What makes up American culture as we know it? Grishma Kandel explores the influence that Black culture has had on the United States of America.
There are few cultures that haven’t influenced the America we know today. Among them, African American culture and practices have arguably been at the forefront of culture in the United States. While Black people were mocked and oppressed for their African and Caribbean descent, their impact on American culture is undeniable. For centuries Black people were forced to change their names, language, and essentially alter their self identity to fit into a Western canon of respectability. It is time that respect and appreciation is shown for the impact on American music, fashion, cuisine, media and art. As Congresswoman, Yvette Clarke, says “We must never forget that Black History is American History. The achievements of African Americans have contributed to our nation’s greatness.”
While Black people were mocked and oppressed for their African and Caribbean descent, their impact on American culture is undeniable.
Music is a powerful component of Black culture and of how it has permeated the American mainstream. Through time, Black people have used music to express the struggles they faced, to connect with each other and gain recognition. African-American music began with “work songs,” created by enslaved people to make physical labour more bearable and allows for discreet communication between them. Notable examples include songs inspired by this are the spirituals ‘Go Down Moses’ and ‘Wade in the Water’. The banjo, first born on the African continent, was notably used as an accessory during minstrel shows during the Jim Crow era and the Antebellum period. Yet, today it is most commonly associated with the image of White countryside folk. Early Black rhythms derived from African tribal music and paved the way for the formation of other poly-rhythmic genres such as rock-n-roll, jazz, and rhythm and blues. The influx of Caribbean immigrants in the 1960s resulted in the arrival of new beat-boxing styles and “toasting” music - which eventually became hip-hop. Globally influential Black artists such as Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, Prince and Jay-Z incorporated this rich history into their discographies and the aesthetic of some of their music videos (see Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’ music video).
Like music, Black fashion tells its own story. The Harlem Renaissance in America resulted in the renewal of the embrace of the African-American community for vibrant patterns and detail. The flapper style dresses arose to enable quick movement in the new Charleston dance, which can also be credited to African-Americans. The now rising baggy zoot suit, first worn by Black and Brown minorities in the United States was originally shunned and considered to be a sign of loose morals, especially by those harbouring anti-Black sentiments. The adornment of hoop earrings, lettuce hems, gold chains and bucket hats can all be traced to people with African and Caribbean heritage. The predominantly Black hip-hop community introduced the trend of sneaker culture and oversized clothing in the 1900s, which are still worn today. Billie Holiday’s accidental fashion discovery of putting flowers in hair is today instantly recognizable as hers. The rise of Black fashion allowed for Afrodescendant people to regain a sense of self-identity and expression; it highlighted the existence of a distinct identity and aesthetic, and gave way for brands to collaborate and form new aesthetics based off of their creativity.
The rise of Black fashion allowed for Afrodescendant people to regain a sense of self-identity and expression; it highlighted the existence of a distinct identity and aesthetic, and gave way for brands to collaborate and form new aesthetics based off of their creativity.
The Harlem Renaissance was also a turning point for Black people in the wider field of arts and literature. Suddenly, there was a new scene where artists and writers were recognised and heard. For the first time, their culture and talent was celebrated on a national level. Subsequently, Black art was not tied to just physical tribal art, but also modernist, political and futuristic works. One of the most prominent artists of his time, African American poet Langston Hughes, focused on showcasing the Black experience in America. His famous line “I, too, am America” encapsulates the isolation felt in segregation. ‘Let my People Go’ by Aaron Douglas is a remarkable painting from this era, using biblical references to tie enslaved and struggling African people to the modern cultural apparatus and to acknowledge how their struggle has extended to the present day. The Harlem Renaissance changed the landscape of American arts and literature as a whole, and its aim in uplifting Black American artists is ongoing.
American food we consume today is directly influenced by African-American roots. Because enslaved Black people were often forced to cook meals for White families during the Antebellum period and beyond, it was inevitable that they had a considerable impact on American food as we know it. As traditional dishes were altered to the tastes of slave owners, different tastes made their way into the upper-class American kitchens. Traditional American dishes such as macaroni and cheese and collard greens have direct links to Black slaves who fused African and western tastes together. The Transatlantic Trade brought over peanuts, squash, okra, watermelons and rice to America which are still widely consumed today. The importation of maize resulted in many maize-based foods arising, and the ingredient becoming a staple food in American homes. Caribbean influences introduced many new spices like hot peppers into dishes. The traditional Jamaican Patty, a semicircular pastry with a hard yellow shell and meat fillings, has become popular with Americans and is particularly used in school lunches. The Black Power Movement termed these foods “soul food” in the 1960s - which gave recognition for their immense contribution in American culture. ‘Soul Food’ is still widely regarded as an important part of American heritage and is the staple food for several American festivities such as Thanksgiving and Independence Day.
Black media outlets have further fueled Black recognition. The African-American newspaper “Chicago Defender” actively aided the anti-racist mission of the Civil Rights Movement. Black media outlets online highlight the social issues in America, and give way for change. The role of media in setting up grassroots movements was especially prevalent during the #BlackLivesMatter movement born in 2013 and still active to this day. The movement, founded after a record number of instances of police brutality against Black people in the United States (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Rekia Boyd, among others) garnered both national and international support.
Black television and film is another branch of popular culture that is becoming increasingly visible. Milestones in the Black community are being hit every year in matters pertaining to on-screen representation and behind the scenes decisions. For instance, EGOT-winner Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”) made history as the first Black woman to receive the title of “Best Lead Actress in a Drama Series” for incarnating unyielding lawyer, Annalise Keating at the 2015 Emmy Awards. Black Entertainment Television (BET), launched in 1980, is most notable for providing a platform for authentic and diverse perspectives. Its continued existence demonstrates how Black media continues to champion inclusivity, social change and constant evolution of American media and culture.
Black Entertainment Television (BET), launched in 1980, is most notable for providing a platform for authentic and diverse perspectives. Its continued existence demonstrates how Black media continues to champion inclusivity, social change and constant evolution of American media and culture.
Since they were forcefully brought to its shores, Afrodescendant people have considerably contributed to the American canon and helped shape it into what it is today. As humans, our present can be defined by our past. In American culture, the past and present contributions made by African Americans have systematically been undermined, underestimated or erased. It has gone on for too long, and we must all work together to correct this. American culture is Black culture, whether we like it or not.