African Americans

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Date: 1996
Encyclopedia of World Cultures
From: Encyclopedia of World Cultures(Vol. 1: North America. )
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 4)

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African Americans

ETHNONYMS: (contemporary) : Black Americans, Afro-Americans; (archaic): Colored, Negro


Identification. African Americans constitute the largest non-European racial group in the United States of America. Africans came to the area that became the United States in the sixteenth century with the Spaniards, but their first appearance as a group in the English colonies 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, they numbered 4.5 million people. A composite People, comprised of numerous African ethnic groups including Yoruba, Wolof, Mandingo, Hausa, Asante, Fante, Edo, Fulani, Serer, 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 Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Pawnee, as well as with Europeans from various ethnic backgrounds.

Location. African Americans were predominantly a rural and southern people until the Great Migration of the World War II era. Thousands of Africans moved to the major urban 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. Often women and the elderly were left on the farms in the South, and husbands would send for their families, and children for their parents, once they were established in their new homes. 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, South Side in Chicago, and Hough in Cleveland were written into the African Americans' 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 been going on since 1945. According to the 1980 census, the largest populations are found in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Memphis. In terms of percentage of population, the five leading cities among those with populations of over 300,000 are Washington, D.C., 70 percent; Atlanta, 67 percent; Detroit, 65 percent; New Orleans, 55 percent; and Memphis, 49 percent. (East St. Louis, Illinois, is 96 percent African American, but its population is less than 100,000.)

Demography. The 1990 population of African Americans is estimated to be 35 million. In addition to those in the United States, there are approximately 1 million African Americans abroad, mainly in Africa, Europe, and South America. African Americans constitute about 12 percent of the American population. This is roughly equal to the percentages of Africans in the populations of Venezuela and Colombia. The largest population of African people outside the continent of Africa resides in Brazil; the second largest is in the United States of America. The following countries have the largest populations of Africans in the world: Nigeria, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Zaire, and the United States. The cities with the largest populations of African Americans are New York, 2.1 million; Chicago, 1.4 million; Detroit, overPage 11  |  Top of Article 800,000; Philadelphia, close to 700,000; and Los Angeles, more than 600,000. Seven states have African American populations of more than 20 percent. These are southern and predominantly rural: Mississippi, 35 percent; South Carolina, 30 percent; Louisiana, 29 percent; Georgia, 27 percent; Alabama, 16 percent; Maryland, 23 percent; and North Carolina, 22 percent.

Linguistic Affiliation. African Americans are now native speakers of English. During the seventeenth 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 composed of African syntactical elements and English lexical items. Use of this language made it possible for Africans from various ethnic and linguistic groups (such as Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Akan, Wolof, and Mande) to communicate with one another as well as with the Europeans with whom they came in contact.

The impact of the African American language on American society has been thorough and all-embracing. From the ubiquitous "O.K.," a Wolof expression from Senegal, to the transformations of words like "bad" and "awesome" into different and more adequate expressions of something entirely original, one sees the imprint of African American styles that 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. 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 Contemporary rap musicians, past jazz musicians, or speakers of the street slang that has added so much color to American English. Proverbs, poems, songs, and hollers, which come with the historical saga of a people whose only epics are the spirituals, the great songs, provide a rich texture to the ever-evolving language of the African American people.

History and Cultural Relations

African Americans did not come freely to America. Theirs 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. Most of the enslaved Africans went to Brazil and Cuba, but a great portion landed in the southern colonies or 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 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 sixteeninch wide and five-and-a-half-foot-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. Where the space was two feet high, Africans often sat with legs on legs, like riders on a crowded sled. They were transported seated in this position with a once-a-day break for exercise. Needless to say, many died or went insane.

The North made the shipping of Africans its business; the South made the working of Africans its business. From 757,208 in 1790 to 4,441,830 in 1860, the African American population grew both through increased birthrates and through importation of new Africans. By 1860, slavery had been virtually eliminated in the North and West, and by the end of the Civil War in 1865, it was abolished altogether. After the war, 14 percent of the population was composed of Africans, the ancestors of the overwhelming majority 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 nineteenth century. Education has always been seen as a major instrument in changing society and bettering the lives of African American people. Lincoln University and Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Hampton in Virginia, and Howard University are 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 1950s and 1960s ushered in a 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 a 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 1960s 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 of these 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 Americans made serious demands on municipal and federal officials during the 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.


African Americans have been key components in the Economic system of the United States since its inception. 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 powerPage 12  |  Top of Article of the United States. Railroads, factories, residences, and places of business were often built by enslaved Africans. Now African Americans are engaged in every sector of the American economy, though the level of integration in some sectors is less than in others. A considerable portion of the African American population works in the industrial or service sectors. 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. During the period of segregation, many businesses existing solely for the convenience of the African American population flourished. When the civil rights movement ended most of the petty discriminations and it became 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 the greater American society. A larger and more equitable role is being played by women 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.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Marriage and Family. African American marriage and kinship patterns are varied, although most now conform to those of the majority of Americans. 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 borne by African Americans are derived from the enslavement period. These are not African names but 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.

Socialization. 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 that grow out of 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 the 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 their 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 are 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 traditional behaviors and customs.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. 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 130 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 remains in private clubs, country clubs, social functions, and in some organizations. Nevertheless, African Americans have challenged hundreds of rules and regulations designed to limit choice. Among the major players in the battle for equal rights have been the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) 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 SupremePage 13  |  Top of Article 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 that speaks to the interests of the majority of the people, the NAACP comes closest 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 composed of older men and women who have made special contributions to the community through achievement or philanthropy.

Political Organization. African Americans participate freely in the two dominant political parties in the nation, Democratic and Republican. Most African Americans are Democrats, a legacy from 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 and 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.

Social Control and Conflict. Conflict is normally resolved in the African American community through the legal system, although there is a strong impetus to use consensus 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 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.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. 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—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 that have become a part of the practices of the Christians and Muslims, such as African greetings and libations to ancestors. 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 Kernet) is equivalent to 1990. There is no single set of beliefs to which all African Americans subscribe.

Ceremonies. 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 1, and each day is named after an important virtue.

Death and Afterlife. There is no wide acceptance of Cremation in the African American culture; the majority of African Americans choose burial. 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.


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 ed. 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, N.Y.: Anchor Books.


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3458000016