissant, translating the fact that already, at this stage, a new culture is germinating. Arriving with bare hands, without the symbols or the material support of their cultural systems, the slaves were obliged to create. "
As soon as they were offloaded, they were dispersed in such a way as to forget their origins. "Ethnic groups were systematically mixed by the masters. " Thus began new, intercultural relations between Africans. Then came the meeting with the Indians. "There was for example, the learning of their ecological system. " And thirdly: the forced contact with European cultures and Christianity. "This enormous intermixing and creative work began to take root from the 17th century. It is then that Afro-American and Caribbean cultures were truly born. These new cultural and religious systems, capable of combiningmultiple elements without highlighting their contradictions, provided the slaves with a kind of social cement that gave them thestrength to confront the institution of slavery. "
"Religions played an essential role as a factor of survival, integration and resistance, " adds Benin's Elisde Soumonni. "A pact with the ancestors gave the force to confront suffering. Religion provided the means to explain events, tofind a place in the world and energy to live, " confirms Dos Santos. "Voodoo was a place of restructuring for the different ethnic groups on the ground, " adds Hurbon. "It integrated different elements of Christianity and of the Indian world. It was a culturalcreation during which the slaves learnt to express their suffering, their oppression, their uprooting from Africa. It gave them the possibility to symbolize this rupture and to initiate a new history, and swing from passivity to the offensive. It was during a voodoo ceremony that the slaves of Saint-Domingue vowed to keep the launch date of the 1791 insurrection a secret. "
For Hurbon, the Afro-American cultures hold a particular place in humanity's common cultural heritage, because they were born in the fight for freedom. "The slaves expressed their human dignity via the cultures they created.
These cultures also owe this place to their rich growth and development since. "It's why a project like the Slave Route should not confine itself to historical aspects, but examine the cultural developments that resulted from the trade. They are often thought ofas well known but that is not the case, " adds Soumonni. This ignorance, stresses Hurbon, has been voluntarily orchestrated by modem states, which, continuing in the tradition of the slave-trading nations, have scorned cultural developments in order to minimize the contribution of black communities. But this is beginning to change. As proof, Soumonni points to a tremendous revival in African studies at American universities.
RITES, RHYTHMS AND MYTHS
" We are discovering that the mixed systems were important and they still are to the extent that African cultures are rehabilitated and better known, " continues Hurbon. "Greater cultural pluralism is expressed today in the Caribbean. In Latin America, the Catholic and Protestant churches are less hegemonous and admit new religious movements of Afro-American style. " In particular, we are starting to recognize that these cultures were the matrix of innumerable artistic creations, inspired by their rites, rhythms and myths. Martinique novelist
Patrick Chamoiseau put it this way recently in the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur: "Music, culinary art, dance, literature, visual arts - an 'archipeligan' way of thinking that goes beyond existing systems.
"For decades," deplores Hurbon, "we have only wanted to see an archaism, a primitivism incompatible with modernity. But the more that these systems can be practised in a free manner and tolerated, the greater the chance that they will evolve. The individual can acquire a critical vision that demands modernity through education, the political process and the progressive democratization of societies. But in no case should a unique cultural model be adopted. Humanity's wealth, after all, lies in the possibility that 100 flowers, on the contrary, may bloom.