A Response to Enslavement: Playing Their Way to Virtue, by Peter A. Roberts

Stephen Stuempfle
2019 NWIG  
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, the music, dance, and masquerades of enslaved Africans in the English/British Caribbean inspired myriad descriptions in books written by the region's planters, officials, and travelers. This literature has long been scrutinized by historians, anthropologists, folklorists, and literary scholars; see, for example, Roger D. Abrahams and John F. Szwed, After Africa (1983) and Richard D.E. Burton, Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition, and Play in the
more » ... Play in the Caribbean (1997). In his latest book, however, linguist Peter A. Roberts offers a fresh perspective on these sources through an in-depth comparative analysis that also considers selected works by French and Spanish writers. In the course of his discussion, he identifies recurring themes and rhetorical patterns, while also providing a sense of how and why Africans and their descendants engaged in various forms of recreation, ritual, and festivity. According to European observers, the enslaved population spent a lot of time singing and dancing. While there are many reports of singing during work, it was weekend, holiday, and other special events that attracted the most attention. There are numerous accounts of dance gatherings held between Saturday night and Monday morning, often centered on individuals or couples performing within a communal ring. Christmas season festivities were also common. In Jamaica, for example, there were diverse outdoor processions that typically involved competing "parties" (groups), such as the "set girls" with their fine color-coordinated costumes, and the male John Connu masquerades, whose emphasis shifted over time from the grotesque to the elegant. Observers were particularly intrigued by funerals, which featured lively music-making, dancing, and communication with the deceased. Roberts notes that writers described such funerary activities as "play," thus drawing on one of several English dialectical meanings of the word. By the late eighteenth century, writers were suggesting that "play" was a term used by enslaved Africans for a variety of outdoor performances that involved dance and imagination. Throughout his discussion, Roberts addresses the limitations of this body of literature: the writers' incomplete and stereotypical descriptions, their generalizations from limited observations, and their recycling of information and even verbatim passages from previous accounts. For example, reports on dancing in the Caribbean drew on European descriptions of stamping, jumping, advances/retreats, and other movements in dances in West Africa. Roberts also examines especially influential writers, such as the French priest Jean-Baptiste Labat, who employed the term "calenda" (probably derived from the Roman Downloaded from Brill.com02/11/2020 03:27:25AM via free access
doi:10.1163/22134360-09301014 fatcat:yznq6zi2urdphbszegkk3vblha