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.

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About the author

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.