S. Allen Counter had been traveling for several days in the jungle of South America when he arrived at a settlement of the Bush Afro-Americans of Surinam -- a little-known group of displaced Africans which has preserved its original culture for three centuries.
"We had been allowed to press a time button and step back and see what our ancestors were truly like," says Counter, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School.
In the middle of the thatched palm huts, Counter and David Evans, an engineer and Harvard colleague, had reunited with a people whose ancestors had been transported there by the Dutch in the 17th century. The Bush Afro-Americans, as Counter calls them, had waged a century of guerrilla warfare, won, signed treaties that brought them a yearly tribute and had lived with little or no contact with outsiders.
The elders welcomed the men with a quiz. "They said . . . 'Where is this place where you live?' And we drew a map on the ground. 'If you are from this place, tell us something, have you run away to the big bush yet?' We tried to tell them there was no bush. So they said, 'Are you still fighting?' We were shocked at the level of profundity. Then they said, 'Have you won?' By that time we were both shedding tears," says Counter, who answered, "The battle is still being fought."
Part of Counter's curiosity about the 50 million Afro-Americans in this hemisphere, and his immersion into Surinam culture, stemmed from the late 1960s Afro-American call for a tightening of the links with Africa, but he was also urged on by a nagging historical misfortune. "My parents had told me ever since I was a little child that very few blacks had won battles of pride. There were few instances of real success over slavery. I wanted to see where there had been pockets of real strong resistance to slavery. I knew of the efforts here, of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner. But I wanted to find evidence of this," says Counter, who borrowed from his parents and used his own savings for his study.
Now, after eight years of encounters and summer research on this almost perfectly preserved African presence, Counter and his associates have compiled 50,000 feet of film, some shown in a 1978 public television film, and have written a recently published diary called, "I Sought My Brother."
Counter says some of the most excited viewers have been Africans, who recognize some of the language, the drums and leg bracelets, the architecture and social structures, and other elements of the Bush Afro-American's life. "All the African cultures invariably try to claim them. If you show it in Nigeria, the Nigerians say, 'Clearly Nigerians, probably Housas up from the north'; If you show it in Togo, 'Those people are the Bassari tribe, we know they are our people'; in Ghana, they will say, 'Look at the carving on the stools, they are Akan people,' " says Counter, laughing at this rush for cultural ownership.
"Frankly most of them are from Ghana, Togo and Angola. We have evidence, in fact." And he tells the story of discovering a book in the Nobel Institute Library with a note by a female naturalist, written in the 1700s. "She had a passage: 'This plant is used by the Indian women there to induce abortion. The Indian women of Surinam are very horribly treated by their white enslavers and do not wish to bear children who must live under equally horrible circumstances. The African women who come mainly from Guinea and Angola also use this plant to induce abortion and they may also use the seeds to induce suicide, since they believe their bodies will die in slavery but their souls will go back to live in Africa . . . with their loved ones.' "
At 35, Counter exudes an understandable arrogance about the specialness of his research. The Counter-Evans work is one of the few modern studies of the Bush Afro-Americans by black scholars. The best-known study before theirs had been a narrative by John Gabriel Stedman written during visits from 1772 to 1777. Counter's manner is definite. His navy and brown attire is precise; there is nothing haphazard about the perch of his beret, or the assertive explanations about his work.
"When I see people flocking there to 'study' them, I feel very bad about that. Many can say, 'Well, you went there to study them,' sure, and we tried in every effort to bring the information back to Afro-Americans, to say there is a connecting link, definitely a connecting link between the Afro-Americans in this hemisphere and Africa," he says.
In the book, he feels, he was able to break some stereotypes. "We never use the word 'slavemasters,' all whites who enslaved us are called 'enslavers.' I am convinced that people . . . use that because they really believe there was a master to the slave. It keeps whites at a certain level. If you can be a master, it implies you have powerful control."
He says he is also working to break racial stereotypes in his academic work. Besides his staff position at the Harvard Medical School, Counter is the director of the Harvard Foundation, a campus agency created to deal with racial insensitivity on the campus. This is a problem, he feels, that ranges from the all-white baseball team to the attitudes of professors. "We have professors who are very arrogant and who may treat the average white student like the student deserves to be there, [like the student] has entitlement. And at the same time convey to the black student, who deserves just as much to be there, that they are nothing more than an affirmative-action case," says Counter.
The world of the Bush Afro-Americans, however, is a cause for which time is running out. Since achieving independence from the Dutch in 1975, the government of Surinam has started developing its mineral resources and encouraging tourism. The Bush Afro-Americans have reacted sharply, moving further into the interior and punishing the younger people who flirt with modernization.
"They even break up the boats, the canoes of the young people who want to leave," says Counter. An encounter with a 35-year-old who had gone down river to work for a mining company illustrates the extent of this anxiety. "He told us his own people tried to kill him because he wanted to clear some land for the bakrah's white's bird to land. He wanted to help people get to the hospital easily. He was told, 'You bring the white man in, you bring evil.' They feel he the white is crazy about gold.
"But he knew, and we know, encroachment is inevitable."