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Encyclopedia > Black American

African Americans, also known as Afro-Americans or black Americans, are an ethnic group in the United States of America whose ancestors, usually in predominant part, were indigenous to Sub-Saharan and West Africa. The majority of African Americans are of African, European and Native American ancestry.

Terms for African Americans used at various points in history include Negroes, colored, blacks and Afro-Americans. Negro and colored are now less commonly used and considered by many passe or derogatory. African American, black and, to a lesser extent, Afro-American, are used interchangeably today but often incorrectly. The term African-American refers only to United States citizens, but is often applied to black residents who are not citizens.

According to 2003 U.S. Census figures, some 37.1 million African Americans live in the United States, comprising 12.9 percent of the total population. At the time of the 2000 Census, 54.8 percent of African Americans lived in the South. In that year, 17.6 percent of African Americans lived in the Northeast and 18.7 percent in the Midwest, while only 8.9 percent lived in the western states. Almost 88 percent of African Americans lived in metropolitan areas in 2000. With over 2 million African American residents, New York City had the largest black urban population in the United States in 2000. Among cities of 100,000 or more, Gary, Indiana, had the highest percentage of black residents of any U.S. city in 2000, with 85 percent, followed closely by Detroit, Michigan, with 83 percent.


African American history

Main article: African American history

Africans were sold and traded into bondage and shipped to the American South from 1607 to 1807, when importation was outlawed. By 1860, there were nearly four million slaves in the South, and another 500,000 African Americans were free in the North and South. Slavery was a controversial issue in American society and politics. The growth of abolitionism, which opposed the institution of slavery, culminated in the 1860 election of President Abraham Lincoln, the secession of the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War.

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed all slaves in the Confederacy under U.S. law. During the military occupation that followed the Civil War, African Americans in the South obtained the right to vote and to hold public office, as well as a number of other civil rights they previously had been denied. However, when Reconstruction ended in 1877, southern, white landowners reinstituted a regime of disenfranchisement and racial segregation, and with it a wave of lynchings and other vigilante violence.

The desperate conditions of African Americans in the South that sparked the Great Migration of the early 20th century, combined with a growing African American intellectual and cultural elite in the North, led to a strengthening movement to fight violence and discrimination against African Americans. One of the most prominent of these groups, the NAACP, led a series of legal battles in the 1950s to overturn Jim Crow segregation, culminating in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

As segregation began to crumble in the South, the modern day Civil Rights Movement emerged, which reached its peak in the 1960s under leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins. At the same time, other leaders, such as Malcolm X, called for African Americans to embrace black nationalism and black self-empowerment, propounding ideas of black unity and solidarity.

Contemporary issues

Main article: African American (Contemporary issues)

Many African Americans have improved their social and economic standing since the Civil Rights Movement, and recent decades have witnessed the expansion of a vibrant, black middle class across the United States. However, collectively, African Americans remain at an economic, educational and social disadvantage relative to whites. Economically, the median income of African Americans is roughly 60% that of whites. Persistent social problems for many African Americans include inadequate healthcare access and delivery; institutional racism and discrimination in housing, policing, criminal justice and employment; crime; and substance abuse. African Americans are more likely to be stopped by police when innocent and more likely to be incarcerated, and have higher prevalence of some chronic health conditions relative to the general population. These problems and potential remedies have been the subject of intense public policy debate in the United States, in general, and within the African American community, particularly.


Main article: African American culture

African American culture is an amalgam of influences, the most persistent of which has been the cultural imprint of Africa. The first slaves to arrive in America brought African languages, music, religious practices, foods and foodways, value systems and other cultural traditions with them. Over time, these aspects of African culture have blended with other influences to form a unique culture.

African American music is one of the most pervasive African American cultural influences in the United States today. Hip Hop, Rock, rap, R&B, funk, and other contemporary American musical forms evolved from blues, jazz, and gospel music, which themselves evolved from the spirituals sung by slaves. The music of slaves has its roots in the call and response of West African music. African American Vernacular English is a dialect of English commonly spoken by African Americans. AAVE has had a noticeable effect on the development of American English, particularly in the South, and has become well-known worldwide due to the constant expansion of American culture overseas.

Many African American authors have written stories, poems, and essays influenced by their experiences as African Americans. Famous examples include Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.

The term African American

Political Overtones

It is important to note that use of the term African American carries important political overtones. Previous terms used to identify American blacks were conferred upon the group by whites and were included in the wording of various laws and legal decisions which became tools of white supremacy and oppression. There developed among blacks in America a growing desire for a term of their own choosing.

With the political consciousness that emerged from the political and social ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Negro fell into disfavor among many American blacks. It had taken on a moderate, accommodationist, even Uncle Tomish, connotation. The period was a time when growing numbers of blacks in the U.S., particularly black youth, celebrated their blackness and their historical and cultural ties with the African continent. They defiantly embraced black as a group identifier -- a term they themselves had repudiated only two decades earlier -- a term often associated in English with things negative and undesirable, proclaiming, "Black is beautiful."

By the 1990s, the terms Afro-American and African-American began to reemerge, this time for many as self-referential terms of choice. Just as other ethnic groups in American society historically had adopted names descriptive of their families' geographical points of origin (such as Italian-American, Irish-American, Polish-American), many blacks in America expressed a preference for a similar term. Because of the historical circumstances surrounding the capture, enslavement and systematic attempts to de-Africanize blacks in the U.S. under chattel slavery, most American blacks are unable to trace their ancestry to a specific African nation; hence, the entire continent serves as a geographic marker.

For many, African-American is more than a name expressive of cultural and historical roots. The term expresses black pride and a sense of kinship and solidarity with others of the black African diaspora __ an embracing of the notion of pan_Africanism earlier enunciated by prominent black thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois and, later, George Padmore.

A discussion of the term African-American and related terms can be found in the journal article "The Politicization of Changing Terms of Self Reference Among American Slave Descendants" in American Speech v 66 is 2 Summer 1991 p. 133-46.

Who is African-American?

To be considered African-American in the United States of America, not even half of one's ancestry must be black. But will one quarter do, or one-eighth, or less? The nation's answer to the question "Who is black?" long has been that a black is any person with any known African black ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with racism; white supremacy; slavery; and, later, with Jim Crow laws.

In the southern United States, it became known as the one-drop rule, meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person black. Some courts have called it the traceable amount rule, and anthropologists call it the hypo-descent rule, meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become America's national definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks -- but for different reasons. White supremacists, whose motivation was racist, considered anyone with black ancestry tainted, inherently inferior morally and intellectually and, thus, subordinate. In a slave economy, there was also a strong economic incentive to maximize the number of individuals who could be owned, bred, worked, traded and sold outright as human chattel. Blacks, on the other hand, generally shared a common lot in society and, therefore, common cause -- regardless of their ethnic mixture.

The United States Supreme Court formalized the legal status of this rule in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where the Court affirmed the legality of racial segregation and upheld the State of Louisiana's ruling that, despite being 7/8ths white, Homer Plessy's one black great-grandparent rendered him legally black and, therefore, subject to being barred from whites-only railway carriages.

In the last decade, a growing movement has developed, spearheaded mostly by the parents of mixed children, towards the adoption and acceptance of the term biracial. Some bi-racial blacks also refer to themselves as mixed, when, in fact, virtually all African-Americans are mixed. In the mid 1970s, New York's New Amsterdam News reported that African-Americans with Native American ancestry numbered in the upper 80th percentile. Native Americans often took in runaway bondsmen and women and accepted them as members of their tribes, and there is a lengthy history of peaceful coexistence, intermarriage and fighting alliances against whites between Native Americans and African-Americans. Some Native American tribes, notably the Cherokee, held African-American slaves. Further, recent genetic tests on a small population of African-Americans revealed their ancestry to be, on average, approximately 19 percent white.

Additionally, throughout U.S. history, very fair persons with straight hair sometimes chose to "pass" as white to escape racism and discrimination, oftentimes completely separating themselves from contact with darker members of their family. This was a dangerous action, in light of anti_miscegenation laws, social attitudes and lynch mobs. Many lived in constant fear of producing children with telltale African features or being otherwise discovered.

Terms no longer in common use

The term Negro, which was widely used until the 1960s, today increasingly is considered passť and, in some quarters, inappropriate or derogatory. It is still fairly commonly used by older individuals and in the Deep South. Once widely considered acceptable, Negro fell into disfavor for reasons already herein stated. The self_referential term of preference for Negro became black.

Negroid is a term used by European anthropologists in the 18th and 19th centries to describe indigenous Africans and their descendants throughout the African diaspora. As with most descriptors of race based on inconsistent, unscientific but politically-motivated phenotypical standards, the term is meaningless. It was not, for instance, used to describe phenotypical similar people living in non-African countries and continents such as India, Indonesia, and Australia, to name a few.

Other largely defunct, seldom used terms to refer to African-Americans are mulatto and colored. The American use of the term mulatto originally was used to mean the offspring of a "pure African black" and a "pure European white". The Latin root of the word is mulo, as in "mule", implying incorrectly that, like mules, which are horse-donkey hybrids, mulattoes are sterile crosses of two different species. For example, in the early twentieth century, African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, who had slaves as mothers and white fathers, were referred to as mulattoes. While not as common as "mixed" or "biracial," or even "multiracial," mulatto is still sometimes used to refer to people of mixed parentage and, despite its origin, is not considered derogatory in certain western societal groups.

The term quadroon referred to a person who was of one-fourth African descent, perhaps someone born to a Caucasian father and a mulatto mother. Someone of one-eighth African descent was technically an octoroon, although the term often was used to refer to any white person with even a hint of black ancestry.

Mulatto and terms with the -roon suffix persisted in a social context for a number of decades, but by the mid twentieth century, they no longer were in common use. With the end of slavery, there was no longer a strong commercial incentive to classify blacks by their African-European ancestral admixture. The use of these terms, however, does still persist in electronic media, literature and in some social settings.

African American population of the United States

The following gives the African American population of the United States over time, based on U.S. Census figures.

  • 1790 757,208 (19.3% of the total population of the United States).
  • 1800 1,002,037 18.9%
  • 1810 1,377,808 19.0%
  • 1820 1,771,656 18.4%
  • 1830 2,328,642 18.1%
  • 1840 2,873,648 16.8%
  • 1850 3,638,808 15.7%
  • 1860 4,441,830 14.1%
  • 1870 4,880,009 12.7%
  • 1880 6,580,793 13.1%
  • 1890 7,488,788 11.9%
  • 1900 8,833,994 11.6%
  • 1910 9,827,763 10.7%

See also

External links

  • African Americans in the Caribbean and Latin America (http://www.saxakali.com/caribbean/shamil.htm)
  • African-Americans by the numbers (http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmcensus1.html)
  • Black History Month (http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhm1.html)
  • Slavery Pictures (http://www.sonofthesouth.net/Slavery_Pictures_.htm), Original 1860s

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