Slaves sang in the hissing fields to lighten the burden to toil from sunup to sundown, sang spirituals that told the burden of their suffering, sang in chain gangs breaking rocks under the guns of Southern prison guards, sang in swamps and backwoods. No sorrow was sufficient to stop their singing.
Music was everywhere and it was grounded in two techniques which survived in the “new world”: polyrhythmic percussive technique and the call-and-response pattern (leader and chorus alternating). The poetry of tom-toms, the symphonies of synchronized bodies: these ebbed and flowed with the rhythm of life. Men and women danced because dancing had a social and religious meaning and because dancing was meaning, was life itself. This attitude came to America too.
Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower, 5
Story is the basis of African American aesthetic expression. Oral tradition remembers the beloved culture, the people’s suffering and their resistance to their colonizers. Such an aesthetic is grounded in the community and is accountable, not to the art/literary world, but one’s people For the African American, story addresses the concerns of people; the literary character’s journey is immersed in the people’s struggle. Western aesthetic does not require this accountability, rather the opposite. The hero or anti-hero is distinctive because he or she achieves independence from the family, the community. The character’s personhood (usually manhood) is achieved through separation from the crowd or from constraints.
The song and story the Africans gave America was communal and integral to the life of the people. “Art and aesthetic expression were collective experiences in which all the people participated. Art, in short, was not for art’s sake, but for life’s sake (Bennett, 25).
Story is a crucible which reinvents culture for each generation. Each village in the Caribbean had its storyteller carrying on the African tradition of story and myth-making. In Guyana, children gathered beneath the silk cotton tree where the storyteller “would chant poem hymns to accompaniment of drums, repeating stanzas over and over until his head felt light as air and his body became a house of dreams; then the tales would unravel themselves” (Carew), 121).
It was the storyteller who conveyed the folk archetype myths from East and Central Africa that became part of the slave mythology of the Americas. The stories of Brer Rabbit and B’ra Anancy in the Caribbean islands were tales of resistance and strategic cunning in impossible situations.