African American culture arose out of the turmoil and despair of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From West African port towns to plantations, African American culture is unique in that it was forged under the pressure of bondage. People with different cultures and languages formed new identities relative to their subordinate social, economic, and political status—their culture therefore being in part defined by the experience of oppression and the determination to overcome it. Bereft of social, political, or economic independence for centuries, African American culture nevertheless emerged as organically as any other, but flourished especially after emancipation.
Yet the economic history of African American culture cannot be divorced from the human capital model of slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation laid the first foundation stones for African American economic, political, and social empowerment but Reconstruction failed to fulfill the objective of genuine liberation (DuBois, 1994). African Americans in free states had opportunities, albeit limited, to participate somewhat in mainstream economic, political, and social life in America (DuBois, 1994). Yet even after Reconstruction, African Americans struggled to participate in the American economy due to persistent and institutionalized racism that permeated political and social life (Tate, 1997). As a result, African American economic, political, and social history has largely been one of struggle—the attempt to achieve parity through democratic means such as social protest, legislative and legal challenges, and via the persistent attainment of upward mobility via various means including education and dominance in the creative arts.
Current social status of African American culture in general has fluctuated, with tremendous strides being made on all fronts: political, social, and economic (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1998).
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Income gaps have narrowed, as have educational and career attainment gaps (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1998). An African American president also enhanced the status of the culture as a whole, concurrent with an increase in high profile and high status African Americans in popular society in spite of persistent injustice and inequity.
During slavery, the large majority of African Americans were unable to receive an education and many were unable to read or write. Since then, education has been the cornerstone of African American success and self-empowerment. The elimination of slavery in the nineteenth century did not, however, automatically integrate former slaves into white educational institutions. On the contrary, only a handful of African Americans entered established institutions of higher learning while others trod the new path towards a uniquely African American educational landscape with the development of the historically black colleges and universities (DuBois, 1994).
Education has played a major role in African American culture, in terms of collective identity construction, self-definition and empowerment, and also economic improvement (Allen, 1992). The emphasis on education as a means of collective and individual empowerment has also led to significant decreases in scholastic achievement gaps over the past several generations (Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 1998). Overall educational levels are comparatively high among African Americans who do pursue higher education, by some measures….....
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