J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

Brothers and Bush Negroes

Two views of the Suriname Maroons

S. Allen Counter, David Evans, Richard Price and Sally Price have all canoed their way into the rainforest of Suriname to examine the culture and arts of the so-called Maroons, societies descended from escaped plantation slaves. Their experiences and analysis are recorded in a number of works, including Counter and Evans' I Sought My Brother and the Price's Maroon Arts: Cultural Vitality in the African Diaspora.

The goals and conclusions of the two pairs of anthropologists are so sharply divergent, it is hard to believe that they both published major books on the topic only a year apart. In I Sought My Brother, Counter and Evans are fairly one faceted in their reasons for examining the Suriname Maroons: they are looking for their African-American roots by attempting to find the "purest African-descended people in this hemisphere— a significant number of people who by all appearances are as African today as were their ancestors three hundred years ago. (Counter and Evans 1981:xvi)" In this case, neither researcher is a professional anthropologist, and their research and documentation is devoid of much serious analysis beyond reporting their experiences. Richard and Sally Price, however, have a more far-reaching and inclusive goal: to explain the arts and culture of the Maroons on their own terms, exploring the vitality of the traditions and artforms. As they have conducted research for many years among a broader cross-section of Maroon communities, they are able to construct a detailed history and analysis. In marked contrast to Counter and Evans, they make a point of downplaying the notion of African continuity, but do not deny that there is some influence from West and Central Africa.

Both pairs take a similar approach to research, but they construct their conclusions in markedly different ways. They use historical documentary evidence from missionaries, colonial officials, and other non-anthropologist types, as well as earlier ethnography and art history. Also, the Prices utilize museum collections around the world to construct a document stylistic history. Everyone's main focus, however, is on fieldwork. Counter and Evans specifically try to find the most remote locations possible, looking for the people least influenced by Western civilization, to observe and record (in words and on film) the most 'accurate' culture. The Prices are more concerned with reporting about these people as they actually are, rather than as the other authors want them to be to achieve their 'goal,' which was for Counter and Evans more personal and symbolic than scholarly and lends a certain amount of romanticism to their thoughts and writing. Therefore, Counter and Evans' book lacks an interesting thesis; they observe, then write about it, the end. Maroon Arts, on the other hand, is a focused study of the art and art history of a society, created over a long period of fieldwork, museum and library research. In an uncommon burst of continuity, both pairs abandon the need to write "encyclopedic ethnography, trying to represent Maroon culture in the voice of omniscient (and, for the most part, textually absent) observers. (Price and Price 1999:3)," which contributes to their respective texts being easily engaging and readable.

Both books begin with background/historical information about the groups in Suriname. I Sought My Brother's material centers more on the colonial period and the Maroons' struggle for peace with the Dutch planters, creating a sense of disconnection and distance between the modern reader and the events of hundreds of years ago. The opening chapters of Maroon Arts focus, instead, on more recent conflicts and change in Suriname and French Guiana. They examine the ways that the Maroons live in the forest at this time, underlining that the culture is not operating in a vacuum, a point of view which Counter and Evans implicitly adopt by assuming that the hundreds of years that have passed since the Maroons journey from Africa have not affected the strength and expression of African tradition, an oversimplification that the Prices soundly refute.

In describing the naming of a shrine, Counter and Evans assert that "the name Dahomey suggests that the village's first inhabitants probably were abducted from the West African country of the same name. (C&E1981:199)" This seems fairly reasonable, but is oversimplified, and characteristic of Counter and Evans' conclusions about the African influence in Suriname. The Prices, however, recognize that the African past is continued in more subtle ways.

"For example, in a study of African-American personal naming systems—we were able to demonstrate that the strength of African influence on the actual pool of names in use within a given society is often inversely related to the strength of African influence on the ways names are created, used, and attached to their bearers. (P&P1999:300)"

Then, is it not possible that Dahomey is a completely arbitrary name, given by someone unfamiliar with the kingdom? Of course it is. So, it comes to be seen that Counter and Evans are not completely wrong in their broad assumptions, but may not fully understand the ways in which Africanness is expressed in Maroon society. This general 'Africanness' is summed up brilliantly by the Prices:

"It can be argued that of all African American peoples, the Maroons of the Guianas have had the greatest freedom to combine and extrapolate African ideas and to adapt them creatively to changing circumstances. This perspective, which focuses attention on process rather than form, helps us understand why observers of Maroon life find it so "African" in feeling even though it is virtually devoid of directly transplanted African systems. (P&P1999:301)"

Clearly the Prices emphasize vitality where Counter and Evans rely on supposed historical connections to make their arguments. The Africanness of the Maroons is the most significant point (and only interesting one, really) made by I Sought My Brother. Maroon Arts focuses on the vitality in the arts and culture as a uniquely Maroon creation; the requisite comparison to African traditions is (refreshingly, thankfully) left to the end of the text, after the arts have been discussed at great length without mentioning the A-word.

Research to follow up Maroon Arts might include a study of the unique situation of those Maroons living nearest the coast; a discussion of the extent of Western influence upon the arts in very recent times (from 1970) would be interesting, as well as the effect that emigration to French Guiana is having upon Maroon culture generally. Also, to what extent are the arts becoming a cottage industry for tourists? Or is this just the next step in the evolution of woodcarving: to recycle the most popular styles and produce them for profit. Also, how do we (as art historians and ethnographers) handle these objects? Are they to be discounted, not being 'serious art,' or can they be displayed and studied along with the more traditional materials? I would probably try to answer these questions by collecting objects and taking them to different villages, displaying them without telling where they originated, to determine how they are reacted to aesthetically, then discussing the fact that they were produced for sale to tourists. Who knows, the Saramaka might love painting on canvas and hang them everywhere, or start painting on cloth for clothing. It would be interesting to see if they feel that these practices are somehow affecting the legitimacy and tradition of their arts, and to what extent it is pardoned for being a reasonable means to an economic end.

So, while I Sought My Brother isn't a bad book, its explanations and interpretations of Maroon culture is too simplified and not quite accurate enough to give the reader a full understanding of Maroon traditions. Maroon Arts, however, provides an extensive history and sensitive interpretation of art and aesthetics in Suriname and a much more interesting look beyond the exoticism of the bush culture into the humanity and fascinating value system of a truly remarkable group.

References

Counter, S. Allen and David Evans, I Sought My Brother: An Afro-American Reunion, MIT Press, 1981.

Price, Richard and Sally Price, Maroon Arts: Cultural Vitality in the African Diaspora, Beacon Press, 1999.