African Americans

African Americans are an African ethnic group whose members are citizens of the United States of America. They remain one of the most biologically diverse groups in the United States because of the historical intermingling of scores of African ethnic groups, Native Americans, and Europeans. The term African American is something of a misnomer, as the many people of African descent in Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, the Antilles, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Uruguay, which like the United States are part of the Americas, are not included in the term African American. Nevertheless, the term has been used to designate people of African descent who are domiciled in the United States since 1865. Prior to that year, blacks were not Americans, and therefore most saw themselves only as Africans. There were, however, a few free blacks who called themselves “colored citizens” when, in fact, they did not possess the rights of American citizens.

Size and Composition

African Americans constitute the second largest racial group in the United States of America. Africans came with the Spaniards in the 16th century to the area that became the United States. However, the first appearance of groups of Africans in the English colonies of America occurred in 1619, when 20 Africans were brought as indentured servants to Jamestown, Virginia. Subsequent importations of Africans over a period of 200 years from western Africa, stretching from Morocco on the north to Angola on the south, greatly increased the African population in the United States. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the population of Africans in the United States had reached 4½ million.
African Americans are a composite people comprised of numerous African ethnic groups—Yoruba, Wolof, Mandingo, Hausa, Asante, Fante, Edo, Fulani, Serere, Luba, Angola, Congo, Ibo, Ibibio, Ijaw, and Sherbro—with a common origin in Africa and a common struggle in the United States against racial oppression. Many African Americans show evidence of racial mixture with Native Americans, particularly Muskogee, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Pawnee, as well as with Europeans from various ethnic backgrounds.
African Americans were predominantly a rural and Southern people until the great urban migration of the World War II era. Thousands of Africans moved to the major urban centers of the North to find better jobs and more equitable living conditions. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit became magnets for entire Southern communities of African Americans. The lure of economic prosperity, political enfranchisement, and social mobility attracted many young men and frequently women, and the elderly were left on the farms of the South. Men would send for their families and men and women would send for their aging parents once they were established in their new homes in the North.
Residential segregation became a pattern in the North, as it had been in the South. Some segregated communities in the North gained prominence and became centers for culture and commerce. Harlem in New York, North Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Woodlawn in Detroit, Southside in Chicago, and Hough in Cleveland were written into the African American's imagination as places of high style, fashion, culture, and business. The evolution of African American communities from Southern and rural to Northern and urban has occurred since 1945. According to the 2000 census, the largest African American populations are found in these cities: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Houston, Baltimore, New Orleans, Memphis, and Washington, D. C. In terms of the percentage of the population of a city that African Americans represent, the following cities are the five leaders among cities with populations over 300,000: Washington, D. C. (70%), Atlanta (67%), Detroit (65%), New Orleans (55%), and Memphis (49%). East St. Louis, Illinois, is 96% African American, but its population is less than 100,000. The cities with the largest African American populations are New York, with 2.1 million African Americans, Chicago with 1.4 million, Detroit with over 800,000, Philadelphia with close to 700,000, and Los Angeles with more than 600,000.
In 2002, the population of African Americans was estimated to be 37 million. In addition to the African American population in the United States, there are approximately a million African Americans abroad, mainly in Africa, Europe, and South America. African Americans constitute about 12% of the U.S. population. This is roughly equal to the percentages of Africans in the populations of the South American nations of Venezuela and Colombia. The United States has the second largest population of Africans outside of the continent of Africa. The following countries have the largest population of Africandescended people in the world: Nigeria, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Congo, and the United States.

Cultural and Linguistic Orientation

African Americans are now avid speakers of English. During the 17th century, most Africans in the Americas spoke West African languages as their first language. In the United States, the African population developed a highly sophisticated pidgin, usually referred to by linguists in its creolized form as Ebonics. This language is the prototype for the speech of the vast majority of African Americans. It is comprised of African syntactical elements and English lexical items. Use of this language made it possible for Africans from various ethnic and linguistic groups (e.g., Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Akan, Wolof, Mande, etc.) to communicate with each other as well as with the Europeans with whom they came in contact. The impact of the African American language on American society is thorough and all embracing. From the ubiquitous “O. K.,” a Wolof expression from Senegal, to the transformations of words like “bad” and “awesome” into expressions of something entirely original, one sees the imprint of African American styles derived from the African heritage. There are more than 3,000 words, place names, and concepts with African origins found in the English language of the United States of America. Indeed, popular speakers of the African American idiom are the source of the most dynamic additions to the language—from the words of jazz musicians and rappers to street slang, all of which have given American English its own authentic color. The proverbs, poems, songs, and hollers, which come with the historical saga of a people whose only epic is in the great songs known as the spirituals, provide a rich texture to the ever-evolving language of the African American people.

A Captured People

African Americans did not freely come to America. Theirs is not the history of a people seeking to escape political oppression, economic exploitation, religious intolerance, or social injustice in their homeland. Rather, the ancestors of the present African Americans were stolen from the continent of Africa, placed on ships against their will, and transported across the Atlantic. While most of the enslaved Africans went to Brazil and the Caribbean, a great portion landed in the Southern states of the United States. At the height of the European slave trade, almost every nation in Europe was involved in some aspect of the enterprise.
As the slave trade grew more profitable and the European captains became more ambitious, larger ships with specially built “slave galleries” were commissioned. These galleries between the decks were no more than 18 inches high. Each African was allotted a space no more than 16 inches wide and 5½ feet long for the many weeks or months of the Atlantic crossing. Here the Africans were forced to lie down shackled together in chains and fastened to staples in the deck. Needless to say, many Africans perished under such conditions. Where the space was 2 feet high, Africans were often allowed to sit with their legs over each other's legs like riders on a crowed sled. Africans were transported from Africa to America seated in this position with a once a day break for exercise. Many died or went insane.
The North made the shipping of Africans its business; the South made the working of Africans its business. By 1860, the census counted 4½ million Africans in the United States. The number of Africans increased rapidly from the 18th century on—from 757,208 in 1790 to 4,441,830 in 1860. The African American population grew both by increased birth rates and by importation of new Africans. But by 1860, slavery had been virtually eliminated in the North and West. And by the end of the Civil War in 1865, it was over for every state. After the Civil War, 14% of the population of the United States was African. The 4½ million Africans who made up the black population in 1865 are the ancestors of the overwhelming majority of Africans living in the United States today.

When Freedom Came

During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, African American politicians introduced legislation that provided for public elementary and secondary education, something that was rarely present before the campaign by African American legislators. This public act of creating a radical policy for the benefit of the masses remains one of the great legacies of the African American involvement in the legislative process of the 19th century. Education has always been seen as a major instrument in changing society and bettering the life chances of African American people. Lincoln University and Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Hampton University in Virginia, and Howard University are some of the oldest institutions of learning for the African American community. Other universities, such as Tuskegee, Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman, and Atlanta, are now a part of the American educational story of success and excellence.
The great civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a whole new generation of African Americans committed to advancing the cause of justice and equality. Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man on a Montgomery city bus and created a stir that did not end until the most visible signs of racism were overthrown. Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged as the leading spokesperson and chief symbol of a people tired of racism and segregation and prepared to fight and die if necessary to obtain legal and human rights. Malcolm X took the battle one step further, insisting that African Americans were psychologically lost and therefore had to find historical and cultural validity in the reclamation of their connection to Africa.
Thus, out of the crucible of the 1960s came a vigorous movement toward full recognition of the African past and legacy. African Americans' relationships with other groups depended more and more on mutual respect rather than on African Americans acting like clients to other groups. African Americans expressed their concern that the Jewish community had not supported affirmative action, although there was a long history of Jewish support for African American causes. Accepting the role of vanguard in the struggle to extend the protection of the U.S. Constitution to oppressed people, African Americans made serious demands on municipal and federal officials during the civil rights movement. Voting rights were guaranteed and protected, educational segregation was made illegal, and petty discriminations against African Americans in hotels and public facilities were eradicated as a result of the sustained protests and demonstrations of the era.

National Involvement in Various Sectors

The existence of a growing economy does not guarantee that African Americans will be served by that growth. The labor of African Americans has been a key component in the economic system of the United States since its inception. However, the initial relationship of those of African descent to the economy was based on the position of Africans as enslaved labor. Africans were instrumental in establishing the industrial and agrarian power of the United States. Railroads, factories, residencies, and places of business were often built by enslaved Africans. Currently African Americans are engaged in every sector of the American economy, though there is less integration in some sectors than in others. A considerable portion of the African American population works in the industrial or service occupations. Others are found in the professions, holding positions such as teacher, lawyer, doctor, and manager, more often than in small businesses. These patterns are based on previous conditions of discrimination in businesses throughout the South. Most African Americans could find employment in communities where their professional services were needed, therefore, the above-mentioned professions and others that cater to the African American population have provided professionals with numerous opportunities for employment.
During the past 20 years the number of businesses opened by African Americans has begun to increase, after decreasing in the final decades of the 20th century. During the period of segregation, many businesses run by and solely for the convenience of the African American population flourished. When the civil rights movement ended most of the petty discriminations and it was possible for African Americans to trade and shop at other stores and businesses, the businesses located in the African American community suffered. There is now an awareness in the African American community of the need to see businesses as connected with and dependent on the greater American society. In addition, a greater role, a role closer to equal that of men, is played by African American women than by American women in other ethnic groups. Indeed, many of the chief leaders in the economic development of the African American community are and have been women. Both men and women have always worked in the majority of African American homes and during the enslavement, work was the principal activity of both men and women.

Cultural Patterns and Customs

African American marriage and kinship patterns are varied, although most now conform to the marriage and kinship style of the majority of Americans. Monogamy is the overwhelming choice of most married people. Because of the rise of Islam in the African American community, there is also a growing community of persons who practice polygamy. Lack of marriageable males is putting intense pressure on African American females to find new ways of maintaining traditions and parenting children. Within the African American population, various arrangements constitute family. Thus, people may speak of family, aunts, uncles, fathers, mothers, and children without necessarily meaning that there is a genetic kinship between them and those about whom they are speaking. African Americans often say “brother” or “sister” as a way to indicate the possibility of that being the actual fact. In the period of the enslavement, individuals from the same family were often sold to different plantation masters and given the names of those owners, creating the possibility that brothers or sisters would have different surnames. Most African Americans' names are derived from the enslavement period and are not African names but, rather, English, German, French, and Irish names, for the most part. Few African Americans can trace their ancestry back before the enslavement. Those who can do so have normally found records in the homes of the plantation owners or in the local archives of the South. African Americans love children and believe that those who have many children are fortunate. Thus it is not uncommon for African American families to have more than four children.
African American children are socialized in the home, but the church often plays an important role in socialization. Parents depend on other family members to chastise, instruct, and discipline their children, particularly if the family members live in close proximity to the parents and the children know them well. Socialization also takes place through rites and celebrations that grow out of either religious or cultural observances. There has been a growing interest in African child socialization patterns with the emergence of the Afrocentric movement. Parents are introducing African rites of passage at an early age to provide their children with historical referents. Increasingly, such rites are challenging traditional religious rites for children in the African American community by becoming the preferred form of transition ritual around puberty. For some time, churches and schools have done rites in which children have been expected to recite certain details about heroines and heroes or about various aspects of African American history and culture to be considered mature in the culture.
Many independent schools have been formed to gain control over the cultural and psychological education of African American children. A distrust of the public schools has emerged during the past 25 years because African Americans believe that it is difficult for African American children to gain the self-confidence they need from teachers who do not understand or are insensitive to their culture. Youth clubs established along the lines of the African age-set groups are popular as drill teams and formal youth social organizations. On the other hand, neighborhood street gangs are often associated with delinquent behavior and should not be confused with the new, more culturally aware youth groups that are generally healthy male and sometimes female socialization clubs. Church groups and community center organizations seek to channel the energies of these groups into positive socialization experiences. They are joined by the numerous Afrocentric workshops and seminars that train young people in traditional African behaviors and customs.
African Americans can be found in every stratum of the American population. However, it remains a fact that the vast majority of African Americans are outside of the social culture of the dominant society in the United States. In just under 140 years, African Americans who were emancipated with neither wealth nor good prospects for wealth have been able to advance in American society against all odds. Considered determined and doggedly competitive in situations that threaten survival, African Americans have had to outrun economic disaster in every era. Discrimination against African Americans remains in private clubs, country clubs, social functions, and some organizations. Nevertheless, African Americans have challenged hundreds of rules and regulations that have tried to limit their choices.

The Struggle for Equality

Among the major players in the battle for equal rights have been the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League (NUL). These two organizations have advanced the social integration of the African American population on the legal and social welfare fronts. The NAACP is the major civil rights organization as well as the oldest. Its history in the struggle for equality and justice is legendary. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court, was one of the organization's most famous lawyers. He argued 24 cases before the Supreme Court as a lawyer and is credited with winning 23 of them. Although there is no official organization of the entire African American population and no truly mass movement that speaks to the interests of the majority of the people, the NAACP comes closet to being a conscience for the nation and an organized response to oppression, discrimination, and racism.
At the local level, many communities have organized committees of elders who are responsible for various activities within the communities. These committees are usually informal and are set up to assist the communities in determining the best strategies to follow in political and legal situations. Growing out of an Afrocentric emphasis on community and cohesiveness, the committees are usually comprised of older men and women who have made special contributions to the community through achievement or philanthropy.

Political Participation

African Americans participate freely as members of the two dominant political parties in the nation, the Democrats and the Republicans. Most African Americans are Democrats, a legacy left by the era of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats who brought about a measure of social justice and respect for the common people. There are more than 6,000 African Americans who have been elected officials in the United States, including the governor of Virginia and the mayors of New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago. Concentrated in the central cities, the African American population has a strong impact on the political processes of the older cities. The national Democratic Party chairperson is of African American heritage and some of the most prominent persons in the party are also African Americans. The Republican Party also has its share of African American politicians, though not as large a share as that of the Democrats. There is no independent political party in the African American community, although it has remained one of the dreams of leading African American political strategists.
Conflict is normally resolved in the African American community through the legal system, although there is a strong impetus to attempt consensus first. The idea of discussing an issue with other members of the community who might share similar values is a prevalent one in African American society. The first recourse when problems arise is another person. This is true whether it is an individual, social, or familial problem. Rather than calling a lawyer first, an African American is most likely to call a friend and seek advice. To some extent, the traditional African notion of retaining and maintaining harmony is at the heart of the matter. Conflicts should be resolved by people, not by law is an African adage.

The Practice of Religion

African Americans practice the three main monotheistic religions as well as Eastern and African religions. The predominant faith of African Americans is Christianity, the second largest group of believers accept the ancestral religions of Africa—Vodu, Santería, Myal, and a third group of followers practice Islam. Judaism and Buddhism are also practiced by some people in the African American community. Without understanding the complexity of religion in the African American community, it is not possible to venture too deeply into the nature of the culture. While African American involvement in the religions of Christianity and Islam attracts attention, the African religions are present everywhere, even in the minds of black Christians and Muslims. Thus, traditional practitioners have introduced certain rites that have become a part of the practices of the Christians and Muslims. African greetings and libations to the ancestors are heard in black Christian and Muslim gatherings. African Americans are spiritually oriented— they weave religion into everything they do so that there is no separation between religion and life. They have also given American society the master songs known as spirituals. Many of the practitioners of the African religions use the founding of Egypt as the starting date for the calendar, thus 6302 A. F. K. (After the Founding of Kemet) is equivalent to 2002. This is particularly true among followers of Ausar Auset, a neo-Kemetic religious group. Yet there is no single set of beliefs to which all African Americans subscribe.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, January 15, and Malcolm X's birthday, May 19, are the two most important days in the African American calendar. Kwanzaa, a celebration of first fruits, which was initiated by the philosopher Maulana Karenga, is the most joyous occasion in the African American year. Kwanzaa is observed from December 26 to January l, and each day is named after an important virtue.
There is no wide acceptance of cremation in the African American culture. The majority of African Americans choose burial over cremation. Funerals are often occasions of sadness followed by festivities and joyousness. “When the Saints Go Marching In” was made famous as the song played by African American musicians in New Orleans to convey African Americans to the other world. Sung and played with gusto and great vigor, the song summed up the victorious attitude of a people long used to suffering on earth.



  • African Americans
  • African American communities
  • Americans
  • African religions
  • Africans in the United States
  • African people
  • African ethnic groups


Further Reading

  • Asante, Molefi Kete. (2002). African American History: A Journey of Liberation. Saddle Brook, NJ: Peoples Publishing Group. This is a comprehensive history of African Americans.
  • Asante, Molefi Kete, and Mattson, Mark. (1998). African American Atlas. New York: Scribner's. This is the first historical atlas detailing the experiences of African Americans spatially. It presents historical, social, economic, and educational data.
  • Drake, St. Clair. (1987). Black Folk: Here and There. Los Angeles: UCLA Center for Afro American Studies. This book is a compelling odyssey of the African people.
  • Frazier, Thomas R. (1988). Afro American History: Primary Sources. Chicago: Dorsey Press. This is a key source for documents relating to African American history.
  • Redkey, Edwin. (1969). Black Exodus: Black Nationalism and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890–1910. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. This book remains a useful examination of the role of black nationalism in African American history.