Black Atlantic Identity Research Project

Overview and Background Information

Colloquial or mainstream history typically believes that through the process of being sorting into barracoons, the transatlantic slave trade, and seasoning and the general brutality, that many enslaved African people lost their heritage languages or were put into positions where they could not practice their heritage language due to being split from other people in their ethnic group. Michael A. Gomez’s 1998 text Exchanging Our Country Marks challenges and complicates this notion when he considers the role of language in “Talking Half African: Middle Passage, Seasoning and Language.” Gomez claims that there is little historical evidence that Africans were split by ethnic groups:

There exists sufficient evidence to demonstrate that many, if not most, Africans continued to speak their native language in North America [in the late 18th century]…This led to a kind of Pidgin English, allowing for communication between slaveholder (or overseer) and slave. But…the African would have continued to speak in his native tongue whenever possible. This is because there is no hard evidence to support the popular notion that newly arrived Africans of the same ethnicity…were separated. Rather, there is every reason to believe they were kept together. (Gomez 172-3)

Further Gomez notes that during WPA interviews of the early 20th century, several participants mention older relatives spoke a “foreign language” with a few interviewees themselves offering songs in an African language (174).
The role of language is significant in the way it indexes identity, provides an expression of agency, and helps us create a cultural map. Language, especially if we are considering what happened to the English language during the long 18th century is not as easy as saying “this is African” or “This is European” or even “this is assimilation” and “this is resistance.” Language is a complex series of negotiations that shift depending on circumstance. Michael Gomez posits that the transatlantic journey was a formative process that created an identity out of shared experience (158). Therefore, although the languages that African people in America created was a mix of English and their heritage language, we can consider the creolized languages they created a specific type of Black Atlantic language (which, at times, convalesced into the Red Atlantic with the inclusion of Maroon groups that escaped into Creek or Seminole groups). This is important because whatever retainment of culture that was occurring was, as Gomez describes, a “principal weapon” (154) against enslavement and the power dynamics inherent in language. Through the process of learning English, enslaved people had to resist the “articulation of power” that inundated them with words “associated with his captor,” “embraced concepts which further concretized his social death” and “renamed…redefined…reimagined” everything around them.

This negotiation is complex. New words are necessary and enslaved people had to communicate with other Black people, those from and not from their ethnic group, enslaved people born in America, white people, and sometimes the indigenous people. This negotiation was not just confined to English or English and American cultural cues. For example, Ibn Said, a Muslim slave literate in Arabic arguable engaged in his own heritage language to resist his captors by including ambiguous Arabic phrases. We can also consider Zora Neale Hurston’s transcription in Barracoon, when she takes special care to preserve the phonetics of her interviewee Kossola (Cudjoe). Hurston leaves Kossola's "broken" English intact and hands over to him, the role of the story teller. Hurston's creative choice in her documentation illustrates the importance of centering speakers that hold vestiges of the 19th century and beyond, even when making decidedly 20th century documenting.

Philip Morgan, in African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry, notes that Georgia specifically captures the instability of drawing borders in the early modern Atlantic world. Georgia is specifically ripe for this type of analysis because in the 17th and 18th century, it sat uncomfortably between land negotiations, conflict and movement that sat it between British rule, Spanish Florida, the Caribbean and the burgeoning United States (19-34). This particular convergence that Georgia illustrates illuminates the ways it is necessary to consider the Black Atlantic context even when moving forward towards the 19th or even 20th century.
Carmen Fought’s Language and Ethnicity notes that what we understand in the 21st century as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a deliberate way to index identity:

A person who happens to be African-American, for example, is very likely to index his or her ethnicity through language in some way, whether by using a particular dialect (or range of dialects), following certain norms for discourse, or participating in oral traditions such as call and response. (Fought 20).


Because of intersecting identities, such as gender, class, region and so on, people might choose to include other linguistic features or totally eschew one in favor of another depending on situation and intent. Also, issues of assimilation, as well as shame, affect people’s participation in using AAVE – or what I am specifically looking for as Black Atlantic Linguistic features. And, for the purpose of this study, I also understand time and distance affects the retention of older speechways in people who migration to more cosmopolitan areas or out of the American South entirely. 


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