Responding to my post last night on how there’s no such thing as a single, unified “White European Culture,” an alert reader has asked me: “Does African American culture exist? What about Native American culture? Who get’s [sic] to decide what identities are valid?” The implication seems to be that, since white Americans came here from a myriad of diverse cultures and aren’t all the same thing, wouldn’t it be fair to say that black Americans from myriad African nations don’t have a real culture either?
To which I respond: yes, there is such a thing as African-American culture. Native American culture exists too, but that topic needs a separate post. African-American culture is nothing like the imaginary “White European Culture” I was declaiming against last night.
African-Americans did originally come to America from different parts of Africa, each with their own unique culture. But they were brought here against their will as slaves– and before anybody says “what about the Irish,” it’s not the same thing. They weren’t indentured workers. They weren’t second-class citizens; they weren’t regarded as a kind of human being who wasn’t as good as another kind. They were regarded as a species of animal, and they were sold as livestock.
When the African people arrived in America, the slavers took away every aspect of their former cultures that they could. The Africans were separated from their families; they were given new names that had nothing to do with their old languages or cultures. A new way of life was imposed on them, by their masters, and they were tortured or killed if they deviated from that in any way. It was illegal for anyone to teach slaves to read or write, so they couldn’t write down the story of who they were before their identities were stolen from them. And they couldn’t very well pass on their cultures by word of mouth to their children, because they weren’t often allowed to raise their own children. Their children were taken away from them and sold, because their children were considered a species of livestock, not humans at all.
The identity, culture and history of African people in America was systematically stripped from them, so that they could be slaves. And slavery was legal in North America for 245 years. When slavery ended, African-Americans couldn’t very well go back to what they had been before they were brought here, because that had been wiped out by their captors; they had been something else for generations. They were Americans now, but they weren’t equals. The fifteenth amendment gave them the right to vote just like white men in 1870, but then Jim Crow segregation started up in the 1880s. And the Supreme Court of the United States upheld laws segregating African-Americans from whites at least six times in the next sixty years. Segregation existed all over this country, in the north as well as the south, and African-Americans endured and fought that together. They’re still doing so– segregation, strictly speaking, is mostly illegal now, but that doesn’t mean we’re an integrated country or that we all have the same cultural experience.
African-Americans are a people who live in the same country and have for centuries. They speak the same language. They have a shared history with their own traditions, stories and music. That’s a culture. African-American culture is real. It’s real, in part, because of what white supremacists forced them to undergo, which makes denying it all the more ridiculous.
The descendants of various white European cultures who came to American and are now Americans, have nothing like the same thing. There is no one “White European Culture,” in Europe or America. There are people who view a certain narrow group of European whites as “White European Culture,” and who want those European whites to be treated as superior to other races– but those people aren’t a culture, those people are white supremacists. African-Americans had their cultures wiped out and formed a new one in the face of horrendous persecution.
Now, are there any other questions?
(image via wikimedia commons)