The best books in Atlantic cultural history

Who am I?

I am a philologist with a passion for Atlantic cultural history. What started with a research project on the African-American Pinkster tradition and the African community in seventeenth-century Dutch Manhattan led me to New Orleans’ Congo Square and has meanwhile expanded to the African Atlantic islands, the Caribbean, and Latin America. With fluency in several foreign languages, I have tried to demonstrate in my publications that we can achieve a better understanding of Black cultural and religious identity formation in the Americas by adopting a multilingual and Atlantic perspective. 


I wrote...

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians

By Jeroen Dewulf,

Book cover of From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square: Kongo Dances and the Origins of the Mardi Gras Indians

What is my book about?

From the Kingdom of Kongo to Congo Square presents a new interpretation of the Mardi Gras Indians, one of New Orleans’ most enigmatic cultural traditions. By interpreting this performance in an Atlantic context and using historical sources in multiple languages, I traced the “Black Indians” back to the ancient Kingdom of Kongo in Africa and its war dance known as “sangamento.” The book shows that talented warriors in the Kongo kingdom were by definition also good dancers, masters of a technique of dodging, spinning, and leaping that was crucial in local warfare. Furthermore, it demonstrates how this performance tradition accompanied enslaved Kongolese communities to the African island of São Tomé and, subsequently, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Louisiana.

The books I picked & why

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Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800

By John Thornton,

Book cover of Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800

Why this book?

This is my favorite book on Atlantic history. It had a profound influence on the way I came to understand Black cultural and religious identity formation in the Americas. In this groundbreaking study, Thornton explores Africa’s involvement in the Atlantic world from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries with a focus on the causes and consequences of the slave trade. It teaches us to look at Africa during the era of the transatlantic slave trade with a new perspective; not as a pure, virgin continent where people only took pride in indigenous traditions, but as a dynamic space marked by inter- and extra-African cultural and religious mixtures to which not only Arab-Islamic but also European-Christian—predominantly Iberian-Catholic—elements contributed substantially.


National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance

By John Charles Chasteen,

Book cover of National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance

Why this book?

In this fascinating study, Chasteen examines the historical experiences that molded Latin American popular dance from an Atlantic perspective. It delves into the “deep” history of Latin American culture and analyzes the development of dancing culture in its socio-historical context. This is not only a well-researched, but also a well written and oftentimes funny book that is broadly accessible. It is a must-read for any new scholar interested in the field of Black performance culture. Although the focus is on Latin America, Chasteen’s study reveals connections that are also of great importance to understanding the historical development of Black dance culture in North America.


Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World

By Jon F. Sensbach,

Book cover of Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World

Why this book?

This book studies Black Christian identity formation from an Atlantic perspective. Using the rich archival materials of the Renewed Unity of Brethren, commonly called the Moravian Church, Sensbach tells the story of the Christianization process of the enslaved population on the Virgin Islands. He narrates the formation of the earliest Black Protestant congregation in the Americas from the perspective of an enslaved woman, Rebecca, who became a Moravian evangelist. Sensbach highlights the role of African agents like her in the dissemination of Christianity and reveals that, among the former, many had already familiarized themselves with Christianity prior to their arrival in the Americas.


Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas: Performance, Representation, and the Making of Black Atlantic Tradition

By Cécile Fromont,

Book cover of Afro-Catholic Festivals in the Americas: Performance, Representation, and the Making of Black Atlantic Tradition

Why this book?

This edited volume studies Black festive traditions in the Americas that are rooted in African interpretations of early-modern Iberian customs. It shows how, from the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, enslaved and free Africans in the Americas used Catholic brotherhoods as spaces for cultural and religious expression, social organization, and mutual aid. By demonstrating that the syncretic development of certain Black performance traditions in the Americas is a phenomenon that already set in on African soil, it breaks with previous scholarship that (mis)interpreted these festive traditions in the Americas as new, Creole syncretisms. I am convinced that this pioneering book will strongly affect the way future generations of scholars will come to understand Black cultural and religious identity formation in the Americas.


Origins of a Creole: The History of Papiamentu and Its African Ties

By Bart Jacobs,

Book cover of Origins of a Creole: The History of Papiamentu and Its African Ties

Why this book?

This book studies Atlantic cultural history from the perspective of language, with a focus on Curaçao. A unique characteristic of this small Caribbean island is that its colonial rulers spoke Dutch, whereas the Black population used an Afro-Iberian creole called Papiamentu as its lingua franca. Jacob’s study embarks on an intriguing quest for the origins of this language, tracing it back to Portuguese-based creoles from the Cape Verde Islands and the nearby African West Coast. It argues that this seventeenth-century Portuguese-based creole later underwent significant Spanish influence and thereby constitutes a case of “reduplicated language contact.”


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