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6 Things to Love About Alabama: The indelible stamp of African and Caribbean culture

Many of the things we identify as “Southern” came from foreign shores

McCormick Grill Mates

It is almost impossible to break these up into discrete, distinct units. But, what holds true for Alabama equally holds true for most of the deep south — many of the things we culturally identify as “Southern” hail from foreign shores. And, in the South, much of that cultural lineage is traceable back to the 500,000 African and Carib slaves brought to the region over a century-and-a-half. When their traditions and values and folktales and lore and religions were tossed into the Protestant, largely Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Scots predominating culture, what was created was a syncretism that makes the region one of the most interesting and culturally vital in the nation.

One of the first things a visitor to the region notices is the food. And, if you’re a native and have left, then food is perhaps the thing you instantly miss. So, do you like soul food — that comforting meat-and-three plate heaped with veggies and greens? Some rice and gravy? How about a hearty Étouffée over a bed of rice?

Africans were accustomed to large quantities of greens and vegetables in their diet, so black cooks incorporated more of these sorts of foods into the daily fare of the white man. Some historians say that the addition of such vitamin- and mineral-rich food plants saved white slaveholders from nutritional deficiencies.

The diet in Africa was centered around stews served over a starchy base such as rice; or “fufu,” a pounded mass of boiled yams, cassava, or millet. The effect of this food habit is today especially evident in Louisiana-style cookery in which chicken or seafood is served with a sauce over a bed of rice. Cajun dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya also demonstrate the African hand.

Even the word “okra” is Somali — and the vegetable itself is from West Africa.

How about that most southern of all institutions, barbecue? It’s a Carib dish. The 17th century Spaniards saw the native Arawak Indians drying whole hogs over wooden frames suspended over pits. They called the dish “barbacoa.” From there, both the word and dish were readily transplanted to the Southern states. Hogs found a haven in the Deep South with its abundance of fungus-resistant corn. And, for a poor region, the ability to turn cheaper cuts of meat into something tasty was a godsend.

Some of the most common stories still shared have the roots as African folktales, and they have left their mark on the oral story-telling tradition of the region and upon its people: Bre’r Rabbit and Bre’r Fox, Old John, Uncle Remus. And to this day — particularly in the context of politics — becoming embroiled in a difficult situation of your own making, and subsequently made worse by your further actions, is called a tar baby.

As with most cross-cultural pollination, African phrases make appearances in our very language: Mumbo jumbo? Bantu. Hoodoo and Juju? Swahili and Nigerian. Voodoo and zombie? Haitian. Highly-athletic, dangerous and mobile athletes dubbing themselves “mambas?” Zulu. When one regains their mojo, they’re paying homage to that tradition, which is Bantu.

But, probably nowhere does the stamp of African and Carib culture appear more than on our musical landscape. Much ink has been spilled over rock’s origins, and that musical style begins with first and foremost its backbeat: without Celtic and African drum beats, there is no rock ‘n’ roll. More than just a good rhythm section though, rock often features calls and responses — usually choruses sections. That, my friends, is also originally from Africa and came to this country along with the African slaves.

The best-selling call and response song of all time by the way? It’s from these guys. Now, please enjoy this amazing video:

More than in just rock, Africa’s musical tendrils reach deep into other genres. Besides the drums, we have the bongos (African-Cuban), and Marimbas (Nigerian), and Xylophones (Congolese), and that most stereotypically-southern of all instruments: the banjo. Not only was the banjo born in the US, a creation of West African slaves, those people gave the instrument its very name.

Locally, their descendants would in turn give us so very many musical influences and legends that touched a wider world. In the South, singing the Blues is a given — Dinah Washington from Tuscaloosa, the so-called “Queen of the Blues,” was the most popular recording artist of the 1950s. She is now enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. W.C. Handy — the Father of the Blues — was born in Florence. He, his band, and that iconic trumpet gave rise to the later Jazz scene that would start in black communities in New Orleans. Handy has a park and a festival named in his honor. He is in the Jazz Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. More recently, Lionel Ritchie and a group of “jazz buffs” at Tuskegee would begin their own musical project, one which combined technical mastery, contemporary disco, and traditional folk rhythm sections — the Commodores were among the creators of funk.

There are countless other ways, small and large, that the region has benefited from its exposure to a African and Caribbean culture; one needn’t look too far to find others, either. That pastiche that we identify as uniquely Southern is largely indebted to the uneasy merger of cultural traditions. It was an involuntary marriage, to be sure. But, it is now impossible to imagine what we know as the “South” without those historical footprints.

There are now just 6 days until football season.

Roll Tide