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Celebrating African American Culture & History: Home

Looking for information about African American culture? For black history month? For a research paper? Look no further! This guide provides you with a one-stop resource for many aspects of African American culture.

AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY & CULTURE

 

 

African-American culture, also known as black culture, in the United States refers to the cultural contributions of Americans of African descent to the culture of the United States, either as part of or distinct from American culture. The distinct identity of African-American culture is rooted in the historical experience of the African-American people, including the Middle Passage. The culture is both distinct and enormously influential to American culture as a whole.

African-American culture is rooted in Africa. It is a blend of chiefly sub-Saharan African and Sahelean cultures. Although slavery greatly restricted the ability of Americans of African descent to practice their cultural traditions, many practices, values, and beliefs survived and over time have modified or blended with white culture. There are some facets of African-American culture that were accentuated by the slavery period. The result is a unique and dynamic culture that has had and continues to have a profound impact on mainstream American culture, as well as the culture of the broader world.

After emancipation, unique African-American traditions continued to flourish, as distinctive traditions or radical innovations in music, art, literature, religion, cuisine, and other fields. 20th-century sociologists, such as Gunnar Myrdal, believed that African Americans had lost most cultural ties with Africa.[1] But, anthropological field research by Melville Herskovits and others demonstrated that there has been a continuum of African traditions among Africans of the Diaspora.[2] The greatest influence of African cultural practices on European culture is found below the Mason-Dixon in the American South.[3][4]

For many years African-American culture developed separately from mainstream American culture, both because of slavery and the persistence of racial discrimination in America, as well as African-American slave descendants' desire to create and maintain their own traditions. Today, African-American culture has become a significant part of American culture and yet, at the same time, remains a distinct cultural body.

History

From the earliest days of American slavery in the 17th century, slave owners sought to exercise control over their slaves by attempting to strip them of their African culture. The physical isolation and societal marginalization of African slaves and, later, of their free progeny, however, facilitated the retention of significant elements of traditional culture among Africans in the New World generally, and in the U.S. in particular. Slave owners deliberately tried to repress independent political or cultural organization in order to deal with the many slave rebellions or acts of resistance that took place in the southern United States, Brazil, Haiti, and the Dutch Guyanas.[6]

African cultures, slavery, slave rebellions, and the civil rights movements have shaped African-American religious, familial, political, and economic behaviors. The imprint of Africa is evident in myriad ways, in politics, economics, language, music, hairstyles, fashion, dance, religion, cuisine, and worldview.

In turn, African American culture has had a pervasive, transformative impact on many elements of mainstream American culture. This process of mutual creative exchange is called creolization.[5] Over time, the culture of African slaves and their descendants has been ubiquitous in its impact on not only the dominant American culture, but on world culture as well.[7]

 Oral tradition

Slaveholders limited or prohibited education of enslaved African Americans because they feared it might empower their chattel and inspire or enable emancipatory ambitions. In the United States, the legislation that denied slaves formal education likely contributed to their maintaining a strong oral tradition, a common feature of indigenous African cultures.[8] African-based oral traditions became the primary means of preserving history, mores, and other cultural information among the people. This was consistent with the griot practices of oral history in many African and other cultures that did not rely on the written word. Many of these cultural elements have been passed from generation to generation through storytelling. The folktales provided African Americans the opportunity to inspire and educate one another.[8] Examples of African American folktales include trickster tales of Br'er Rabbit[9] and heroic tales such as that of John Henry.[10] The Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris helped to bring African-American folk tales into mainstream adoption.[11] Harris did not appreciate the complexity of the stories nor their potential for a lasting impact on society.[12] Other narratives that appear as important, recurring motifs in African-American culture are the "Signifying Monkey", "The Ballad of Shine", and the legend of Stagger Lee.

The legacy of the African-American oral tradition manifests in diverse forms. African-American preachers tend to perform rather than simply speak. The emotion of the subject is carried through the speaker's tone, volume, and cadence, which tend to mirror the rising action, climax, and descending action of the sermon. Often song, dance, verse, and structured pauses are placed throughout the sermon. Call and response is another pervasive element of the African-American oral tradition. It manifests in worship in what is commonly referred to as the "amen corner." In direct contrast to recent tradition in other American and Western cultures, it is an acceptable and common audience reaction to interrupt and affirm the speaker.[13] This pattern of interaction is also in evidence in music, particularly in blues and jazz forms. Hyperbolic and provocative, even incendiary, rhetoric is another aspect of African American oral tradition often evident in the pulpit in a tradition sometimes referred to as "prophetic speech."[14]

Other aspects of African-American oral tradition include the dozens, signifying, trash talk, rhyming, semantic inversion and word play, many of which have found their way into mainstream American popular culture and become international phenomena.[15]

Spoken word artistry is another example of how the African American oral tradition has influenced modern popular culture. Spoken word artists employ the same techniques as African American preachers including movement, rhythm, and audience participation.[16] Rap music from the 1980s and beyond has been seen as an extension of oral culture.[8]

 Harlem Renaissance

Zora Neale Hurston was a prominent literary figure during the Harlem Renaissance

Main article: Harlem Renaissance

The first major public recognition of African American culture occurred during the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1920s and 1930s, African American music, literature, and art gained wide notice. Authors such as Zora Neale Hurston and Nella Larsen and poets such as Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Countee Cullen wrote works describing the African American experience. Jazz, swing, blues and other musical forms entered American popular music. African American artists such as William H. Johnson and Palmer Hayden created unique works of art featuring African Americans.[15]

The Harlem Renaissance was also a time of increased political involvement for African Americans. Among the notable African American political movements founded in the early 20th century are the United Negro Improvement Association and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Nation of Islam, a notable quasi-Islamic religious movement, also began in the early 1930s.[17]

 African American cultural movement

See also: Black Power and Black Arts Movement

The Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s followed in the wake of the non-violent American Civil Rights Movement. The movement promoted racial pride and ethnic cohesion in contrast to the focus on integration of the Civil Rights Movement, and adopted a more militant posture in the face of racism.[18] It also inspired a new renaissance in African American literary and artistic expression generally referred to as the African American or "Black Arts Movement."

The works of popular recording artists such as Nina Simone (Young, Gifted and Black) and The Impressions (Keep On Pushin'), as well as the poetry, fine arts, and literature of the time, shaped and reflected the growing racial and political consciousness.[19] Among the most prominent writers of the African American Arts Movement were poet Nikki Giovanni;[20] poet and publisher Don L. Lee, who later became known as Haki Madhubuti; poet and playwright Leroi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka; and Sonia Sanchez. Other influential writers were Ed Bullins, Dudley Randall, Mari Evans, June Jordan, Larry Neal, and Ahmos Zu-Bolton.

Another major aspect of the African American Arts Movement was the infusion of the African aesthetic, a return to a collective cultural sensibility and ethnic pride that was much in evidence during the Harlem Renaissance and in the celebration of Négritude among the artistic and literary circles in the U.S., Caribbean, and the African continent nearly four decades earlier: the idea that "black is beautiful." During this time, there was a resurgence of interest in, and an embrace of, elements of African culture within African American culture that had been suppressed or devalued to conform to Eurocentric America. Natural hairstyles, such as the afro, and African clothing, such as the dashiki, gained popularity. More importantly, the African American aesthetic encouraged personal pride and political awareness among African Americans.[21]

 Music

Main article: African American music

Thelonious Monk in 1947.

Composer Duke Ellington, pictured receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Richard Nixon, is often held to be one of the most influential musical figures of the 20th century.

African American music is rooted in the typically polyrhythmic music of the ethnic groups of Africa, specifically those in the Western, Sahelean, and Sub-Saharan regions. African oral traditions, nurtured in slavery, encouraged the use of music to pass on history, teach lessons, ease suffering, and relay messages. The African pedigree of African American music is evident in some common elements: call and response, syncopation, percussion, improvisation, swung notes, blue notes, the use of falsetto, melisma, and complex multi-part harmony.[8] During slavery, Africans in America blended traditional European hymns with African elements to create spirituals.[22]

Many African Americans sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" in addition to the American national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner", or in lieu of it. Written by James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson in 1900 to be performed for the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the song was, and continues to be, a popular way for African Americans to recall past struggles and express ethnic solidarity, faith, and hope for the future.[23] The song was adopted as the "Negro National Anthem" by the NAACP in 1919.[24] Many African American children are taught the song at school, church or by their families. "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" traditionally is sung immediately following, or instead of, "The Star-Spangled Banner" at events hosted by African American churches, schools, and other organizations.[25]

In the 19th century, as the result of the blackface minstrel show, African American music entered mainstream American society. By the early 20th century, several musical forms with origins in the African American community had transformed American popular music. Aided by the technological innovations of radio and phonograph records, ragtime, jazz, blues, and swing also became popular overseas, and the 1920s became known as the Jazz Age. The early 20th century also saw the creation of the first African American Broadway shows, films such as King Vidor's Hallelujah!, and operas such as George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Rock and roll, doo wop, soul, and R&B developed in the mid-20th century. These genres became very popular in white audiences and were influences for other genres such as surf. During the 1970s, the dozens, an urban African American tradition of using rhyming slang to put down one's enemies (or friends), and the West Indian tradition of toasting developed into a new form of music. In the South Bronx the half speaking, half singing rhythmic street talk of "rapping" grew into the hugely successful cultural force known as Hip hop.[26] Hip Hop would become a multicultural movement, however, it still remained important to many African Americans. The African American Cultural Movement of the 1960s and 1970s also fueled the growth of funk and later hip-hop forms such as rap, hip house, new jack swing, and go-go. House music was created in black communities in Chicago in the 1980s. African American music has experienced far more widespread acceptance in American popular music in the 21st century than ever before. In addition to continuing to develop newer musical forms, modern artists have also started a rebirth of older genres in the form of genres such as neo soul and modern funk-inspired groups.[27]

 Dance

 

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

African American dance, like other aspects of African American culture, finds its earliest roots in the dances of the hundreds of African ethnic groups that made up African slaves in the Americas as well as influences from European sources in the United States. Dance in the African tradition, and thus in the tradition of slaves, was a part of both every day life and special occasions. Many of these traditions such as get down, ring shouts, and other elements of African body language survive as elements of modern dance.[28]

In the 19th century, African American dance began to appear in minstrel shows. These shows often presented African Americans as caricatures for ridicule to large audiences. The first African American dance to become popular with white dancers was the cakewalk in 1891.[29] Later dances to follow in this tradition include the Charleston, the Lindy Hop, the Jitterbug and the swing. During the Harlem Renaissance, African American Broadway shows such as Shuffle Along helped to establish and legitimize African American dancers. African American dance forms such as tap, a combination of African and European influences, gained widespread popularity thanks to dancers such as Bill Robinson and were used by leading white choreographers who often hired African American dancers.[30]

Contemporary African American dance is descended from these earlier forms and also draws influence from African and Caribbean dance forms. Groups such as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have continued to contribute to the growth of this form. Modern popular dance in America is also greatly influenced by African American dance. American popular dance has also drawn many influences from African American dance most notably in the hip hop genre.[31]

 Art

Main article: African American art

From its early origins in slave communities, through the end of the 20th century, African American art has made a vital contribution to the art of the United States.[32] During the period between the 17th century and the early 19th century, art took the form of small drums, quilts, wrought-iron figures, and ceramic vessels in the southern United States. These artifacts have similarities with comparable crafts in West and Central Africa. In contrast, African American artisans like the New England–based engraver Scipio Moorhead and the Baltimore portrait painter Joshua Johnson created art that was conceived in a thoroughly western European fashion.[33]

During the 19th century, Harriet Powers made quilts in rural Georgia, United States that are now considered among the finest examples of 19th-century Southern quilting.[34] Later in the 20th century, the women of Gee's Bend developed a distinctive, bold, and sophisticated quilting style based on traditional African American quilts with a geometric simplicity that developed separately but was like that of Amish quilts and modern art.[35]

Midnight Golfer by Eugene J. Martin, mixed media collage on rag paper

After the American Civil War, museums and galleries began more frequently to display the work of African American artists. Cultural expression in mainstream venues was still limited by the dominant European aesthetic and by racial prejudice. To increase the visibility of their work, many African American artists traveled to Europe where they had greater freedom. It was not until the Harlem Renaissance that more European Americans began to pay attention to African American art in America.[36]

During the 1920s, artists such as Raymond Barthé, Aaron Douglas,[37] Augusta Savage,[38] and photographer James Van Der Zee[39] became well known for their work. During the Great Depression, new opportunities arose for these and other African American artists under the WPA. In later years, other programs and institutions, such as the New York City-based Harmon Foundation, helped to foster African American artistic talent. Augusta Savage, Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, and others exhibited in museums and juried art shows, and built reputations and followings for themselves.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there were very few widely accepted African American artists. Despite this, The Highwaymen, a loose association of 27 African American artists from Ft. Pierce, Florida, created idyllic, quickly realized images of the Florida landscape and peddled some 50,000 of them from the trunks of their cars. They sold their art directly to the public rather than through galleries and art agents, thus receiving the name "The Highwaymen". Rediscovered in the mid-1990s, today they are recognized as an important part of American folk history.[40][41] Their artwork is widely collected by enthusiasts and original pieces can easily fetch thousands of dollars in auctions and sales.[42]

The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was another period of resurgent interest in African American art. During this period, several African American artists gained national prominence, among them Lou Stovall, Ed Love, Charles White, and Jeff Donaldson. Donaldson and a group of African American artists formed the Afrocentric collective AfriCOBRA, which remains in existence today. The sculptor Martin Puryear, whose work has been acclaimed for years, was being honored with a 30-year retrospective of his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in November 2007.[43] Notable contemporary African American artists include Willie Cole, David Hammons, Eugene J. Martin, Mose Tolliver, the late William Tolliver, and Kara Walker.[44]

Literature

Main article: African American literature

African American literature has its roots in the oral traditions of African slaves in America. The slaves used stories and fables in much the same way as they used music.[8] These stories influenced the earliest African American writers and poets in the 18th century such as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. These authors reached early high points by telling slave narratives.

During the early 20th century Harlem Renaissance, numerous authors and poets, such as Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington, grappled with how to respond to discrimination in America. Authors during the Civil Rights era, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about issues of racial segregation, oppression, and other aspects of African American life. This tradition continues today with authors who have been accepted as an integral part of American literature, with works such as Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Beloved by Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison, and fiction works by Octavia Butler and Walter Mosley. Such works have achieved both best-selling and/or award-winning status.[45]

 Museums

See also: List of museums focused on African Americans

The African American Museum Movement emerged during the 1950s and 1960s to preserve the heritage of the African American experience and to ensure its proper interpretation in American history.[46] Museums devoted to African American history are found in many African American neighborhoods. Institutions such as the African American Museum and Library at Oakland and The African American Museum in Cleveland were created by African Americans to teach and investigate cultural history that, until recent decades was primarily preserved trough oral traditions.[47]

 Language

Generations of hardships imposed on the African American community created distinctive language patterns. Slave owners often intentionally mixed people who spoke different African languages to discourage communication in any language other than English. This, combined with prohibitions against education, led to the development of pidgins, simplified mixtures of two or more languages that speakers of different languages could use to communicate.[48] Examples of pidgins that became fully developed languages include Creole, common to Louisiana,[49] and Gullah, common to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.[50]

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a variety (dialect, ethnolect, and sociolect) of the American English language closely associated with the speech of, but not exclusive to, African Americans.[51] While AAVE is academically considered a legitimate dialect because of its logical structure, some of both whites and African Americans consider it slang or the result of a poor command of Standard American English. Many African Americans who were born outside the American South still speak with hints of AAVE or southern dialect. Inner city African American children who are isolated by speaking only AAVE sometimes have more difficulty with standardized testing and, after school, moving to the mainstream world for work.[52][53] It is common for many speakers of AAVE to code switch between AAVE and Standard American English depending on the setting.[54]

 Fashion and aesthetics

 Attire

The Black Arts Movement, a cultural explosion of the 1960s, saw the incorporation of surviving cultural dress with elements from modern fashion and West African traditional clothing to create a uniquely African American traditional style. Kente cloth is the best known African textile.[55] These festive woven patterns, which exist in numerous varieties, were originally made by the Ashanti and Ewe peoples of Ghana and Togo. Kente fabric also appears in a number of Western style fashions ranging from casual t-shirts to formal bow ties and cummerbunds. Kente strips are often sewn into liturgical and academic robes or worn as stoles. Since the Black Arts Movement, traditional African clothing has been popular amongst African Americans for both formal and informal occasions.[56] Other manifestations of traditional African dress in common evidence in African-American culture are vibrant colors, mud cloth, trade beads and the use of Adinkrah motifs in jewelry and in couture and decorator fabrics.

Another common aspect of fashion in African American culture involves the appropriate dress for worship in the Black church. It is expected in most churches that an individual present their best appearance for worship. African American women in particular are known for wearing vibrant dresses and suits. An interpretation of a passage from the Christian Bible, "...every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head...",[57] has led to the tradition of wearing elaborate Sunday hats, sometimes known as "crowns."[58][59]

 Hair

Since the beginning of African civilization, hairstyles have been used to convey messages to greater society. As early as the 15th century, different styles could "indicate a person's marital status, age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community."[60] Unkempt hair in nearly every West African culture was considered unattractive to the opposite sex and a sign that one was dirty, had bad morals or was even insane.[61] Hair maintenance in traditional Africa was aimed at creating a sense of beauty. "A woman with long thick hair demonstrated the life force, the multiplying power of profusion, prosperity..a green thumb for raising bountiful farms and many healthy children", wrote Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist specializing in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone.[61] In Yoruba culture, people braided their hair to send messages to the gods. The hair is the most elevated part of the body and was therefore considered a portal for spirits to pass through to the soul. Because of the cultural and spiritual importance of hair for Africans, the practice of having their heads involuntarily shaved before being sold as slaves was in itself a dehumanizing act. "The shaved head was the first step the Europeans took to erase the slaves’ culture and alter the relationship between the African and his or her hair." [61]

Hair straighteners marketed by white companies suggest to blacks that only through changing physical features will persons of African descent be afforded class mobility within African American communities and social acceptance by the dominant culture" (Rooks 1998: 177). At the time, wig manufacturers were the only companies that advertised an African American standard of beauty.[62]

In Winold Reiss's Brown Madonna, the Virgin Mother is shown with straight hair. Painted toward the beginning of the New Negro movement in 1925, the work showcased the sense of racial pride popular during the 1920s and 1930s. This classically white symbol of purity and virtue was created with dark skin, asserting the value and respectability of the Black race. This was a time when Blacks were creating their own successes in society and staking out a niche in the northern cities such as Chicago and Harlem. Part of their personal success at this time, however, was their perceived ability to assimilate, which is portrayed by mother