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An African American (also Afro-American, Black American, or simply black), is a member of an ethnic group in the United States whose ancestors, usually in predominant part, were indigenous to Africa. Many African Americans have European and/or Native American ancestry as well. The term refers specifically to black African ancestry; not, for example, to white or Arab African ancestry, such as Moroccan or white South African ancestry.



The term "African American" has been in common usage in the United States since the late 1980s, when greater numbers of African Americans began to adopt the term self-referentially. Malcolm X favored the term "African American" over "Negro" and used the term at an OAAU (Organization of Afro American Unity) meeting in the early 1960s, saying, "Twenty-two million African-Americans - that's what we are - Africans who are in America." Many blacks began to abandon the term "Afro-American", which had become popular in the 1960s and '70s, for "African-American," because they desired an unabbreviated expression of their African heritage that could not be mistaken or derided as an allusion to the afro hairstyle. The term became increasingly popular, and by the 1980s, Jesse Jackson and others pressed for its adoption and acceptance. Users of the new term argued that "African-American" was more in keeping with the nation's immigrant tradition of so-called "hyphenated Americans", who were known by terms like "Irish-American", or "Chinese-American", "Polish-American"), which link people with their, or their ancestors', geographic points of origin.

Terms used at various points in American history include Negroes, colored, blacks and Afro-Americans. Negro and colored were common until the late 1960s, but are now less commonly used and considered derogatory. African American, black and, to a lesser extent, Afro-American are used interchangeably today, but their precise meanings and connotations are in dispute.

The term African American is sometimes problematic because of its imprecise cultural and geographic meaning. The term as originally applied refers to only those descended from a small number of colonial indentured servants and the estimated 500,000 Africans taken to British North America or the U.S. as slaves (of approximately 11 million Africans taken to the western hemisphere in general). In slightly broader usage, the term can include West Indian and Afro-Latino immigrants whose African ancestors also survived the Middle Passage or recent African immigrants/children of immigrants with American citizenship, but these groups tend to use the ethnic terms Latino or Hispanic, or identify themselves by their countries of origin (i.e., as Nigerian, Dominican or Jamaican instead of African American). The term does not include white, Indian or Arab immigrants from the African continent, and they are not generally considered Africans on the continent.

Current Demographics

Population density of African Americans in 2000
Population density of African Americans in 2000

According to 2003 U.S. Census figures, some 37.1 million African Americans live in the United States, comprising 12.9 percent of the total population. At the time of the 2000 Census, 54.8 percent of African Americans lived in the South. In that year, 17.6 percent of African Americans lived in the Northeast and 18.7 percent in the Midwest, while only 8.9 percent lived in the western states. Almost 88 percent 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. Among cities of 100,000 or more, Gary, Indiana, had the highest percentage of black residents of any U.S. city in 2000, with 85 percent, followed closely by Detroit, Michigan, with 83 percent. Atlanta, Georgia, has a large African-American population of about 65 percent. The nation's capital, [[Washington, D.C.], had a 60 percent black population.

African American history

Main article: African American history

Africans were sold and traded into bondage and shipped to the American South from 1619. In 1807, the importation of slaves by U.S. citizens became illegal, yet the practice continued. By 1860, there were 3.5 million enslaved Africans in the Southern United States, and another 500,000 Africans lived free across the country. Slavery was a controversial issue in American society and politics. The growth of abolitionism, which opposed the institution of slavery, culminated in the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, and was one reason for the secession of the Confederate States of America, which lead to the American Civil War (1861 - 1865).

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 declared all slaves in the Confederacy free under U.S. law. It included exceptions for those held in all territories that had not seceded, however, and thus did not immediately free a single slave, since U.S. law held no sway over the Confederacy at the time. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1865, freed all slaves, including those in states that had not seceded. During Reconstruction, African Americans in the South obtained the right to vote and to hold public office, as well as a number of other civil rights they previously had been denied. However, when Reconstruction ended in 1877, southern, white landowners reinstituted a regime of disenfranchisement and racial segregation, and with it a wave of terrorism and repression, including lynchings and other vigilante violence.

The desperate conditions of African Americans in the South that sparked the Great Migration of the early 20th century, combined with a growing African American intellectual and cultural elite 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. One of the most prominent of these groups, the NAACP, galvanized by outspoken journalist and activist [[Ida B. Wells Barnett, led an anti-lynching crusade. In the 1950s, the organization mounted a serise of calculated legal challenges to overturn Jim Crow segregation, culminating in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision.

The Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board was one of defining moments of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. It was part of a long-term strategy to strike down Jim Crow segregation in public education, the hospitality industry, public transportation, employment and housing, granting equal access to African Americans and ensuring their right to vote. The movement reached its peak in the 1960s under leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, and Roy Wilkins, Sr. At the same time, Nation of Islam spokesman Malcolm X and, later, Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther Party, and the Republic of New Africa called for African Americans to embrace black nationalism and black self-empowerment, propounding ideas of African (black) unity and solidarity and pan-Africanism.

Contemporary issues

Main article: African American contemporary issues

Many African Americans significantly have improved their social and economic standing since the Civil Rights Movement, and recent decades have witnessed the expansion of a robust, African American middle class across the United States. However, due in part to a legacy of racism and discrimination, African Americans generally remain at a pronounced economic, educational and social disadvantage relative to whites. Economically, the median income of African Americans is roughly 55 percent of that of European Americans. Persistent social, economic and political issues for many African Americans include inadequate healthcare access and delivery; institutional racism and discrimination in housing, education, policing, criminal justice and employment; crime; poverty; and substance abuse. African Americans are frequently the targets of racial profiling. They are also more likely to be incarcerated. African Americans also have higher prevalence of some chronic health conditions and out-of-wedlock births relative to the general population. These problems and potential remedies have been the subject of intense public policy debate in the United States in general, and within the African American community in particular.


Main article: African American culture

African American culture is an amalgam of influences, including African, Caribbean, European, and Latino cultures. From its music and dance, to speech, demeanor, and foodways, African American culture bears the strong imprint of West Africa, particularly in rural portions of the Deep South and Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.

African American music is one of the most pervasive African American cultural influences in the United States today. Hip hop, rock, R&B, funk, and other contemporary American musical forms evolved from blues, jazz, and gospel music. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is a dialect of English spoken by many African Americans to varying degrees.

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

The term African American

Political overtones

The term African American carries important political overtones. Previous terms used to identify Americans of African ancestry were conferred upon the group by whites and were included in the wording of various laws and legal decisions which became tools of white supremacy and oppression. There developed among blacks in America a growing desire for a term of their own choosing.

With the political consciousness that emerged from the political and social ferment of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Negro fell into disfavor among many African Americans. It had taken on a moderate, accommodationist, even Uncle Tomish, connotation. In this period, a growing number of blacks in the U.S., 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—a term they themselves had repudiated only two decades earlier—a term often associated in English with things negative and undesirable, proclaiming, "Black is beautiful."

In this same period, others favored the term Afro-American; this particular term never gained much traction, but by the 1990s, the term African American had emerged as the leading choice of self-referential term. Just as other ethnic groups in American society historically had adopted names descriptive of their families' geographical points of origin (such as Italian-American, Irish-American, Polish-American), many blacks in America expressed a preference for a similar term. Because of the historical circumstances surrounding the capture, enslavement and systematic attempts to de-Africanize blacks in the U.S. 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 African pride and a sense of kinship and solidarity with others of the African diaspora—an embracing of the notion of pan-Africanism earlier enunciated by prominent African thinkers such as Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois and, later, George Padmore.

A discussion of the term African American and related terms can be found in the journal article "The Politicization of Changing Terms of Self Reference Among American Slave Descendants" in American Speech v 66 is 2 Summer 1991 p. 133-46.

Who is African American?

To be considered African American in the United States of America, not even half of one's ancestry need be black African. The nation's answer to the question "Who is black?" long has been that a "black" is any person with any known African ancestry. This definition reflects the long experience with racism, white supremacy, slavery, and, later, with Jim Crow laws.

In the Southern United States, it became known as the one-drop rule, meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person "black". Some courts have called it the traceable amount rule, and anthropologists call it the hypo-descent rule, meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group. This definition emerged from the American South to become America's national definition, generally accepted by whites and blacks -- but for different reasons. White supremacists, whose motivation was racist, considered anyone with African ancestry tainted, inherently inferior morally and intellectually and, thus, subordinate. During slavery, there was also a strong economic incentive to maximize the number of individuals who could be owned, bred, worked, traded and sold outright as human chattel. The designation of anyone possessing any trace of African ancestry as "black", and, therefore, of subordinate status to whites, guaranteed a source of free or cheap labor during slavery and for decades afterward. For African Americans, the one-drop system of racial designation was a significant factor in ethnic solidarity. African Americans generally shared a common lot in society and, therefore, common cause -- regardless of their ethnic admixture and social and economic stratification.

The United States Supreme Court formalized the legal status of this rule in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where the Court affirmed the legality of racial segregation and upheld the State of Louisiana's ruling that, despite being 7/8 white, Homer Plessy's one black great-grandparent rendered him legally non-white and, therefore, subject to being barred from whites-only railway carriages.

Caucasoid peoples, Indians, Asians and Arabs are traditionally not considered African American, though they or their ancestors may have emigrated from the African continent after generations of residence. In relatively rare cases when South African whites, Caucasoid North Africans or Asian immigrants from Africa living in America have self-identified as African American in an attempt to benefit from Affirmative Action or other entitlement programs, their claims generally have not been upheld.

In the 1980s, parents of mixed-race children began to organize and lobby for the addition of a more inclusive term of racial designation that would reflect the heritage of their offspring. As a result, the term biracial has become more widely used and accepted to classify people of mixed race.

Terms no longer in common use

The term Negro, which was widely used until the 1960s, today increasingly is considered passé and inappropriate or derogatory. It is still fairly commonly used by older individuals and in the Deep South. Once widely considered acceptable, Negro fell into disfavor for reasons already herein stated. The self-referential term of preference for Negro became black.

Negroid is a term used by European anthropologists first in the 18th century to describe indigenous Africans and their descendants throughout the African diaspora. As with most descriptors of race based on inconsistent, unscientific phenotypical standards, the term is controversial and imprecise. Because of its similarity to Negro, growing numbers of blacks have substituted the term Africoid which, unlike Negroid, encompasses the phenotypes of all indigenous African peoples.

Other largely defunct, seldom used terms to refer to African Americans are mulatto and colored. Even so, the use of the word "colored" can still be found today in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP. The American use of the term mulatto originally was used to mean the offspring of a "pure African black" and a "pure European white". The Latin root of the word is mulo, as in "mule", implying incorrectly that, like mules, which are horse-donkey hybrids, mulattoes are sterile crosses of two different species. For example, in the early 20th century, African American leaders such as Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, who had slaves as mothers and white fathers, were referred to as mulattoes. While not as common as "mixed" or "biracial," or even "multiracial," mulatto is still sometimes used to refer to people of mixed parentage and, despite its origin, is not considered inherently derogatory.

The term quadroon referred to a person of one-fourth African descent, for example, someone born to a Caucasian father and a mulatto mother. Someone of one-eighth African descent technically was an octoroon, although the term often was used to refer to any white person with even a hint of black ancestry.

Mulatto and terms with the -roon suffix persisted in a social context for a number of decades, but by the mid twentieth century, they no longer were in common use. With the end of slavery, there was no longer a strong commercial incentive to classify blacks by their African-European ancestral admixture. The occasional use of these terms, however, does still persist in electronic media, literature and in some social settings.

Black American population

The following gives the black population in the U.S. over time, based on U.S. Census figures. (Numbers from years 1920 to 2000 are based on U.S. Census figures as given on page 377 of the Time Almanac of 2005.

Year Number Percentage of total population
1790 757,208 19.3% (highest historic percentage)
1800 1,002,037 18.9%
1810 1,377,808 19.0%
1820 1,771,656 18.4%
1830 2,328,642 18.1%
1840 2,873,648 16.8%
1850 3,638,808 15.7%
1860 4,441,830 14.1%
1870 4,880,009 12.7%
1880 6,580,793 13.1%
1890 7,488,788 11.9%
1900 8,833,994 11.6%
1910 9,827,763 10.7%
1920 10.5 million 9.9%
1930 11.9 million 9.7% (lowest historic percentage)
1940 12.9 million 9.8%
1950 15.0 million 10.0%
1960 18.9 million 10.5%
1970 22.6 million 11.1%
1980 26.5 million 11.7%
1990 30.0 million 12.1%
2000 34.6 million 12.3% (current percentage)

note: The CIA World Factbook gives the current 2005 figure as 12.9% [1]

Further Reading

  • Jack Salzman, ed., Encyclopedia of African-American culture and history, New York, NY  : Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1996
  • African American Lives, edited by Henry L. Gates, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004 - more then 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

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