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The African Diaspora:
Voices and Rhythms

While African peoples had migrated from Africa for millenias prior to the 15th century, it is during the period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that the vast majority of African migration took place. Over a period of almost four centuries, it is estimated that at least ten million Africans were forced from their families and enslaved in a new world where everything familiar was absent. The African diaspora is the story of how Africans managed to retain traditions and reform identities in spite of persecution. African cultural elements, such as religion, language, and music, blended over time with other cultures in the United States to create today's mosaic of American culture.

Voices from the African diaspora can also be found reflected in the texts of many famous American writers, including Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Richard Wright. Toni Morrison once said that African American literature has contributed such a wealth of words, phrases, literary conventions, and rhythms to American Literature as a whole that "the literature of America is incoherent without the contribution of...Black writers."

The history of American music exemplifies the cultural interaction of Africans with Europeans in America. Many musical instruments in use today, including the banjo and xylophone, have been adapted from traditional African instruments. Slave traders allowed slaves to retain their drums on slave ships as a form of exercise to prevent illness among the slaves and financial losses for the traders. In 1953, Langston Hughes stated that American music is soaked in African-American rhythms.Ragtime, jazz, rock, r&b, and hip hop all demonstrate elements of America's melded cultural legacy.

Perhaps in the swift change of American society in which the meanings of one’s origin are so quickly lost, one of the chief values of living with music lies in its power to give us an orientation in time. In doing so, it gives significance to all those indefinable aspects of experience which nevertheless help to make us what we are. In the swift whirl of time music is a constant, reminding us of what we were and of that toward which we aspired.

Ralph Ellison

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