The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

African Americans and Racial Diversity

There is a great ethnic and racial diversity in the United States of America. The fastest growing racial minority in the country is of Hispanic or Latino origin, with 16 percent of the total population. Blacks, or African Americans, have kept their percentage around 12 percent for the past few decades, but they constituted 20 percent during the first census of 1790, of which less than 10 percent were free at the time. The process of assimilation has been much more successful for white ethnic groups than for non-white ethnic groups, and of the non-white ethnic groups, Americans of African descent have had the greatest difficulty in becoming assimilated into the larger culture. They were the only group that was brought to the US against their will to be sold as slaves, and their former slavery is what influenced racial prejudice, which continues, albeit on a much lower scale, to this date.

Due to their past, the principle cultural struggle of African Americans (or Afro-Americans) has been to "find their voice" through slave songs, storytelling, autobiography, fiction, political speeches, rap music and film. It started with "talking back" to their slave masters as a form of rebellion against the dominant white American narrative, and continued through their education, artistic expression and strengthening of their cultural identity. The dominant culture exerted control through language and propagation of their culture, so African Americans had to invent a public, historical self through speech, song and writing as a type of resistance from cultural marginalisation. An innate sense of music and rhythm allowed them to express themselves through music (blues, soul, jazz, gospel, r&b, rap, hip-hop), autobiography allowed them to express their individual struggle to find a voice (Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou), and supreme physical advantages allowed them to express themselves through sports.

After World War II, African-Americans started a mostly peaceful movement to bring end to segregation and racism in the United States. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) is the most prominent leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, who advocated nonviolent civil disobedience based on Christian beliefs. In his speeches (his Washington "I Have a Dream" speech is considered one of the finest examples of American oratory) he drew on biblical motifs, folk and slave stories.In the 1960s, two important laws made it illegal to segregate public facilities and to deny black people the right to vote in elections, bringing about equal opportunity for blacks in education and workplace. A federal program called affirmative action required employers to actively seek minority workers and universities minority students and, as a result, the number of African Americans and Latinos holding elective public office and earning higher incomes increased in the last few decades of the 20th century.  

There were different types of leaders during this period of ethnic turmoil, though. One of the most famous ones was Malcolm X (1925-1965), an American Muslim minister and human rights activist who indicted white America in the harshest terms for its crimes against black Americans.     

The election of the first Afro-American president, Barack Obama, showed how far their fight for equality has come. The lack of immediate help for the poverty-stricken black neighbourhoods in downtown New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the continued prejudice of the police in the big US cities, however, demonstrate the underlying racial inequality. Many blacks and ethnic minorities in the inner city continue to be trapped in cycles of poverty, unemployment and violence, and as many as one in five young Black males may have a criminal record. A larger percent of black and Hispanic children than white children live in poverty and may have only one parent at home. Despite all of this, the picture and racial mix is starting to change, and the assimilation of African-Americans and other minorities has picked up pace in the 21st century. Inter-racial marriages, a rare event until the end of the 20th century, has become quite common nowadays.

One can argue that the Afro-American culture still represents an American subculture, although significant characteristics, like a different accent, are less obvious today than as recently as twenty years ago. In terms of a particular mentality, one can argue that black Americans are a more closely-knit and supportive group than their white counterparts. Even though there is a significant number of crimes committed in poor inner-city neighbourhoods in large American cities between the members of the Afro-American community, there is a palpable feeling of solidarity and brotherhood on the whole.

Perhaps most significantly for American culture in general, a great number of world-famous blues (Muddy Waters, Nina Simone, Chuck Berry, B. B. King, Tina Turner), jazz (Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong), soul (Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Prince), R&B (Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Alicia Keys, Smokey Robinson, Patti LaBelle, Usher), rap and hip-hop (Run DMC, Public Enemy, LL Cool Jay, Snoop Dogg, Kanye West, Salt-N-Pepa, Tupac Shakur, De La Soul), rock (Jimi Hendrix) artists have expressed their individual and community woes and desires through music, drawing world-wide attention and universal admiration and praise.

Books to Read and Films to See

Native Son (1940) is a novel by Richard Wright about a poor black youth who commits murder and is chased, caught, tried and convicted for it. The lawyer who defends him presents the crime as an inevitable result of the society in which his defendant was formed.

Invisible Man (1952) is a novel by Ralph Ellison about an African American man whose colour makes him feel invisible. After being thrown out of a school for an inadvertent incident, he turns bitter and becomes an ardent Marxist.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is an autobiography by Maya Angelou that depicts how resoluteness and love of literature can help overcome racism and childhood trauma.

Beloved (1987) is a novel by Toni Morrison about a woman, run-away slave Sethe, who kills her two-year-old daughter not to allow her to be recaptured. The girl, called Beloved, returns years after as a ghost to haunt her.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) is a comedy-drama film starring Sidney Poitier dealing with the controversial subject of interracial marriage.

Jungle Fever (1991) is a romance drama written, produced and directed by Spike Lee that explores interracial relationships in New York in the 1990s.

Ray (2004) is a musical biographical film about the life of the blind rhythms and blues musician Ray Charles that won its main actor, Jamie Foxx, an Academy Award for Best Actor.

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