Beyond the Census: African-American Culture in the United States

It’s 2010, and the beginning of a new decade… which means that in the United States it’s time for the Census. The population data collected by the Census is used by the federal government to determine the amount of federal money districts will receive and how many members of congress will represent a state, among other things. On this year’s US census form there are more than 15 different options for Americans to indicate their race and/or ethnicity.

Black… African-American… it’s not the same

Courtesy US Census BureauIndicating one’s race/ethnicity isn’t always easy; for example the US Census form lists “Black”, “African-American”, and “Negro” as a single category… though there is disagreement about the terms. In the US “Black” generally refers to people with dark skin, assumed to have some degree of African ancestry (race). “African-American” is an ethnicity, and generally refers to people with some degree of African ancestry, almost always being descendents of slaves (ethnicity). Some take offense to the term “Negro”, which is almost never used in modern-day America, whereas some people readily identify as such. Photo Courtesy US Census Bureau

What’s the point of the Census?

So why ask these questions in the first place? What is their purpose? If you live outside the United States, you may not know that there are more than a dozen federal laws which require taking race into account, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act. These acts were passed in response to a myriad of discriminatory practices and laws meant to keep minorities from voting, attending “white” schools, and living in “white” areas of town.

The Census doesn’t prevent discrimination, but the data can be used to substantiate claims of discrimination. For example, in August of 2009 the county of Westchester (not far from New York City) settled a housing discrimination claim with the federal government for $62 million dollars, admitting that while they claimed to be actively implementing federal fair housing laws, they were in fact doing just the opposite. Census data likely played a significant role in proving the case of the federal government.

But let’s look beyond the statistics: If you were to only look at census data and mainstream media portrayals, you would never know that African-American cultures in the US are just as diverse and varied as American culture as a whole.

“African-American” covers many different cultures and origins

African-American English dialects in New York and the Eastern Seaboard, the Midwest, the South, and the West Coast are all very different. Couple that with an influx of Caribbean and African immigrants, and we have a large number of citizens who are often described as “Black” by people without much exposure to diversity, but who culturally (and linguistically) might not have very much in common.

I remember when I was 16, sitting and talking with some friends. It was a very multi-ethnic and religious group, which was not too common in the small town where I grew up. Two kids in the group were African-American, and had never met each other before (named John and Tweeter, if I remember correctly). After we all talked for a while, Tweeter suddenly said to John: “You’re mom’s Jamaican, isn’t she?” John nodded in affirmation. The other members of the group all stared: “How can you tell?” I asked. “His accent”, Tweeter said.

At that age I had never considered the idea that African-Americans could even have different dialects. I had always assumed that there was one African-American dialect in the US. It was embarrassing for me to realize I made that kind of assumption.
Where are all the scientists?

George Washington CarverAfrican-Americans have played a huge part in the sciences and as inventors in the US, and have been the sole developers, or played a part in the development of: pacemakers (Otis Boykin), disposable syringes (Phil Brooks), open-heart surgery (Daniel Hale Williams) radioactive elements and atomic studies (James Harris and Ernest Wilkins), among countless others. And of course there is George Washington Carver, who was born into slavery, and is famous for discovering hundreds of uses for previously unutilized vegetables, especially the peanut. Unfortunately, we don’t see a lot of African-American scientists on TV.

Photo: George Washington Carver

New York’s African-American History and Culture

New York City has had a sizeable African-American population almost since the founding of the United States, and the population grew every year between the Civil War (1860’s) until 2006. Of all the major American cities, New York has the largest African-American population, with a rich history and tradition of music, art, and literature. Charles Rangel is probably New York’s most easily recognizable mainstream African-American political figure, and has served as a member of Congress since 1971.

Visit the National Jazz Museum, the Studio Museum, Apollo Theater, or the Countee Cullen Library for a taste of African-American’s contributions to New York (and American) culture. The Harlem neighborhood in NYC was home to the “Harlem Renaissance”: an explosion of African-American intellectual culture during the 1920’s and 30’s, and Harlem is still probably America’s most easily recognizable center of African-American culture.

African-American culture in Chicago

Carol Moseley BraunChicago saw a large number of African-Americans relocate to the city between 1915 and 1960, looking to escape from Jim-Crow segregation laws in the South. The first period of African-American flight from the South saw settlement on the South Side, while later groups tended to settle on the West Side. Even in the same city, African-American culture can vary; as the South Side has been the home of a large African-American community for a longer period of time, more of the “intellectual” and older African-American cultural institutions tend to be located there. Barack Obama and Carol Mosley Braun are two of only six African-Americans to have served as US Senators, and both have deep ties to Chicago.

Photo: Carol Moseley Braun

Early African-American migration to Chicago coincides with the emergence of Blues, the genre of music for which the city is best known. Even though its popularity is not exactly at an apex, there are at still least 40 different clubs in Chicago that offer Blues on a regular basis, and “Blues Fest” draws over 750,000 visitors each year. Chicago is also an epicenter of hip-hop music, and contemporary artists such as Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Common, and Twista all hail from the city. Gospel Music, a genre with its roots in church music and folk music, also has a huge scene. Gospel is specifically Christian music, and has influenced such genres as Blues, Jazz, Soul, Rock n’ Roll, and Rock.

John Lee Hooker

African-American culture isn’t just a part of the American cultural rainbow; it’s a whole rainbow in and of itself. It’s rich to the point that I could really only briefly touch on two cities here! When you come to visit the USA, make sure to check out local African-American history museums, historical sites, music venues and churches, or you’ll miss the enormous contributions to American politics, art, science, music, literature, religion and every day American life and culture made by African-Americans.

Read more:
US study reduces prejudice through interracial friendships
Black and White: portraits of interracial couples
“Ja lubię pierogi!” – Polish Chicago

About the author

Sean Oliver
My name is Sean Oliver, and I'm a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. We also offer a full suite of language services. I have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus in Archaeology, as well as a self-designed minor in Sex and Gender Studies. I grew up in Ohio and have traveled extensively, moving to Chicago during the Summer of 2002. I have no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of my favorite places on the planet. I feel most at home in America's MidWest, though it's good to get out and see the world every now and again. I write mostly about American culture, drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.
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  • Sean, thanks for this post. Now I understand why I had to answer a few questions about my ethnicity when filling out the census form. If it’s the law, why is it that some people find these questions offensive? Anyway, great post.

    I have a question for you: what about Ebonics? is it spoken at all? I live in Dallas and so far I’ve never heard anyone speak it.

  • Sean O.

    You’re welcome Ana. You’ve asked some very big questions there. Some Americans think that acknowledging differences is engaging in “identity politics”, that is, a means to divide people, and that instead we should look for commonalities. To me, differences are what make America awesome, and glossing over them doesn’t make communicating across them any easier/better.

    I suppose if you’ve never personally experienced race or racism (i.e. you’re white and regard your own culture as “normal” or you say to yourself “I don’t have a culture”), then you could find the questions offensive. Or, if you’ve experienced discrimination, and see any documentation of your race as a potential for further discrimination, you could also find the questions problematic. Other Americans feel that they’ve been left out of the political/social spheres of mainstream America, and feel that attention paid to “minorities” in terms of government assistance and/or law has taken away from them. Others find the idea of the government collecting statistics on them and their families intrusive (Americans highly valuing individualism and personal freedom), and don’t understand the logic behind asking them.

    “Ebonics” was a term that was used (briefly) in California school districts as a way to teach “standard” English to those who spoke local dialects spoken by African-Americans. A great idea, as if you never hear much “standard” English, it’s hard to speak it. But the national news media picked it up as “California School Districts Teaching Black English as a Subject”. It was widely ridiculed and lampooned in the national media, much to the dismay of the educators who developed the idea.

    You say that “You’ve never heard anyone speak Ebonics”… by that I’m guessing you’ve never heard specific dialects of African-American English that you were expecting to hear? I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Ebonics isn’t a separate language, it’s a term (not often) used for a dialect of English…

  • Malii

    Loving the conversation here. Thanks for the post, Sean- it certainly whets my appetite for more sharing and learning on the topics you discuss.

    In response to Ana: Thanks for asking the questions you have! I’m Black myself, and while the term “Ebonics” rubs me the wrong way- because I feel that it fails as an attempt to encapsulate a deep-set cultural and US-specific history- I acknowledge that it does touch upon both verbal and non-verbal communication patterns demonstrated by Blacks across the US. From what I’ve learned (from a family friend and Linguist), the history of such communication dates back to US slavery and how African slaves adapted their communication style to accommodate their slave owner counterparts. My response to you on your question: Observe the different dialects you hear “Black” folks speak in and around Dallas. Not that the threads of slave times can be neatly drawn this (not-too-far-removed) day and age, but it might be insightful to listen for what you hear, and follow it up a bit of research and/or conversations with others.

    As far as the terms, “Black,” “African-American,” and “Negro”: I understand that they’re all simplistic and inaccurate terms of identity. Still, I refer to myself as Black- it’s all that I have to make sense of what I experience as a brown-skinned person with the grade of hair and set of experiences that I have. My aunt also identifies as “Black,” and another aunt of mine and my mother- her sisters- refer to themselves as “African-American”. My grandma, the matriarch of us all, identifies as “Negro,” and sometimes, “Colored”. We’re all the same folk, but have experienced our collective history and our current experiences differently. It’s another testament to what Sean calls the rainbow of African-American cultures(s). I don’t see any of the terms as more substantive over the other, as may be interpreted from their explanations in the blog above.

    I think it’s a shame that some who live in the US tend to shy away from conversations like these in order to uphold fragile self-images, or for fear of offending others. Cross-cultural understanding is a practice and a continuum. And, I applaud the conversation that’s taking place here. Keep ‘em comin’!

  • Thank you both for your insightful replies.

    Sean, I thought Ebonics was a separate language clearly different from English, and now I stand corrected.

    Malii: it was very interesting to read your point of view. Thanks for not mincing words, it was refreshing.

    You know what? it was only when I moved to Texas (from Argentina) that I realised race and ethnicity were such a big deal in people’s lives. And I experienced “reversed racism” (if that makes any sense): people’s stereotypes of what Latin Americans look like are so deeply etched in their minds that the most common reaction I get is “no!you can’t be Hispanic! but you’re white!” and that is every bit as offensive, especially because they mean it as a compliment. And mind you, it’s not only Texans that say that, I’ve had other Latinos react more or less this way and the most offensive thing I’ve ever been told was by a fellow Latin American. That’s just mind-boggling.

    I agree with Malii and Sean: diversity should be celebrated.

  • Malii

    Thanks for the dialogue, Ana! ;)

  • Lancelot

    To be more precise, non-standard English is considerably more regional than it is racial. I was born and raised in the deep south and i can assure you that African Americans and Anglo- Americans spoke the same type of English. The major difference would be that Anglos spoke with a distinctive southern twang. Also, non-standard English was spoken primarily by uneducated folk, race notwithstanding.

    Also, I definitely agree with Sean. African American is not a generic race but a specific ethnicity. black person who lives in Miami has a full understanding of this phenomenon. It is past time for the entire country to come to this realization.

  • Jerry

    I found this to be almost the best discription of what we go through that I have read thus far. It was enlighten to see someone else with the same insight. I have Goggled African-American Culture to Black Culture in almost twenty different ways and still have yet to find a group/list of cultures that I can pick and assume is my own. As one can do with any other ethnic group. But then again they probably think the same as we do…Great post!!!!

  • Sean Oliver

    Thanks Jerry. This was one of my favorites to write.