The Inseparability of the African Presence and American Civilization: Commonality Through Diversity

       Modern civilization in the Americas spans five centuries of development and is a result of a convergence of several ancient cultures which have come to have profound effects upon each other. The various related cultures of the Europeans, who eventually dominated the development of civilization in the Americas, are commonly perceived as the defining aspects of this newly emergent civilization. The reality, however, is that the equally myriad cultures of the indigenous peoples the European displaced and of the Africans the Europeans enslaved have had substantial influence on the larger civilization in which they have become absorbed.

       The principles of democracy upon which the Constitution of the United States is based are derived from ideals of freedom and equality among humankind who share common historical experiences. These shared experiences necessarily embrace the cultures of indigenous peoples, Africans and Europeans, and they have created a uniquely "American" character.   The mythology of American civilization has obscured many of the seminal contributions that indigenous peoples have made and has often denied the existence of African influences. Whether this denial has been a consequence of woeful ignorance or intentional deceit, the result has been the same -- a diminution of the role that African people have played in the American experience.

     If the defining aspects of culture include such key elements as food, dress, music, language, crafts and dance, it is unquestionable that the African influence has been great and that it is inextricably interwoven into the larger fabric of society. Hence, it is not possible to understand the larger civilization without understanding the cultures which comprise it. The challenge for Americans is to acknowledge their diversity while embracing their commonality. This enlightenment can be achieved only through the study and research of our shared heritage. To know and understand the whole, we must first know and understand its parts.

Thomas C. Battle
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center
Howard University

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August 1999