African American culture

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African American culture

African American culture in the United States includes the various cultural traditions of African ethnic groups. It is both part of and distinct from American culture. The U.S. Census Bureau defines African Americans as "people having origins in any of the Black race groups of Africa."[1] African American culture is indigenous to the descendants in the U.S. of survivors of the Middle Passage. It is rooted in Africa and is an amalgam of chiefly sub-Saharan African and Sahelean cultures.

Although slavery greatly restricted the ability of Africans in America to practice their cultural traditions, many practices, values and beliefs survived and over time have incorporated elements of European American culture. There are even certain facets of African American culture that were brought into being or made more prominent as a result of slavery; an example of this is how drumming became used as a means of communication and establishing a community identity during that time. The result is a dynamic, creative culture that has had and continues to have a profound impact on mainstream American culture and on world culture as well. After Emancipation, these uniquely African American traditions continued to grow. They developed into distinctive traditions in music, art, literature, religion, food, holidays, amongst others. While for some time sociologists, such as Gunnar Myrdal and Patrick Moynihan, believed that African Americans had lost most cultural ties with Africa, anthropological field research by Melville Hersovits and others demonstrated that there is a continuum of African traditions among Africans in the New World from the West Indies to the United States. The greatest influence of African cultural practices on European cultures is found below the Mason-Dixon in the southeastern United States, especially in the Carolinas among the Gullah people and in Louisiana.

African American culture often developed separately from mainstream American culture because of African Americans' desire to practice their own traditions, as well as the persistence of racial segregation in America. Consequently African American culture has become a significant part of American culture and yet, at the same time, remains a distinct culture apart from it.


From the earliest days of slavery, 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, actually 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 political organization in order to deal with the many slave rebellions that took place in the southern United States, Brazil, Haiti, and the Dutch Guyanas.

African cultures,slavery,slave rebellions,and the civil rights movements(circa 1800s-160s)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 and worldview, and food preparation methods. In the United States, the very legislation that was designed to strip slaves of culture and deny them education served in many ways to strengthen it.

In turn, African American culture has had a pervasive, transformative impact on myriad elements of mainstream American culture, among them language, music, dance, religion, cuisine, and agriculture. This process of mutual creative exchange is called creolization. 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.

Oral tradition

Slaveholders limited or prohibited education of enslaved African Americans because they believed it might lead to revolts or escape plans. Hence, African-based oral traditions became the primary means of preserving history, morals, 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. Examples of African American folktales include trickster tales of Br'er Rabbit and heroic tales such as that of John Henry. The Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris helped to bring African American folk tales into mainstream adoption. Harris did not appreciate the complexity of the stories nor their potential for a lasting impact on society. Characteristics of the African American oral tradition present themselves in a number of 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 movement, 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. Techniques such as call-and-response are used to bring the audience into the presentation. 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. Spoken word is another example of how the African American oral tradition influences modern American popular culture. Spoken word artists employ the same techniques as African American preachers including movement, rhythm, and audience participation. Rap music from the 1980's and beyond has been seen as an extension of oral culture.

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.

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 Islamic religious movement, also began in the early 1930s.

African American cultural 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. 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. Among the most prominent writers of the African American Arts Movement were poet Nikki Giovanni; 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 N├ęgritude 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.
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