Africans in America (Dec. 15, 2004)

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Africans in America

Dec. 15, 2004    News media contact:  Michael Wacht*    
407-897-1140     Orlando  {0208}

NOTE:  A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

On my recent trip to Angola to learn about the life of our Church in Africa, I found myself thinking about African-Americans. Staying in a house in the residential area of Malanje, every day I was able to observe the ordinary lives of Angolans. I was struck by how familiar the people seemed.  They reminded me of the African-Americans with whom I had grown up in the Mississippi Delta.

MALANGE, Angola — Children at the orphanage greet Bishop Timothy and Melba Whitaker during their late November visit. Photo by Melba Whitaker, Photo #04-0120.

In our country we tend to assume that the horrible institution of slavery caused a radical discontinuity between African-Americans and their African heritage. It is a fact that owners of slaves in North America intentionally severed African-Americans from their tribes by dividing them upon their arrival in America and then later separating individuals from their families. In South America the policy was to maintain slaves in their tribes in hopes of encouraging tribal rivalry and, thus, diminishing the opportunities for a massive rebellion by the slaves. The result of the North American policy of breaking up the tribes was a substantial loss of tradition among African-Americans. Practices in rituals and crafts were lost.

Yet, the loss of African tradition among African-Americans obscures the preservation of an African sensibility in African-Americans. The eminent anthropologist Colin Turnbull, who specialized in field studies of African tribes, said that while African-Americans are loyal Americans "they always have been Africans in other respects, in terms of their beliefs and attitudes, in terms of their integrated way of life, which their utter repression and enforced poverty only help to strengthen" ("Man in Africa," Anchor Books, 1977, p. 201). Signs of African-Americans' distinctive feeling of being African can be found, Turnbull observed, in their music, sense of family and experience of deep unity in religion. One of the striking characteristics of Africans that is found also in African-Americans is a deep way of being communal, in contrast to the Northern European's proclivity toward extreme individualism. In the sons and daughters of Africa the capacity for kinship is highly advanced.

MALANGE, Angola — Staff of the Eastern Angola Conference are led by their bishop, the Rev. José Quipungo (front left),  in spontaneous dance and song in appreciation for a day off. The group accompanied Bishop Timothy and Melba Whitaker on a trip to the Kalandula Falls. Photo by Melba Whitaker, Photo #04-0121.

African-Americans have enriched American culture so much that contemporary American culture would be unrecognizable without the influence of African-Americans. Many believe that African-Americans are also the "pillar" of the Christian community in America. I believe that both our culture and the Church are in need of the African sensibility embodied by African-Americans in their awareness of spiritual and religious realities and their communal way of being.
My brief exposure to Africans left me with a new awareness of the continuity between African-Americans and their African origins, a deeper gratitude for the contributions of African-Americans to American culture, and a desire that all of us in America and around the globe will look to peoples of Africa for the ways of being human that give hope for the future of the world.

For news and updates on the progress of the partnership with the Eastern Angola Conference go to

This commentary relates to Missions and Global Connection.

*Wacht is director of Florida United Methodist Communications and managing editor
of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.

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