The African American Touch Of Culture English Literature Essay
American history, whether Americans like it or not, has an important and large chapter in which African Americans have the leading role; a social, economic and political role as well as a dramatic one which cannot be forgotten. Many years in which Afro-Americans were treated like inferiors had a big impact, not only upon American society, but upon the cultural branch as well. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century people of black color were not seen by whites as intellectuals; in fact they could not be seen as educated people. In a way the assertion that Blacks were not educated people is true because most of them were slaves who did not know how to read, not to mention that they would be able to write. But in spite of the white mentality, blacks proved their worth even from when they were slaves and in the course of time, African Americans left their print in many domains which defined American culture.
One of the main domains in which they had a large contribution, was music (one of life’s gifts). Of course their worth as intellectuals was proven by literature, theatre and other forms of art which nowadays no longer “stand divided”, yet they are part of America’s heritage. If we think a bit, their work was part of the New World from the moment of their presence, but its acceptance was the problem. The “superior race” could not tolerate the fact that African Americans were among the best writers, singers, composers, movie directors etc. and as a consequence they suffered sternly criticism based on racism. Since slavery, the influence they had upon American culture increased with the steps to freedom and equality of rights. Their social and political struggle because of racism was a theme present in many written works, movies and songs; in fact culture and their dark history went hand in hand: all the events which meant a change for their social life were stressed in their works of art. Their innate inferiority became equality, but also a kind of superiority introduced by pride, which was felt in the cultural branch.
The slave trade had a big impact upon Africans. When they came to America they had to leave everything behind, including their culture. Very few things remained from their homeland, but their cruel history, besides suffering, led to art in all its faces. They managed to create a new culture from something devastating, for the world to always remember or find out what they had been through.
African American literature is very diverse, diversity being one of their history and life features. This kind of literature had as main themes African American culture, religion, racism, pride, discrimination, struggle for a decent life and more. It reflects mostly what meant for a black person to be an American and the fact that their presence had always been a controversy to the nation’s labels (freedom, equality, democracy).
African American literature started to develop even since slavery. Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved little girl, managed to publish her poetry in 1773. The title of the book is Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. She was named after the slave ship on which she arrived and thanks to the Wheatley family she became an educated person and the first African American woman who got her work published and made money from it. We have to mention that it was possible due to the kindness of her master and the connections he had. In any case she could not publish her work in America because all doubted that a black person could be so intelligent, so she went to London where she did not encounter this sort of problem. The main themes of her work were religion, the struggle of blacks in the U.S.A. and death, but she also wrote a poem dedicated to George Washington, To His Excellency General Washington, in 1775 and a funeral elegy in 1770 for the Countess of Huntingdon due to her chaplain’s death which made her very famous. Phillis Wheatley was both valued and criticized, one of her critics being none other than Thomas Jefferson. In the same time, people like Gilbert Inlay defended her from critics who were not professionals, but racists and he wished to see similar work done by a white. Among the works already mentioned she wrote other poems such as An Address to the Atheist, An Address to the Deist, Liberty and Peace, a Poem. After she died a statue in her name had been raised in 2003 by Meredith Bergmann and a building named after her, exists at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Another slave who is known as the first Afro-American who published his work in America is Jupiter Hammon. His poem An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries was a broadside published in 1761, followed by an ode to Phillis Wheatley in 1778 and his famous speech Address to the Negroes of the State of New York in which he talks about the slaves’ freedom and here we can find his famous line stressing his belief:
If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves. (Hammon 18)
These early authors among Lucy Terry, Williams Wells Brown (an escaped slave, abolitionist, historian, novelist, lecturer and playwright) and Harriet Wilson stressed in their writings, which are still read today: slave life, freedom, discrimination, feelings that one can only imagine and besides this, they are part of the Afro-American literature. Harriet Wilson had the honor to be the African American who wrote the first novel published in America, entitled Our Nig (1859), which enlarges upon the problems free blacks had in the North. The first writers were examples for the ones who were about to follow their footsteps and like that, Afro-American literature started to develop and gain an important significance for American culture. We could say that this was the start of the blacks’ emancipation, because as we observed throughout time, culture made whites forget about racism and literature played an important role in their acceptance into society as equals.
Another important sort of writing for the American literature was the slave narrative which developed in the midst of nineteenth century and it had a big impact upon society. Former slaves, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs are the most well known, wrote works about their lives and about slavery in which we could observe the following: religious redemption, the inspiration for abolitionists’ struggle (the most popular) and progress. And we can say that the narratives written by the two writers mentioned above became part of the African American literature’s cornerstone (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by H. Jacobs and Douglas’ autobiography which was republished a year later, in 1855, entitled My Bondage and My Freedom). Of course, we must not forget Uncle’s Tom Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (a white woman), which played a great role in America’s history; a book that people still read nowadays.
Slavery ended, but that did not stop African American writers to write about discrimination, racism and wrong behaviour. The most notable writer of the twentieth century was W. D. Du Bois who was also a civil rights activist and one of the NAACP founders. He tried to find solutions for each problem caused by race and stressed the struggle of Afro-Americans and their condition. He wrote among many other books, The Souls of Black Folk, which is a classic. This book, besides the fact that every chapter starts with a spiritual that involves suffering, sadness, hope and affirmation, having a strong influence upon one’s feelings, also represents an early work which involves sociology. And this book has another role. We can observe a touch in this kind of literature: Afro-American moral superiority introduced by the pride of being black; it is what Du Bois wanted to express by this collection of essays. This theme is elicited well in an essay which Du Bois published in 1923, in Mencken’s magazine The Smart Set and it is entitled The Superior Race. The essay is a Socratic dialogue held between the author and his”white friend”, in which they talk about superiority, race and opinions. In the end, Du Bois tells his friend that the world is not like he thought and there is no superior race separated from an inferior one by dirt. The most serious part which concludes all reflects his view:
<<All that I have really been trying to say is that a certain group that I know and to which I belong, as contrasted with the group you know and to which you belong, and in which you fanatically and gratifyingly you believe, bears in its bosom just now the spiritual hope of this land because of the persons who compose it and not by divine command. >>
Du Bois was one of the most important figures in African American literature. He wrote also about the leading role of black people in the American Civil War and Reconstruction, and he proved that Black emancipation had a significant role upon American society. The book entitled Black Reconstruction (1935) promoted this theme. Eric Foner, a leading scholar of the Reconstruction era, in the late twentieth century, adopted and enlarged it.
Criminology was also on Du Bois’ list. The Philadelphia Negro (1899) was one of his most important works concerning this theme, which reflects how social conditions, black people’s place in America and lack of employment and education, all of them at a low level, led to high level of delinquency. He mixed history with social change and managed to put forward his theories. Crime, which is a theme in literature, it is also an important issue of American society.
Very important authors of the post-slavery era were also: Booker T. Washington, who thought that blacks should prove their equality and then ask for the end of racism (he was the founder of a Black college in Alabama and an African American Civil Rights Leader); Marcus Garvey; Paul Laurence Dunbar, a poet who wrote his works in black dialect and gained the national public’s attention; Charles W. Chesnutt.
A flourishing period for the African American literature was the Harlem Renaissance, a time in which artists, writers and singers brought something new. That period is well-known mostly because of its literature. Historians could not agree on a date which could define that period, but it was in the early twentieth century. An anthology edited by Alain Locke, The New Negro (1925), concentrates the works of some of the most famous writers, representing that cultural movement, like Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937), Jean Toomer (Cane) and Wallace Thurman.
Cullen features through his poems the everyday life of a black, in books like Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927) and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). This theme was in fact characteristic to that period and black fine art began to be part of American culture. Hughes had a big contribution with his poetry collection in 1922, The Book of American Negro Poetry and with The Weary Blues (1926) and the novel Not Without Laughter (1930). And a big impact was made by Wallace Thurman, with his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), in which he features racial problems between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned African Americans. The Renaissance period was very important for African American literature mostly because it meant change which brought this kind of literature among all Americans.
In the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, African American writers went hand in hand with The American Civil Rights Movement, expressing black issues in their writings. James Baldwin wrote about race and sexuality; the novel Go Tell It on the Mountain made him famous (it tackles a great problem of acceptance when someone is both black and homosexual). Another prominent author was Richard Wright, who was also an example for Baldwin. His novel, which came out in 1940, Native Son, was of a great significance, telling the story of a Black man who fought for his acceptance in Chicago. Other novels written by Wright are Black Boy (1945), The Outsider (1953) and White Man, Listen! (1957).
African American writers started to be important pieces in America’s puzzle. Ralph Edison won the National book Award in 1953 after he published a great novel, Invisible Man, in 1952, which was very successful worldwide. Women were not of less competence. Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in 1949 Annie Allen, a book of poetry, due to which she grew to be the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. We must also take into consideration books and essays wrote by the leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement (e.g. Martin Luther King), which have as main theme human rights.
Since the 1970’s, books written by African Americans were being accepted by the academic environment, part of the mainstream as American literature and were seen on the best-seller lists. Toni Morrison is not only a clear example, but a very important African-American writer of the twentieth century. Novels like Beloved (which brought her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988); The Bluest Eye and Sula identify themes like human identity, racism, human rights, discrimination, child molestation and more. The Nobel Prize for Literature which she won in 1993 brought her and her kind an enormous satisfaction along with the status of being the first African-American woman to win it. Moreover, she was highly appreciated by all Americans.
Authors who gained high credits through their work were also: Alice Walker, who wrote the novel The Color Purple which brought her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and later, Steven Spielberg turned into a movie; Alex Haley, who wrote Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel which includes slavery, was on the top of best-selling books, brought him the Pulitzer Prize and became a popular miniseries on television; Rita Dove, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and Poet Laureate of the United States and most recently, Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for the novel The Known World which tells the story of a black slaveholder. There are many other contemporary authors who are bringing their contribution to African American literature and President Barack Obama is one of them. Today his autobiography is among the best-sellers, relating race, inheritance and equality.
African American literature had a big impact upon the United States’ culture. Nowadays, white people not only read, but are also interested in it. A lot of attention was gained due to Oprah Winfrey, who promoted it at her Oprah’s Book Club. African Americans managed to achieve the respect they deserved, even if they spilled blood for it. Their sorrow can be felt in their writings, which will never let the human race forget those wretched times, their fight for equality and their success.
Music can free the human soul and every single person can listen to it. African American music became quickly part of American culture and even if its themes vary, from a pop singer to a rapper, discrimination will always be a theme in African American music; and among this, it had a big influence upon all peoples, including whites in the U.S.A., who started listening to it, loving it and even making it. Music gives you a certain perspective, a way of seeing and feeling things. That was contagious too. By music you can express whatever you want, whatever you feel. African Americans had indeed talent and no white could contest it. They sang about their sad past and many other things, but racism is a topic whereof many contemporary musicians put it in their songs.
When slavery was still legal in America, work songs sung by slaves were their only liberation. Later these songs were known as spirituals, religious songs, and we can find their essence in blues and gospel music. Wade in the Water is a very well-known spiritual referring both to the New and the Old Testament. Its verses talk about the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and the chorus renders healing. Many books, among we find Frederick Douglas’ My Bondage and My Freedom tell us that spirituals, like this one, implied coded messages to help the slaves escape. Teaching him how to escape and leading him to the Underground Railroad are two things they are suspected to transmit. Spirituals like The Gospel Train, The Song of the Free and Following the Drinking Gourd are more related to the Underground Railroad. These were the inspiration of the later development of African American music.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, blues and ragtime were very popular. Syncopation, which occurs when the regular flow of rhythm is changed (stressing a beat that normally it would not be stressed), is the hallmark of African American music styles like ragtime, jazz, blues, funk, reggae and other. Scott Joplin became the most famous composer in ragtime through Maple Leaf Rag, his 1899 publication, but also through other ragtime hits. The Blues had a bigger impact upon American culture. The name expresses a state of melancholy, sadness, a gloomy atmosphere and the most used instruments are the harmonica, the guitar, the piano, the saxophone, vocals and the trumpet. Rural blues was different where he developed. In Georgia and the Carolinas were more tuneful than Texas and Mississippi, Blind Boy Fuller being one of the representatives of this style. Texas blues are depicted by high singing and a flexible guitar line, Blind Lemon Jefferson was the most important bluesman in that area. Concerning Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta blues are the most powerful, gifted with a guitar accompaniment of great rhythm and percussion. Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson and Willie Brown are among the ones who define this style.
Hart Wand, with Dallas Blues, and W.C. Handy, with The Memphis Blues were the first to publish blues sheets of music in 1912 and the first recording was Crazy Blues performed by Mamie Smith in 1920. In the 1950s the name race records, which was used because of discrimination (music was not separated by its genre, but by the ethnicity of its performer) disappeared and it was replaced with Rhythm and Blues. In that period electric blues also developed in cities such as Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and St. Louis, and in 1948 Chicago was the home of electric blues due to Muddy Waters who released his first popular song I Can’t Be Satisfied. The Chicago blues knew a strong influence from the Delta blues because most Mississippi singers came into that part. The Chicago blues scene was very important in that time and Willie Dixon together with B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf played an important role on it.
Blues had an important influence on many other genres like jazz, rock and roll and even popular music. One of the early country bluesmen, Tom Dorsey became “the father” of Gospel (music with religious themes) which developed in the 1930s and the influence of which could later be found in the 1950s soul music. Ray Charles and James Brown are two soul singers that used gospel and blues in their work. Soul at its turn influenced funk music which emerged in the 1970s and this type of music could be called the ancestor of hip-hop and contemporary R&B. In fact jazz could also be considered an ancestor of hip-hop due to its rapping.
Jazz was a very popular genre of music and nowadays it has success only in certain groups of people. The term made reference to the music sung in Chicago in 1915 and it was slang. This kind of music has a vast history and in the same time one that changed the jazz music’s style throughout time. Bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, soul jazz, swing and many other types delighted our ears. Louis Armstrong was the most popular jazz singer and the first African American who enjoyed great privileges. By the time racism was in power, Armstrong achieved levels of the American society that no black person could. Whites were fascinated by his talent and forgot all about their racist view, so we might say that we can find that highest power somewhere in music. It is something that one cannot understand, that thing that makes us act involuntarily. This was a great impact upon America’s musicians of all sorts. Music changed many things because it was not about race or accusations, music was about introducing a state of heart that one, black or white, would feel it immediately. But in its background or even at the surface, songs underlined human identity, racism, poverty, discrimination, slavery and more issues like these which step-by-step, whites started to feel and passed over their stubborn belief that they were the superior race. Whites even adopted the African American music style and released songs that include racism, discrimination and other problems in America.
The Apollo Theatre is located in Harlem, New York City, which is a neighborhood with a significant Black history. This theatre was the only place in New York for a long period of time were talented African Americans could find a job. The Apollo gained the public’s attention during the Harlem Renaissance and the pre-War World II. Something specific to Apollo was “the executioner”. Each time the audience did not like the performer, a person with a broom came and swept him off the stage. Its Amateur Night hosted by Ralph Cooper was very important for many artists who wanted to start a career. Due to their appearance at the Apollo, artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, James Brown, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan and many others became legends.
In the 70s Black musicians did not have such a great success, but artists like Stevie Wonder, The O’Jays, Barry White and Donna Summer managed to capture the attention of the entire American public. In the late 70s tough, a new musical culture appeared that had a very important impact, not only upon American culture, but also upon American mentality, lifestyle, language and behaviour. It was the Hip Hop culture which was not all about music. It could build personality; it could change your mentality and your lifestyle. The four pylons of this culture were MCing, Djing, breaking and graffiti writing. The term is originated from the African American Vernacular English where “hip” means “current” or “in the known” and “hop” refers to the movement. Hip Hop developed in South Bronx and it was represented through its rebellious and progressive elements. Rapping stands at the base of hip-hop and it is the art of using words to transmit a message during a beat. Rapping was a way of relating urban problems, expressing powerful feelings of discontent and telling stories about anything in life. It was a way to liberate anger, but in the same time it was the voice of African Americans living in the ghetto, talking about street life, misery, money, family etc. “To rap” is a word used in British English since the sixteenth century and it means “to strike”, “to hit”. Many consider hip-hop a horrible genre of music because of the language that it is used and they cannot bear to hear it, so they do not want to listen to the message. Nonetheless, Hip Hop culture crossover and became one of the most popular, especially among young Americans who adopted the slang, the clothing, the inappropriate language and the mentality.
At the beginning, hip-hop managed to diminish the rate of violence among inner-city gangs by its street dance and artwork battles. After these became real popular, many teenagers searched for different ways of expressing themselves and in this manner we could say that hip-hop was the motif for which not so many people died, but it did not make violence disappear.
[Rap] emerged from the streets of inner-city neighborhoods as a genuine reflection of the hopes, concerns, and aspirations of urban Black youth in this, the last quarter of the 20th century. Rap is essentially a homemade, street-level musical genre . . . Rap lyrics concentrate primarily on the contemporary African American experience. . . Every issue within the Black community is subject to exposition in the rap arena. Hit rap tunes have broached touchy subjects such as sex, sexism, racism, and crime . . . Rap artists, they contend, “don’t talk that love stuff, but [rather] educate the listeners.” (Powell 245)
The 80s was the period that defined hip-hop music and made it more complex. Ice-T and Schoolly D introduced one of the most popular subgenres of hip-hop: gangsta rap, which was criticizes for promoting themes such as sex, violence, racism, promiscuity, misogyny, rape, drug dealing and more. The main feature of hip hop is the rebel touch which had a great influence upon America’s society. Racism and their wretched past were not forgotten, and rappers made songs that underlined this part. Even if hip-hop is considered to have insulting lyrics, they are much more than that, having an intense meaning which reflects the everyday cultural, social, political and economic status of African Americans.
Some of the hip-hop artists who sing about racism are Public Enemy (911 is a Joke, Anti-Nigger Machine, Fear of a Black Planet, Fight the Power), Run DMC (Proud to be Black), Kool G Rap & D.J. Polo (Erase Racism), Getto Boys (No Sell Out), 3rd Bass (No Master Plan, No Master Race), Nas (America, Black President, You Can’t Stop Us Now), Common feat Will I Am (A Dream) and Tupac (Ghetto Gospel, Changes, White Man’s World, Trapped).
Hip Hop is nowadays one of the most important labels of American music because it is in the same time a cultural aspect. African American music had a huge success in America and white people liked it so much that they started making jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel, soul and funk. African Americans could not have something against this movement because it would be contradicting their race beliefs, but in a short time they started appreciating the work of whites. Above all this, one thing is for sure: music genres will never die. People will always listen to the songs which they love, even if they are out-of-date and African American music is a part of American music which will never be forgotten. All the artists mentioned since the beginning gained a high respect in America and won awards for their pieces of art. Their contribution to America’s culture was clearly seen and they also were a great inspiration for artists who followed them.
Songs about slavery, racism, discrimination, fighting and human identity are some of the most important for American culture. Billie Holiday was an African American who inspired and also had an influence upon jazz singers. She was a singer and songwriter with an outstanding voice and style. Strange Fruit was part of her discography, even if it is a song which was performed by many others. This was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in which he underlines his repugnance for American racism, especially the lynching of African Americans. Billie Holiday’s song was introduced in 1978 into the Grammy Hall of Fame, even if it was first performed in 1939 and it had its place on the list Songs of the Century.
Sam Cooke released A Change is Gonna Come in 1964. He was an American gospel, soul and pop singer who won awards for his work and was voted in 2005 number 12 in Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. This song is one of the most famous about the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, another jazz, soul, blues and gospel singer, Nina Simone contributed with three protest songs that emphasized social change: Mississippi Goddam, Four Women, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. These are among the most famous protest songs and self-written pieces. Another famous protest song is War which is very popular in America nowadays due to the fact that is became the soundtrack of the movie Rush Hour. The song is best-known performed by Edwin Starr and it also belongs to the soul genre. Its release in 1970s made War a runaway hit.
James Brown captured the public’s attention with the funk hit Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) in 1968. The song became one of the most popular Black anthems of the 1960s and emphasized the necessity for black conferring of rights. Stevie Wonder was exactly like his name and in 1973 released Living for the City in which we can observe his dissatisfaction and irritation in the tension and anger incorporated in his voice. The main themes of the song were poverty and racism. Both singers won many awards for their work and were very important figures on America’s cultural scene.
Besides the entire list of successful African American singers, we have two artists that created a huge sensation: the King of Blues and the King of Pop. The first is B.B. King who recorded in 1983 a compilation which consists of his greatest work in that period and in the same time the themes of the compilation are racism, discrimination and humanity: Why I Sing the Blues. King won fifteen Grammy Awards and many others. He was initiated in 1987 into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Time magazine ranked him in 2009 the third from the ten best guitarists. He and his guitar Lucille are among America’s prides. The second one, God rest his soul, was the contemporary African American’s impact upon society. The legend, Michael Jackson, along with his songs and a publicized personal life showed the entire world what racism, discrimination and mistreatment meant. Songs like Black or White, They Don’t Care about Us, Man in the Mirror and Heal the World were runaway hits since they were released. He won many awards and he was not only appreciated in America, but loved. Both legends bring fire in the hearts of their listeners.
Rock and roll bands with different influences, mostly formed of whites, sang also about racism and discrimination. Some songs that emphasized more or less these themes are: The Beauty of Gray by Live, Colored People by Dc Talk, Ebony and Ivory by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, Heartspark $ by Everclear and even Have a Nice Day by Bon Jovi.
In music African Americans had and still have a huge success, but also in many forms of culture. The National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. proves their touch upon American culture. However, music was the one who managed to make them feel free and equal by permitting them to express their true sorrows in a time when direct accusations were condemned. They just needed the talent and few metaphors.
3.3. Other Aspects of African American Culture
African Americans were one minority in the United States who did not pass throughout time unseen. On the contrary, their presence in America was very important not only because of the political and social scene, but also because of their contribution to the country’s culture. Literature and music are one of the most important aspects of African American culture and they relate to art, dance and movies. Besides these, the African American language, fashion, cuisine, holidays, sports and family life are also part of their culture. In the African American eye, they are as important as literature and music, but less outlined. Even so, the cultural influence of these aspects can be observed once one learns more about the African American culture.
The appearance is very important, both for African American women and men. Clothing, hairstyles and gestures are things that sometimes define the African culture. The Black Arts Movement revealed the traditional West African clothing which became very popular not matter the occasion and the hairstyle transmitted messages about that certain person. According to his or hers hairstyle, you could tell the ethnic identity, the age, the rank in the society, his or hers religion or even if that person was married or not. The African American hairstyle could define a person and because of that, people were not so careless when it came to the way in which they appeared in public. If we refer to gestures, we will observe some that remained in their culture due to their painful past. And their reaction to other gestures or words that offend them is not necessarily a diplomatic one, especially if we refer to Hip Hop culture which plays a major role in America nowadays.
In Hip Hop culture hairstyles and clothing are very important criteria. Besides these, dancing is a way of expressing their feelings and transmitting their messages. In the course of time, whites joined Hip Hop clubs and embraced this culture worldwide. They saw in it more than it was; Hip Hop for many was what defined their personality. Dancing, talking, rapping, the way they dressed and arranged their hair, the way they walked, the slang, their view upon life, was not an open door for everybody; that was what made them different from others.
Like in Hip Hop, African Americans and whites work together in sports. A clear example of past discrimination was basketball.
Due to coaches who appreciated someone regarding his talent and not his skin color, African Americans managed to prove their worth on courts, even if they suffered plenty mocking when they went to study in a school where whites were majorette; and again, discrimination played an important role in their acceptance in the National Basketball Association (NBA). In the course of time, African Americans showed that they were better than many whites and managed to get high credits for their talent which finally made America proud to have them among its players. Some examples are: Michael Jordan, Linton Johnson and Charles Barkley in basketball; Hank Aaron and Jackie Robinson in baseball; Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson in tennis; Evander Holyfield, Jack Johnson and Mike Tyson in boxing; Tiger Woods in golf; Earl Campbell, Bill Willis and Jim Brown in football.
African American family life is other aspect that creates a gap between blacks and whites because of their economical and unity problems. We can observe a big difference between the income of an average white family and an average black family. Poverty was one of the criteria that made family life harder in an African American community. Nowadays, the number of single mothers increased comparing to few decades ago as well as the delinquency rate. Discrimination is sometimes present when it comes to important decisions in a family, like marriage. In America racists did not die yet and many do not agree with a marriage between a white person and a black one because of their past and status in the society. In any case, things are starting to evolve and there are fewer problems concerning discrimination, although it is something that will always be present in America because of the large number of immigrants.
3.3.1. African American Vernacular English (AAVE)
The term AAVE is presented with all its features in John Rickford’s book, African American Vernacular English. After you read the book, you can observe the influence AAVE had upon American culture. The AAVE is a variety of American English spoken by African Americans. This variety includes dialects, ethnolects and sociolects. The language is different from one category of people to another and here we take into consideration the age, the topic, the setting and the status. Due to its logical structure, AAVE is academically judged as a valid dialect, but many whites or African Americans think of it as slang or a language which appeared due to the lack of control of Standard American English.
Regarding the fact that there is a strong connection between the AAVE and the Southern American English, we can observe the influence of slavery upon the dialect. The slave owners had their contribution in the formation of the dialect because they used to mix Africans from different parts of the continent, not being allowed to speak any other language than poor English. The mixture of so many African languages and the banning of education formed the ‘pidgin’, which is an easier language built from features of two or more languages. The ‘pidgin’ was used between people who needed to communicate, but did not have a language in common. Later on, the slave language developed and after the slave era ended, the AAVE remained in the United States bringing controversies in the educational system. The problem was somehow solved when the Conference on College Composition and Communication made an important decision in 1974 which helped protect student’s rights:
<<We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language. >> (Smitherman xv)
AAVE has its own words, like any dialect, known only by the speakers or words which are part of Standard American English, but have a totally different meaning. This dialect created a small change in American culture because of its usage. In some parts of the country people, especially teenagers, adopted words from AAVE in their vocabulary due to the presence of multiculturalism.
In literature and media we can observe the portrayal of black speech, representing black identity. The presence of AAVE in American literature denotes the connection between African American and other characters and it was used in notable works, with inconsistent degrees of authenticity, such as: Moby Dick (1851) by Herman Melville, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain, Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell, Go Down, Moses (1942) by William Faulkner and A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole. AAVE was also present in television shows and movies. Parts where AAVE is used are rapping, dialogues between African Americans or different kind of contexts where a reference to the African American culture is made. Examples of its usage in television are: Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Laurel Avenue (1993), Fresh (1994), The Best Man (1999).
This dialect, in spite of its different formation (specific phonology, different use of tenses and vocabulary) is a mean of communication which did not disappear and represents a piece of American culture. Communication is the most important thing between two persons and linguistics is a noteworthy and interesting science. Both are essential in the definition of a nation’s culture and when we talk about a certain language or dialect we must take into consideration not only its form, but how it is delivered.
3.3.2 African American Holidays
African Americans celebrate both ethnic holidays and American traditional holidays, but the ethnic holidays are respected by all Americans because they are considered American holidays. The third Monday of January is one of the most important celebrations for African Americans because then they celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. This holiday not only brings back the memory of one of the most significant personalities in African American history, but it is also part of the three federal holidays which has the name of a person.
Black History Month is a period dedicated to the memory of important people and events that are part of the African American history and it is celebrated in February, the month when NAACP was founded and both Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were born. This is a month when aspects of the African American’s lives and history, which did not seem very important, even if they were, have all the attention.
Another important month which is considered by presidents in the last twenty-eight years an important part of American heritage is June. At the beginning of summer, the African American Music Month is celebrated and lots of events which highlight all genres of African American music occur.
Two other holidays which are celebrated more in the African American communities are Emancipation Day, which is not celebrated in the same day in all the country and Malcolm X’s birthday on May 19.
Holidays which highlight the African American history or contribution to the United States are the proof that they did not forget their past or their worth and no matter what, they will always be proud for who they are.
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