AFRAM 101 AB
12 November 2015
During the slavery era all around the world it was extremely important for slaves to be able to unite as a community to build and retain family ties in a variety of ways with music, dance, and song being some of the most common forms of resistance, which led to the a temporary feeling of a community amongst the slaves. The ring shout is a perfect example of a ritual dance/song, which united the slaves and allowed them to build fictive kinship relationships. These are relationships that are not biological, but that use the language of kinship to designate relations. For example, slaves still refer to each other as bother, sister, aunt, and uncle. “The ring shout is the oldest African American tradition surviving on the North American continent. An impressive fusion of call-and-response singing, polyrhythmic percussion, and expressive and formalized dancelike movements, it has had a profound influence on African American music and religious practice” (Rosenbaum, 1). To perform this ritual dance, the participants move counterclockwise in a circle carrying out a variety of different movements with their feet as well as clapping their hands. The ring shout exemplifies the effect of religious practices and performances on the slave community resulting in a “family” linkage between slaves.
The ring shout was a ritual that began in the slave era and that brought some measure of joy and relief to enslaved Africans. I was drawn to this particular cultural practice because something that can bring even a small amount of happiness to persons living under such demoralizing and awful circumstances deserves to be better known and understood. It shows me the creativity and powers of resistance of slaves who were able to devise rituals in such dehumanizing circumstances. The slave era intrigues me because it says a lot about African Americans and how big of a heart they have, to be able to go through such a rough lifestyle and survive in doing so. This enlightens me to highlight the “happier” times blacks had during slavery such as their ability to retain African cultural practices and form new relationships. Enslaved Africans were able to incorporate their religion and Christian beliefs into the ring shout as well as humanize the community as a whole. “The ring shout affirms oneness with the Spirit and ancestors as well as community cohesiveness” (Rosenbaum). Learning about the ring shout and other such cultural practices helps me to understand how slaves managed to survive such harsh conditions and even to retain hope that they would become free.
The origin of the ring shout is not specifically known, but there are a few different theories of how it became such a popular dance within the African American tradition. “Some scholars such as Robert Farris Thompson indicate that the ring shout comes from the Bakongo peoples of Central Africa” (Powell). Another hypothesis is that “the [ring shout] ritual may have originated among enslaved Muslims from West Africa as an imitation of tawarf, the mass procession around the Kaaba that is an essential part of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca” (Wikipedia: Ring Shout). Musicologist Robert Palmer offers a third, claiming that, “the first written accounts of the ring shout date from the 1840s. The stamping and clapping in a circle was described as a kind of “drumming,” and 19th-century observers associated it with the conversion of slaves to Christianity” (Wikipedia: Ring Shout). Despite these varying plausible hypotheses, scholars agree that the shout derived from some extent of African dance during slavery. Keeping their religious beliefs alive is thought to be the primary reason for the creation of the shout, though it is also the case that slaves were expected to entertain their masters on the plantations and even on the slave ships. “The performance of music, song, and dance were part of a slave’s duties that began on the ships that brought them to America; after the slaves’ arrival, slave owners competed for the most talented entertainers for plantation amusements” (LoMonaco). The creation of the shout not only allowed the slaves to retain their religious beliefs and a sense of community within plantations, but also was an excellent form of entertainment to keep their masters content.
The ring shout originated during slavery, but it exists to this day. “The integrity of the early form of the ring shout has survived in unbroken traditional practice from slavery times in the Bolden community in McIntosh County on the coast of Georgia” (Rosenbaum, 1). Slaves and their ancestors in the Southeastern region of America originally performed this ritual dance. Many believed the shout “died out in the middle of the twentieth century” (Rosenbaum, 1) and was no longer practiced by African Americans. However, the shout has continued to be apart of African American lives in the Bolden community and its Mount Calvary Baptist Church. “Since 1980 an organized group from the community has also performed the shout away from home at churches, folk festivals, and universities, and this has reinforced local pride in the venerable practice” (Rosenbaum, 1). To see a remarkable traditional ritual originate in the slave era and continue to be practiced today is quite amazing to me, because it demonstrates recognition and the respect today’s African Americans have for past slaves, who probably share the same common ancestry as them.
Throughout the slave era, enslaved Africans were constantly trying to exercise various forms of resistance. Cultural resistance was an important way to create a sense of community on plantations. This included various forms of music, dancing, laughter, and family relations, as well as maintaining their religious beliefs. The ring shout encompassed all of these aspects of cultural resistance, which is probably why it was so important during slavery and is still observed today. Over time, the shout gained significance from the slave era to present day America. Some theorists credit the ring shout with the development of later musical forms. The performance of the ring shout continued “well into the twentieth century, even as its influence was resounding in later forms like spiritual, jubilee, and gospel music, and elements of jazz” (Rosenbaum). The shout contributed to many important aspects of African American lifestyle and continued to flourish throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as impacting the lives of blacks today. Many citizens in the Bolden community are “deeply committed to continuing the tradition in both community practice and public performance and to encouraging its practice by a new generation” (Rosenbaum). This wonderful tradition will continue to be passed on to future generations, indicating that the significance of the shout grows over time.
Slave plantations all revolved around the idea of slavery as a business and slavery as a social system. The masters of each plantation were primarily focused on profit above everything else. However, slavery as a social system was extremely important on each plantation. One important factor of slavery was as a social system centered on the idea of slaves being born and bred to entertain. Masters wanted the best slaves, who could entertain for the master’s amusement on the plantations, as well as being able to do all the typical slave duties efficiently. The ring shout correlates to the idea of being born and bred to entertain, because this was a ritual that slaves could perform to entertain their masters as well as finding some enjoyment in doing so. This form of entertainment was beneficial to the slaves as well, because it was a cultural form of resistance that allowed them to free their minds and find some relief from the backbreaking tasks of everyday slave life. Also, it granted them the ability to humanize each other through song and dance. Slaves used the ring shout to their advantage, creating a better environment for them to be apart of, as well as obtaining the family vibe from the surrounding slaves.
Slave life was not easy. To lessen the burdens of oppression, the primary goal was to maintain a sense of their humanity and to create new family bonds. The shout aided in this pursuit and was a powerful mode of cultural expression. Don’t get me wrong, the ring shout did not obliterate the brutality of slavery nor is this cultural legacy worth the experience of slavery. But it made the experience of slavery temporarily less horrifying and suggests how art can ease suffering.
LoMonaco, M.S. “Thompson, Katrina Dyonne. Ring shout, wheel about: the racial politics of music and dance in North American slavery.” CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries Sept. 2014: 149. Literature Resource Center. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.
Rosenbaum, Art. Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. Athens, GA, USA: University of Georgia Press, 1998. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 November 2015.
Rosenbaum, Art. “McIntosh County Shouters.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 15 October 2015. Web. 18 November 2015.
SHOUTing Rings. Digital image. Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. <http://www.muntu.com/system/images/BAhbBlsHOgZmSSIyMjAxMi8wMy8yMi8xNC8zMy8zOC80MTYvU2hvdXRpbmdSaW5nc181ODMuanBnBjoGRVQ/ShoutingRings_583.jpg>.
Thompson, Katrina D.. Ring Shout, Wheel About: The Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery. Champaign, IL, USA: University of Illinois Press, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 18 November 2015.
Wikipedia contributors. “Ring shout.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 31 Jul. 2015. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.