African American Culture in a Modern American Dominant Sociology Intro to Sociology September 3, 2010 Janice Caparro African American culture in the United States refers to the cultural contributions of Americans 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. 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 European American 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.
After emancipation, unique African-American traditions continued to flourish as distinctive traditions or radical innovations in music, art, literature, religion, cuisine, and other fields. Twentieth-century sociologists, such as Gunnar Myrdal, believed that African Americans had lost most cultural ties with Africa. Melville Herskovits and others researched using anthropological field and demonstrated that there has been a continuum of African traditions among Africans of the Diaspora. The greatest influence of African cultural practices on European culture is found below the Mason-Dixon in the American South.
For many years, African-American culture developed separately from mainstream American culture, 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. In 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 nd 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. 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 the United States, the legislation that denied slaves formal education was to contribute to them maintaining a strong oral tradition. In turn, African American culture has had a pervasive, transformative impact on many elements of the mainstream American culture. This process of mutual creative exchange is called, creolization. Over time, the culture of African slaves and their descendants’ existent in its impact on not only the dominant American culture, but on world culture as well.
Slaveholders limited or prohibited education of enslaved African Americans because they feared it might empower their chattel and inspire or enable emancipator ambitions. 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 great 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. 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 movement, which tend to mirror the rising ction, 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. 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. ” 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 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.
During slavery, Africans in America blended traditional European hymns with African elements to create spirituals. 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.
The song was adopted as the “Negro National Anthem” by the NAACP in 1919. Many African American children are taught the song at school, church or by their families. “Lift Every 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 organization 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.
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. 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. Examples of pidgins that became fully developed languages include Creole, common to Louisiana, and Gullah, common to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.
African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a variety (dialect, ethnolect, and socialist) of the American English language closely associated with the speech of, but not exclusive to, African Americans. 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. AAVE could also be used interchangeably with simply speaking with as southern accent as southern dialect was greatly influenced by Africans.
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. It is common for many speakers of AAVE to code switch between AAVE and Standard American English depending on the setting 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. ” 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. 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… green thumb for raising bountiful farms and many healthy children,” wrote Sylvia Ardyn Boone, an anthropologist specializing in the Mende culture of Sierra Leone. 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. ” 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. At the time, wig manufacturers were the only companies that advertised an African American standard of beauty.
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’s unnaturally straight hair. Painted lines seem to radiate from the mother’s body, giving her an ethereal and heavenly affect. This type of figure one with straight hair was revered by Blacks and posed as an example to follow. The Afro, which hit its stride in the 1960s, was an expression of pride, connection, power, revolution and differentiation. The Afro first gained popularity with performers, artists, activists, gang members, youth and nationalists.
Some young people who did not adopt this trend were judged disapprovingly and subject to “blacker-than-thou” policing by their peers. African Americans began to use their hair as a way to showcase a link to their African ancestors and Blacks throughout the Diaspora. The Afro, in conjunction with the Civil Rights movement, was helping to define black identity. Some artists used their actual hair as an expression of art. In David Hammons’s American Costume, he pressed his own body onto paper to create an image of what being African American means and looks like.
Like the way he created the hair on the work by applying fingerprints to the paper, during the 1960s and 1970s it was not uncommon for Blacks to use chemicals to artificially kink their own hair if it was not big enough. Young Black Americans were ‘forming their hair in great numbers as a way to emulate the style of the Black Panthers and convey their racial pride. Although the Afro started in New York, it was Angela Davis in Chicago, an associate of the Black Panther Party, who pioneered the Afro as a political statement.
In embracing naturalism, she glorified the Black aesthetic and facilitated its power to connect Blacks in Civil Rights movements. Her Afro became especially notorious because of its presence in her “Wanted” ad, as it was her most prominent identifier. It became a way to celebrate African-ness and embrace heritage while politically rejecting European ideals. Men and women in Chicago and beyond wore it as a way to support a proud way of carrying oneself in the world and occupying space. African American women often find themselves under pressure to conform to European aesthetic norms.
For most African Americans, the observance of life events follows the pattern of mainstream American culture. While African Americans and whites often lived to themselves for much of American history, both groups generally had the same perspective on American culture. There are some traditions that are unique to African Americans. Some African Americans have created new rites of passage that are linked to African traditions. Pre-teen and teenage boys and girls take classes to prepare them for adulthood. They are typically taught spirituality, responsibility, and leadership.
Most of these programs are modeled after traditional African ceremonies, with the focus largely on embracing African ideologies rather than specific rituals. To this day, some African American couples choose to “jump the broom” as a part of their wedding ceremony. Although the practice, which can be traced back to Ghana, it fell out of favor in the African American community after the end of slavery, it has experienced a slight resurgence in recent years as some couples seek to reaffirm their African heritage African American neighborhoods are types of ethnic enclaves found in many cities in the United States.
The formation of African American neighborhoods is closely linked to the history of segregation in the United States, either through formal laws, or as a product of social norms. Despite this, African American neighborhoods have played an important role in the development of nearly all aspects of both African American culture and broader American culture. Due to segregated conditions and widespread poverty, some African American neighborhoods in the United States have been called “ghettos. ” The use of this term is controversial and, depending on the context, potentially offensive.
Despite mainstream America’s use of the term “ghetto” to signify a poor urban area populated by ethnic minorities, those living in the area often used it to signify something positive. The African American ghettos did not always contain dilapidated houses and deteriorating projects, nor were all of its residents poverty-stricken. For many African Americans, the ghetto was “home” a place representing authentic blackness and a feeling, passion, or emotion derived from the rising above the struggle and suffering of being of African descent in America.
Although African American neighborhoods may suffer from civic disinvestment, with lower quality schools, less effective policing, and fire protection, there are institutions such as churches and museums and political organizations that help to improve the physical and social capital of African American neighborhoods. In African American neighborhoods, the churches may be important sources of social cohesion. For some African Americans the kind spirituality learned through these churches works as a protective factor against the corrosive forces of racism.