African American Culture Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

African American culture has been a part of the history of the United States for some 400 years. Learn about the development of culture unique to African Americans and the changes that have affected black music, literature, and food.

African American Culture

When you think about American culture, what comes to mind? Maybe cheeseburgers, football, and shopping at the mall - all popular American pastimes. However, the 320 million people who live in the United States reflect a variety of cultural backgrounds. African American culture, including the music, food, and language of black communities and peoples, dates back to the early 1600s, when Africans were first brought to America as slaves.

Pre-Civil War Culture

Almost all Africans brought to the United States were treated as slaves, from the earliest years of the American colonies to the end of the Civil War in 1865. In spite of their harsh living conditions, Africans and later their children and grandchildren made major musical contributions to American culture.

For example, the banjo is based on an African stringed instrument, while the blues combine themes from African and European music. Another example is food: yams and okra came from Africa and remain popular parts of African-American cuisine, or 'soul food.' Since many African-Americans often had little money following slavery, soul food included inexpensive cuts of meat like chicken livers or ham hocks.

Soul food: ham hocks with black-eyed peas
Ham hock

Africans brought to and born in the United States did not simply integrate, meaning become a part of the dominant white American culture. They retained many of their unique cultural features, such as their language and pronunciation of English. 'Black English' or 'black speech' was not just a new type of pronunciation but a way to identify one's self as an African American.

Post-Civil War Culture

Jazz Age

After the Civil War ended in 1865, some African Americans moved north in order to find work. They settled in major cities like Chicago and New York, where African American culture became more mainstream. For example, while jazz music is thought to have started in New Orleans, it became hugely popular when black musicians like Louis Armstrong brought it with them when they moved to Chicago and New York. In fact, the 1920s are remembered as the Jazz Age because of the popularity of black-inspired music and dance.

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong2

Harlem Renaissance

A major settling point for African Americans, the city of Harlem in New York, led to a flourishing of black culture. Writers, artists, and musicians living in this area contributed to new ways of personal expression and thinking known as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s; 'renaissance' means a rebirth. Writers like Langston Hughes found inspiration in black life and jazz and an audience in other parts of our country.

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes2

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