Contours of the African American Culture

by Dr. Molefi Kete Asante

Published 5/12/2009

African Americans constitute the largest non-European racial group in the United States of America. Africans came to the area which became the United States in the 16th century with the Spaniards. However, the first appearance of groups of Africans in the English colonies of America occurred in 1619 when twenty Africans were brought as indentured servants to Jamestown, Virginia. Subsequent importations of Africans from Western Africa stretching from Morocco on the north to Angola on the south over a period of two hundred years greatly increased the African population in the United States. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the population of Africans in the United States had reached four and a half million.

A composite people, comprised of numerous African ethnic groups, including Yoruba, Wolof, Mandingo, Hausa, Asante, Fante, Edo, Fulani, Serere, Luba, Angola, Congo, Ibo, Ibibio, Ijaw, and Sherbro, African Americans have a common origin in Africa and a common struggle against racial oppression. Many African Americans show evidence of racial mixture with Native Americans, particularly Muskogee, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Pawnee as well as with Europeans from various ethnic backgrounds.

African Americans were predominantly a rural and southern people until the Great Urban Migration of the World War II Era. Thousands of Africans moved to the major urbans centers of the north to find better jobs and more equitable living conditions. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit became magnets for entire southern communities of African Americans. The lure of economic prosperity, political enfranchisement, and social mobility attracted many young men and often women and the elderly were left on the farms of the south. Often husbands would send for their families and children would send for their parents once they were established in their new homes in the north.

Residential segregation became a pattern in the north as it had been in the south. Some of these segregated communities in the north gained prominence and became centers for culture and commerce. Harlem in New York, North Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Woodlawn in Detroit, Southside in Chicago, and Hough in Cleveland were written into the African American's imagination as places of high style, fashion, culture, and business. The evolution of the African American communities from southern and rural to northern and urban has occurred since 1945. According to the latest 1990 census the largest populations are found in these cities: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D. C., Houston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Memphis. In terms of percentage of population, these cities are the five leaders among cities with populations over 300,000: Washington (70%), Atlanta (67%), Detroit (65%), New Orleans (55%), and Memphis (49%). East St. Louis, Illinois is 96 per cent African American but its population is less than 100,000.

The 1990 population of African Americans is estimated to be 35 million. In addition to the United States' African American population there are approximately one million African Americans abroad, mainly in Africa, Europe, and South America. African Americans constitute about 12% of the American population. This is roughly equal to the percentages of Africans in the populations of Venezuela and Colombia, two nations in South America. The largest population of African people outside of the continent of Africa reside in the South American country of Brazil. The United States of America has the second largest population of Africans outside of the continent of Africa. In terms of populations, the following countries are the largest African nations in the world: Nigeria, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Zaire, and the United States. Of course, Brazil and the United States are in South America and North America, respectively.

The cities with the largest populations of African Americans are New York with a population of 2.1 million, Chicago with a population of 1.4 million, Detroit with over 800,000, Philadelphia with close to 700,000, and Los Angeles with more than 600,000.

Seven states have African American populations of more than twenty per cent. These states are southern and predominantly rural: Mississippi (35%), South Carolina (30%), Louisiana (29%), Georgia (27%), Alabama (26%), Maryland (23%), and North Carolina (22%).

African Americans are now avid speakers of English. During the 17th century most Africans in the Americas spoke West African languages as their first languages. In the United States the African population developed a highly sophisticated pidgin, usually referred to by linguists in its creolized form as Ebonics. This language was the prototype for the speech of the vast majority of African Americans. It was comprised of African syntactical elements and English lexical items. Use of this language made it possible for Africans from various ethnic and linguistic groups, e.g., Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Akan, Wolof, Mande, etc., to communicate with each other as well as with the Europeans with whom they came in contact. The impact of the African American language on American society is thorough and all-embracing. From the ubiquitous "o.k.", a Wolof expression from Senegal, to the transformations of words like "bad" and "awesome" , simple English words, into different and more adequate expressions of something entirely original, one sees the imprint of African American styles which are derived from the African heritage. There are more than three thousand words, place names, and concepts with African origins found in the language of the United States of America. Indeed, the most dynamic aspects of the English language as spoken in the United States have been added by the popular speakers of the African American idiom, whether in the world of words of the contemporary rap musicians, the past jazz musicians, or the street slang that gives American English its more authentic color. Proverbs, poems, songs, and hollers which come with the historical saga of a people whose only epic are the Spirituals, the Great Songs, provide a rich texture to the ever evolving language of the African American people.

African Americans did not freely come to America. This is not a history of a people seeking to escape political oppression, economic exploitation, religious intolerance, or social injustice. Rather the ancestors of the present African Americans were stolen from the continent of Africa, placed on ships against their wills, and transported across the Atlantic. While most of the enslaved Africans went to Brazil and Cuba, a great portion landed in the Southern States of the United States. At the height of the European Slave Trade almost every nation in Europe was involved in some aspect of the enterprise. As the "trade" grew more profitable and the European captains became more ambitious, larger ships with specially built "slave galleries" were commissioned. These galleries between the decks were no more than eighteen inches in height. Each African was allotted no more than a sixteen inches wide and five and a half feet long space for the many weeks or months of the Atlantic crossing. Here the Africans were forced to lie down shackled together in chains fastened to staples in the deck. Needless to say, many Africans perished under such conditions. Where the space was two feet high Africans were often allowed to sit with legs on legs like riders on a crowed sled. Africans were transported from Africa to America seated in this position with a once a day break for exercise. Many died or went insane.

The North made the shipping of Africans its business; the South made the working of Africans its business. By 1860, the Census counted four and a half million Africans in the United States. The number of Africans increased rapidly from the 18th century. From 757,208 in 1790 to 4,441,830 in 1860, the African American population grew both by increased birth rates and by importation of new Africans. But by 1860 slavery had been virtually eliminated in the North and West. And by the end of the Civil War in l865, it was over for every state. After the Civil War, 14 percent of the population of the United States was African. The four and half million Africans who made up the black population in 1865 are the ancestors of the overwhelming majority of Africans living in the United States today.

During the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War African American politicians introduced legislation that provided for public education, one of the great legacies of the African American involvement in the legislative process of the 19th century. Education has always been seen as a major instrument in changing society and bettering the life chances of African American people. Lincoln University and Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Hampton in Virginia, and Howard University are considered some of the oldest institutions of learning for the African American community. Others such as Tuskegee, Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta University are now a part of the American educational story of success and excellence.

The Great Civil Rights Movement of the l950's and l960's ushered in a whole new generation of African Americans who were committed to advancing the cause of justice and equality. Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus and created a stir that would not end until the most visible signs of racism were overthrown. Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as the leading spokesperson and chief symbol of a people tired of racism and segregation and prepared to fight and die if necessary in order to obtain legal and human rights. Malcolm X took the battle one step further, insisting that the African American was psychologically lost as well and therefore had to find historical and cultural validity in the reclamation of the African connection. Thus, out of the crucible of the l960's came a more vigorous movement toward full recognition of the African past and legacy. Relationships with other groups depended more and more on mutual respect rather than the African Americans acting like clients to other groups. African Americans expressed their concern that the Jewish community had not supported affirmative action although there was a long history of Jewish support for African American causes. Accepting the role of vanguard in the struggle to extend the protection of the American Constitution to oppressed people, African American made serious demands on municipal and federal officials during the Great Civil Rights Movement. Voting rights were guaranteed and protected, educational segregation was made illegal, and petty discriminations against African Americans in hotels and public facilities were eradicated by the sustained protests and demonstrations of the Era.

A growing economy does not always mean that African Americans will be served by that growth. African Americans have been key components in the economic system of the United States since its inception. However, the initial relationship of the African American population to the economy was based upon enslaved labor. Africans were instrumental in establishing the industrial and agrarian power of the United States. Railroads, factories, residencies, and places of business were often built by enslaved Africans. Now African Americans are engaged in every sector of the American economy, though the integration in some sectors is less than in others. A considerable portion of the African American population works in the industrial or service occupations. Others are found in the professions as opposed to small businesses. Thus, teachers, lawyers, doctors, and managers account for the principal professional workers. These patterns are based upon previous conditions of discrimination in businesses throughout the South. Most African Americans could find employment in communities where their professional services were needed, therefore, the above mentioned professions and others that cater to the African American population provide numerous opportunities for employment. During the past twenty years the number of businesses opened by African Americans has begun to increase again. Under the period of segregation many businesses which existed solely for the convenience of the African American population flourished. When the Great Civil Rights Movement ended most of the petty discriminations and it was possible for African Americans to trade and shop at other stores and businesses, the businesses located in the African American community suffered. There is now a greater awareness of the need to see businesses as interconnected and interdependent with and on the greater American society. A greater and more equitable role is being played by the woman in the African American community. Indeed, many of the chief leaders in the economic development of the African American community are and have been women. Both men and women have always worked in the majority of African American homes and during the Enslavement work was the principal activity of both men and women.

African American marriage and kinship patterns are varied although most now conform to those of the majority marriage and kinship style.. Monogamy is the overwhelming choice of most married people. Because of the rise of Islam there is also a growing community of persons who practice polygyny. Lack of marriageable males is creating intense pressure to find new ways of maintaining traditions and parenting children. Within the African American population one can find various arrangements that constitute family. Thus, people may speak of family, aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, and children without necessarily meaning that there is a genetic kinship. African Americans often say "brother" or "sister" as a way to indicate the possibility of that being the actual fact. In the period of the enslavement, individuals from the same family were often sold to different plantation masters and given the names of those owners, creating the possibility that brothers or sisters would have different surnames. Most of the names worn by African Americans are derived from the enslavement period. These are not African names but rather English, German, French, and Irish names for the most part. Few African Americans can trace their ancestry back before the enslavement. Those that can do so normally have found records in the homes of the plantation owners or in the local archives of the South. African Americans love children and believe that those who have many children are fortunate. It is not uncommon to find families with more than four children.

African American children are socialized in the home, but the church often plays an important role. Parents depend upon other family members to chastise, instruct, and discipline their children, particularly if the family members live in proximity and the children know them well. Socialization takes place through rites and celebrations which grow out of either religious or cultural observances. There is a growing interest in African child socialization patterns with the emergence of the Afrocentric movement. Parents introduce the mfundalai rites of passage at an early age in order to provide the child with historical referents. Increasingly this rite has replaced religious rites within the African American tradition for children. Although it is called mfundalai in the Northeast, it may be referred to as Changing Season Rite in other sections of the United States. This was done in the past in the churches and schools where children had to recite certain details about heroines and heroes or about various aspects of African American history and culture in order to be considered mature in the culture. Many independent schools have been formed to gain control over the cultural and psychological education of African American children. A distrust of the public schools has emerged during the past twenty five years because African Americans believe that it is difficult for African American children to gain the self confidence they need from teachers who do not understand or are insensitive to the culture. Youth clubs established along the lines of the African age-set groups are popular as drill teams and formal youth groups often called "street gangs" if they engage in delinquent behavior. These groups are more often than not, healthy expressions of male and sometimes female socialization clubs. Church groups and community center organizations seek to channel the energies of these groups into positive socialization experiences. They are joined by the numerous Afrocentric workshops and seminars that train young people in the traditional behaviors and customs.

African Americans can be found in every stratum of the American population. However, it remains a fact that the vast majority of African Americans are outside of the social culture of the dominant society in the United States. In a little less than one hundred and thirty years African Americans who were emancipated with neither wealth nor good prospects for wealth have been able to advance in the American society against all odds. Considered determined and doggedly competitive in situations that threaten survival, African Americans have had to outrun economic disaster in every era. Discrimination against African Americans remain in private clubs, country clubs, social functions, and in some organizations. Nevertheless, African Americans have challenged hundreds of rules and regulations which have tried to limit choice.

Among the major players in the battle for equal rights have been the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League. These two organizations have advanced the social integration of the African American population on the legal and social welfare fronts. The NAACP is the major Civil Rights organization as well as the oldest. Its history in the struggle for equality and justice is legendary. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court, was one of the organization's most famous lawyers. He argued twenty four cases before the Supreme Court as a lawyer and is credited with winning twenty three. Although there is no official organization of the entire African American population and no truly mass movement which speaks to the interests of the majority of the people, the NAACP comes closet to being a conscience for the nation and an organized response to oppression, discrimination, and racism.

At the local level, many communities have organized Committees of Elders who are responsible for various activities within the communities. These committees are usually informal and are set up to assist the communities in determining the best strategies to follow in political and legal situations. Growing out of an Afrocentric emphasis on community and cohesiveness the committees are usually comprised of older men and women who have made special contributions to the community through achievement or philanthropy.

African Americans participate freely in the two dominant political parties in the nation, Democrats and Republicans. Most African Americans are Democrats, a legacy left by the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats who brought about a measure of social justice and respect for the common people. There are more than six thousand African Americans who are elected officials in the United States, including the Governor of Virginia, the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit. A previous mayor of Chicago was also an African American. Concentrated in the central cities, the African American population has a strong impact on the political processes of the older cities. The National Democratic Party Chairperson is of African American heritage and some of the most prominent persons in the party are also African Americans. The Republican Party has its share, though not as large, of African American politicians. There is no independent political party in the African American community although it has remained one of the dreams of leading strategists.

Conflict is normally resolved in the African American community through the legal system, although there is a strong impetus to use consensus at first. The idea of discussing an issue with other members of the community who might share similar values is a prevalent one within the African American society. A first recourse when problems arise is another person. This is true whether it is a personal problem or a problem with a family members. Rather than calling a lawyer first, the African American is most likely to call a friend and seek advice. To some extent, the traditional African notion of retaining and maintaining harmony is at the heart of the matter. Conflicts should be resolved by people not by law is one of the adages.

African Americans practice the three main monotheistic religions as well as Eastern and African religions. The predominant faith is Christian, the second largest group of believers accept the ancestral religions of Africa, i.e., Vodun, Santeria, Myal, and a third group of followers practice Islam. Judaism and Buddhism are also practiced by some people within the community. Without understanding the complexity of religion in the African American community one should not venture too deeply into the nature of the culture. While the religions of Christianity and Islam seem to attract attention, the African religions are present everywhere, even in the minds of the Christians and Muslims. Thus, traditional practitioners have introduced certain rites which have become a part of the practices of the Christians and Muslims. African greetings and libations to the ancestors are heard in Christian and Muslim gatherings. The African American is spiritually oriented, having given to the American society the Spirituals, the Master Songs, the African American people have learned how to weave religion into everything so that there is no separation between religion and life. Many of the practitioners of the African religions use the founding of Egypt as the starting date for the calendar, thus 6290 A.F.K. (After the Founding of Kemet) is equivalent to 1990. There is no single set of beliefs to which all African Americans subscribe.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, January 15, and Malcolm X's birthday, May 19 are the two most important days in the African American calendar. Kwanzaa, a celebration of first fruits, initiated by the philosopher Maulana Karenga, is the most joyous occasion in the African American year. Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January l, each day is named after an important virtue.

There is no wide acceptance of cremation in the African American culture. The majority of African Americans choose burial over cremation. Funerals are often occasions of sadness followed by festivities and joyousness. "When the Saints Go Marching In" was made famous as the song to convey African Americans to the other world by African American musicians in New Orleans. Sung and played with gusto and great vigor, the song summed up the victorious attitude of a people long used to suffering on earth.


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Asante, Molefi and Mark Mattson (1990) The Historical and Cultural Atlas of African Americans. New York: MacMillan.

Baughman, E. Earl (1971) Black Americans. New York: Academic Press.

Frazier, Thomas R. (1988) Afro American History: Primary Sources. 2nd Edition. Chicago: Dorsey Press.

Harding, Vincent (1981) There is a River. New York: Vintage.

Henry, Charles (1990) Culture and African American Politics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McPherson, James et. al. (1971) Blacks in America: Bibliographic Essays. Garden City: Anchor Books.

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