In African American and/or Black American culture, the African and or ancestral presence is both visible and invisible. The ways to name what is Black American is in music and the infamous cuisine that has come to be called “soul food.” The production of highly consumed products of Black labor and the descendants is more American than apple pie. For example, no one realizes the blue that appears in the denim that Americans wear so regularly, the corn they consume, the peanuts, soy, rice, the domestic tools, or the music that is deemed “American” owes to Black labor. Those things are often highlighted during Black History month when America pays lip service to the numerous contributions that Black Americans have made to the consumption and wealth of the country. However, the spiritual and religious contributions are often absorbed in the Black church or the way in which funerals are called “home going services.” The ring shout is a spiritual practice that has roots in the Gullah/Geechee culture of the coastal region of the Carolinas and Georgia and is seen in various places of Black culture. It is largely visible during Church services but the actual ring shout as it has been since the first ships were brought to North America and resides in the coastal region of Southeast America.
The Gullah and Geechee people that inhabit the coastal islands of Georgia as well as, North and South Carolina are the descendants of slaves and Indigenous people that were forced to inhabit these regions during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. These island people worked the rice plantations, dyed garments with Indigo through techniques that the Africans brought from Yorubaland. These dying techniques are seen in the sacred dying practices known as Adinkra[i] in present day Ghana and Adire (the sacred dye practices of the Yoruba) with the largest concentration residing in present day Nigeria. The art of Adire which are associated with the Yoruba deity known as Osun/Oshun (O shoon)[ii]. The Gullah and Geechee people are also known for their basket weaving techniques that use the sweet grass of the coast.[iii] However, despite having drumming and drums outlawed from the Anglo/English Colonies of North America the rhythm and spirit of the culture did not die.[iv]
Instead, the Africans and their descendants had to find new ways to keep the rhythms alive. Therefore, stomping, clapping, and oral sounds were ways that the enslaved Africans could keep their musical, oral, and ancestral traditions alive while subversively appearing to acquiesce to their subjugated position. Yet, during and after slavery those who were the descendants of the enslaved and the newly emancipated were forced to assimilate to an unachievable standard of whiteness and respectability. Many who were enslaved and later emancipated were illiterate and therefore the culture was retained through oral history. Consequently, many who were enslaved were sold repeatedly and died with their history. Others as a form of survival often denied or erased their enslaved and African ancestry. While some in an act of defiance retained the oral lore and history that their ancestors retained despite the dehumanizing project of chattel slavery. Places like Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, St. Vincent, and Louisiana are places where people can retain a large bulk of their African past. The Gullah and Geechee people are also a part of this body of historical retention.
The ring shout is the earth based ancestral practice that the enslaved performed in order to connect with spirit, remind themselves that they too were fully human and are spiritual beings, and to pay homage to their ancestors. Unfortunately, if It wasn’t for the work of the McIntosh County shouters,[v] Julie Dash’s film, “Daughters of the Dust[vi],” Haile Gerima’s film, “Sankofa,” Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salteaters, Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men and Their Eyes were Watching God or Luiseh Teish’s Jambalaya. African/Black Americans would not know that they have an African/Indigenous influence that does not align with Christianity.
The ring shout is a dance and song ritual that is performed in a circle that rotates counter clockwise. There is a lead singer that performs a call and response style of singing the participants respond as the lead calls out songs and rhythms are performed while the dancers rotate in a circle. There is a rhythm keeper who bangs a large wooden staff on a plank of wood which replicates the drums that were removed. Singers stomp and clap as the ring shout continues. The counter clockwise rotation replicates the ways in which Candomblé priests in Brazil[vii] perform during rituals, the Vodun of Haiti/Benin[viii], as well as priests of the Ifa/Orisa tradition in Yorubaland and Cuba.[ix]
Recently, cultural historian Rashida Bumbray has made it her mission to retain the oral, spiritual, and ancestral lore of the Ring shout[x]. Rashida Bumbray[xi], is a New York based performance artist that has studied extensively the Gullah/ Geechee people of the costal South east and the intricacies of the Ring Shout. Her installation “Run Mary Run,” was performed in Weeksville which is a former town located in Brooklyn that was the place where freemen and women of African descent lived after they were emancipated from slavery. Weeksville was discovered in the 1960s when a black historian that had a pilot’s license flew above Brooklyn and found the location. Since the re-discovery/reclamation of Weeksville[xii] there are cultural activities that commemorate the freed people that inhabited the town. Weeksville, unlike Seneca Village,[xiii] it remained intact because unlike Seneca Village it wasn’t turned into a park or paved over. Instead, it was never incorporated into the Brooklyn grid.
In addition to her installation “Run Mary Run,” hip-hop recording artist Common utilized Bumbray’s installation for his video “Black America Again,” which she (Bumbray) performs a solo in the beginning and then she and her troupe perform a ring shout[xiv].
Like many Black/African Americans I was taught and forced to ingest that we were enslaved, Lincoln freed us, Rosa Parks gave up her seat and now we are citizens. The human stain that became the ways in which blackness is quantified in this country is why many are forced to imagine their legacies before and during the Holocaust of the Trans-Oceanic Slave Trade. Nor could one imagine that we have a spiritual and cultural legacy that surpasses the ships crossing the Atlantic into North, Central, and South America or the various Oceans during the Global European expansion that brought Africans across the Pacific and Indian ocean during the same time-period. I use the term Trans-Oceanic because although I am focusing on American and the Trans-Atlantic my job is to also reveal/recover that the slave trade was not just the Atlantic but involved all the sailable bodies of water.
Instead, cultural anthropologists such as Bumbray and the breadth/celebrity of artists like Common people of African descent are reminded that we too have an ancestral/cultural legacy that began before our arrival on the shores of the Americas.