History in Africa, Volume 32, 2005, pp. 321-369 (Article)
Published by African Studies Association DOI: 10.1353/hia.2005.0021
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BOUND TO AFRICA: THE MANDINKA LEGACY IN THE NEW WORLD
MATT SCHAFFER I I offer here a theory of “cultural convergence,” as a corollary to Darwin’s natural selection, regarding how slave Creoles and culture were formed among the Gullah and, by extension, supported by other examples, in the Americas. When numerous speakers from different, and sometimes related, ethnic groups have words with similar sounds and evoke related meanings, this commonality powers the word into Creole use, especially if there is commonality with Southern English or the host language. This theory applies to cultural features as well, including music. Perhaps the most haunting example of my theory is that of “massa,” the alleged mispronunciation by Southern slaves of “master.”1 Massa is in fact the correct Bainouk and Cassanga ethnic group pronunciation of mansa, the famous word used so widely among the adjacent and dominant Mande peoples in northern and coastal west Africa to denote king or boss. In this new framework, the changes wrought by Mandinka, the Mande more broadly, and African culture generally on the South, are every bit as significant as the linguistic infusions of the Norman Conquest into what became English. Long before studying the Mandinka as an anthropologist in west Africa, I was exposed to their legacy in the United States through my contact with the Gullah of Saint Simons Island, Georgia, my home town. The correlation between a white minority and the Mandification of the 1
See Djinns, Stars and Warriors, Mandinka Legends from Pakao, Senegal, published by Brill Press in 2003, containing oral traditions I collected in 1972 and 1974 in the Pakao region of middle Casamance in southern Senegal. This volume is a companion book to my basic ethnography of the Mandinka first published in 1980 and kept in print since 1987. Of the many people who helped me with this article, I want to single out Michael Coolen and Judith Carney for special thanks. I’m also grateful to National Geographic and the Rhodes Trust for funding my fieldwork. History in Africa 32 (2005), 321–369
English language during the slave era might be obvious to some and terrifying to others. My recently completed work on Mandinka oral traditions lays some of the groundwork for this hypothesis by providing texts that, on close examination, do seem to have some resemblance to select slave vocabulary and diction in America. I propose that the Southern accent, depsite all its varieties, is essentially an African-American slave accent, and possibly a Mandinka accent, with other African accents, along with the colonial British accent layered in. The purpose of this paper is to consider the implications of an observation made about the practice of slavery in North America and to ask whether this view might be extended to the rest of the Americas. The observation is Philip Curtin’s conclusion, after sifting through the immense number of sources available to him, that “South Carolina planters . . . had strong ethnic preferences in the Charleston slave market. They preferred above all to have slaves from the Senegambia, which meant principally Bambara and Malinke from the interior [both are Mande] . . . and they generally have a preference against short people” especially from the Bight of Biafra.2 In the present paper, Curtin’s observation becomes the first in a chain of facts and informed speculation that reveal a pattern of Mandification of Southern English. While the notorious Charleston market was not the only slave port in the U.S., it was a major port and was involved...