Making a Way Out of No Way: Defending African-American Culture

The mainstreaming of black American culture has ripped it from its roots. We have to take it back.

An exhibit is displayed during a press preview at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2016.
An exhibit is displayed during a press preview at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 14, 2016. PRESTON KERES/AFP/Getty Images

I’m black and have always identified as such, and until recently, I never questioned exactly what that meant. Having grown up on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., formerly known as Chocolate City, attended an HBCU and worked at two black companies in the past, I’ve been happily surrounded by myriad black people.

Recently, that’s included black Americans who’ve relocated to the Lower 48 from other areas, such as Ghana, Cape Verde, Nigeria and regions in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Given that they have lived here for the majority of their lives, it’s no surprise that we have more in common than not. However, during one enlightening Uber ride steered by an Afghan driver, I was left feeling like an outsider among people with diverse backgrounds, with knowledge of their ancestral traditions, exotic cultures, food and languages—people who knew and embraced their ethnic origins in a way that most U.S.-born African Americans have been denied.

While they took advantage of the hourlong ride to play music from their homelands and share tidbits about their regions, I had little to offer to the conversation. It’s not that I don’t have a culture, but my usual pride was replaced with something else, and I tried to think of something to share with them about being uniquely African American that wasn’t rooted in slavery.

The soul food our great-grandmothers made, created out of necessity often with the parts of animals and plants that others discarded. The R&B and jazz, evolved from Negro spirituals, which others appropriate. The braids, Afros and press-and-curl hairstyles that either distinguished us or aided us in assimilating for increased opportunities and acceptance. Though they’re the product of a resilient people whose struggle to survive exceeded their limitations, when it comes to African-American culture, the story often begins with enslavement.

“That’s what they teach you in school,” said Mary Elliott, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open Sept. 24. However, much of what we consider American pop culture or African-American culture has its roots in Africa, she said: “There are things that we have in plain sight that we don’t even realize they tie back to some of these cultural practices.”

When enslaved men and women were brought to America, they brought skills and trades, such as farming and agriculture, with them. “There are African Americans who that was passed down [to] through their families. We received rations and limited types of food, but we grew our own vegetables. We cooked the okra. We found ways to eat healthy,” she said.

Elliott shared the story of an African art scholar who filmed a dance practice popular among Cuba’s people of African descent. He recognized the art form and showed it to people living in Africa, who also recognized it. “That dance and practice had been carried over and passed down to the generations. The people in Cuba didn’t know they had been doing something that had its origins in Africa,” she said.

Of course, there’s pride in knowing and recognizing that parts of our African culture have beaten the odds and somehow survived centuries to exist in today’s society; however, Elliott said, there’s just as much pride to be felt about those things that were birthed in slavery.

While you might not feel chitlins are something to brag about, she noted, “If all you had was the scraps, you did what you had to. We found a way to make it work. Those are the things that we need to remember. That’s the stuff to think about.”

Not only did African Americans create a significant culture here, but it’s become so ingrained in the DNA of the country that some don’t recognize how much our ancestors contributed. I neglected to join in the conversation that day and share aspects of African-American culture, in part, because I figured my companions were already aware. Surely, they didn’t need me to tell them about African-American music genres, cuisine or language. They aren’t new to the country.

However, when one Jamaican-born American later shared the opinion that black Americans “don’t have a culture,” I realized that just as I had plenty to learn about their cultures, I could have enlightened someone by sharing aspects of mine.

What I believed was common knowledge about how America’s music, food, dance, literature and art have all been heavily influenced by black Americans wasn’t. Our contributions to what’s now considered mainstream culture are sometimes lost and overlooked, not just by “others,” but also by black Americans, who, according to Elliott, share a lot with those blacks from other regions.

“People can say, ‘I’m from Senegal. I’m from Guyana,’ but we’re all connected to the Diaspora,” she said. “There’s something to say about having a connection to what people call a homeland.”

Though we may have been born on different continents, Elliott said, it’s that bond to Africa that keeps us connected, even on those rare occasions when our differences seem greater than our similarities. So while black Americans from other areas have traditions and cultures that reflect their countries of origin, the centuries-long culture of African Americans isn’t any less significant, relevant or influential.

“I don’t discredit the working in the field, the toiling of the land, the raising other people’s family. That laid the groundwork for all of this,” said Elliott, who is proud that her ancestors were able to endure and eventually thrive. “I say my home is this place, the U.S. My family built this place.”

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