African American Culture

Think American arts and think African American: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo," Jacob Lawrence's "Migration of the Negro." Artistic works by African Americans have revolutionized the American arts scene and given the cultural face America shows the outside world its verve and vigor.

The African American music tradition stretches back to songs and laments brought back from the Middle Passage. Work Songs shouts and spirituals were always a part of the African American's lives. In the 20th century, black Americans fashioned entirely new and significant musical traditions including jazz, blues, and rock 'n roll. With radio and sound recordings, African American music quickly spread around the globe.

In 19th century America, race often determined who could be trained in the arts. There were no special schools or places where African-Americans could freely exhibit their talents for art. These talented artists were excluded from the academies, associations, and teaching institutions available to white artists. In rare cases, beneficent white families broke the rules and provided knowledge, direction, and resources to budding African-American talents in the visual arts. Many of these white patrons were among the abolitionists of this period in American history. 

After the Civil War, a host of African-American  artists started to be recognized. From 1865 to the start of the 1920's, most of these artists produced works which could be acceptable to museums, patrons, or local salons or studios. They therefore created paintings, drawings, and sculptures in the classical and romantic traditions of scenes depicting nature, history, familiar places, distinguished personalities, and prominent families of wealth. The art world of this period was narrow, and African-American artists had to compete for recognition and earnings from pieces of art requested by their commissioners or patrons. For the most part, these African-Americans were seeking recognition and a place in the international world of art. 

Southern black singers and musicians began creating and playing the blues and ragtime music. A little later the streets, nightclubs, and bars of New Orleans starting ringing with the new sound of jazz. Jazz combined the influences of both the blues and ragtime and the new sound was irresistible to both blacks and whites. Jazz sound followed the Great Migration and traveled to cities like Kansas City, Chicago, and New York.

In the early 1920's there was a movement was called the "Negro" or "Harlem Renaissance". This resurgence of literature, knowledge, and the arts coming out of New York was powerful. A fertile and acceptable door had been opened to African-American musicians, writers, poets, intellectuals, and artists. The opportunity was now available to grow and show off their best talents. From 1919 to about 1929, Harlem, New York became the capitol of cultural activity for African-Americans. This period in American history was extremely uplifting to African-Americans as a people. Personalities and individuals connected their expressions in writings, music, and visual artworks as they related to the political, social, and economic conditions of being black in America.

By 1926, another stage in the developmental history of African-American artists came about. It was the establishment of the Harmon Foundation. The Harmon Foundation became an anchor for promoting the works of African-American artists. William E. Harmon, a real estate magnate, became the chief philanthropist and patron in the support of African-American artists and culture. Harmon's interest in African-American artists reflected "his interest in promoting justice and social commitment." The "deprivation of black Americans, he reasoned, was a national problem, not simply a burden on blacks alone." The Harmon Foundation existed from 1922 to the end of 1967.

The early thirties saw jazz transforming into big band music, first with the swing and later with bebop. Musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis pushed the envelope and made some of the greatest music ever.

The 1940's and 1950's were not easy times for African-American  artists. Only the acceptable, critically acclaimed few were able to work and produce lucrative pieces of art. Patrons of the arts were still mostly white and wealthy. Artists like the Florida "Highwaymen" found an unique way to sell and display their art, by producing in mass quantities and selling their artwork on the side of the road. Thornton Dial's art functions like folk tales, combining African and American traditions to tell stories that are at once personal, political, and spiritual. Dial's work is stretching the borders of both folk art and modern art. When asked how Buck came to be an artist he replied "I didn't have no real job, so I made a job making art." In the beginning his family laughed at his paintings, he buried them and created many of his works in secrecy.

Diversity means differences among people. It includes all of us in our rich and infinite variety. Rock and Roll was the musical blending of different cultures. Taking the blues and adding some country tradition, rock and roll roll artist like James brown and Chuck Berry rocked the music industry like never before. A new sound called soul quickly emerged and found a home in Detroit under the Motown label. Ray Charles, The Jackson 5, and the Supremes were all huge hit makers for Motown and the blues and funk music were popular with both black and whites races internationally.

In all African American culture has grown from a deep well of influence including West Africa, the Caribbean, the American South, and the large urban centers of the United States. African American actors, directors, authors, artist and musicians have helped to create a diverse American talent that has greatly enhance the lives of both black and white Americans on a daily basis.

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on the historic eras of Black history in the United States

The begining - The Revolutionary War

African-American history starts in the 17th century with indentured servitude in the American colonies

The Cotton South - The Civil War

As the cotton-based economy boomed so did slavery, since slaves were needed to man the large-scale and labor-intensive plantations.

Reconstruction Years

The end of Reconstruction was a staggered process, and the period of Republican control ended at different times in different states.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity that began in Harlem, New York.

Civil Rights Movement

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X are some of the names that come to mind when we think of the Civil Rights Movement.

Black Lives Matter

In 2013 a new movement to promote justice for African Americans began. Black Lives Matter has swept the nation protesting vilence and injustice.



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Listen or read the top speeches from African Americans. Read more


Read about the great African Americans who fought in wars. Read more


African Americans invented many of the things we use today. Read more


Thin jazz, think art, think of great actors and find them here. Read more


Follow the history of Black Americans from slave ships to the presidency. Read more


Olympic winners, MVPS of every sport, and people who broke the color barrier. Read more

Civil Rights Activists

These men and women risked and sometimes lost their life to fight for the cause. Read more


Meet the people who worked to change the system from the inside. Read more