By Damion Smalls
In a brisk look at the history of African American society, Guadeloupean author and journalist Pascal Archimede outlines the past four hundred-plus years and the importance of music in his new book, “Black American History, From Plantations To Rap Culture.”
Archimede begins with the well-known, sordid story of European “explorers” invading the Americas starting in the late 15th century by adding some overlooked aspects, noting that “thirty Negroes accompanied the Spanish sailor Balboa when he discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513.” The economics of slavery from the perspective of the future colonizers around that time is laid out plainly for the reader: the Europeans were a greedy, monstrous assemblage of human vermin whose unsatisfactory attempts to exploit Native Americans, poor whites and prisoners for labor led them to turn to Africa.
The enslaved Africans endured unspeakable hardships and were subjected to various conditioning methods by their white overseers in an attempt to control their minds in every way, the book tells. In a clever defiance of their masters, the enslaved peoples brought over various African customs to the so-called “New World” colonies incognito-style and adopted new ones as well.
The 19th century saw three major developments pointed out by Archimede: the growth of African American scholars, the American Civil War, and the end of slavery. Blacks were anointed citizenship in the most bare bones sense after the Civil War. They were discouraged from voting, faced a dearth of economic opportunities, given subpar educational support, and suffered from Jim Crow laws that further discriminated against them.
“Church, Press, and School are the three pillars of the black community in the United States of America,” Archimede states. The author notes that the Black church was the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. The Black press started as a staunch advocate of freedom before the Civil War and morphed into a tool to promote literacy and amplify Black voices. The beginning of the 20th century was marked by the proliferation of Negro schools in the time of social segregation.
To a novice of hip hop history, “From Plantations To Rap Culture” is a serviceable beginner’s guide to how the culture came to be. “At each step of their integration on American soil, the Blacks have created the kind of music that their social and psychological environment suggested to them,” Archimede writes. The vital contributions from trailblazing Black advocates and activists such as Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X are noted by the author.
Using their vocal and rhythmic abilities, the enslaved Africans formed bonds with each other that included religious aspects, an early form of the ‘call and response’ method of music, the utilization of instruments, a cappella, work songs, field hollers, and more. Those attributes of slave life composed the precursor to the domination of the African American influence in the most popular genres of music today.
Hip hop can also trace its origin to blues singers. “Blues was the creation of the black American people who were rejected in isolation and despair because of slavery and later on, because of segregation,” Archimede reports. The popularity of blues led to the birth of jazz, one of the first true social barrier breakers between Blacks and whites. African Americans expanded their musical prowess in the mid 20th century with funk, R&B, and soul music.
The culture of hip hop, born in the 1970s, combined the hardships of Black lives and their need to speak out on their collective plight. Hip hop and rap allowed Blacks to express themselves to the masses through storytelling, dancing, beats, and fashion. Archimede reminds the reader that the explosive popularity of hip hop in the 1980s and 1990s led to cultural appropriation perpetrated by whites, which mirrored previous attempts to imitate Black music seen in blues and jazz.
The disenfranchisement of Blacks throughout the history of the United States also played a large role in the birth of hip hop. According to the author, “The African-American’s integration into the mainstream seems to have failed. Actually, the gap between black and white communities has not stopped widening because each ethnic group has become more and more isolated in their own world.” Left with few resources and a racial past that saw more downs than ups, Black Americans used music to better their lives, speak out against oppression, tell their stories, and reconnect with their ancestors. This book further details the contributing factors that led to how Black society is viewed today in three parts: ‘Defining the African American,’ ‘Rap as music form,’ and ‘A sign of the emergence of a new Black Culture.’
“Black American History, From Plantations To Rap Culture” is not without its faults, however. The missteps in the book, released in 2018, start with the unfortunate inclusion of Afrika Bambaataa, one of the biggest names of rap’s first era who was forced to step down from hip hop awareness collective the Zulu Nation in 2016 due to multiple accusations of child sexual abuse. Additionally, the book can feel somewhat dated in its references as the vast majority of them predate the 21st century. R&B goddess Mary J. Blige is incorrectly referred to as a rapper in a photo included. A heavy reliance on other people’s words and works, distracting style errors, the overuse of particular phrases, and the scarcity of credit given to Black women drag down an otherwise introspective publication that regards the unbreakable resilience of African Americans in high esteem.
Archimede will be in Fort Lauderdale, Florida March 11 as part of the “We The Blacks: Black History From Plantation to Rap Culture” discussion along with authors Zach Tate and Mr. Hardge. The free event will be held at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center from 6:00 PM to 7:30 PM. “Black American History, from Plantations to Rap Culture” is available for purchase on Amazon.com in both French and English.