The West African proverb “Sankofa,” which means to “return to the root,” expresses the approach and perspective of Africa in Florida in terms of understanding cultural heritage, historical significance and contemporary interpretations of African influences. Africa in Florida, edited by Amanda B. Carlson and Robin Poynor, is a modern and inspiring text comprising eighteen essays written or cowritten by twenty different authors. Much of the research is original and presented by scholars who are experts in the fields of art history, anthropology, history, and religious studies.
The study's well-developed essays are grouped into five parts. Part I, “Introducing Africa in Florida,” discusses Africa and its connection to the forthcoming analysis of four historical periods, the antebellum, Civil War, Jim Crow, and civil rights periods. Part II, “Seeking Freedom in and out of Florida,” provides a historical review of African captives and slavery, an examination of beadwork and black townships that connect African and Seminole communities, and a discussion of the famous Kingsley Plantation. Part III, “Forging New Identities,” examines African and African-descendant identities. We are reminded, conversely, that not all Africans in America came in chains under the yoke of slavery. We learn of Tomas de Saliere Tucker, who came in search of opportunities. He earned a BA degree from Oberlin College in 1865 and a law degree at Straight University in New Orleans. Tucker relocated to Florida, where he served as director of schools for colored teachers. We also learn of Laura Kofi, the daughter of an Asante king in Ghana, who was sent to the United States to educate and repatriate American blacks to Africa. Before being assassinated, she had been a rising star in the Florida branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA).1
Africa in Florida really comes alive with the fourth and fifth parts. In Part IV, “Connecting Across the Caribbean,” scholars examine cultural traditions in West African communities and their adapted versions in New World societies. This includes the examination of crowns as emblems of Catholic saints and Yoruba kings and the ways in which crowns are used in the veneration of orisha. Another interesting discussion is on Ekpe, a forest spirit associated with the Cross River regions of Nigeria and Cameroon, which was transplanted to Florida via the transatlantic trade. People in Florida celebrate aspects of Abakua (a society rooted in Ekpe) by holding festivals and parties. This unit makes a significant contribution to our understanding of African cultural retentions in African diasporas.
Part V, “(Re)Making Africa in Florida,” is innovative because the essays present original research along with captivating stories of black people who live and practice the African experience. For most people, this means learning about African cultures and customs. Serious African American scholars, such as Onabamiero Ogunleye, travel to Nigeria for knowledge and inspiration. Robin Poynor and Ade Ofunniyin explore such reconstructions of African American identity by observing Ogunleye as a follower of Yoruba religion and his efforts to create sacred spaces that are reflective of who he is and what he believes. They refer to Ogunleye as “Baba,” a term meaning “godfather”—one who is of great knowledge and who mentors or teaches others. The writers described Ogunleye as a self-taught sculptor who found inspiration from Robert Farris Thompson's Black Gods and Kings2 and who perfected his artistic skills primarily through experimentation. After becoming rooted in African religious traditions Ogunleye was able to bring forth carvings symbolic of specific Yoruba gods. The text describes Ogunleye's home (an Ifaloa compound) as a place where his sculptures (Esu, Ogun, and Obatala) are arranged in ways that create ritual space conducive for orisha worship, as well as generate a spiritual environment favorable for living the African experience. According to Poynor these spaces are based on how sacred groves were organized in Nigeria, which create an openness that allows spiritual energies to be conjured, released, and embodied.
Also in Part V, Amanda Carlson provides an examination of Igbo culture in Nigeria and in Florida. She discusses, for example, how Nigeria was originally divided along ethnic boundaries—where the Muslim majority (Hausa and Fulani) made up the north and the Christian majority resided in the south (Yoruba in the southwest and Igbo in the southeast). Then, after Nigeria's independence (1960), the search for a national identity ruptured relations between the people of the north and south, igniting the Biafra Civil War (1967–1970). Igbo led the rebellion; millions died due to starvation as a result of government blockades. After the surrender, Igbo were oppressed and marginalized throughout Nigeria. As a result, large numbers of Igbo migrated to the United Kingdom and the United States. Most interesting, however, is Carlson's analysis of Igbo culture in Florida, where she finds organizations structured as those in Nigeria. Organizations such as the Igbo Union of Tampa Bay celebrate Igbo culture and transmit their values through masquerade. In Nigeria and in Florida, masquerade is viewed as a male profession. Because of gender restrictions, women in Nigeria were prohibited from attending masquerade, but in the United States women are an essential part of the audience. In Florida, performances take place in rented ballrooms rather than special groves and are accompanied by other organized events and Nigerian cuisine and dancing. Carlson maintains that masquerades are emblems of African identity that demonstrate continuity and change.
In the final analysis, Africa in Florida is a welcome addition to the current literature on the African diaspora. I highly recommend this book for graduate students and scholars interested in the retention and perpetuation of African cultural features in American visual and performance arts and religious practices.
Vast numbers of blacks had migrated to Florida from the Caribbean during the first Great Migration period, bringing with them a more radical philosophy than that of US blacks. Verbert White explains that Miami's UNIA had over two thousand members composed of these culturally different groups who held suspicion and disdain for each other. We learn that it was these divisions that provided fertile ground for hate, harassment and murder. Laura Kofi was assassinated while lecturing at Liberty Hall.
Robert Farris Thompson, Black Gods and Kings: Yoruba Art at UCLA (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1971).