Sterling Stuckey, charted African culture in slavery, dies at 86

NEW YORK — Sterling Stuckey, an eminent black historian who challenged his white colleagues by documenting how uprooted Africans not only retained their culture while they survived slavery but eventually suffused the rest of American society with their transplanted folkways, died on Aug. 15 in Riverside, Calif. He was 86.

His wife, Harriette, said he had a stroke nine days earlier in his office. He taught history at the University of California Riverside, from 1989 until he retired in 2004. He had recently finished the manuscript of his latest book, “The Chambers of the Soul: Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville and the Blues.”


Through meticulous research, Sterling Stuckey sought to discredit the white academics who had dominated and, in his view, devalued the field of African studies.

Early on he was bitterly critical of “numerous white experts on black Africa,” as he described them, who “have elaborated a fabric of untruths to rationalize continued white control over African studies.”

Beginning with his breakthrough essay, “Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery,” published in 1968 by The Massachusetts Review, Dr. Stuckey maintained that political and cultural studies of Africa must encompass people in North America and the West Indies.

He wrote that enslaved workers imported to those places from diverse tribes, with slavery as a unifying force, perpetuated and adapted their traditional music, dance, poetry, and art to resist the efforts of slave owners to destroy or demean that heritage, and that those traditions went on to imbue modern American culture.

Still, in colleges as well as in the cotton fields “the besmirching of the African past” became pivotal to the process not only of enslaving blacks but of destroying their spiritual and psychological moorings.

“His article stood out as the harbinger of the new slavery studies that would be taken up in the next decade,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, chairwoman of Harvard University’s history department and president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, said in a statement after Dr. Stuckey’s death.


In 1970, when “Through the Prism of Folklore” was included in an anthology of essays, Julius Lester, an author and professor, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Dr. Stuckey had methodically made the case that in the long years of slavery the black spiritual — among other cultural tools — “was a major weapon of resistance to that dehumanizing institution . . . and the principal means through which the slaves fashioned and maintained an identity.’’

Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, said in an e-mail Dr. Stuckey “helped us to see that the enslaved Africans who came to the New World did not sail alone: They brought their various cultures and belief systems along with them.”

“And out of these rich resources,” he added, “they, in contact with dozens of other African and European cultures for the first time, improvised the world’s first truly Pan-African culture, an African-American culture, as it were, in the New World, similar in form to that of its several antecedents, but different, unique. And that is the culture to which all Americans are heir today.”

Dr. Stuckey, a native of Memphis who earned his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at Northwestern University, once said that while growing up he was most inspired by two books, W.E.B. Du Bois’s “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903) and “Folk Songs of North America” (1960) by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.


Blacks who suffered under slavery, he said, were united by a centripetal force, which inspired Pan-Africanism, spirituals, and the blues.

“It was the lasting contribution of slaves to create an artistic yield that matched their enormous gift of labor, in tobacco and cotton,” Dr. Stuckey, who also taught at Northwestern, wrote in his preface to the 25th anniversary edition of “Slave Culture” (2013). “We must add that the intellectual as well as the cultural and economic history of the African-American is rooted in slavery.”