Wood-carvers, banterers and metalworkers supplied the necessary images, totem animals and other objects; weavers and designers of appliqueõ dressed the gods in fine clothes by making the special costumes required for cult ceremonies. Thus, the products of visual arts were universals in tribal life.
In tracing the antecedents of American art, conventional art histories focus on Egypt, then move northward and eastward through Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, then to Rome, England, and America. This is one way art influences have reached this country, however it ignores the numerous contributions made by sub-Sahara Africa to American culture. This neglect is tragic in the case of African American youth. One cannot fully understand his present, nor control his future, without knowing something about his past. African Americans have been unaware of their ancestral heritage for too long.
The African interior remained "the dark continent" until the nineteenth century, because it was unexplored and unknown to Europeans. The Christian missions and colonists that followed exploration encouraged a "condescending" attitude toward African culture and did nothing to change popular misconceptions about the continent.
It was not until in recent years that the long history and culture of Black Africa began to be realized. Early travelers accounts had given hints of the fabulous luxury of African kingdoms such as ancient Ghana, but few people read about them. Learning and culture were kept alive in Africa while Europe was obscured in its Dark ages. Although the Atlantic slave trade, and later colonialism were to bring a cultural eclipse to Africa, this cannot erase the fact that there were many highly developed cultures that compared favorably with those of Europe at that time.
Until the twentieth century, most people believed that the African American had no past worth mentioning. His ancestors came from such scattered parts of Africa that none of his cultural inheritance could have survived. The anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, who called this misconception "the myth of the Negro past," did much to dispel it in his book of the same name. African American scholars such as Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and Dr. John Hope Franklin also helped to shed light on the African American past.
The rise of new African nations and the presence of African diplomats and scholars in this country have created interest in African history and culture. These and other factors have brought about an encouraging change in attitudes and an appreciation for African art forms. In spite, of this knowledge of Africa remains fragmentary and there seems to be little understanding of the full relationship of Africa to American art and culture.
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