African American Culture Culture is not a fixed phenomenon, nor is it the same in all places or to all people. It is relative to time, place, and particular people. Learning about other people can help us to understand ourselves and to be better world citizens. One of the most common ways of studying culture is to focus on the differences within and among cultures. Although their specifics may vary form one culture to another, sociologists refer to those elements or characteristics that can be found in every know society as cultural universals. For example, in all societies, funeral rites include expression of grief, disposing of the dead, and rituals that define the relations of the dead with the living.
And on the most significant cultural universals is the incest taboo, a cultural norm prohibiting marriage or sexual relations between certain kin. Whether the underlying basis of human behavior is biological or purely learned, how we channel that behavior is an important aspect of culture. From the time we are born, we are socialized to believe that our way of life is one that is good, civilized, and above reproach. Such ideals usually sets the tone for what sociologist would refer to as ethnocentrism, the attitude that one’s own culture is superior to those of others.
Though it exists from one degree or another in every society, it may also serve as the glue that holds a society together. In the event that ethnocentrism is taken out of context or has reached an offensive tone, it may be suppressed with cultural relativism, the belief that a culture must be understood on its own terms. From the African American perspective, culture encompasses all we know, all we feel, and all we have absorbed from our elders (whippings, the teaching of specialized skills, living within your blackness, etc.). Every Black experience is shared by all, however, there are links in our heritage or our “culture” that binds one to another. Many of our life lessons were often given by our elders in the form of stories, jokes, and the spirituals which serve often song in the fields, as well as, on Sunday mornings. Yet, as a people, we thought it necessary to hold on these priceless teachings because it has served as the only link to our African ancestry.
African American culture is both part of and distinct from American culture. African Americans have contributed literature, agricultural skills, foods, clothing, dance, and language to American culture. There are distinctive patterns of language use among African Americans that arose as creative responses to the hardships imposed on the African American community. Slave-owners forced African Americans to create a language that allowed them to communicate effectively with one another.
Slaves were not allowed the opportunity to read and write because most slave owners thought they would find a way to buy their freedom if they knew how to read and write. Significant numbers of people still speak some of the Creole languages they used to communicate so many years ago. Agriculture and food is also a unique aspect of African American culture. The cultivation and use of many agricultural products, such as yams, peanuts, rice, okra, grits, and cotton, can be traced to African and African American influences.
African American foods reflect creative responses to racial and economic oppression. “Soul food,” a cuisine commonly associated with African Americans in the South, makes creative use of inexpensive products. Ham hocks and neck bones provide seasoning to soups, beans, and boiled greens. Other common foods, such as fried chicken and black-eyed peas and rice, are prepared simply.
Africans introduced Americans to musical rhythms and instruments quite different from the musical traditions of Europeans. African Americans saw music as a way of communicating with each other. Often they were not allowed to congregate together so they sang songs to convey messages to each other. The tradition of slave spirituals developed into gospel music, a religious song form which incorporated melodies and rhythms from popular music. African American dance is rooted in African and African American traditions. During slavery, slave-owners defined dancing as sinful because slaves crossed their feet to dance.
Slaves adapted their dances to conform to European beliefs, creating a shuffling motion with the feet that would be less offensive to Europeans. However, New Orleans’ slaves were allowed to preserve their dance. African American dance has greatly influenced popular culture. The celebration of Juneteenth, the day that the emancipation was signed, is celebrated annually by African Americans.
Many African Americans do not see the Fourth of July as a day of celebration and not a part of their culture. Kwanzaa, derived from the harvest rituals of Africans, is observed each year from December 26 through January 1 by many African Americans. Participants in Kwanzaa celebrations affirm their African heritage by drinking from the Unity cup, lighting red, black, and green candles, exchanging heritage symbols, such as African art, and recounting the lives of people who struggled for African and African American freedom. People who celebrate Kwanzaa hope to strengthen the black community by adhering to the seven guiding principles, designated by the terms from the Swahili language: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), umija (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).
Although many African Americans share some culture similarities with those of the dominant culture, there are some aspects of their culture from the dominant ancestry of sub-Saharan West Africa in which they have retained. Culture is not a fixed phenomenon, nor is it the same in all places or to all people. It is relative to time, place, and particular people and African American culture plays a significant role in the United States today. Sociology Issues