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African American

African Americans[1] (also referred to as Black Americans or Afro-Americans, and formerly as American Negroes) are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa.[2] Most African Americans are of West and Central African descent and are descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States.[3][4] However, some immigrants from African, Caribbean, Central American or South American nations, or their descendants, may be identified or self-identify with the term.[2]

African Americans make up the single largest racial minority in the United States.[5]

African-American history starts in the 16th century with African slaves who quickly rose up against the Spanish explorer Lucas V squez de Ayll n and progresses to the present day, with Barack Obama as the 44th and current President of the United States. Between those landmarks there have been events and issues, both resolved and ongoing, including slavery, racism, reconstruction, development of the African-American community, participation in the great military conflicts of the United States, racial segregation, and the Civil Rights Movement.



Slavery era

An artist's conception of Crispus Attucks (1723 1770), the first
An artist's conception of Crispus Attucks (1723 1770), the first "martyr" of the American Revolution.
The first African slaves arrived in the present-day United States as part of the San Miguel de Gualdape colony (most likely located in the Winyah Bay area of present-day South Carolina), founded by Spanish explorer Lucas V squez de Ayll n in 1526. The ill-fated colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership, during which the slaves revolted and fled the colony to seek refuge among local Native Americans. De Ayll n and many of the colonists died shortly afterwards of an epidemic and the colony was abandoned, leaving the escaped slaves behind on North American soil.

In 1565, the colony of Saint Augustine in Florida, founded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles, became the first permanent European settlement in North America. It included an unknown number of free and enslaved Africans that were part of this colonial expedition.

The first recorded Africans in British North America (including most of the future United States) arrived in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia. As English settlers died from harsh conditions, more and more Africans were brought to work as laborers. The Africans were likely treated as indentured servants, similar in legal position to poor English indenturees, who traded several years labor in exchange for passage to America.[6] Africans could legally raise crops and cattle to purchase their freedom.[7] They raised families, marrying other Africans and sometimes intermarrying with Native Americans or English settlers.[8] By the 1640s and 1650s, several African families owned farms around Jamestown and some became wealthy by colonial standards.

The popular conception of a race-based slave system did not fully develop until the 18th century. The Dutch West India Company introduced slavery in 1625 with the importation of eleven black slaves into New Amsterdam (present-day New York City). All the colony's slaves, however, were freed upon its surrender to the British.[9] Massachusetts was the first British colony to legally recognize slavery in 1641. It was not until 1662 that Virginia ruled that a slave mother's children would remain slaves.[10]

The first black congregations and churches were organized before 1800 in both northern and southern cities following the Great Awakening. By 1775, Africans made up 20% of the population in the American colonies, which made them the second largest ethnic group after the English.[11] During the 1770s, Africans, both enslaved and free, helped rebellious English colonists secure American Independence by defeating the British in the American Revolution.[12] Africans and Englishmen fought side by side and were fully integrated.[13] James Armistead, an African American, played a large part in making possible the 1781 Yorktown victory, which established the United States as an independent nation.[14] Other prominent African Americans were Prince Whipple and Oliver Cromwell, who are both depicted in the front of the boat in George Washington's famous 1776 Crossing the Delaware portrait.

By 1860, there were 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in the United States due to the Atlantic slave trade, and another 500,000 African Americans lived free across the country.[15] In 1863, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that all slaves in states which had seceded from the Union were free.[16] Advancing Union troops enforced the proclamation with Texas being the last state to be emancipated in 1865.[17]

Reconstruction and Jim Crow

Jesse Owens shook racial stereotypes both with Nazis and segregationists in the USA at the 1936 Berlin olympics. African Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools, community and civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. While the post-war reconstruction era was initially a time of progress for African Americans, in the late 1890s, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws to enforce racial segregation and disenfranchisement.[18] Most African Americans followed the Jim Crow laws, using a mask of compliance to prevent becoming victims of racially motivated violence. To maintain self-esteem and dignity, African Americans such as Anthony Overton and Mary McLeod Bethune continued to build their own schools, churches, banks, social clubs, and other businesses.[19]

In the last decade of the 19th century, racially discriminatory laws and racial violence aimed at African Americans began to mushroom in the United States. These discriminatory acts included racial segregation upheld by the United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896[20] which was legally mandated by southern states and nationwide at the local level of government, voter suppression or disenfranchisement in the southern states, denial of economic opportunity or resources nationwide, and private acts of violence and mass racial violence aimed at African Americans unhindered or encouraged by government authorities.

Great Migration and Civil Rights Movement

An African American boy outside of Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1940s March on Washington]], August 28, 1963, shows civil rights and union leaders The desperate conditions of African Americans in the South that sparked the Great Migration of the early 20th century,[21] combined with a growing African American community in the Northern United States, led to a movement to fight violence and discrimination against African Americans that, like abolitionism before it, crossed racial lines. The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968 was directed at abolishing racial discrimination against African Americans, particularly in the Southern United States. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the conditions which brought it into being are credited with putting pressure on President John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Johnson put his support behind passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination in public accommodations, employment, and labor unions, and the Voting Rights Act (1965), which expanded federal authority over states to ensure black political participation through protection of voter registration and elections. By 1966, the emergence of the Black Power movement, which lasted from 1966 to 1975, expanded upon the aims of the Civil Rights Movement to include economic and political self-sufficiency, and freedom from white authority.[22]

Post-Civil Rights era

Politically and economically, blacks have made substantial strides during the post-civil rights era. In 1989, Douglas Wilder became the first African-American elected governor in U.S. history. There is currently one black governor; governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Clarence Thomas became the second African-American Supreme Court Justice. In 1992 Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois became the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. There were 8,936 black officeholders in the United States in 2000, showing a net increase of 7,467 since 1970. In 2001 there were 484 black mayors.

On November 4, 2008, Democratic Senator Barack Obama defeated Republican Senator John McCain to become the first African American to be elected President. At least 95 percent of African-American voters voted for Obama.[23][24] He also received overwhelming support from young and educated whites, a majority of Asians, Hispanics,[25] and Native Americans[26] picking up a number of new states in the Democratic electoral column.[23][24] Obama lost the overall white vote, although he won a larger proportion of white votes than any previous nonincumbent Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter.[27] The following year Michael S. Steele was elected the first African-American chairman of the national Republican Party.[28]


African Americans as a percentage of total population, 2000.
African Americans as a percentage of total population, 2000.
U.S. Census map indicating U.S. counties with fewer than 25 black or African American inhabitants In 1790, when the first U.S. Census was taken, Africans (including slaves and free people) numbered about 760,000 about 19.3% of the population. In 1860, at the start of the Civil War, the African American population had increased to 4.4 million, but the percentage rate dropped to 14% of the overall population of the country. The vast majority were slaves, with only 488,000 counted as "freemen". By 1900, the black population had doubled and reached 8.8 million. In 1910, about 90% of African Americans lived in the South, but large numbers began migrating north looking for better job opportunities and living conditions, and to escape Jim Crow laws and racial violence. The Great Migration, as it was called, spanned the 1890s to the 1970s. From 1916 through the 1960s, more than 6 million black people moved north. But in the 1970s and 1980s, that trend reversed, with more African Americans moving south to the Sun Belt than leaving it.

The following table of the African American population in the United States over time shows that the African American population, as a percentage of the total population, declined until 1930 and has been rising since then.

Year Number % of total
% Change
(10 yr)
Slaves % in slavery
1790 757,208 19.3% (highest) 697,681 92%
1800 1,002,037 18.9% 32.3% 893,602 89%
1810 1,377,808 19.0% 37.5% 1,191,362 86%
1820 1,771,656 18.4% 28.6% 1,538,022 87%
1830 2,328,642 18.1% 31.4% 2,009,043 86%
1840 2,873,648 16.8% 23.4% 2,487,355 87%
1850 3,638,808 15.7% 26.6% 3,204,287 88%
1860 4,441,830 14.1% 22.1% 3,953,731 89%
1870 4,880,009 12.7% 9.9%
1880 6,580,793 13.1% 34.9%
1890 7,488,788 11.9% 13.8%
1900 8,833,994 11.6% 18.0%
1910 9,827,763 10.7% 11.2%
1920 10.5 million 9.9% 6.8%
1930 11.9 million 9.7% (lowest) 13%
1940 12.9 million 9.8% 8.4%
1950 15.0 million 10.0% 16%
1960 18.9 million 10.5% 26%
1970 22.6 million 11.1% 20%
1980 26.5 million 11.7% 17%
1990 30.0 million 12.1% 13%
2000 34.6 million 12.3% 15%
2010 38.9 million 12.6% 12%

By 1990, the African American population reached about 30 million and represented 12% of the U.S. population, roughly the same proportion as in 1900.[29] In 2010, 38.9 million Americans identified as "Black or African American," representing 12.6% of the population. Controversy has surrounded the "accurate" population count of African Americans for decades. The NAACP believed it was under counted intentionally to minimize the significance of the black population in order to reduce their political power base.

At the time of the 2000 Census, 54.8% of African Americans lived in the South. In that year, 17.6% of African Americans lived in the Northeast and 18.7% in the Midwest, while only 8.9% lived in the western states. The west does have a sizable black population in certain areas, however. California, the nation's most populous state, has the fifth largest African American population, only behind New York, Texas, Georgia, and Florida. According to the 2000 Census, approximately 2.05% of African Americans identified as Hispanic or Latino in origin,[5] many of whom may be of Brazilian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Haitian, or other Latin American descent. The only self-reported ancestral groups larger than African Americans are the Irish and Germans.[30] Because many African Americans trace their ancestry to colonial American origins, some simply self-identify as "American".

U.S. cities

Almost 58% of African Americans lived in metropolitan areas in 2000. With over 2 million black residents, New York City had the largest black urban population in the United States in 2000, overall the city has a 28% black population. Chicago has the second largest black population, with almost 1.6 million African Americans in its metropolitan area, representing about 18 percent of the total metropolitan population.

Among cities of 100,000 or more, Detroit, Michigan had the highest percentage of black residents of any U.S. city in 2010, with 82%. Other large cities with African American majorities include New Orleans, Louisiana (60%), Baltimore, Maryland (63%) Atlanta, Georgia (54%), Memphis, Tennessee (61%), and Washington, D.C. (50.7%).

The nation's most affluent county with an African American majority is Prince George's County, Maryland, with a median income of $62,467. Within that county, among the wealthiest communities are Glenn Dale, Maryland and Fort Washington, Maryland. Other affluent predominantly African American counties include Dekalb County in Georgia, and Charles City County in Virginia. Queens County, New York is the only county with a population of 65,000 or more where African Americans have a higher median household income than White Americans.[31]


Mount Zion United Methodist Church]] is the oldest African American congregation in Washington, D.C. The majority of African Americans are Protestant of whom many follow the historically black churches.[32] Black church refers to churches which minister predominantly African American congregations. Black congregations were first established by freed slaves at the end of the 17th century, and later when slavery was abolished more African Americans were allowed to create a unique form of Christianity that was culturally influenced by African spiritual traditions.[33]

According to a 2007 survey, more than half of the African American population are part of the historically black churches.[34] The largest Protestant denomination among African Americans are the Baptists,[35] distributed in four denominations, the largest being the National Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention of America.[36] The second largest are the Methodists,[37] the largest sects are the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.[36][38] Pentecostals are mainly part of the Church of God in Christ.[36] About 16% of African American Christians are members of white Protestant communions,[37] these denominations (which include the United Church of Christ) mostly have a 2 to 3% African American membership.[39] There are also large numbers of Roman Catholics, constituting 5% of the African American population.[34] Of the total number of Jehovah's Witnesses, 22% are black.[32]

Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, New York City

Some African Americans follow Islam. Historically, between 15 to 30% of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims, but most of these Africans were converted to Christianity during the era of American slavery.[40] However during the 20th century, some African Americans converted to Islam, mainly through the influence of black nationalist groups that preached with distinctive Islamic practices; these include the Moorish Science Temple of America, though the largest organization was the Nation of Islam, founded during the 1930s, which attracted at least 20,000 people as of 1963,[41][42] prominent members included activist Malcolm X and boxer Muhammad Ali.[43]

Religious affiliation of African Americans. Malcolm X is considered the first person to start the movement among African Americans towards mainstream Islam, after he left the Nation and made the pilgrimage to Mecca.[44] In 1975, Warith Deen Mohammed, the son of Elijah Muhammad who took control of the Nation after his death, guided majority of its members to orthodox Islam.[45] However, few members rejected these changes, in particular Louis Farrakhan, who revived the Nation of Islam in 1978 based on its original teachings.

African American Muslims constitute 20% of the total U.S. Muslim population,[46] the majority are Sunni or orthodox Muslims, some of these identify under the community of W. Deen Mohammed.[47][48] The Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan has a membership from 20,000 50,000 members.[49]

There are relatively few African American Jews; estimates of their number range from 20,000[50] to 200,000.[51] Most of these Jews are part of mainstream groups such as the Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox branches of Judaism; although there are significant numbers of people who are part of non-mainstream Jewish groups, largely the Black Hebrew Israelites, whose beliefs include the claim that African Americans are descended from the Biblical Israelites.[52]

Contemporary issues

African Americans have improved their social and economic standing significantly since the Civil Rights Movement and recent decades have witnessed the expansion of a robust, African American middle class across the United States. Unprecedented access to higher education and employment in addition to representation in the highest levels of American government has been gained by African Americans in the post-civil rights era.

Nevertheless, due in part to the legacy of slavery, racism and discrimination, African Americans as a group remain at a pronounced economic, educational and social disadvantage in many areas relative to European Americans. Persistent social, economic and political issues for many African Americans include inadequate health care access and delivery; institutional racism and discrimination in housing, education, policing, criminal justice and employment; crime, poverty and substance abuse.

One of the most serious and long standing issues within African American communities is poverty. Poverty itself is a hardship as it is related to marital stress and dissolution, health problems, low educational attainment, deficits in psychological functioning, and crime.[53] In 2004, 24.7% of African American families lived below the poverty level.[54] In 2007, the average African American income was $33,916, compared with $54,920 for whites.[55]

Politics and social issues

President Barack Obama at White House Easter Egg Roll. Collectively, African Americans are more involved in the American political process than other minority groups in the United States, indicated by the highest level of voter registration and participation in elections among these groups in 2004.[56] African Americans collectively attain higher levels of education than immigrants to the United States.[56] African Americans also have the highest level of Congressional representation of any minority group in the U.S.[57]

The large majority of African Americans support the Democratic Party. In the 2004 Presidential Election, Democrat John Kerry received 88% of the African American vote compared to 11% for Republican George W. Bush.[58] Although there is an African-American lobby in foreign policy, it has not had the impact that African American organizations have had in domestic policy.[59]

Historically, African Americans were supporters of the Republican Party because it was Republican President Abraham Lincoln who helped in granting freedom to American slaves; at the time, the Republicans and Democrats represented the sectional interests of the North and South, respectively, rather than any specific ideology, and both right and left were represented equally in both parties.

The African American trend of voting for Democrats can be traced back to the 1930s during the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program provided economic relief to African Americans; Roosevelt's New Deal coalition turned the Democratic Party into an organization of the working class and their liberal allies, regardless of region. The African American vote became even more solidly Democratic when Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for civil rights legislation during the 1960s.

After over 50 years, marriage rates for all Americans began to decline while divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births have climbed.[60] These changes have been greatest among African Americans. After more than 70 years of racial parity black marriage rates began to fall behind whites.[60] Single-parent households have become common, and according to US census figures released in January 2010, only 38 percent of black children live with both their parents.[61] Despite that and heavy Democratic leanings, African Americans favor "traditional American values" about family and marriage.

While 52% of Democrats support same-sex marriage, only 30% of black Democrats do. In 2008, though Democrats overwhelmingly voted (64%) against the California ballot proposition banning gay marriage, blacks overwhelmingly approved (70% in favor) it, more than any other racial group.[62] The high-profile candidacy of Barack Obama is credited with increasing black turnout on the bill which has been seen as the crucial difference in its passing.[63]

Blacks also hold far more conservative opinions on abortion, extramarital sex, and raising children out of wedlock than Democrats as a whole.[63] On financial issues, however, African Americans are very much in line with Democrats, generally supporting a more progressive tax structure to provide more services and reduce injustice and as well as more government spending on social services.[64]

News media and coverage

BET founder Robert L. Johnson with former U.S. President George W. Bush.
BET founder Robert L. Johnson with former U.S. President George W. Bush.
Some activists and academics contend that news media coverage of African American news concerns or dilemmas is inadequate[65][66][67] or the news media present distorted images of African Americans.[68] To combat this, Robert L. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television, a network that targets young African Americans and urban audiences in the United States. Most programming on the network consists of rap and R&B music videos and urban-oriented movies and series. The channel also shows syndicated television series, original programs, and some public affairs programs. On Sunday mornings, BET broadcasts a lineup of network-produced Christian programming; other, non-affiliated Christian programs are also shown during the early morning hours daily. BET is now a global network that reaches 85 million viewers in the Caribbean, Canada, and the United Kingdom.[69]

In addition to BET there is Centric, which is a spin-off cable television channel of BET, created originally as BET on Jazz to showcase jazz music-related programming, especially that of black jazz musicians. Programming has been expanded to include a block of urban programs as well as some R&B, neo soul, and alternative hip hop, with the focus on jazz reduced to low-profile hours.[70]

TV One is another African American-oriented network and a direct competitor to BET, targeting African American adults with a broad range of programming. The network airs original lifestyle and entertainment-oriented shows, movies, fashion and music programming, as well as classic series such as 227, Good Times, Martin, Boston Public and It's Showtime at the Apollo. The network primarily owned by Radio One. Founded and controlled by Catherine Hughes, it is one of the nation's largest radio broadcasting companies and the largest African American-owned radio broadcasting company in the United States.[71]

Other African American networks scheduled to launch in 2009 are the Black Television News Channel founded by former Congressman J. C. Watts and Better Black Television founded by Percy Miller.[72][73] In June 2009, NBC News launched a new website named The Grio[74] in partnership with the production team that created the black documentary film, Meeting David Wilson. It is the first African American video news site which focuses on underrepresented stories in existing national news. The Grio consists of a broad spectrum of original video packages, news articles, and contributor blogs on topics including breaking news, politics, health, business, entertainment and Black History.[75]


Administrator]] of NASA

By 2000, African Americans had advanced greatly. They still lagged overall in education attainment compared to white or Asian Americans, with 14 percent with four year and 5 percent with advanced degrees, though it was higher than for other minorities.[76] African Americans attend college at about half the rate of whites, but at a greater rate than Americans of Hispanic origin. More African American women attend and complete college than men. Black schools for kindergarten through twelfth grade students were common throughout the U.S., and a pattern towards re-segregation is currently occurring across the country.[77]

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist.

Historically black colleges and universities remain today which were originally set up when segregated colleges did not admit African Americans. As late as 1947, about one third of African Americans over 65 were considered to lack the literacy to read and write their own names. By 1969, illiteracy as it had been traditionally defined, had been largely eradicated among younger African Americans.[78]

US Census surveys showed that by 1998, 89 percent of African Americans aged 25 to 29 had completed high school, less than whites or Asians, but more than Hispanics. On many college entrance, standardized tests and grades, African Americans have historically lagged behind whites, but some studies suggest that the achievement gap has been closing. Many policy makers have proposed that this gap can and will be eliminated through policies such as affirmative action, desegregation, and multiculturalism.[79]

In Chicago, Marva Collins, an African American educator, created a low cost private school specifically for the purpose of teaching low-income African American children whom the public school system had labeled as being "learning disabled".[80] One article about Marva Collins' school stated,

Working with students having the worst of backgrounds, those who were working far below grade level, and even those who had been labeled as 'unteachable,' Marva was able to overcome the obstacles. News of third grade students reading at ninth grade level, four-year-olds learning to read in only a few months, outstanding test scores, disappearance of behavioral problems, second-graders studying Shakespeare, and other incredible reports, astounded the public.[81]
During the 2006 2007 school year, Collins' school charged $5,500 for tuition, and parents said that the school did a much better job than the Chicago public school system.[82] Meanwhile, during the 2007 2008 year, Chicago public school officials claimed that their budget of $11,300 per student was not enough.[83]

Economic status

Winfrey's endorsement of Barack Obama]] delivered one million votes for him in the close 2008 Democratic primaries.[84] Economically, African Americans have benefited from the advances made during the Civil Rights era, particularly among the educated, but not without the lingering effects of historical marginalization when considered as a whole. The racial disparity in poverty rates has narrowed. The black middle class has grown substantially. In 2000, 47% of African Americans owned their homes. The poverty rate among African Americans has decreased from 26.5% in 1998 to 24.7% in 2004.[54] African Americans are the second largest consumer group in America with a combined buying power of over $892 billion currently and likely over $1.1 trillion by 2012.[85][86] In 2002 African American-owned businesses accounted for 1.2 million of the US's 23 million businesses.[87] As of 2011 African American-owned business account for approximately 2 million US businesses.[88] Black-owned businesses experienced the largest growth in number of businesses among minorities from 2002 to 2011.[88]

In 2004, African American workers had the second-highest median earnings of American minority groups after Asian Americans, and African Americans had the highest level of male-female income parity of all ethnic groups in the United States.[89] Also, among American minority groups, only Asian Americans were more likely to hold white-collar occupations (management, professional, and related fields),[90] and African Americans were no more or less likely than European Americans to work in the service industry.[91] In 2001, over half of African American households of married couples earned $50,000 or more.[91] Although in the same year African Americans were over-represented among the nation's poor, this was directly related to the disproportionate percentage of African American families headed by single women; such families are collectively poorer, regardless of ethnicity.[91]

By 2006, gender continued to be the primary factor in income level, with the median earnings of African American men more than those black and non-black American women overall and in all educational levels.[92][93][94][95][96] At the same time, among American men, income disparities were significant; the median income of African American men was approximately 76 cents for every dollar of their European American counterparts, although the gap narrowed somewhat with a rise in educational level.[92][97]

Overall, the median earnings of African American men were 72 cents for every dollar earned of their Asian American counterparts, and $1.17 for every dollar earned by Hispanic men.[92][95][98] On the other hand by 2006, among American women with post-secondary education, African American women have made significant advances; the median income of African American women was more than those of their Asian-, European- and Hispanic American counterparts with at least some college education.[93][94][99]

African Americans are still underrepresented in government and employment. In 1999, the median income of African American families was $33,255 compared to $53,356 of European Americans. In times of economic hardship for the nation, African Americans suffer disproportionately from job loss and underemployment, with the black underclass being hardest hit. The phrase "last hired and first fired" is reflected in the Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment figures. Nationwide, the October 2008 unemployment rate for African Americans was 11.1%,[100] while the nationwide rate was 6.5%.[101]

The income gap between black and white families is also significant. In 2005, employed blacks earned only 65% of the wages of whites, down from 82% in 1975.[54] The New York Times reported in 2006 that in Queens, New York, the median income among African American families exceeded that of white families, which the newspaper attributed to the growth in the number of two-parent black families. It noted that Queens was the only county with more than 65,000 residents where that was true.[31]

In 1999, the rate of births to unwed African American mothers was estimated by economist Walter E. Williams of George Mason University to be 70%.[102] The poverty rate among single-parent black families was 39.5% in 2005, according to Williams, while it was 9.9% among married-couple black families. Among white families, the comparable rates were 26.4% and 6%.[103]

According to Forbes magazine's "wealthiest American" lists, a 2000 net worth of $800 million dollars made Oprah Winfrey the richest African American of the 20th century; by contrast, the net worth of the 20th century's richest American, Bill Gates, who is of European descent, briefly hit $100 billion in 1999. In Forbes' 2007 list, Gates' net worth decreased to $59 billion while Winfrey's increased to $2.5 billion,[104] making her the world's richest black person.[105][106] Winfrey is also the first African American to make Business Week's annual list of America's 50 greatest philanthropists.[107] BET founder Bob Johnson was also listed as a billionaire prior to an expensive divorce and as of 2009, had an estimated net worth of $550 million.[108] Winfrey remains the only African American wealthy enough to rank among the country's 400 richest people.[104] Some black entrepreneurs use their wealth to create new avenues for both African Americans and new opportunities for American business in general. Examples such as Tyler Perry who created new filming studios in Atlanta, Georgia which makes it possible to film movies and television shows outside of California.[109]

Cultural influence in the United States

The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra photographed in Houston, Texas, January 1921
The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra photographed in Houston, Texas, January 1921
From their earliest presence in North America, African Americans have contributed literature, art, agricultural skills, foods, clothing styles, music, language, social and technological innovation to American culture. The cultivation and use of many agricultural products in the U.S., such as yams, peanuts, rice, okra, sorghum, grits, watermelon, indigo dyes, and cotton, can be traced to African and African American influences. Notable examples include George Washington Carver, who created 300 products from peanuts, 118 products from sweet potatoes, and 75 from pecans; and George Crum, who invented the potato chip in 1853.[110]

African American music is one of the most pervasive African American cultural influences in the United States today and is among the most dominant in mainstream popular music. Hip hop, R&B, funk, rock and roll, soul, blues, and other contemporary American musical forms originated in black communities and evolved from other black forms of music, including blues, doo-wop, barbershop, ragtime, bluegrass, jazz, and gospel music.

African American-derived musical forms have also influenced and been incorporated into virtually every other popular musical genre in the world, including country and techno. African American genres are the most important ethnic vernacular tradition in America, as they have developed independent of African traditions from which they arise more so than any other immigrant groups, including Europeans; make up the broadest and longest lasting range of styles in America; and have, historically, been more influential, interculturally, geographically, and economically, than other American vernacular traditions.[111]

African Americans have also had an important role in American dance. Bill T. Jones, a prominent modern choreographer and dancer, has included historical African American themes in his work, particularly in the piece "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land". Likewise, Alvin Ailey's artistic work, including his "Revelations" based on his experience growing up as an African American in the South during the 1930s, has had a significant influence on modern dance. Another form of dance, Stepping, is an African American tradition whose performance and competition has been formalized through the traditionally black fraternities and sororities at universities.[112]

Many African American authors have written stories, poems, and essays influenced by their experiences as African Americans. African-American literature is a major genre in American literature. Famous examples include Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou.

African American inventors have created many widely used devices in the world and have contributed to international innovation. Norbert Rillieux created the technique for converting sugar cane juice into white sugar crystals. Moreover, Rillieux left Louisiana in 1854 and went to France, where he spent ten years working with the Champollions deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics from the Rosetta Stone.[113] Most slave inventors were nameless, such as the slave owned by the Confederate President Jefferson Davis who designed the ship propeller used by the Confederate navy.[114]

Chuck Berry in rebro, Berry is considered a pioneer of American Rock and roll B.B. King is a blues guitarist and songwriter acclaimed for his expressive singing and guitar playing. By 1913 over 1,000 inventions were patented by black Americans. Among the most notable inventors were Jan Matzeliger, who developed the first machine to mass-produce shoes,[115] and Elijah McCoy, who invented automatic lubrication devices for steam engines.[116] Granville Woods had 35 patents to improve electric railway systems, including the first system to allow moving trains to communicate.[117] Garrett A. Morgan developed the first automatic traffic signal and gas mask.[118]

Lewis Howard Latimer invented an improvement for the incandescent light bulb.[119] More recent inventors include Frederick McKinley Jones, who invented the movable refrigeration unit for food transport in trucks and trains.[120] Lloyd Quarterman worked with six other black scientists on the creation of the atomic bomb (code named the Manhattan Project.)[121] Quarterman also helped develop the first nuclear reactor, which was used in the atomically powered submarine called the Nautilus.[122]

A few other notable examples include the first successful open heart surgery, performed by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams,[123] and the air conditioner, patented by Frederick McKinley Jones.[120] Dr. Mark Dean holds three of the original nine patents on the computer on which all PCs are based.[124] More current contributors include Otis Boykin, whose inventions included several novel methods for manufacturing electrical components that found use in applications such as guided missile systems and computers,[125] and Colonel Frederick Gregory, who was not only the first black astronaut pilot but the person who redesigned the cockpits for the last three space shuttles. Gregory was also on the team that pioneered the microwave instrumentation landing system.[126]

Political legacy

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. remains the most prominent political leader in the American civil rights movement and perhaps the most influential African American political figure in general. African Americans have fought in every war in the history of the United States.[127]

The gains made by African Americans in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements not only obtained certain rights for African Americans, but changed American society in far-reaching and fundamentally important ways. Prior to the 1950s, Black Americans in the South were subject to de jure discrimination, or Jim Crow. They would often be the victims of extreme cruelty and violence, sometimes resulting in deaths: by the post WWII era, African Americans became increasingly discontented with their long-standing inequality. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., African Americans and their supporters challenged the nation to "rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed that all men are created equal ..."[128]

The Civil Rights Movement marked a sea-change in American social, political, economic and civic life. It brought with it boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, court battles, bombings and other violence; prompted worldwide media coverage and intense public debate; forged enduring civic, economic and religious alliances; and disrupted and realigned the nation's two major political parties.

Over time, it has changed in fundamental ways the manner in which blacks and whites interact with and relate to one another. The movement resulted in the removal of codified, de jure racial segregation and discrimination from American life and law, and heavily influenced other groups and movements in struggles for civil rights and social equality within American society, including the Free Speech Movement, the disabled, women, Native Americans, and migrant workers.

The term "African American"

Political overtones

Michelle Robinson Obama is the First Lady of the United States, the first African American to hold the position The term African American carries important political overtones. Earlier terms used to identify Americans of African ancestry were conferred upon the group by colonists and Americans of European ancestry. The terms were included in the wording of various laws and legal decisions which some thought were being used as tools of white supremacy and oppression.[129] There developed among blacks in America a growing desire for a term of self-identification of their own choosing.

With the political consciousness that emerged from the political and social ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, blacks no longer approved of the term Negro. They believed it had suggestions of a moderate, accommodationist, even "Uncle Tom" connotation. In this period, a growing number of blacks in the United States, particularly African American youth, celebrated their blackness and their historical and cultural ties with the African continent. The Black Power movement defiantly embraced Black as a group identifier. It was a term social leaders themselves had repudiated only two decades earlier, but they proclaimed, "Black is beautiful".

In this same period, a smaller number of people favored Afro-American, a common shortening (as is 'Anglo-American'). However, after the decline in popularity of the 'Afro' hairstyle in the late 1970s, the term fell out of use.

In the 1980s the term African American was advanced on the model of, for example, German-American or Irish-American to give descendents of American slaves and other American blacks who lived through the slavery-era a heritage and a cultural base.[129] The term was popularized in black communities around the country via word of mouth and ultimately received mainstream use after Jesse Jackson publicly used the term in front of a national audience. Subsequently, major media outlets adopted its use.[129]

Some such as Maulana Karenga and Owen Alik Shahadah argue African-American is more appropriate because it accurately articulates geography and historical origin. Thus linking a people to a continent as oppose to an abstract color.[130] Others believe the term black is inaccurate because African Americans have a variety of skin tones. Surveys show that the majority of Black Americans have no preference for "African American" or "Black,"[131] although they have a slight preference for "Black" in personal settings and "African American" in more formal settings.[132] Many African-Americans expressed a preference for the term, as it was formed in the same way as names for others of the many ethnic groups in the nation. Some argued further that, because of the historical circumstances surrounding the capture, enslavement and systematic attempts to de-Africanize blacks in the United States under chattel slavery, most African Americans are unable to trace their ancestry to a specific African nation; hence, the entire continent serves as a geographic marker.

For many, African American is more than a name expressive of cultural and historical roots. The term expresses pride in Africa and a sense of kinship and solidarity with others of the African diaspora an embrace of pan-Africanism as earlier enunciated by prominent African thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois and George Padmore.

Who is African American?

Since 1977, in an attempt to keep up with changing social opinion, the United States government has officially classified black people (revised to black or African American in 1997) as "having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa."[133] Other federal offices, such as the United States Census Bureau, adhere to the OMB standards on race in its data collection and tabulations efforts.[134] In preparation for the United States 2010 Census, a marketing and outreach plan, called 2010 Census Integrated Communications Campaign Plan (ICC) recognized and defined African Americans as black people born in the United States. From the ICC perspective, African Americans are one of three groups of black people in the United States[135]

The ICC plan was to reach the three groups by acknowledging that each group has its own sense of community that is based on geography and ethnicity.[136] The best way to market the census process toward any of the three groups is to reach them through their own unique communication channels and not treat the entire black population of the U.S. as though they are all African Americans with a single ethnic and geographical background. The U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation categorizes black or African American people as "A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa" through racial categories used in the UCR Program adopted from the Statistical Policy Handbook (1978) and published by the Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards, U.S. Department of Commerce, derived from the 1977 OMB classification.[137]

The African-American experience

In her book The End of Blackness, as well as in an essay on the liberal website Salon,[138] author Debra Dickerson has argued that the term "black" should refer strictly to the descendents of Africans brought to America as slaves, and not the sons and daughters of black immigrants who lack that ancestry. In her opinion, President Barack Obama, who is the son of a Kenyan immigrant, although technically African-American, is not black.[138][139] She makes the argument that grouping all people of African descent together regardless of their unique ancestral circumstances would inevitably deny the lingering effects of slavery within the American community of slave descendents, in addition to denying black immigrants recognition of their own unique ancestral backgrounds. "Lumping us all together", Dickerson wrote, "erases the significance of slavery and continuing racism while giving the appearance of progress".[138]

Similar viewpoints have been expressed by Stanley Crouch in a New York Daily News piece, Charles Kenzie Steele, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference[140] and African-American columnist David Ehrenstein of the LA Times who accused white liberals of flocking to blacks who were "Magic Negros", a term that refers to a black person with no past who simply appears to assist the mainstream white (as cultural protagonists/drivers) agenda.[141] Ehrenstein went on to say "He's there to assuage white 'guilt' they feel over the role of slavery and racial segregation in American history."[141]

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (who was famously mistaken for a "recent American immigrant" by French President Nicholas Sarkozy),[142] said "descendants of slaves did not get much of a head start, and I think you continue to see some of the effects of that." She has also rejected an immigrant designation for African-Americans and instead prefers the term "black" or "white" to denote the African and European U.S. founding populations.[143]

Terms no longer in common use

The terms mulatto and colored were widely used until the second quarter of the 20th century, when they were considered outmoded and generally gave way to the use of negro. By the 1940s, the term commonly was capitalized, but by the mid 1960s, it had acquired negative connotations. Today, in the culture of the United States, the term is considered inappropriate and is now rarely used and perceived as a pejorative.[144][145]

The term Negro is largely out of use among the younger black generation, but is still used by a substantial block of older black Americans, particularly in the southern U.S.[146] In Latin America, negro, which translates as black is the term generally used to refer and describe black people and, similarly to mulatto, it is not considered offensive at all in these regions. However, it is pronounced differently, with the e (a mid front unrounded vowel in American Spanish: , and a close-mid front unrounded vowel in Brazilian Portuguese: ) being closer to a sound that it is intermediate between phonemes found in English words such as pay and egg (in Spanish) or day, city and item (in Portuguese).

See also

  • Affirmative action
  • African-American art
  • African-American history
  • African-American literature
  • African-American music
  • African American Muslims
  • African American National Biography Project
  • African American Vernacular English
  • African American Women, 1960's
  • American Black Upper Class
  • American Civil War
  • Black church
  • Black feminism
  • Black Loyalist
  • Black nationalism
  • Military history of African Americans
  • Slavery in the United States


  • African Americans in France
  • African diaspora
  • African immigrants to the United States
  • Afro-Latin American
  • American Black Indians
  • Americans of Igbo ancestry
  • Americo-Liberian
  • Black Hispanic and Latino Americans
  • Black Nova Scotians
  • Black people
  • Foreign-born Afro Americans
  • Sierra Leone Creole people


  • Lists of African Americans
  • List of African-American-related topics
  • List of topics related to Black and African people
  • Terminology: Colored, Creole peoples, Negro, Nigger, Nigga



Further reading

  • Jack Salzman, ed., Encyclopedia of Afro-American culture and history, New York, New York : Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1996.
  • African American Lives, edited by Henry L. Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004 more than 600 biographies.
  • From Slavery to Freedom. A History of African Americans, by John Hope Franklin, Alfred Moss, McGraw-Hill Education 2001, standard work, first edition in 1947.
  • Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Darlene Clark Hine (Editor), Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (Editor), Elsa Barkley Brown (Editor), Paperback Edition, Indiana University Press 2005.

External links

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