Students will discuss the nature, persistence and impact of the spiritual beliefs and cultures of enslaved people. Maps to Key Concepts 5, 6, 9 & 10
What else should my students know?
12.A Across all European colonies and what is now the United States, white settlers forbade enslaved people from practicing their own spiritual practices and forced them to convert to Christianity. While religion was often a critical tool of oppression and cultural extinction, it could also be a form of resistance. Many enslaved people used the Christian message of God’s love and the promise of a spiritual paradise to express their own desire for freedom in this world and the next. They also called on this idea to resist enslavers’ use of religion as a justification for slavery.
12.B Many enslaved African and Indigenous people used Christian rituals as tools of resistance so they could continue their cultural beliefs and practices. Others developed hybrid traditions that blended their cultural forms of spirituality and religion with Protestant and Catholic rituals and beliefs. These new forms of religious expression continue to thrive across what is now the United States.
12.C Enslaved people drew on longstanding traditions of communicating oral history to pass along knowledge and stories when reading and writing were strictly controlled.
12.D More than 573 sovereign Native nations exist today in what is now the United States. Many of the Indigenous people who belong to these nations continue to engage with their lands, languages, art forms, food traditions, political systems, economies and spiritual belief systems.
12.E Enslaved Africans created two of America’s most enduring musical forms: spirituals and blues music.
12.F Indigenous and African foodways persisted and developed during enslavement, continuing to the present day and influencing diets across what is now North America with foods like corn and barbecue.
How can I teach this?
- When teaching about Indigenous cultural persistence, resilience and influence, it is essential to unpack stereotypes, generalizations and appropriations. An article from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia provides an excellent introduction to identifying and countering common misconceptions and stereotypes about Indigenous people.
- In 1991, a construction project unearthed the African Burial Ground in New York City, a colonial cemetery. The bodies interred there showed evidence of African burial traditions such as the burying of ritual objects with the deceased.
- Some early advertisements for Indigenous people who escaped slavery specify cultural or geographic origin, showing evidence that enslaved Indigenous people resisted assimilation. For example, some describe “Carolina Indians.”
- Many enslaved Africans were Muslim. The Library of Congress has collected documents by and about Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved scholar from West Africa. This includes his autobiography, originally written in Arabic. Rich supplemental resources include an English translation, a podcast episode, discussion questions and his obituary.
- Spirituals offer rich ground for exploration in many dimensions, including subject matter, lyrical style, cultural importance and contemporary interpretations. There are many versions online. Many spirituals illustrate the relationship between Christian allusions and imagery and the desire for freedom from enslavement. The songs “Hold the Wind” and “We’ll Soon Be Free” are two useful examples. “Run, Mary, Run” was a popular spiritual that incorporated African traditions of drumming and syncopation with a message of freedom.
- The Library of Congress has multiple online collections that include the music of enslaved African Americans, including recordings of free people singing and playing music they learned while enslaved.
- In a short video by Learning for Justice, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi discusses the ways that the cultural practices of enslaved Africans persist and continue to influence others.
- Many non-Indigenous people have misconceptions and stereotypes about the music of Indigenous people. A 1977 Folklife article provides a good, if somewhat dated, start to exploring these.
- Explore the ways that Indigenous people shaped contemporary music with the documentary Rumble or the documentary Sounds of Faith, by Lumbee filmmaker Malinda Maynor Lowery.
- For current music by Indigenous people, students could watch MTV’s documentary Rebel Music.
- The “Br’er Rabbit” folktales provide examples of stories that originated among the enslaved African population as a way to teach survival skills to enslaved children. When exploring these stories, be careful to use collections such as Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, which avoid the racism of earlier compilations by white folklorists.
- There are many opportunities to explore the ways that Indigenous people sustain and innovate cultural traditions and practices. Some topics can include contemporary Indigenous artists and those working to sustain languages.
- Many popular foods have roots in enslaved communities. Gumbo shows how Indigenous, African and European cultures sometimes merged. One traditional component of this dish is an Indigenous ingredient called filé, a powder made from sassafras leaves. Our term “gumbo” derives from a West African word for okra, which is another essential ingredient. The French contributed flour, which is used for gumbo’s dark roux. Barbeque (which comes from the Arawak word barbacoa) grew out of the culture of Indigenous and African enslaved people as a way to use smoke and sauces with African spices to flavor the less-desirable cuts of pork that enslavers gave as rations. Historian Michael Twitty has written several accessible articles on slavery and the culinary history of the American South. Southern food in Indigenous communities, like the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, also demonstrates this fusion.
- The Minnesota Department of Education’s Department of Indian Education offers an excellent resource for teaching about Indigenous oral traditions and practices.
- Enslaved people encountered different versions of Christianity, including Bibles that enslavers censored. The “WPA Slave Narratives” contain many testimonies about how enslavers and white preachers tried to reduce the Christian message to “Don’t lie, and don’t steal.” Some narratives also contain enslaved Christians’ clear repudiation of this version of Christianity.
- Peter Randolph’s “Sketches of Slave Life” includes examples of the ways enslavers tried to control Christianity’s message.
- Elizabeth Merwin Wickham’s narrative discusses the way that enslaved ministers defied the laws against preaching after Nat Turner’s Rebellion.
- Lunsford Lane discusses how enslaved people abandoned an Episcopal minister because of his religious justifications for their slavery.
- Friday Jones’ narrative discusses several forms of resistance, including clandestine religious meetings and running away.