The slave trade and slavery left a
legacy of violence. Brutality, often of near-bestial proportions, was the
principal condition shaping the character of the enforced migration, whether
along a trade route, on board ship, or laboring on an American plantation. The
degree of power concentrated in the hands of North American slave owners,
interested only in maximizing their profits, allowed excessive levels of
physical punishment and the perpetuation of sexual abuse and exploitation that
have marked in many ways the development of the African-American community.
There was a marked sexual component to the assaults: rape was common.
Kinship was disregarded, particularly the paternity of children. Their status
reflected the enslaved status of their mothers, no matter who their father might
have been. Slave owners treated their unpaid, overworked labor forces as mere
Avoiding and resisting violence were determining characteristics of the
responses of the Africans to their forced migration experience. Individuals
attempted to evade physical abuse through strategies of accommodation, escape,
and on several occasions, violent rebellion. The
preservation and adaptation of African cultural forms to respond to the new
needs of the enslaved population was also an act of resistance to the
imposition of European norms.
Unlike earlier slave systems, in the Americas
racial distinctions were used to keep the enslaved population in bondage.
Contrary to what happened in Latin America, where racial stratification was
more complex, in North America, any person of identifiable African descent, no
matter the degree of "white" ancestry, was classified as colored,
Negro, or black. A racial caste system was established, and as a result
racialized attitudes and racism became an inherent and lasting part of North
Though enslaved individuals came from widely different backgrounds and
the number of ethnic groups and markers of identity were extensive, certain
ethnicities, cultural forms, and languages - usually in
pidgin and creolized forms - as well as religions proved
sustainable and were maintained, sometimes exaggerated and manipulated during
the process of adjusting to enslavement in the Americas.
The overarching result of African migration
during the slavery era was an "American" culture, neither "European" nor
"African," created in a political and economic context of inequality and
oppression. The African contribution to this new culture was a towering legacy,
hugely impacting on language, religion, music, dance, art, and cuisine. Most
importantly, an enduring sense of African-American community developed in the
face of white racism.