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Politics & Power

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Slavery and the Loss of Cultural Identity for African Americans

Each year in America we celebrate various and sundry holidays that are based in many different cultures. From St. Patrick’s Day to Cinco de Mayo to Christmas and Hanukkah we widely celebrate the cultures and traditions of many different ethnic groups. Unfortunately forgotten and marginalized are the traditions of millions of Americans due to our dark history of slavery. Traditions that are normally handed down from one generation to the next were lost because of the practices of breaking up families and forbidding the celebration of cultural rites. That cruel disregard for the things that define humanity in the treatment of slaves destroyed the chain of cultural heritage for generations of Africans brought to this country against their will.

The sad reality in America today is that while most Caucasians can tell you in some detail their ethnic heritage including traditional foods, dances and customs, most African Americans descended from slaves cannot tell you even their family’s countries of origin prior to slavery. When people talk of the African American culture it is hard to clearly define because it is a culture with a relatively short history. The culture of African Americans has only been allowed to develop, outside of a few secretive rituals held by slaves to preserve what little they could of their cultural identity, for about a hundred and forty years. Since the ending of the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves African Americans have struggled to find an identity in a nation that stole their family histories from them.

Is it any wonder then that many African Americans embrace a violent anti-establishment culture that promotes taking by force that which others have gained at the expense of their community? While there are parades to celebrate Irish American culture on St. Patrick’s Day and advertising campaigns for weeks prior to Cinco de Mayo promoting the celebration of Mexican heritage there is no mainstream attention of any celebration of Kenyan or Nigerian culture or heritage. There are no strongly positive images of African culture promoted in our nation when African Americans make up nearly 15% of the population while Irish Americans are around 10%. Why do we so heavily celebrate St. Patrick’s Day but not Harvest Festival? The simple answer is that the traditions and culture of Americans of African descent have been pushed aside as unimportant. Likewise while Latino and African American populations make up about the same percentage of our nation’s people we celebrate Cinco de Mayo but not Buhé.

While nothing can be done about what has happened in the past we can address a cultural injustice that has been allowed to continue for hundreds of years in America. Electing an African American President was a good beginning to bringing equality to America but there is much more to do. We need to begin to recognize as a nation that there are immense disparities in cultural recognition between the different ethnic groups. We also need to recognize that in the suppression of African culture from African Americans our ancestors left a void that was easily filled with anger and despair. Compounding that was a systematic resistance to granting equality to African Americans under the law that lasted a hundred years after the slaves were freed.

Without positive images of their culture and constant bombardment with negativity telling African Americans that they are unintelligent and lazy it is hard to expect people in that community to hold positive self images. Things like Jim Crow laws have reinforced negative images of African Americans as being less than equal with nothing to counterbalance that on a cultural level. To this day schools in predominantly African American areas are under funded greatly when compared with schools in mostly Caucasian areas. The richness of traditional African cultures has been all but ignored by the majority of Americans and those descended from the originators of those traditions have been denied access to their culture and history. The media reports on crime in African American communities an a daily basis but rarely shows up to cover a story about people doing something to improve the conditions in the community.

If we want to turn things around we need to focus on the positive forces within the African American community and try to reconnect African Americans to their heritage. Before writing this article I spoke with my wife about the subject as she is African American and a descendant of slaves. When we were talking about her family history I learned that she also does not know where her family came from before slavery. She knows that they were sharecroppers after slavery but not much more. During our discussion we decided to take the information that we have about her family and try to find out through the slave records both where she came from and if there might be relatives she still has in Africa so that our son may one day meet his relatives and learn about the culture his family came from. That was our first step as a family to regaining a stolen cultural heritage for our son to pass on to his children.

For America as a nation the first steps may be a bit harder. Americans need to first be willing to give up their dependence on stereotypes and preconceived notions about people and accept that there is more to a traditionally maligned culture than what has been seen in the media. Beyond that the descendants of slave owners need to recognize that they do have some responsibility to the descendents of slaves. The richness of life that was made possible by the labor of slaves demands that those who benefitted give back to those who labored in a real way. Those who can must give back to the communities in the form of facilitating opportunities both to learn about their cultural heritage and find success in their educational and professional lives. The responsibility of success is to honor those responsible for your success by giving back. Slaves built a good portion of the foundation of our economy. Now it’s time to give back to their descendents the opportunities they should have been given from the beginning. We need to recognize their cultural heritage as being every bit as important as any other culture in America and recognize their contributions to the prosperity of America. If we can do that then, and only then, we will be able to say that we have begun to put right the wrongs of slavery in America.

Troy Wilson-Ripsom - Staff Writer| Give your feedback on this article. | Click icon to Digg this article

Get Involved

Do you sit and yell at the TV when politicians come on? Do you shake your head sadly whenever you see a homeless veteran? Is that all you tend to do?

It's time to put up or shut up America. We all love to talk about how we could do things better or how we would do it if we were in charge. Well, it's time to put your money where your mouth is. If you can think of it, you can write it down. If you can write it down, you can type it. If you can type it, you can e-mail it and if you can e-mail it, you can send it here.

We at Reform America are committed to giving voice to anyone who wants to put their ideas out there to make our nation a better place. As the readership grows, we are able to take those views to a wider and wider audience. Grassroots campaigns begin with voices speaking out. You have opinions. Voice them. We aren't about conservative or liberal. We aren't about pro-this or anti-that. We're about Americans and the First Amendment. Reform America is about politics by, for and of the people. You are the people. You only need to speak up. America is listening. Send your article to:

Have You Been Downsized Due to Outsourcing?

For several years now we have listened to some within the business community tell us that America can't compete on a global scale unless they send our jobs overseas where they can be done cheaper. The question becomes, if we don't have good paying jobs here, how can we sustain our own economy? We want to hear from you. Have you lost your job? Have you been forced into a lower wage job due to outsourcing? Has outsourcing been a success for you? Did you end up in a better job?

Tell us your story so we can make sure the politicians see how outsourcing really impacts the workers who are backbone of America. Send your story to

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