One sustaining strength of Black America has always been African American culture. As Black American culture goes, so goes Black people. Unfortunately, Black culture is dying a slow, tortuous death currently. What happened to those very effective devices we once had to transmit our own cultural strength to our offspring? Even though most of us think we know what’s not Black culture, and we’re very quick to point it out, listen to all the stammering when someone directly asks, just what exactly is Black American culture, anyway? Here’s an answer:
From its early formation and establishment during the late 17th and early 18th centuries in America, African American culture has always been multifaceted, eclectic, iconographic, and substantive. It was born simply because Black people were here, in this particular land, and they acculturated to this space and time. It was born and it evolved because Black people–African people–had to react to, had to respond to relentlessly, a hostile environment made consistently dangerous by the advent and promulgation of slavery and all that slavery meant in this country.
It produced so many magnificent aspects of Americana because of the inherent talent and desperate needs of Africans in America who wouldn’t leave, and who instead decided they’d make the lifetime commitment to stay here and work it out. Thus, African American culture has been and still is a “we’re gonna work it out’ culture”–a pulsating, rhythmic, passionate, expanding and contracting group of values, world views, senses of style, spiritualities, community linkages, common hopes for a better day, and creative uses of every available medium to lay bare hearts heavy and joy unrestricted.
From its outset, African American culture has had as an essential ingredient the need to tell the truth as Black people saw it–the truth on ourselves, the truth on White people, the truth about our situation.
As we have passed beyond the 500th year of Black American culture and continue onward, what truths can be discerned through its lenses? What wisdom and knowledge have been accumulated to help us traverse the trials of the future? What does the culture say about who we are at this space and time, and how ready we are to work things out during another thousand years?
One truth that should be self-evident immediately is that African American culture is still very much alive and present. Though very many aspects of the culture–jazz, dance styles, extemporaneity and freedom of creative expression, distinctive religiosity, and others–have been co-opted into general Americana, Black Americans are nothing if not endlessly inventive in handling adversity and trying circumstances. The culture is still moving and shaking because the Black Experience–that is, Black folk responding blackly to life’s opportunities, trials and tribulations, funerals and births in every medium possible–remains very much operational and influential.
A second truth is that the culture remains multidimensional. That is, even though we usually talk of Black culture as if it is a single, monolithic entity, it is not, nor has it ever been. There is no one way to be Black. In fact, the culture has always incorporated greatly varying styles and bits of craziness from gut-bucket to siditty (uppity), sanctified to juke-joint, erudite to ebonics.
During antebellum slavery, for example, all Blacks weren’t slaves. Some voted regularly and were substantial property owners, shipbuilders, independent artisans and merchants. A few were even slave owners themselves. Yet they all fit under the umbrella of Black culture just as surely as the high yellas and the midnight Blacks always did.
Sure, some passed and got away with it, but most others, whether quadroon, octoroon, mulatto, or what-have-you, with their differing manners, attitudes, relationships with Whites and ideas of who they were, significantly contributed to the culture of the Black Experience. In essence, African American culture has never had the luxury of being elitist (although more than a few members have gone through several episodes of trying to be exclusivist and isolationist). It is simply not in the nature of the culture to sustain such a component broadly, even when portions of several different generations have demanded it.
A third truth is that Black culture is as much a culture of reaction and response as it is a culture of initiation and innovation. The physical, material and evolving racist circumstances of our existence in America–before and after our Black president–have motivated a great body of the culture. Early on, part of Black culture in America was a response to relationships with the Spanish (e.g., St. Augustine, Fla.); part of it was a set of relationships with various Native American groups (e.g., the Iroquois Confederation, the five civilized tribes); and part of it was a set of undulating responses to various groups of Whites–the Mennonite Quakers, the French Jesuits, Dutch merchants, German immigrants, both aristocratic and poor English, settler convicts, atheists, Puritans–all with their own ideas concerning the place of Black people in the scheme of things.
Later, it was not only slavery and the constant threat of being accused of being a runaway; it was the specific slave crop and its milieu that impelled specific cultural responses. The Black experience associated with tobacco farming was discernibly different from that of sugar cane, rice and indigo, and eventually that associated with the short-staple cotton, which dominated after the 1820s. Even later, the survival responses and mother wit needed to handle the aftermath of the Dred Scott case, the Civil War, tenant farming and sharecropping, Jim Crowism, the Great Black Migration, and what Dr. Du Bois characterized as the ‘problem of the 20th century,’ all went into the potpourri that was Black American culture. The Black Experience has given the culture reams of wisdom on how to survive, and even how to transcend some of the limitations of America, the beautiful. From the perspective of this particular truth then, African American culture has always been a survival and salvation guide for those who understood its symbols and codes.
A fourth truth is that African American culture has thoroughly enriched and enhanced American culture in general. The continuing products from our misery and adjustments have given America its own distinctive music and musical syntheses (including Spirituals, Blues, Ragtime, Jazz, Gospel, R&B, on the one hand, and syncopation, polyphony, extemporaneity, and call-and-response on the other). It has given America athletic prowess far beyond what would be expected. It has provided literature and dramaturgy, which grandly expanded the range and scope of human insight and compassion.
It has contributed inventions and innovations which have made American lives better and more comfortable (e.g. the automatic transmission, the cell phone, ice cream, the carbon filament light bulb, the trolley car, the refrigerated unit for trucking and trains, the elevator, the railroad coupling, the gas mask, the traffic light, and literally hundreds of others patented and documented). African American culture has also provided persistently outstanding examples that support the view that it is through artistic craftsmanship and cutting-edge genius of expression that civilization and society will be transformed and led to higher levels of human activity. The honor roll of such artistic innovators and contributors to the American Dream is long and distinguished, including Henry Tanner, Augusta Savage, Charles White, Aaron Douglas, Betye Saar, Romare Bearden, Edmonia Lewis, Sargent Johnson, Richmond Barthe, Horace Pippin, Hale Woodruff, Archibald J. Motley, Jacob Lawrence, and many more.
A fifth truth of African American culture is that although it has weathered all manner of criticism, disrespect and blows to its solar plexus throughout its long life, it is neither invincible nor rock steady. In fact, it remains quite vulnerable. All that is needed for its immediate demise is the abandonment of it by its constituent membership. Black people can simply ignore it to death. It is attached by a generational umbilical cord that can be rejected and renounced as irrelevant and useless by one or more succeeding generations, and it will be undone and left to wither and die.
Why would Black folk abandon their own culture? The answer, like the issue, is not simple. When enough of the positive values associated with the culture are not passed on to the youth, for example, there is little reason for Black youth to feel a strong and affirmative kinship with the heritage they associate with “old school.” When the consequences of relentless miseducation about the Black contributions to America and the world are allowed to hold sway, the culture loses substantial ground.
When the cultural spokespersons most frequently seen and consistently quoted vulgarize and denigrate African American culture, the culture loses more credibility and attractiveness. And when American culture in general, through its massive multimedia access–including television, movies, Internet, print and radio–berates and undermines over a very long period of time the value of being Black in multicultural America, the “faith that the dark past has taught us . . . and the hope that the present has brought us …” recedes imperceptively into insignificance.
When too many Black people themselves have no love for their own culture, aided by the ever-enterprising Blacks who make a profitable career from ‘niggerizing’ the race incessantly in the media, the demise of the culture is assured.
Where then is African American culture as we move inexorably forward? No. 1, it is too weighed down by the truism of a particular cultural standard: when a culture has sustained itself long enough for its iconography (symbols, names, cosmetic components) to replace its substance in the consciousness of its membership, then, without the diligence of some of its members to intervene, that culture becomes shallow, static and eventually abandoned.
That accurately reflected African American culture in the 1990s, and that still too accurately represents African American culture in the first decade of the 21st century. We’ve become very good at the clothing and hairstyles, but simultaneously lax in considering the essence of who we are and where we, as a people, are going. Race people among us are a dying breed. We’ve also become too accepting of the domination of familial disrespect and misogyny in the culture, another sign that symbol has replaced substance. Here, one can say that the culture is being pimped and worked, rather than it working this out.
African American culture, secondly, is still large in our lives but it is essentially taken for granted.
We assume its existence and good heaIth without the bother of verifying it. We still feel more comfortable than uncomfortable when we are together, but we still largely eschew Black banks and Black retail establishments for others we “know” will give us better product and service for our money. Those are not accidental choices.
Thirdly, African American culture is still fertile and highly productive, but it is confused and meandering. With the panoply of interracialisms now in vogue in America, color consciousness alone no longer defines who we are or what our interests are (if it ever did). Was the self-confidence activated through the prism of hard knocks, the civil rights struggle, parental sacrifice and the like, too successful in the current generation? The persistent viewpoint in their ranks that “we have overcome” has little relationship to reality, but it plays well in the media. Alas, confusion reigns to work us (and our nerves) rather than the culture working this out as it surely can.
Fourthly, the expansion and practical rearticulation of a definition of Black American culture is long overdue, and the longer the delay, the more troublesome that absence becomes. Has our understanding of freedom and liberation been properly adjusted for the circumstances we are in currently? What happened to the Black Aesthetic? What happened to Afrocentricity? What happened to the credibility of Black Studies in American schools and universities?
Finally, it would appear that as we move into the next one thousand years, our cultural vanguards, defenders, and scholars have not been spending enough African deep thought on this maintenance of culture issue. We’ve let others set the agenda in these cultural wars and we’ve gotten, and have remained, distracted. Whether this is benign or malignant neglect is actually beside the point. The clear consequences of such sparse action–perhaps too many talking conferences as egocentric showcases and not enough library research and cadre time–are unequivocal and imminent dangers of extinction.
At this time and place then, one cannot but conclude that we are–our culture is–in serious straits. We don’t need to panic, but we must get to it immediately. There can be no delay or B.P.T. (formerly C.P.T.) leniency for this one.
Black culture in America, and elsewhere is certainly alive, but just as certainly, it is not well. Only we, its constituents, can heal it, and the window of opportunity to do that is narrowing as we speak. What are you going to do to slow or stop this decline?
A human culture without a people is an impossibility; and a people without a culture does not count in this world.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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