On the street, in the classroom and in professional papers, definition and analysis of African-American culture have produced controversy. Wikipedia gives this definition: “African-American culture (also known as Black-American culture)… refers to the cultural contributions of African Americans to the culture of the U.S., either as part of, or distinct from, American culture.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African-American_culture, accessed 7Jul16.
Such a basic definition elicits further questions: Does Black culture include all those of darker color? Does African-American culture include Africans and their families who have more recently immigrated to the U.S. apart from the experience of slavery and Jim Crow? Should we be referring to African-American cultures, plural rather than singular? And, if we accept a concept of Black culture in the U.S., how does that compare to White culture?
An appreciation of African-American culture calls for recognition of the rich cultural legacy of African tribes and great civilizations, the effects of colonization, the slave trade, slavery and making the best “culture” out of centuries of discrimination and servitude. It demands, as well, recognition of the greats such as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, W.E.B. Dubois, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many outstanding and pioneering Black athletes and musicians—and so many more.
We speak of a U.S. culture or American culture. But we do this presumptively, overlooking Latin-American and Canadian cultures. Our so-called American culture is really an amalgamation of Native-American, African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, European-American, and other ethnology-racial cultures. “American” culture cannot be separated from its constituent parts. To some degree or other, then, we “Americans,” whether original inhabitants, free immigrants, forced immigrant slaves, and those most recently becoming citizens, all share African-American culture (as part of our shared cultural identity). Bearing such a “shared” American identity means bearing all cultural parts that have contributed to the melding/making of this culture and identity. We need, then, to be familiar with our full heritage. The U.S. is a nation of diverse cultures, and this diversity of cultures is a part of our identity and our cultural richness.
Black culture, as portrayed to whites and others, is often far from Black culture as experienced. As Justin Simien reminds us: “… by the time “Black culture” is being used to sell a product or idea, it’s already been reinterpreted by White people. This isn’t necessarily malicious, but it’s something to note. We are often told what being Black is by people who aren’t. Up and coming hip hop artists are molded to appeal to the masses by White label executives. Television shows with Black characters might have no Black writers or directors.” http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/25/living/justin-simien-black-culture-now/, accessed 6Jul16.
Maisha Z. Johnson further complains about White “commercialization of pieces of Black culture for White consumption. It’s one of the most pervasive forms of cultural appropriation, when other people take elements of traditionally Black culture without knowledge of, or respect for what it means to Black folks.” http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/08/appropriating-black-culture/, accessed 6Jul16.
There is controversy, there may be condescension, there is certainly ignorance, about African-American culture—its origins and fullness. Along with others, many of my Black graduate students have failed a general quiz on African-American history (as I myself might do on someone else’s quiz). A graphic example of White logic diminishing Black culture comes from conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, who raised eyebrows and some rancor, when she explained she couldn’t understand how President Barak Obama, Alicia Keys and Halle Berry could consider themselves African Americans when their fathers did not raise them. Coulter uses her White logic while missing the fact that Whites established the “one drop rule,” that any African-American blood at all made a child Black and she also misses the idea of Black culture being discussed here.
An African American calls Coulter’s sentiments “inane.” Countering McWhorter’s claim of that Blacks undervalue education, “Salty Scholar” has this to say about the fullness and richness of Black culture:
African-American culture is a combination of what was brought to this land by the African slaves, the segregation of Blacks through American history and those values that make every American tear up when they see amber waves of grain…. Black culture can be seen in religion, language, family structure, food, music dance, literature, art and so much more. It is about community and the individual, the accumulation of wealth and giving back to the community, the coolness and the swagger, and the spoken word and the written prose, to name a few. Aspects of Black culture inform American life in a multitude of ways. https://eshowoman.wordpress.com/2009/05/22/what-is-black-culture-a-brief-introduction/, accessed 1Sep15.
Black sociologists themselves disagree regarding the antisocial trends among urban poor of color. Structuralists, who blame racism and the system for the ills of the ghetto, have made us shy to lay any responsibility on those who prefer to raise families without a father, or who prefer gangs to school. Culturalists, like Orlando Patterson (Jamaican-born Harvard sociologist and co-author of The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth,) believes his “structuralist” sociological colleagues have abandoned studies of the cultural dimensions of poverty and terms like a “culture of poverty,” for fear of bearing the abuse heaped upon Moynihan and his studies of the Black family. A balance of approaches seems to be needed.
Understanding African-American culture begs taking time to study its rich content. Penn State’s Guide to Exploring African American Culture, part of the effort to encourage understanding and appreciation amidst American diversity, lists four objectives for the study of African-American culture, particularly for youthful, non-African Americans:
Develop an understanding of African-American culture and its importance in U.S. society.
Learn about individual contributions of selected African Americans to American history.
Reflect on one’s own culture and the similarities and differences between cultures.
Develop life skills that allow youth the opportunity to value diversity, think critically, process information, learn to learn, practice creativity, complete a project or task, and more.
As an outsider to African-American culture follows these guidelines, he or she is drawn back into history. Most will be surprised by rich civilizations flourishing in Africa during Europe’s dark ages, or about the impact of colonialism, and then challenged by the tragedy of slavery and destruction of a slave’s community, language, name—the attempt by slave traders and owners to extinguish a culture. (See Lerone Bennett, Jr, Sixth Revised Ed. 1993, Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America, Penguin Books, 736pp. and David Northrup, ed. 1994, The Atlantic Slave Trade, D.C. Heath & Co. 221pp.)
This study of African-American history involves appreciation of its amazing cultural resilience: individual, familial and communal. Details of slavery, including rape, the breakup of families, and heroic rebellions were quite lost in U.S. history books until the latter twentieth century. History reveals the fighting of African Americans for their freedom in the Civil War and their positive response and accomplishments to Reconstruction—until it was reversed by the Jim Crow era and legal segregation. Statistics from the Archives at Tuskegee Institute total 3,446 Black lynchings (and 1,297 White lynchings) between 1882 and 1968. http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/shipp/lynchingsstate.html, accessed 2Sep15.
A study of African-American history also reveals what, for so many Americans, has been an unknown story: the building of a country’s infrastructure, including the nation’s capital and railroads. It includes a new appreciation of rich musical, literary, athletic and scholarly contributions—highlighting our diversity and pointing to possibilities of dynamic unity.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What has brought you to this topic? Are you satisfied with this introductory article? What would you add or detract?
In your opinion, what range of opinions do people in the United States have about African-American culture? How would you describe various White attitudes about Blacks—and various Black attitudes toward Whites?
Do you agree that as Americans, we own a diverse cultural identity, that we cannot deny the richness of diversity of many ethnic groups and their cultural legacies?
What more do you want to know about African-American history? How do you plan to get that information?
As a Black or White person, what about African-American culture do you want to study further? And how can you do so?
Diversity and multiculturalism underlie some of the most confusing and hostile conversations in the U.S. today. Only through early education, research, and above all cultural contact and relationships can we begin to undue existing tensions for a more productive common good.
The contributions of Africans and African Americans to the United States are profound—even though it includes labor under slavery, Jim Crow, and present institutional discrimination.
The intellectual, literary, artistic, musical and other contributions of African Americans are immense. They prove the value of American diversity and multiculturalism.
This article needs further critique and revisions from African Americans. We, as differing ethnicities and levels of social privilege, need to learn from each other and enrich our common culture.