Sustaining The Celebration Of Culture
What significance does the African continent and its people have to the rest of the world? From the earliest days of human history to today’s modern society, African people and their descendants have been entangled in influential events and have given the world irreplaceable pieces of culture, art, science, and more. The oldest human remains ever discovered were found in Ethiopia and were estimated to be at least 233,000 years old. In honor of these contributions, The United Nations established the International Day for People of African Descent. The observed day is meant to celebrate the innovations and traditions of African descendants that have continued into the present day.
International Day for People of African Descent was first observed on August 31, 2021. The holiday came off the heels of the 2020 protests that followed George Floyd’s death by police brutality in the United States. The event touched every corner of the world and sparked a reevaluation of how the global Black population had been dehumanized across generations. From Aboriginal Australians to African Americans, oppression and discrimination have been a consistent part of history for those of African descent.
Not only does the day recognize contribution, but it also serves as a reminder of the necessity for equity and equality for the global Black population. Despite the trauma and systemic racism endured by African descendants, their culture, traditions, and innovations have persisted both in the continent and in the diaspora.
"For Africa to me... is more than a glamorous fact. It is a historical truth. No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place." -Dr. Maya Angelou, On Africa. The New York Times, 16 April 1972.
The diaspora refers to the generations of African descendants living outside of the continent, including those that have left Africa recently in pursuit of work or education. However, a majority of the diaspora consists of those whose lineage comes from survivors of the transatlantic slave trade and slavery in the Americas. Between the years 1526 and 1867, an estimated 12.5 million people were taken from various regions in Africa. Of that number, 12% did not survive the trek across the Middle Passage and 10.7 million of them arrived in the Americas.
This event lasted over 300 years and caused ripple effects in every place it touched. According to American historian Steven Mintz, “Africans carried to Brazil came overwhelmingly from Angola. Africans carried to North America, including the Caribbean, left mainly from West Africa.”
Even though over 90% of Africans were brought to the Caribbean and South America, by 1825 the United States had one-fourth of people of African descent. How slavery operated in these varying regions affected the culture, but no matter the location, it caused lasting effects on generations to come and to the present day.
Despite its dark past, the African Diaspora led to some forms of beauty as a result of the resilience of the people who persisted during harsh periods of racism. This beauty was reflected throughout different mediums over the course of history. In the latter half of the 20th century, the musical artist Nina Simone used her art as a catalyst for discourse within the civil rights activism movement. Her music ignited crucial conversations about racial and social justice. Similarly, literary figure and poet, Maya Angelou, crafted literature that explored the intricacies of the Black experience. Angelou's works became beacons of reflection, guiding readers through the emotions and challenges that comprise the Black narrative.
These two notable figures, among many others, transcended the boundaries and exemplified the significance of Black culture in its many forms. Music, architecture, agriculture, and business are just a few of the many areas that have been heavily influenced by the global Black population. Recognizing this influence in today’s world and celebrating its existence fosters a strong sense of belonging for African descendants and an appreciation for those who contributed to it.
This sense of identity can be seen in the several cultural elements that have their origins in Africa. Latin American heritage, for example, is an agglomeration of the Spanish, Indigenous, and African traditions that have culminated into a rich and colorful culture. Foods, religions, sounds, and other cultural practices from each background have contributed, in some way, to Latino culture. African sounds in particular have had a powerful influence on Latin music today. This can be easily seen in Cuba, where traditional rhythms brought by enslaved people grew into salsa, conga, rhumba, and other well-known Latin genres. The rhythms and patterns were accompanied by a variety of percussion instruments that were also brought over by African people. The batá, iyesá, and bembé drums were fundamental to the birth of these iconic Cuban sounds. The batá drum was an important part of Yoruban traditions, a West African ethnic group located in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.
In North America, traditional African sounds blossomed into Jazz during the latter half of the 19th century.  Louisiana’s ties to Catholicism led to rules that required enslaved people to have Sundays and Catholic holidays off from labor. Uncommon to other regions in the United States, this allowed slaves a brief opportunity to gather and play music.
The beats and traditions that persisted within the communities from their African homelands eventually blended with European chords and instruments. The early days of the emerging genre included field chants, church hymns, and a Cuban-like rhythm. Since marching bands were prevalent during the Civil War, those instruments were soon woven into the creation of Jazz.
As the years progressed, jazz brought forth artists who would be long remembered for their talent and success despite obstacles of discrimination and segregation. Jazz composer, Duke Ellington, described the relationship between Black Americans and music as, “more than the American idiom.” Instead, it was a, “reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured. What we could not say openly, we expressed in music.” While Ellington preferred to be seen as an artist first, he was still proud of his identity and culture. Ellington’s performance at Carnegie Hall in 1943 marked the debut of his composition “Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the American Negro”—a piece on Black Struggle he had anticipated sharing with the world.
Salsa, jazz, and other genres with African roots sustained a connection between people in the Diaspora and their original homeland. Hundreds of years later, these genres continued to evolve and even inspire new kinds of music in the Americas. From R&B to neo-soul, the evolution of jazz music was instrumental in shaping an array of modern genres. Emerging in the early 20th century, swing music came on the scene as a style of jazz and used the same instruments and rhythmic complexity. With its energetic rhythms, swing would later influence modern genres like pop and electronic dance music (EDM). Rock also drew inspiration from jazz, and the electric guitar solos often found in rock music have roots in the expressive nature of jazz improvisations. Both genres also challenged musical norms and societal conventions. Disco, on the other hand, shares jazz's focus on rhythm and danceability, while hip-hop's drum patterns and beats owe their presence to the percussive elements of jazz. In a 2021 interview, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician Dave Grohl, admitted to “ripping off” disco beats and inspiration for the Nirvana record Nevermind. He credits riffs on the album to “old-school disco” including The Gap Band, Cameo, and Tony Thompson.
Similar to music, many Black creatives expressed their cultural experiences through the visual arts. During the early 19th century, Joshua Johnson defied the odds as one of the first documented African American portrait painters. Born into slavery, his portraits captured the faces of both white and Black subjects. In a time when racial stereotypes and biased depictions often overshadowed authentic representation, his ability to capture the humanity of his subjects was revolutionary. A few years later during the Harlem Renaissance, a period regarded as the golden age for African American culture, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s career flourished as a sculptor and painter.
In 1907, she made history by becoming the first African American woman to receive a commission from the US government. Her bronze and marble sculptures contained elements of realism and symbolism. Her art celebrated her heritage and cultural identity, while depicting images of Black life, family, and self portraits. The works of artists of the African Diaspora serve as a reminder that artistic creation has the power to shape history, inspire generations, and keep culture alive.
Beyond music and art, food and agriculture have also been fixtures in Afro-culture and the cultures it has interacted with. Coffee, shea, black-eyed peas, kola, watermelon, okra, yam, sorghum, and oil palm are only a few of the crops indigenous to Africa that have become staples in other parts of the world. Because of the diaspora, many of these are familiar foods amongst the general population in the Americas. Many crops indigenous to Africa took on new meaning for enslaved peoples as one of the few ties left to their homes. In the U.S., these foods continue to be enjoyed by African Americans, playing an integral role in the development of a distinct culture that emerged beyond Africa's shores. Soul food exemplifies this fusion, consisting of meat from animal parts often disregarded by slave owners, alongside crops transported from Africa, such as okra and yams.
Even today, these crops still serve as a link between Africa and its descendants. Gaining insights from those intrinsically tied to the land and its flora can be one of the most effective ways to decode the genetic blueprints of plants. A plant’s geographic origin is the source of its biodiversity and across countless Indigenous cultures, oral traditions were used to pass down such knowledge. For millennia, oral narratives have functioned as the key to human memory that would otherwise be lost. The preservation of these kinds of cultural legacies not only nurtures identity but also allows that knowledge to be shared with other parts of the world. Doing so pays homage to Indigenous farmers and gives recognition that is more than likely overdue after generations of racism.
“As a rich source of the world’s shared heritage, promoting African and Afro-descendant culture is crucial for sustainable development, mutual respect, dialogue, and peace,” UNESCO states on its website.
In other words, the celebration and preservation of culture ensures a strong sense of identity and builds a tightly woven community. With a strong community, it is easier to have conversations around the components that will further sustain and uplift the community. This includes addressing inequality, climate change, and any other external conflicts in the world. African culture in particular holds significant weight given its role as what many scientists believe to be the origin point for all humankind. A sustainable society goes beyond renewable energy and wildlife conservation. It also involves the sustainability and livelihood of people and their communities. There is a person or group of people behind every movement working towards sustainable structures in today’s world and many of these practices are those that have existed for generations that we are now returning to in the present day. Without celebrating the many contributions Africa, its people, and its descendants have given to the world, the work and struggle behind the contributions may be taken for granted or forgotten. By honoring the achievements of African descendants we affirm their indispensability to society.
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