The idea of African diaspora has attained the status of a trope for the depredations of slavery in the Americas. It is difficult for us to imagine or to accept concepts of beauty surviving this ugly period, much less to what kind of cultural heritage Americans of African descent can now claim affinity. This difficulty is compounded by the immediacy of the moment. Contemporary writers like Naomi Wolf, on The Beauty Myth, and Molefi Kete, author of The Afrocentric Idea, contradict the authority of mass marketing in defining beauty by dismantling the ethos of sexism, racism and representation that authority itself represents. The result, in my opinion, further adds to the vacuum of what is perceived culturally valuable, what is the currency of endurance. Thus, many African American women might well be able to say, "I am beautiful, but I don't know why."
An important goal of this project would be to collect reasons for her. We will "look into" images that persist. And we will presume upon our common sense to grasp a distinctive standard of philosophical and artistic achievement to identify such artifacts.
Like most Afrocentric research, this project's point of departure is a WPA economist's study of slave trade, 1441 - 1860. Elizabeth Donnan's survey provides a statistical framework for theories about the provenance of African American cultures and disparate developments over centuries. Donnan matched colonial consumer preferences, that is to say, the regional origins of imported slaves to specific US markets --the Upper Colonies, Lower Colonies and Deep South. That data is interpreted here graphically, with annotations from supplematary reading. The listing details a number, but by no means all of the cultural groups inferred from those preferences. It is an important reminder of "ethnic" diversity in Africa itself. [Fig 1. mcs map]
With few exceptions slaves were identified by colonial names for places, such as Whydah and Calabar, or by manufacturer, such as Dahomey. Bear in mind that Whydah was a coastal "factory" city of the Dahomey empire --formerly the Benin empire-- where the Yoruba king's vassals processed, levied and shipped overseas --"deported" in Donnan's text-- "minority" subjects from the interior and Cross River region; that Senegambia's populace, a rubric of the Mali empire, is overwhelmingly Moslem; that Yoruba is one of 395 mutually unintelligible languages spoken in Nigeria alone; that Bakongo is a nationalistic identity that emerged in the language of international prohibition of the slave trade in the late 19th century.
As we see, anachronistic language and contemporary academic bias can promote a myth of a monolithic "West African" culture in the Americas. A selection of the most ubiquitous terms --Mande, Akan, Dahomey, Yoruba, Calabars, Bantu, Bakongo, and Swahili-- underscores the irony of this point when contrasted to a corresponding picture of Africa. The geographical scope of Donnan's survey is immense; the metafocal language of culture is tiny. We now should be in a sufficiently critical frame of mind to accept that what is currently "African" in the Americas is understood cynically --to manipulate disbelief in the methodical diminution of our mutual history and convictions that affirm competing, normative behaviors. [Fig 2. mcs map] Donnan online
At this point, a couple of terms are worth explaining for the purposes of this project: Culture, iconography and representation are as important to effective marketing and communication as product demonstration.
Culture is the realm of social experience, specifically, the manners both tangible and intangible in which members of a society express shared beliefs or knowledge as well as the form in which they are shared. Because the obvious medium of culture is language, drama, art, myth, and music are generally considered psychologically expressive "cultural practices." Because all culture is elastic, "tradition" becomes a gauge of the longevity of a particular cultural practice or belief, its social acceptability. According to Eurocentric tradition, aesthetic is the theoretical rubric of accounting styles of behavior and forms in practice. Oddly enough, politics, economic, mores, religion or philosophy, and family relations fall into some other, specialized categories of knowledge and doctrine.
Iconography is the study of visual history --artifacts and, in the broadest sense, behaviors and written languages-- of a particular society. An icon can be any image of tradition. Sometimes it is a valuable reference of aesthetic within a society: Sometimes it is a stereotype of a society. Iconography allows us to trace what is traditionally, distinctively African within diasporic cultures.
The semantic difference between icon and representation is that the icon denotes a social history. The representation, on the other hand, signifies a peculiar event. It is an isolated image that invites interpretation.
We may begin to comprehend how the semiotics of "representation" and "African America" are linked today. Without a documented geography in historical literature, without cherished iconography, these terms are easily politicized according to the incontrovertible, hostile strategy of race-denominated relations. In the US, representations of African Americans are a vehicle to dominate self-expression: Representations by African Americans are a vehicle to liberate self-expression. The idiomatic expression "represent" carries this dichotomy into the streets and broadcast media. The meaning of the expressions "phat" or "cool" seemingly have no aesthetic anchors to historical practices. The interpretations of and credentials weilded by intellectuals "representin' " African American culture over time pulverize the Harlem Renaissance project to a genre of pulp fiction. In the context good and bad representations of and by African Americans, the visual rhetoric of "decolonizing" minds accommodates tenets of imperialism decried within the self on the one hand to evident mastery of "authentic" race traits on the other --Ebonics, reconstructions of one African culture, and deconstructions of one slave culture throughout the Americas. The essayist bell hooks named it "visual politics." She offers us proof of aesthetic realism operating integration strategies by manipulating a list of luxury goods. Appropriated things.
Recognizing beauty, a reader may remain bound by her knowledge, her status in a racialized society, and her education, and feel bruised by mass-produced icons. She may believe that her beauty is a luxury, an aspiration formed by idealized images (fashion photography) which rebuke the "common" woman or by institutions (fine art in museums) which segregate the historicity of genius from socially meaningful, expressive behavior. She may throw up both hands and say, "I know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Just give me some pictures to choose from." If then this collection of images seems disconcertingly familiar, not at all exotic but a lot like the same old, same old, she may also find traditional African American concepts of beauty --archetypes of her self-- affirm the freedom to experiment. ...
Principle themes in pan-African aesthetic are radiance, rhythm, coolness, bounty, and volume. Specific examples of these themes in iconography are presented first to introduce archetypes, then to accustom the eye to the visual vocabulary of our traditions.
Radiance is in European traditions associated with inner beauty sparked by orderly, happy events during a woman's life-cycle --a diamond ring, a marriage, pregnancy, the birth of a child. In the context of this project, radiance is literally and figuratively the manifestation of grace, divine intervention. As such it may be invoked but is fundamentally a character trait that is mediated and earned by personal creativity. At the core of this theme is a belief in the mutual reflections of physical and spiritual action. Iconography of the sun, ancestral spirits and pantheons in African and African diasporic traditions --from Damballah to Holy Roller revival meetings-- figure prominently. Divine possesion is the goal of religious practices. Radiance is signified in works and ritual objects by use of the brightest, shiniest, whitest materials available. Robert Farris Thompson has written extensively on this aspect of African and African American art and philosophy for many years, most notably in his book Flash of The Spirit.
The editorial mission of Essence magazine for example just as eloquently reiterates the traditional place of "spirituality" in secular life. Likewise Sande Society, an international organization of Africa, articulates and promotes a philosophy that is especially reserved for women. The popularity and traditions of Sande Society demonstrate how beauty takes life in community. Although Sande is strongly associated with Mende peoples, Sande is a nation unto itself. Its membership is multi-ethnic and today estimated at more than 1.5 million women. The axis of its territorial reach is roughly equivalent to the distance between Boston and Chicago. The important work of Sylvia Arden Boone illuminates the deep structural parallels of African American concepts of beauty to Sande thought and practices.
Musical rhythm at times seems the only distinctive feature of African and African American cultures. However, the diverse and unexpected media in which rhythm asserts itself deserve more critical attention. Rhythm is an aesthetic expression of a turbulent universe. Molefi Kete explicitly links rhythm to African American rhetorical tradition; and Henry Louis Gates Jr has critiqued its integral feautures in African American literature. Rhythm is found not only in complex patterns (polyrhymic compositions) and textile design but samples of scripts, individual comportment and dress, architecture, and idiosyncratic motif. Rhythm supports radiance.
Bounty is the mainstream of African and African American cultures.The symbolism of fertility and material wealth originates in bounty, and an unstated axiom that there can never be enough beauty, let alone too much. It denotes depth in character, multiplicity in aesthetic and affect in human relations. In the arts bounty is demonstrated by geometric reproduction, industry and improvisation, artifice and embellishment as opposed to "naturalness," and particularly desirable personal attributes of corpulence such as neck rings, ample breasts, hips and thighs, and elaborate head dress. What is "phat" in the African American sociolect supports bounty and coolness.
The importance of perfect composure --a certain calm in character, posture, gaze, generosity and wisdom-- connotes radiance. Coolness is an indirect aspect to it. R. F. Thompson's informant tells us, "coolness is the correct way you represent yourself to a human being." Coolness is the mantle of successful initiation into society. It is áshe, a balance of disparate aesthetic forms (e.g. jazz) and cosmological forces. Coolness is signified in works of art by lightning, water, water imagery, submissive gestures, birds, snakes, glass, and the figurative or literal possession by orisha. In the America's the meaning of "cool" assimilated by commodified cultural practices is that which is generically appropriate, frequently denoting novelty.
Voume is diametrically opposed to "puritan ethic" of gratification deferred. As such it is a distinctly African expression in the Americas. "Livin' large," being "huge" or "talkin' trash" (signifying one's self-representation), these are qualities of a robust and charismatic presence among one's peers. It is big spending, personal genius, and agency within a community. It is an ability to project a collective conscious across time.
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