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date: 14 April 2021

The Black Atlantic and the African Diasporafree

  • Walter C. RuckerWalter C. RuckerRutgers, The State University of New Jersey


The Black Atlantic and the African Diaspora refer to overlapping geographic and historical concepts each representing a complex series of dispersals, connections and reconnections, interactions, engagements and disengagements, and conflicts. As a geographic, spatial, and historical subset of the African Diaspora, the Black Atlantic refers to the sustained contacts and connections among the peoples of Atlantic Africa, Europe, and the Americas beginning with the “Age of Reconnaissance” (1306–1484) and the “Age of Contact” (1482–1621) and extending into the present. One of the first acts in the creation of the Black Atlantic can be located within the story of Mansa Qu, Islamic emperor and explorer from the western Sudanic empire of Mali, who commissioned two oceanic voyages to discover the western extent of the Atlantic between 1307 and 1311. Reconnaissance expeditions of this sort, launched by both Atlantic Africans and later by Iberians in the 14th and 15th centuries, helped create knowledge networks and webs of interconnections that would become critical to the later formation of the Black Atlantic.

At the core of many of these earlier efforts to explore the world around them were the religious pursuits and goals—both Christian and Islamic—on the part of Atlantic Africans and Iberians. Delegations of Christian monks and pilgrims from Ethiopia visited the Italian peninsula, Iberia, and other parts of Europe beginning in 1306 seeking pan-Christian alliances against common Muslim foes. These early delegations fueled later Iberian imaginations about the existence of Prester John—an eastern defender of Christendom believed by the early 15th century to preside over an East African kingdom. In part, the protracted search for the mythical Prester John in Africa by the Portuguese after 1415 set in motion sustained contacts between Iberia and Atlantic Africa highlighted by the creation of Iberian-African settlements along the Atlantic African coast and in the Atlantic Islands, the transfer of enslaved labor to the Americas via the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the beginnings of sugar plantations and slave societies in the Caribbean and Brazil by the mid-16th century. Centuries of sustained contact of this nature spawned a range of cultural formations, the processes of ethnogenesis, and the creation of new transnational identities in the littoral regions and beyond of the four continents that frame the Atlantic Ocean.

Creolization, the unique confluence of Atlantic cultures, served as the foundation for reinvented peoples across the Western Hemisphere who remembered, activated, and re-created “Africa” while attending to New World realities of racial slavery and hierarchy. This process of creolization created a range of ethnocultural permutations, from Atlantic Creoles to a wide array of neo-African ethnic groups in the Americas (e.g., Eboes, Coromantees, Congos, Nâgos, and Lucumís). Within this diverse cultural matrix and the processes of cultural mixing, religious and spiritual worldviews were among the most significant articulations of Black Atlantic and creole cultures. Indeed, there is no other way to decode the intricacies of Cuban Santería, Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Voudou, New Orleans Hoodoo, Jamaican Myalism, or Obeah without framing them in the context of the cultural negotiations among many Atlantic African peoples made necessary by the suffocating confines of racial slavery and more recent socio-racial hierarchies embedded within Western Hemisphere colonialism, Jim Crow in the United States, and other manifestations of white supremacy

History and Origins

Though the African diaspora has an ancient history dating back to the origins of modern humans several thousands of years ago, the more recent diasporas of African people began in continental Africa and are characterized by successive waves of outbound migrations. As a global phenomenon, the most notable outbound migrations include the northern movement of mostly enslaved Atlantic African women across the Sahara into the Mediterranean world and the more substantial western movement of millions of both sexes across the Atlantic. The dispersal of peoples throughout the Atlantic world, spurred by patterns of elite consumption in Iberia and labor demands in the Americas, was one of the largest forced migrations in human history. The formation of Iberian colonies in the Western Hemisphere and the Atlantic slave trade set the stage for the creation of a veritable Black Atlantic world, especially considering the fact that 75 percent of all peoples who crossed the Atlantic in the three centuries following 1492 were Atlantic Africans. Indeed, one could say that the whole notion of a spatially distinct “Atlantic” is really inseparable from that of a spatially distinct “African Atlantic.” The worlds they (re)created in the Americas became shaping influences on many Atlantic cultural “technologies”—resulting in new forms of music, dance, mortuary beliefs, and a range of syncretic religious cultures.1

Even before the creation of colonies in the Americas and the advent of the slave trade, the Atlantic phase of the African diaspora and thus the initial formative stages of a spatially distinct “African Atlantic” had its origins within internal processes in Atlantic Africa and Iberia during what historians refer to as the Age of Reconnaissance (1306–1484). Two events initiated by African kings between 1306 and 1307 became starting points for a series of reconnaissance expeditions in which Africans and Europeans from the kingdoms of Portugal, Castile, and Aragon set in motion the creation of an Atlantic world. First, King Wedem Ar’ad of Ethiopia commissioned a thirty-person delegation in 1306 to forge alliances with Christian kingdoms in Europe. This group of Ethiopian ambassadors and Christian monks visited Pope Clement V in southern France and connected with sovereigns in kingdoms in Iberia and Italy before returning home the following year. Their presence led to no tangible alliances against common Islamic foes, but, in the following century, memories of their visit to Europe fueled speculation that the mythical defender of Eastern Christendom—Prester John—presided over the kingdom of Ethiopia. This speculation sparked a series of transformational events in the period between 1415 and the 1440s that forever tied together the fates of Europeans and Atlantic Africans.2

The second reconnaissance expedition began in 1307 from the Atlantic coastal reaches of the Mali Empire. Between 1307 and 1311, Mansa Qu—emperor of the Islamic kingdom of Mali—commissioned two separate oceanic voyages involving scores of large rivercraft to explore the western expanse of the Atlantic. As recorded in a detailed 1324 interview conducted by Cairo’s Ibn Amir Hajib of Mansa Qu’s successor, Mansa Musa, one ship returned from the 1307 expedition to report the appearance of a strong westward oceangoing current that swept away the other ships. In 1311, Mansa Qu commissioned a second voyage and boarded one of the ships after installing Mansa Musa to rule Mali in his absence. None of the ships ever returned, and Mansa Qu was assumed lost at sea. While the two Mali expeditions failed to create lasting connections across the Atlantic, the story of Mansa Qu demonstrates that Atlantic Africans were active participants in the making of the Atlantic world and in the Ages of Reconnaissance and Contact. Moreover, at the center of both of these early reconnaissance expeditions were—in varying degrees—Christianity and Islam. The religious exchanges that would result in later eras of sustained contact between the African and the European worlds became characteristic of the cultural matrices spawned throughout the Black Atlantic.3

The closing bookend of the Age of Reconnaissance involved a Portuguese expedition in Atlantic Africa in the early 1480s. Commissioned by the Portuguese crown, Dom Diogo Cão led a small fleet of ships to the mouth of the lower Congo River in 1484 in search for a viable passage to the Indian Ocean in the prolonged, multi-decade search for Prester John’s Christian kingdom in East Africa. Upon disembarking in the coastal region, they encountered citizens of the Kongo Kingdom who invited the Portuguese to visit their sovereign at their inland capital. Accompanied by Franciscan monks who were sent to help seal a religious alliance with Ethiopia, the Portuguese delegation were the first Europeans encountered by the people of Kongo. As part of a diplomatic exchange, Cão allowed the monks to remain in the kingdom while he returned to Lisbon with four Kongo nobles. During the course of this exchange, Kongo nobles in both Lisbon and Kongo became interested in Christianity, and this attraction culminated in 1491 when Nzinga a Nkuwu, the reigning sovereign of Kongo, adopted Christianity and was baptized as King João I of Kongo. Adopting Christianity as the religion of the royal court was, by no means, a passive exercise, as the elites of Kongo thoroughly Africanized the religion and filled it with local icons, meaning, and ritual. Indeed, this process of cultural syncretism led to the creation of what should be referred to as “Kongo Catholicism,” and this new cultural formation played a pivotal role in African Atlantic religious practices in the Western Hemisphere in later years.4

This voluntary religious conversion of the Kongo king and, by extension, his royal court in 1491 eased the development of beneficial commercial pacts in which the Portuguese traded for copper, ivory, and enslaved Africans throughout the region. The establishment of Portuguese commercial interests in Kongo and other areas of Atlantic Africa led to sustained trade networks that fueled Atlantic commerce for centuries to come and helped people and provide enslaved labor to emerging colonies in the Atlantic Islands and, later, the Caribbean and Brazil. In the year following the adoption of Christianity by the Kongo royal court, another Iberian power—Spain—authorized Christopher Columbus to seek a faster passage to the Indian Ocean world and Asia. Shortly after the Castile and Aragon alliance defeated the last Islamic stronghold in Iberia in 1492, Columbus set sail with three ships, eventually making landfall in the Bahamas. As one of the opening acts of the Age of Contact, the establishment of permanent European colonies in the Western Hemisphere beginning in Hispaniola in 1493 led to a massive and unprecedented convergence of peoples, ideas, cultures, and religions from four continents. Thus, the seeds for Black Atlantic peoples and cultures were planted, and they would germinate and grow in Western Hemisphere soil for the next five centuries.

The Age of Contact and the Birth of Black Atlantic Peoples

Out of the confluence of Atlantic cultures that occurred beginning in the Age of Contact, new peoples were born through a variety of cultural exchanges and sexual encounters between Europeans and Atlantic Africans. The first group—Ladinos or Latinized Africans—tended to be mixed-race peoples born and raised in Iberio-African coastal communities or transported to Iberia as enslaved peoples who spoke Portuguese, practiced Catholicism, and had European aesthetic affinities. Some, especially the offspring of African merchant women and European traders, became commercial intermediaries and cultural brokers during the era of transatlantic commerce. A few Ladinos living in Atlantic African towns became caboceers—a Portuguese word for “headmen”—and orchestrated major commercial enterprises including the trade of enslaved Africans. A subset of this group would be women traders, known collectively as “seniora” or “signare,” who established dynastic family lineages of linguists, commercial agents, and political intermediaries.

Other Ladinos who were imported into Portugal and Spain from Senegambia—the same region Mansa Qu embarked from in 1311—as slaves used their ability to navigate between cultures to become free and establish themselves as some of the first Africans in the Atlantic diaspora. Many Senegambian Ladinos were Muslims who either converted to Christianity or actively masked their adherence to Islam though the adoption of syncretic religious forms or acts of cultural dissemblance. In addition to their residence in Iberia, Iberio-African Ladinos were among the first people of African descent to arrive in the Americas. At least one free Ladino joined Columbus’s 1493 expedition to Hispaniola, and hundreds lived as free artisans, miners, and farmers in Spanish settlements throughout the Caribbean by the 1570s—long before the advent of sugar cultivation and the large-scale importation of enslaved Atlantic Africans.5

Another class of culturally hybrid people of African descent, the so-called Atlantic Creoles, shared many characteristics with Iberio-Africans. The term “creole,” derived from the Portuguese word crioulo, originally referred to Africans and Europeans born in Brazil or elsewhere in the Americas. In more recent times, creole refers to cuisines, languages, religions, or other cultural artifacts that arose out of the meeting between peoples whose ancestry originated from beyond the Western Hemisphere. Atlantic Creoles were people from mostly West-Central Africa (Kongo and Angola) and the Gold Coast who embraced a hybrid mix of Atlantic African and European cultures, religions, and political practices. They could be mixed race, but by definition Atlantic Creoles were always multicultural peoples who used their knowledge of both the Atlantic African and European worlds to negotiate their way out of servitude, to rise in the social ranks, and to attain property and even wealth. This group had a unique skill set that made them highly valued in the Americas. They tended to be multilingual and literate with training in any number of skilled occupations. In addition, many Atlantic Creoles from West-Central Africa were Christians—in the vein of King João I of Kongo—who used their knowledge of the faith to navigate between cultures. Because of their skills and comfort with European cultural ways, Atlantic Creoles became the first peoples imported by Europeans to be slaves or servants in the Americas. Indeed, in the British colony at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 and in Dutch New Amsterdam (later New York City) in 1621, Atlantic Creoles from Angola and Kongo—captured on the open seas by Dutch privateers from Portuguese trade ships—were the first black inhabitants to arrive in both regions. In both of these European colonial outposts, Atlantic Creoles experienced opportunities to become free, to purchase and own property, and to enjoy many of the legal rights of European colonists. This charter generation of Africans in the Americas, however, quickly disappeared with the advent of racialized slavery and amid the subsequent flood of a massive group of enslaved Atlantic Africans that characterized much of the Atlantic slave trade.6

Both Ladinos and Atlantic Creoles were products of coastal or littoral enclaves in Atlantic Africa that allowed for these hybrid cultures to grow and develop. In places like Gorée Island and Saint Louis (Senegambia), Accra and Edina (Gold Coast), and Luanda (Angola), European traders and factors settled, married or formed connubial pacts with elite Atlantic African women, and raised biracial children who became the foundation of a new set of coastal elites. The first European-established schools in Atlantic Africa catered to these biracial children, and more than a few were sent to Europe for additional education—both catechetical and lay. Some returned as priests, while others worked as independent traders and merchants or as employees of European merchant companies. Owing to their elite status and linguistic access to both Atlantic Africans and Europeans, many became principals in the Atlantic slave trade. Thus, in many ways, there were obvious dimensions of difference between this new class of coastal, Atlantic Creole elites and their far less fortunate Atlantic African kin who were sent into Western Hemisphere exile as enslaved captives.

Atlantic Slave Trades and African Provenance

For non-elites in Atlantic Africa, dealings with Europeans and imaginings about lands across the western horizon were far from positive and beneficial. In West-Central Africa, because of the ever-expanding interests Europeans had for enslaved peoples, they were imaged as the blood-red–skinned followers of Mwene Puto, the Lord of Death, who subsisted off human flesh. Indeed, in this imaginary about the broader Atlantic, no part of the enslaved and consumed body was wasted. Disciples of Mwene Puto were said to press the flesh of their victims to extract cooking oil, their bones ground to fine particles and blackened to become gunpowder, and their brains removed to make various kinds of European cheeses. Fears of Europeans as witches, malevolent spirits, and cannibals were ubiquitous throughout Atlantic Africa as a consequence of the voracious appetite European slavers had for black bodies. These fears were confirmed in the minds of Atlantic African captives upon encountering the methods by which slave traders inspected them. In one common practice, European factors and traders would lick the sweat from the skin of captives with the assumption that certain afflictions were accompanied by distinctive and discernible tastes. This practice fueled concerns that Europeans were, indeed, eaters of human flesh. Perhaps within these shared fears and imaginings by enslaved commoners and peasants in Atlantic Africa, the seeds of a common Pan-African and Black Atlantic ethos and, thus, the development of a distinct Atlantic space were sown.7

As colonies in the Western Hemisphere expanded, so too did the need for imported labor. In many regions, Native Americans became the first source of forced labor, and they toiled in Spanish encomiendas, Portuguese sugar plantations and mills, and the tobacco swamps of English Virginia in the period between the 1490s and the early decades of the 1600s. This labor supply was not inexhaustible, and, throughout the Americas, a slow and decided shift to enslaved Atlantic Africans led to one of the largest forced migrations in recorded human history. Between 1514 and 1866, more than 11 million Atlantic Africans were imported to the Western Hemisphere. Of the total number of enslaved Africans who disembarked from ships in the Americas, 90 percent ended up in Brazil and the Caribbean. A much smaller number, just 7 percent of the total, disembarked in what later became the United States. This massive movement and dispersal of African peoples represented a series of signal moments in the formation of the Atlantic African diaspora.

Though the Atlantic slave trade lasted for more than 350 years and involved many millions of Atlantic Africans, particular patterns emerged within the trade that influenced the later rise of Black Atlantic cultures and religions. Throughout the trade, Europeans developed a range of “ethnic” or regional preferences shaped by real or perceived cultural assets, behavioral tendencies, physical attributes, and technical skills characterizing particular Atlantic African peoples. For example, people imported from Senegambia were highly coveted by European traders and American slavers due to their purported reliability, intellect, compliance, and physical endowments. The behavioral stereotypes may reflect the fact that some enslaved captives from Senegambia were practicing Muslims who, in a few notable instances, could read and write in Arabic and had a facility with learning new languages. More than a few had been slave traders in their previous lives, and many among this subset came from elite backgrounds. As a result of the experience of some leading gangs of slaves into forced labor or troops into battle in Atlantic Africa, European planters coveted Senegambians as slave drivers and labor supervisors. Also, their past acceptance of slavery as legal and normative and their experiences owning slaves may have led to wider compliance with, and less resistance to, the institution of slavery in the Americas.8

Gold Coast Africans were among the most coveted enslaved peoples by European planters, second only to Senegambians. Known for their ferocity, loyalty, pain tolerance, and work ethic, this contradictory set of behavioral stereotypes may reflect the fact that more former soldiers departed the Gold Coast in the 18th century than any other region in Atlantic Africa. Indeed, the combination of their alleged ferocity and pain tolerance contributed to the fact that between 1700 and 1780, there were twenty-four revolts or conspiracies led by enslaved Gold Coast Africans—including island- or colony-wide disturbances in Danish St. John (1733–1734), Dutch Guyana (1763), and British possessions in Antigua (1736), New York (1741), and Jamaica (1760). Even in the context of the danger posed by Gold Coast Africans, the unique calculus of slavery meant that any potential risks of rebellion were worth the enormous profit.9

Atlantic Africans from the Bight of Benin, mostly speakers of Edo, Fon, Ewe, and Yoruba, were not highly coveted by Europeans, but many were available for sale. Just as the Portuguese named the Gold Coast after the principal commodity they sought there, they referred to the Bight of Benin as the “Slave Coast” as it became the earliest and most reliable source of enslaved captives they encountered. Africans purchased from both Angola and the Slave Coast were imported to the Gold Coast with such frequency by the Portuguese that the Gold Coast became a net importer of slaves from 1481 until 1701. A range of expansionist states in the so-called Slave Coast, namely Dahomey, Benin, and Oyo, initiated or contributed to a number of destabilizing wars that enriched trading networks with war captives and slaves for centuries. Though a relatively small coastal region, the Bight of Benin contributed 1.5 million souls to the Atlantic slave trade—more than the Gold Coast and Sierra Leone combined. Perhaps because of the sheer availability and deep pools of enslaved labor, the religious cultures of the Bight of Benin would become some of the most present and impactful in the Americas with the vibrant examples of Santería (Cuba), Vodou (Haiti), and Candomblé (Brazil).

Those from the Bight of Biafra and West-Central Africa were the least preferred for a range of related reasons. Many slaveholders characterized Igbo speakers and others from the Bight of Biafra as slight of build and small, fragile, and weak, as well as prone to melancholy and suicide. Generally considered “refuse slaves,” people exported from the Bight of Biafra concentrated in marginal colonies or in regions of the Americas where their relatively lower price made Biafrans a cost-effective labor force. Likewise, West-Central Africans—representing 40 percent of all enslaved peoples transported to the Western Hemisphere—were stereotyped as lethargic, weak, and tractable with a proclivity to running away. Combined, the stereotypes associated with enslaved peoples from the Bight of Biafra and West-Central Africa relate to the nature of the slave trade in both regions. Both had extensive hinterland slave networks covering thousands of square miles. Enslaved peoples captured in the interior of both regions faced forced marches covering several weeks or months of travel by foot before reaching Europeans at the coast. Once arriving in much weakened physical and mental states, enslaved captives in Biafra and West-Central Africa suffered through the longest stays in coastal dungeons and the two longest shipboard passages to the New World. Upon disembarking from ships, both groups were in the worst possible physical condition, and this explains the disdain many buyers had for them and their low cost of purchase.10

Given European preferences and the limited access certain European nations or American colonies had to regions in Atlantic Africa, concentrations and clusterings of specific Atlantic African groups began to occur over time and in specific places. These clusterings, along with the early formation of language communities in the Caribbean and Brazil, helped spawn the rise of new African ethnic groups in the Americas. These neo-African ethnicities or “nations” did not correspond to preexisting Atlantic African ethnolinguistic groups and were the product of a unique ethnogenesis in which peoples who had been politically fragmented in Africa found, in their new common condition as slaves in the Western Hemisphere, a new common enemy in European slavers, planters, and colonial administrators. Thus, new Black Atlantic identities were born like Coromantee and Amina (Gold Coast), Nâgo and Lucumí (Bight of Benin), Eboe (Bight of Biafara), and Congo (West-Central Africa)—each corresponding to a geographically defined or linguistic diaspora of enslaved non-elite peoples.11

Within the first few generations, these ethnic labels held a degree of meaning and resonance—representing sets of unique cultural principles that were part and parcel to the establishment of communities. Resting upon specific connections like the common range of languages spoken and common lands of nativity, these neo-African ethnicities were far from stable, and, over time, they evolved by adding or shedding cultural layers. As people from different neo-African groups could reside on the same plantations and in the same communities, a natural process of cultural cross-fertilization, sharing, and negotiation allowed for cultural differences to slowly collapse with time. Intermarriage and living in close proximity with other alien groups facilitated this level of cultural sharing, and within this form of intra-African creolization, ethnic labels that held much meaning in earlier eras disappeared by the late 19th to mid-20th century in many locales in which enslaved peoples and their free-born kin dominated. Though evoking a 20th-century political and intellectual movement, Pan-Africanism captures much of this prolonged process of ethnogenesis. The concept of Pan-Africanism was, thus, a particular product of the African Atlantic space, and gave that space a defining point of reference. People originating from different parts of Atlantic Africa who were enslaved and brought to the Americas made a slow but decided shift from disjointed neo-African ethnicities to a more unified concept of “blackness” under the problematic auspices of race. In other words, “blackness” and “race” were products of, definitional to, and specifically associated with the Atlantic space. In this movement from ethnicity to race, cultural forms that developed originally within neo-African communities became further convoluted, multilayered, and complex.

Black Atlantic Religious Diasporas and Cultures

One consequence, of many, of the Atlantic slave trade was the introduction to the Americas of many variations of Atlantic African Islam, Christianity, and various animists religions. Given the early contacts between the Iberian world and Senegambia, Islam may have arrived in the Americas as early as 1500. As a series of overlapping and heterogenous religious cultures deeply embedded in Senegambia and the Bight of Benin—particularly among Mande- and Hausa-speakers—Islam could be found among enslaved peoples from Natchez, Mississippi, to Bahia, Brazil, and everywhere in between. The very nature of Islam, however, with its reliance on literacy and strict adherence to the Five Pillars of Faith, made it difficult to spread generation to generation. With little access to literacy in their adopted languages in the Americas and even less access to the Koran, enslaved Muslims had great difficulty finding converts and spreading the faith over time. In a handful of rare cases, enslaved imams and other Muslims who had received formal education in a Sudanic madrassa could write lengthy passages of the Koran, the hadith, or prayers in Arabic. Others embedded fragments of their faith within the new religious cultures of the Americas. Finally, a few very close adherents found specific dimensions of the Pillars of Faith—namely, fasting, charity, and hajj—and other doctrinal expectations including prohibitions against the consumption of pork, shellfish, and non-Halal meat impossible in the context of the ubiquitous material deprivations suffered under chattel slavery.

Within the fragments of Atlantic African Islamic culture embedded in other practices are insightful possibilities. Enslaved Bamana-speaking peoples (Senegambia) imported into colonial Louisiana carried with them discrete concepts that persisted through the 19th century, including the Arabic-derived Mande word for spiritual advisor (marabout) and the use of words or passages written in Arabic on scraps of paper that became critical in the making of amulets of power. In Bahia, Brazil, the Malês (Senegambia) who led an 1835 revolt of enslaved Muslims used Arabic writing—purported to be passages from the Koran—in the creation of their own protective amulets. Finally, as late as the early decades of the 20th century, in the American South, a handful of early churches in the South Carolina and Georgia low country buried their dead facing east, some parishioners reportedly kneeled to pray on mats up to three times a day, and others manufactured and used Islamic prayer beads. Not far from these regions, two African Americans noted for popularizing Islam by the 1920s—Noble Drew Ali and Elijah (Poole) Muhammad—were born, raised, and socialized.12

Joining Islam in the Americas, Africanized Christianity had a far deeper reach due to the prevalence of West-Central Africans in the Atlantic slave trade and the adaptability of this practice wherever it took root. Representing 40 percent of all enslaved Atlantic Africans disembarking in the Americas, West-Central Africans—known variably as Angolans or Congos—carried with them a complex and overlapping set of religious cultures that were ever present and continue to inform Black Atlantic peoples. Brought initially to the Kongo Kingdom in the 1480s, Christianity spread through the ranks of Kongo elites as a court religion before it disseminated to commoners and peasants. Even within the Kongo court, Kongo Christianity was a highly syncretic form that blended local icons and ritual with the Christianity brought to the region by waves of Portuguese and Capuchin missionaries. For example, many Kongo elites envisioned Jesus, the apostles, and most biblical figures as Kongolese. Also, foreign missionaries encouraged the use of local spiritual concepts to translate European Christianity. Thus, Kongolese terms were deployed for holy (nkisi, or charm), priest (nganga a nkisi, or charm priest), God (Nzambi a mpungu, or great ancestor), Bible (mukanda nkisi, or charm book), excommunicate (loka, or curse), and church (nzo a nkisi, or charm house). Once Christianity reached non-elites, intercultural blending of this nature increased exponentially. This process only continued in the Americas as West-Central Africans encountered new peoples and religious cultures. The “plastic” nature of religious cultures from this region facilitated cultural negotiations between Atlantic African groups and allowed for a range of peoples originating from beyond West-Central Africa to grasp, interpret, and mobilize “Congo” ritual technologies and practices and make them their own.13

Beyond Kongo Christianity, the most influential aspect of West-Central African religious cultures in the Americas was the ubiquitous presence of the Kongo cosmogram and its many cognate forms. This cosmogram, a symbolic representation of the four moments of the solar and life cycles, often takes the shape of a cross with four cardinal points connected within a circular form. As a representation of the solar cycle, the Kongo cosmogram is imagined to be in perpetual counterclockwise motion—mirroring the passage of the sun from east to west. Each of the four cardinal points of the cross represent a moment of the solar cycle—sunrise (east), midday (north), sunset (west), night (south). As a representation of the life cycle, the counterclockwise circularity of the cosmogram embodies the notion of spiritual transmigration or reincarnation—birth (east), midlife (north), elderhood (west), afterlife (south). Within the cross, the horizontal line signifies the divide of the material and the ancestral realms, and the line itself was imagined as a body of water known as the Kalunga Lake. This threshold between the two worlds contained simbi spirits—the free-floating, chalk-white ancestral spirits that resembled fish in the Kalunga’s waters.14

As esoteric as the Kongo cosmogram may seem, it became embedded within a range of religious cultures, ritual technologies, and visual arts in the Americas. Kongo-inspired cosmograms were drawn with white chalk in the ground art associated with Haitian Vodou and Cuban Santeria. At funerary sites throughout the Western Hemisphere, the cosmogram was ever present in the form of grave decorations incorporating seashells or stylized versions of the Kongo cosmogram. In addition, in Spanish Florida and Antebellum Maryland, the cosmogram became part of a spiritual continuum between Atlantic African ritual and European Christianity as its symbolic meaning became fused with St. Christopher’s medal and Ezekiel’s Wheel. The counterclockwise circularity and associations with spiritual transmigration that connected to core meanings within the cosmogram influenced sacred and secular dances like the Ring Shout in the United States, Revivalist and Myal-Kumina ring dances in Jamaica, and Brazilian Capoeira Angola. Imaginings of fish-like, disembodied ancestral spirits that were to be reborn as part of the cycle of life fueled aspects of African American “mother wit”—particularly the belief that dreaming of fish means an impending pregnancy in the family.15

While the Kongo cosmogram represented a discrete element of West-Central African religious culture that fused with Christian practice before the experience of Western Hemisphere slavery, this synthesis proved the adaptive capacity of Kongo Christianity across the Atlantic. When West-Central Africans encountered Atlantic Africans bearing their own unique religious cultures to the New World, Kongo Christianity became a cultural glue that helped bridge cultural divides and, in the process, created new and vibrant religious cultures. Representing 40 percent of all imported Atlantic Africans and being the most widely distributed group in the Americas, West-Central Africans used their religious cultures as part of complicated processes of cultural negotiation to forge new bonds and facilitate intra-African creolization and collaboration over time. In many ways, this process of cultural negotiation preceded and perhaps informed politically based Pan-African movements of the late 19th and early-20th centuries in forging a more unified Black Atlantic consciousness. Importantly, the forging of this consciousness was mediated through the various religious negotiations and entanglements between Atlantic Africans throughout the Western Hemisphere.16

In a few discrete examples, Kongo Christianity blended with the religious cultures of peoples from the Bight of Benin to produce the most obvious and colorful examples of Afro-Atlantic creole religion that exist even now. From Yoruba-, Fon-, Ewe-, and Edo-speaking peoples, a complex pantheon of gods and goddesses—collectively known as the orisha—crossed the Atlantic and became the bases for Cuban Santería/Regla de Ocha, Haitian Vodou, Brazilian Candomblé, and related ritual practices found in Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. The vast geographic extent of this religious diaspora is linked to the outsized impact the relatively small Bight of Benin had on the Atlantic slave trade. The 1.5 million people from the region who disembarked in the Americas represent about 15 percent of the total traffic in slaves, but this contingency is second in size to only enslaved West-Central Africans. Enslaved peoples from the Bight of Benin could be found in French, Spanish, and Portuguese colonies—inclusive of French Louisiana and Spanish Florida in what became the United States.17

Within the religious diaspora carried by enslaved peoples from the Bight of Benin, deities such as Ogun, Shango, Yemoja, Oshun, and Legba abounded. In certain places, the religious practice that centered around the orisha involved the use of Yoruba as a liturgical language; a divination system that involved the casting of cowry shells, nuts, or chains known as Ifá; an all-binding and ever-present spiritual force called axé (ashé); and the notion of manifesting orisha or the possession of a priest or priestess by the spirit of a particular deity. In addition to the presence of shrines, chalked ground art, and animal blood in the ritual life of orisha worshippers, the most notable dimension of this complex of Afro-Atlantic religious culture was the Christian (or Catholic) overlay. In the specific cases of Cuban Santería/Regla de Ocha, Haitian Vodou, and Brazilian Candomblé, the orisha were paired with and represented by Catholic patron saints. The genesis of this point of cultural contact and collaboration occurred not between animist slaves and their Catholic masters, but between devotees of orisha and Kongo Christians. This level of intra-African cultural syncretism and creolization—in which two discrete and different Atlantic African peoples forged an unprecedented commonality—spawned further iterations of cultural negotiation and ethnogenesis. When Nâgos and Lucumís met, joined, and fused their religious practices with Congos in the Americas, the resulting African Atlantic products were decisive steps toward a more unified Black Atlantic perspective.18

Indeed, the dawn of the Black Atlantic as a unique political consciousness can be found in an act that centered around the unification of enslaved peoples from the Bight of Benin and West-Central Africa. When Dutty Boukman, a Jamaica-born Vodou high priest (or houngan), accompanied hundreds of enslaved people to a mountainside in the French colony of Saint Domingue in August 1791, he set in motion a movement that became the largest social revolution in the history of the Americas. The so-called Bois Caïman ceremony, at which Boukman sacrificed a black pig and had insurgents vow a sacred oath while drinking its blood, was the catalyst to a revolution that combined hundreds of thousands of creoles, Congos (West-Central Africa), Nâgos (Bight of Benin), and others in one of the first historical examples of Pan-Africanism. Vodou, in this instance, provided a web of interconnection, a means of common communication and understanding across cultural lines, and a facilitating force for broad-based political unity and action.19

Another example of the combination of two or more religious cultures and diasporas in the Americas would be the complex tangle of ritual beliefs and practices associated with obeah in the Caribbean and Suriname. Linked to Gold Coast (Coromantee or Amina) obayifo and Bight of Biafra (Eboe) dibiya, obeah combined healing and protective charms and powders with the manufacture of lethal poisons. Unlike the diaspora of orisha worshippers, obeah did not depend upon gods and goddesses. Instead, obeah’s core power derived from various connections to the ancestral realm epitomized by the centrality of grave dirt among its adherents—particularly in the manufacture of oath drinks and conjure bags. With a firm belief in ancestral protection and spiritual transmigration, obeah became a dangerous tool for the enslaved as this system inspired both suicides and suicidal acts of violent resistance. In no fewer than eighteen mass revolts or conspiracies between 1675 and 1823, obeah became the principal catalyst to island- or colony-wide disturbances in Antigua (1736), Jamaica (1760), and Demerara/Guyana (1823) and was an ever-present threat. As a point of religious convergence between enslaved peoples from the Gold Coast and the Bight of Biafra, obeah—like Vodou in Haiti—served as a decided step toward Pan-Africanism and a Black Atlantic consciousness.20

Myal, a religious and ritual practice associated with Jamaica, shares many forms and meanings with obeah. Despite claims made by colonial officials that Myal and obeah were antagonistic ritual expressions—representing a dichotomy between good and bad “magic”—both practices contained levels of plasticity characteristic of a range African Atlantic religions. In slavery, Jamaican Myal (or Myalism) could center around the production of herbal poultices for healing, ritual objects to effect or control the behavior of others, and charms to inspire courage or facilitate good fortune. Unlike obeah, which fostered individual client–ritual specialist relationships, public manifestations of Myal practice were group exercises in which a ritual specialist led an assembly of adherents in prayer chants, song, and dance—often near trees. While obeah was a fusion of Gold Coast and Bight of Biafra ritual concepts, Myal seems to have West-Central African origins in both etymology (mayâla is Kikongo for “the one who rules”) and form (counter-clockwise ring dances). Despite its vast range of forms, Myal centered around ritual dance that either evoked or was the manifestation of possession by ancestral spirits. With its plastic forms and translatable meanings, Myal was adopted by a broad range of Atlantic Africans and their descendants in Jamaica, serving as a connecting point between peoples that facilitated a common consciousness.21

Similar to obeah and Myalism, Quimbois became a ritual practice that characterized the cultural negotiations occurring between Atlantic Africans brought to the French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Led by the quimbosieur—or ritual specialist—practitioners of this West-Central African–inspired belief system received healing herbs and protective charms, communicated with the ancestral realm, and tapped into esoteric forces in order to divine the past and future. Central to this ritual practice was the animating power of ancestral spirits—as opposed to a pantheon of deities—whose intent could be channeled through ritual objects known as kenbwa. Kenbwa (or quimbois) were cloth bags filled with empowering substances—grain, feathers, and earth, among others—that could either harm or protect. In other contexts, these ritual objects were known as “gopher bags,” “jacks,” or “hands”—particularly in the ritual practices of Hoodoo and conjure in the United States. The existence of common forms and ritual modes across colonial frontiers and large swaths of Western Hemisphere geographies point to the sheer impact of West-Central African religious influences and the cultural plasticity of Black Atlantic peoples.22

Pan-Africanism and Modern Black Atlantic Identity

While collaborative acts of resistance, cultural blending, and community building helped dissolve neo-African ethnic groups throughout the Americas in the late decades of slavery, this process of Pan-African ethnogenesis continued into the 20th century. In some ways, this slow but steady development was a collective move from ethnicity to race. While race is, indeed, a social construct manufactured to explain certain types of power differentials and hierarchies and to maintain white supremacy, in this context of Pan-African ethnogenesis it implies the creation of a more unified political consciousness. As enslaved peoples and their descendants moved away from neo-African ethnic labels (Eboe, Coromantee, Congo) to embrace racial designations based on gradations of skin color or other phenotypic characteristics (Negro, black, pardo, preto, Gens de couleur) and broad designations of natal or geographic origin (African), they made conscious political decisions. Particularly in the United States, the shift in labels that occurred in the two centuries following the American Revolution—from African, Colored American, negro, Negro, Black, Afro-American, to African American—came at critical historical junctures demonstrating the presence of a developing collective political consciousness.23

By the early 20th century, movements of peoples around the Atlantic world and the development of post-abolition political currents further crystallized a pan-regional, Pan-African, and Black Atlantic consciousness. In slavery’s aftermath in the Americas, new vices arose in the African world necessitating new forms of confrontation and political agitation. Facilitating this new politics was the mass dislocation, movement, and migration of African-descended peoples throughout the Atlantic in the 20th century. Mechanized farming, construction projects like the Panama Canal, and war industries in the United States shifted labor from the Caribbean to Central America and urban metropoles in North America. During the interwar period, technological developments that contributed to the collapse of Caribbean plantations and increased unemployment led many to leave for more hospitable labor climates in urban regions of Britain, France, and Canada. In a similar vein, the oppressive racial regime of the U.S. South, combined with mechanized farming, led to a million black Southerners leaving for the U.S. North and Midwest between 1916 and 1930. Finally, peoples in the Caribbean and Africa were continually drawn into the orbit of European cities between the World Wars. Some had served in European militaries; others—particularly those in French West African colonies—relocated to Paris and other French urban areas because of France’s liberal assimilation policies that granted Africans the same rights as all French citizens. As a consequence of all of this migratory activity, tens of thousands of people from the Caribbean and West Africa met and mingled in New York City, London, and Paris—among other Atlantic centers of urbanization and industrialization.24

In many ways, the political visions that became part of the Black Atlantic consciousness deployed Christian and biblical imagery in articulations for freedom. In slavery and beyond, the constant search for “Promised Lands” where freedom abounded and notions that the ideal post-slave state represented “Zion” or “Canaan” and the enemy of freedom was “Babylon” resounded in political and religious movements in the Western Hemisphere. Nothing captures these concepts more than Rastafarianism—a Jamaican religious and political movement imbued with Pan-African imagery and iconography. Beginning in the early 1930s, Jamaica’s Leonard Percival Howell returned from travel abroad to contend that the island nation should no longer pay allegiance to the British crown. Instead, he proclaimed that the newly crowned emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I, was the true sovereign of Jamaica. After the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia—which, at the time, was only one of two independent African nations—the black world was galvanized in support of Selassie I and the long and proud traditions of the Ethiopian people. Selassie I became a cause célèbre in the Black Atlantic, and in 1937 the New York-based Ethiopian World Federation proclaimed Selassie I as the Elect of God. By the 1940s in Jamaica, the deification of Selassie I was solidified, and he became the central religious figure in the newly formed Rastafarian movement. Under Howell’s guidance, the core tenants of the new faith revolved around a series of interconnected beliefs: the divinity of Haile Selassie as Messiah, the Lion of Judah, and King of Kings; the rejection of capitalism and imperialism embodied by Babylon; and the notion that the descendants of Africa were the biblical Hebrews prophesized to return to Ethiopia—the true Promised Land.25

Between the 20th and 21st centuries, dozens of political, social, artistic, and religious movements provided additional depth to Black Atlantic identity and consciousness. While the Black Atlantic has a long history, stretching back to African reconnaissance expeditions to Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean, its more recent iterations center around feelings of perpetual alienation, the search for “home,” and resistance to artificial and constructed racial hierarchies. While overtly political in nature, the Black Atlantic consciousness continues to be articulated in the music, folklore, visual arts, rituals, and religions of the descendants of Africans in Atlantic Africa, Europe, and the Americas.26

Review of the Literature

The published literature about the Black Atlantic and the African Diaspora is wide ranging and covers works produced by scholars of various stripes from the dawn of the 20th century to the present. Specifically, the “Black Atlantic” concept was popularized and coined by Paul Gilroy in his 1993 The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, and this work helped spur a veritable flood of debate and new scholarship in its aftermath. A sociologist by training, Gilroy envisioned the Black Atlantic as a transnational and intercultural formation that informed the identities of African-descended peoples throughout the North Atlantic—inclusive of Great Britain, the United States, and the Caribbean. Neither a product of African historical or cultural influences nor bounded within the history of any single nation-state, Black Atlantic identities were fluid, multidimensional, and hybrid, and they frame a counternarrative to modernity. Central to his thesis is the creative (or destructive) tension that comes out of the perpetual “twoness” at the core of Black Atlantic consciousness. Evoking the work of W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, Gilroy complicated notions of “race,” “nation,” and ethnicity in ways that shaped the works of scholars in a range of disciplines.27

Though the term “Black Atlantic” was first coined in 1993, the intellectual trends that led to its popularity over the past two decades stretch back more than a century. When Harvard-trained historian, sociologist, and scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois penned his classic, The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he initiated and engaged several lines of scholarly inquiry that academics wrestle with to this day. His analysis of “Double Consciousness”—the warring and antithetical strivings characterized by being marked as black in a white-supremacist nation—became a useful starting point for later works that teased out the painful details of identity formation in the Black Atlantic. His analyses of the Black Church and the first slave preachers in the United States, having their origins in Caribbean slavery and the “pythian madness” and “frenzied shouting” of the African-inspired obeah doctor, are still being unpacked by historians and religious studies scholars. Finally, Du Bois forwarded in Souls and elsewhere the thesis that Atlantic Africa was an informing cultural context that was not simply forgotten or obscured in the fog of slavery.28

Much has been written about the centrality or absence of Africa in the making of the Black Atlantic. Beginning with the work of Robert E. Park—an influential sociologist at the University of Chicago—through the publications of his student E. Franklin Frazier, what can be termed the “Annhilationist” school dominated mainstream scholarly outlets for several decades. In sum, this school contends that the shocks of Atlantic slave trading and slavery initiated a mass amnesia among enslaved Atlantic African peoples. Collectively, the enslaved forgot Africa, and the cultures they developed in the Americas drew upon European cultural materials and unique American contexts. Many of these conclusions were repeated, independently, in the 1920s by a group of folklorists known as the “white-to-black” school of acculturation. Studying cultural differences expressed through the folklore of peoples like the Gullah and Geechee of the South Carolina sea islands and low country, these folklorists denied African influences, and some of the more virulently racist among them claimed that African Americans suffered from small cranial capacities and addled brains in their failed attempts to translate European-derived cultures (and languages) in useful ways. Thus, in this view, any markers of cultural difference among Gullahs and Geechees—their unique folklore, language, religious customs, and supernatural beliefs—were proof of their racial inferiority.29

Neither the annihilationists nor the white-to-black school went unchallenged. In many ways, the most effective counter to these approaches was the work of one man, Melville J. Herskovits. A socio-cultural anthropologist by training and a scholar who performed fieldwork in Atlantic Africa, Haiti, Suriname, and the U.S. South, Herskovits travelled the extent of the Black Atlantic performing extensive ethnographic research. Though he is most well-known for his 1941 Myth of the Negro Past, Herskovits published more than a dozen books with at least four co-authored by his partner—Frances Herskovits. In sum, his body of work concludes that Atlantic Africans not only remembered Africa in slavery in the Americas, but also actively mobilized these memories in constructing New World societies and cultures. While Herskovits work gained traction within a number of scholarly communities by the 1940s and 1950s, less popular but no less important works published by African American scholars like Du Bois, anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, ethno-linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner, and historian Carter G. Woodson largely agreed with many of Herskovits’s conclusions.30

By the 1970s, the scholarly debate about Black Atlantic identity and culture had formed an interesting dialectic. The thesis epitomized by the annhilationists in the 1920s had been repudiated by the 1940s with the pioneering work of Herskovits—a useful antithesis. By 1976, an impactful synthesis emerged in the publication of The Birth of African-American Culture by two sociocultural anthropologists—Sidney Mintz and Richard Price. Eschewing the search for discrete African “retentions” and “survivals” in the Americas, they opted for an approach that focused on the development of a hybrid creole culture undergirded by European and Atlantic African influences. Centering their analyses on the assumption that enslaved Atlantic Africans represented a scattered people—owing to the supposed randomizing trends of the Atlantic slave trade—Mintz and Price claimed that the discernible African influences in what became creole culture were drawn from broad and “deep-level” cultural rules shared by all or most Atlantic Africans.31 In many ways, this notion of creole culture captures the cultural duality and double consciousness articulated earlier by Du Bois and later by Gilroy.

Since the 1970s, scholarly works on the Black Atlantic have moved in two diametrically opposed directions—both of them attending to concepts related to double consciousness and creole culture. Social death, envisioned by Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson as a means of theorizing the social effects and afterlives of slavery, has been a frame deployed by a growing number of scholars. Understanding enslavement and slavery as social ruptures that destroyed connections to kin, kith, and community, Patterson maintains that slaves failed to re-create these connections in new host societies. Indeed, social death implies an erasure of the Atlantic African past and an absence of cultural inheritance, harkening back to the annihilationist position of the early 20th century.32

Directly contesting advocates of social death are the range of scholars seeking to detail and assess an “African” Atlantic. Using Gilroy’s Black Atlantic as an interpretive point of reference, these scholars combine approaches innovated by advocates of the African survivals school and the creolist schools. Moving away from anthropological methods, these scholars—mostly Africanist, African diaspora, and African Americanist historians—forward an argument for historical creolization embracing simultaneous cultural continuities and discontinuities with Atlantic Africa. In sum, the African Atlantic school claims that the slave trade was predictable and patterned, leading to clusterings of ethnolinguistic and geographic diasporas appearing at specific times and in specific places in the Western Hemisphere. While these dispersed groups had clear memories of the African past, they made necessary adjustments to their American present as they encountered new Atlantic African groups, Europeans, and Native Americans. In the context of this confluence of Atlantic world cultures, enslaved peoples manufactured new African ethnic identities through a complex process of ethnogenesis and intra-African cultural mixing. The resulting cultural reconfigurations that were both African and American and would grow, contract, and evolve over time. In sum, this was the seedbed from which various Black Atlantic and African American cultures would blossom and flower in the centuries following the Atlantic slave trade.33

Links to Digital Materials

The African Origins Project identifies and details the historical and geographic origins of thousands of enslaved Africans transported to the Western Hemisphere and former slaves liberated by the British Navy in the period after 1807. This database allows users to search for the ethnic or geographic origins of particular Atlantic African names and has become a useful tool in mapping the early Atlantic African diaspora in the Americas.

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database—a joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Emory University Digital Library Research, the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute of Harvard University, and the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation of the University of Hull—is a collection of information collected from more than 36,000 slave-ship voyages across the Atlantic between 1514 and 1866. Users can track individual voyages or visualize broad trends within the slave trade including export and import estimates, mortality rates, and gender ratios.

The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record, a joint project of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia, hosts a collection of more than 1,200 digital images from a range of original sources dating from, and detailing, the era of Atlantic slave trading and slavery in the Western Hemisphere.

Further Reading

  • Berlin, Ira. “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America.” William and Mary Quarterly 53 (1996): 251–288.
  • Brown, Ras Michael. African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Brown, Vincent. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Chambers, Douglas. “Ethnicity in the Diaspora: The Slave-Trade and the Creation of African ‘Nations’ in the Americas.” Slavery and Abolition 22 (2001): 25–39.
  • Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Falola, Toyin, and Matt D. Childs, eds. The Yoruba Diaspora in the Atlantic World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
  • Falola, Toyin, and Raphael Chijioke Njoku, eds. Igbo in the Atlantic World: African Origins and Diasporic Destinations. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.
  • Ferreira, Roquinaldo Amaral. Cross-Cultural Exchange in the Atlantic World: Angola and Brazil during the Era of the Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Gomez, Michael Angelo. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
  • Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
  • Heywood, Linda M., ed. Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Heywood, Linda M., and John K. Thornton. Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Lovejoy, Paul E. “The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery.” Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation 2 (1997): 1–23.
  • Mann, Kristin, and Edna G. Bay, eds. Rethinking the African Diaspora: The Making of a Black Atlantic World in the Bight of Benin and Brazil. London: Frank Cass, 2001.
  • Matory, James Lorand. Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • Northrup, David. Africa’s Discovery of Europe: 1450–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • Nwokeji, G. Ugo. The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Rucker, Walter C. Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015.
  • Smallwood, Stephanie E. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
  • Stuckey, Sterling. Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundation of Black America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Sweet, James H. Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
  • Thornton, John K. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Young, Jason R. Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007.


  • 1. Kristin Mann, “Shifting Paradigms in the Study of the African Diaspora and of Atlantic History and Culture,” Rethinking the African Diaspora: The Making of a Black Atlantic World, eds. in Kristin Mann and Edna Bay (London: Frank Cass, 2001), 7, 14.

  • 2. David Northrup, Africa’s Discovery of Europe (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 3.

  • 3. John K. Thornton, A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 1250–1820 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 9, 13; Michael A. Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 82.

  • 4. Northrup, Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 36–37; Thornton, A Cultural History of the Atlantic World, 24–25; John K. Thornton, “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491–1750,” Journal of African History 25 (1984): 147–167; John K. Thornton, “On the Trail of Voodoo: African Christianity in Africa and the Americas,” The Americas 44 (1988): 261–278.

  • 5. Northrup, Africa’s Discovery of Europe, 73–75; Sherwin Bryant, Rachel O’Toole, and Ben Vinson III, eds., Africans to Spanish America: Expanding the Diaspora (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 27–49; David Wheat, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570–1640 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

  • 6. Ira Berlin, “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America,” William and Mary Quarterly 53 (1996): 251–288; Linda Heywood and John K. Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

  • 7. Joseph Miller, Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988), 4–8; John K. Thornton, “Cannibals, Witches, and Slave Traders in the Atlantic World,” William and Mary Quarterly (2003): 273–294.

  • 8. An 1835 Bahia, Brazil, slave revolt in which an enclave of slaves known as the Mâles led a violent jihad against their Christian masters would test the notion that Muslims demonstrated greater acceptance of slavery. See Michael Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); Sylviane A. Diouf, Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1998); João José Reis, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

  • 9. Monica Schuler, “Akan Slave Rebellions in the British Caribbean,” Savacou 1 (1970): 15–23; Monica Schuler, “Ethnic Slave Rebellions in the Caribbean and the Guianas,” Journal of Social History 3 (1970): 374–385; Walter C. Rucker, Gold Coast Diasporas: Identity, Culture, and Power (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).

  • 10. Alexander X. Byrd, Captives and Voyagers: Black Migrants Across the Eighteenth-Century British Atlantic World (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008); Miller, Way of Death; Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas; Daniel C. Littlefield, Rice and Slaves: Ethnicity and the Slave Trade in Colonial South Carolina (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981).

  • 11. Douglas Chambers, “Ethnicity in the Diaspora: The Slave-Trade and the Creation of African ‘Nations’ in the Americas,” Slavery and Abolition 22 (2001): 25–39.

  • 12. Diouf, Servants of Allah; Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks; Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992).

  • 13. Thornton, “On the Trail of Voodoo,” 261–278; John K. Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684–1706 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Linda M. Heywood, ed., Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Jason R. Young, Rituals of Resistance: African Atlantic Religion in Kongo and the Lowcountry South in the Era of Slavery (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007).

  • 14. Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1983); Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

  • 15. Thompson, Flash of the Spirit; Thomas J. Desch-Obi, Fighting for Honor: The History of African Martial Art Traditions in the Atlantic World (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2008); Susan Cooksey, Robin Poynor, Hein Vanhee, and Carlee S. Forbes, eds., Kongo Across the Waters (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013); John Noble Wilford, “Intertwined Circles of Faith: Ezekiel’s Wheel Ties African Spiritual Traditions to Christianity,” New York Times (November 8, 2016), D6; Heywood, ed., Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora.

  • 16. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks.

  • 17. J. Lorand Matory, Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Thornon, “On the Trail of Voodoo,” 261–278; Margarite Fernández Olmos and Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean: An Introduction from Vodou and Santería to Obeah and Espiritismo (New York: New York University Press, 2011); George Brandon, Santeria from Africa to the New World: The Dead Sell Memories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

  • 18. Matory, Black Atlantic Religion; Thornon, “On the Trail of Voodoo,” 261–278.

  • 19. Laurent Du Bois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004); Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean.

  • 20. Monica Schuler, “Ethnic Slave Rebellions in the Caribbean and the Guianas,” Journal of Social History 3 (1970): 374–385; Rucker, Gold Coast Diasporas; Jerome S. Handler and Kenneth M. Bilby, “On the Early Use and Origin of the Term ‘Obeah’ in Barbados and the Anglophone Caribbean,” Slavery and Abolition 22 (2001): 87–100; Walter C. Rucker, “Conjure, Magic, and Power: The Influence of Afro-Atlantic Religious Practices on Slave Resistance and Rebellion,” Journal of Black Studies 32 (2001): 85–104.

  • 21. Diane Stewart, Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 44–60; Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean, 142–147.

  • 22. Olmos and Paravisini-Gebert, Creole Religions of the Caribbean, 150–151; T. J. Desch Obi, “Combat and the Crossing of the Kalunga,” in Heywood, ed., Central Africans and Cultural Transformations in the American Diaspora, 364–365; Yvonne P. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 47.

  • 23. Sterling Stuckey, Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 193–244; Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks, 291–292; Leslie M. Alexander, African or American?: Black Identity and Political Activism in New York City, 1784–1861 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008); James Sidbury, Becoming African in America: Race and Nation in the Early Black Atlantic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

  • 24. Michael Gomez, Reversing Sail: A History of the African Diaspora (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 162–192; Darlene Clark Hine, Trica Danielle Keaton, and Stephen Small, eds., Black Europe and the African Diaspora (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

  • 25. Emily Raboteau, Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (New York: Grove Press, 2013); Gomez, Reversing Sail, 172–173.

  • 26. Raboteau, Searching for Zion; Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

  • 27. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  • 28. W. E. B. Du Bois, Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Bedford, 1997), 149–150, 152; W. E. B. Du Bois, ed., The Negro Church (Atlanta: Atlanta University Press, 1903), 5–6

  • 29. Robert E. Park, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man,” American Journal of Sociology 33 (1928): 881–893; E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939); E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1949); Guy Benton Johnson, Folk Culture on St. Helena Island, South Carolina (Hatboro, PA: Folklore Associates, 1968 [1930]).

  • 30. Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (Boston: Beacon Press, 1941); W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Folk Then and Now: An Essay in the History and Sociology of the Negro Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); Zora Neale Hurston, “Hoodoo in America,” Journal of American Folklore 44 (1931): 318–417; Lorenzo Dow Turner, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (New York: Arno Press, 1969); Carter G. Woodson, The African Background Outlined; Or, Handbook for the Study of the Negro (New York: Negro Universities Press, 1968).

  • 31. Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price, The Birth of African-American Culture: An Anthropological Perspective (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992).

  • 32. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); Saidiya V. Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007); Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).

  • 33. Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks; Douglas Chambers, “Ethnicity in the Diaspora: The Slave-Trade and the Creation of African ‘Nations’ in the Americas,” Slavery and Abolition 22 (2001): 25–39; James H. Sweet, Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441–1770 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Young, Rituals of Resistance; Ras Michael Brown, African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Rucker, Gold Coast Diasporas.