A Tale of Two Cultures

June 12, 2013

African American culture is a familiar phenomenon. We have African American inspired styles of dress, personal names, cuisine, speech, music, literature and art. The black church is a well-known institution, as is the black media. Black History Month is a staple of elementary and secondary education and public TV. Names of historic African American figures have become familiar.

Back in the 1960s, from a mainstream perch it was uncommon to see such widespread African American cultural expression. It took the Civil Rights movement, and later black nationalist efforts and a heightened black political consciousness (black power, black pride, and black is beautiful), to produce the flowering we see today.

Further back in the twentieth century, African American culture was not visible at all to mainstream viewers. In fact, the prevailing thought among both lay people and the scholarly community was that African American culture did not exist. Black people had a culture, true, but the common belief was that slavery completely wiped out the influences of Africa. All the formerly enslaved had left was the white man’s culture, which they had learned, but only imperfectly, since  (according to the mainstream thinking of the time) they were simple-minded and unable to master the complexities white culture demanded.

This view held unquestioned sway until anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits challenged it in his 1941 book, The Myth of the Negro Past. Unlike previous scholars, Herskovits actually did field work in Africa and the Caribbean. He was able to trace direct connections and corollaries between African cultures and the cultures of Afro-descendants in the Americas, including specifically the United States.

Herskovits examined a full array of cultural practices, including family structure and kinship, religious beliefs, social and political patterns, and language. Regarding language, one scholar had previously written that “not a single detail of Negro pronunciation or Negro syntax can be proved to have other than an English origin.” Herskovits identified hundreds of examples to the contrary.

Eventually Herskovits’ point of view prevailed and today we acknowledge African American culture as real.

Earlier Herskovits himself failed to see African American culture. He wrote in 1925, “What there is today in Harlem [of African American culture] distinct from the white culture that surrounds it is…merely a remnant from the peasant days in the South.” At that time, early in his career, Herskovits was buying into the prevailing view that African Americans had no culture of their own but rather had assimilated to white culture, albeit poorly. In time, Herskovits’ contact with black intellectuals and his own scientific studies convinced him otherwise.

What is also interesting about Herskovits’ work, and more to the point of this essay, is that he explicitly acknowledged white culture, both in his 1925 erroneous speculations, and later in his defining work of 1941. In fact, it was commonplace to refer to white culture, or the “white man’s culture” during those times. In the early twentieth century, prevailing thought, both scholarly and mainstream, was that although African American culture did not exist as such, white American culture clearly and unquestionably did exist.

Now, early in the twenty-first century the opposite pertains. Virtually no place in the mainstream do we find talk of white American (or European American) culture while at the same time the presence of African American culture is widely accepted.

In scholarly circles there is widespread understanding of African American culture as a valid area of study. The story on European American culture is a little more mixed. Some scholars acknowledge white American culture exists, and they purport to study it. One recent example is the 2012 book, White Bound: Nationalists, Antiracists, and the Shared Meanings of Race, by Matthew Hughey.

More typically, reputable sources of scholarly inquiry simply ignore the possibility that white American culture exists. The University of Michigan’s Department of American Culture claims on its website to be “the top American studies department in the world.” They offer programs in African American studies, Arab American studies, Asian/Pacific Islander American studies, Latina/o studies, and Native American studies. And yes, of course, plain old American studies. Is something missing here? Surely they are not upholding that old trope of “white” equals “American,” but why else would the world’s best American studies program fail to offer European American studies?

Some scholars just flatly deny that European American culture exists. Whiteness, they say, is simply a political construct. This, more or less, is the mainstream view too. Most (white) people simply fail to see white American culture as anything real. The same white people who, generally, have no trouble acknowledging and discussing African American culture invariably draw a blank when the notion of white American culture is raised.  Typically they have no idea what to offer when their child’s class is asked to bring “something from your culture.”

African American culture and European American cultures both exist. They are outgrowths of regional value systems and shared histories. They reflect common experiences among those who share in the culture. They have retained boundaries in membership, some imposed by the cultures themselves, and some externally imposed. Think of anti-miscegenation laws, the “one-drop” rule, and Jim Crow and segregation for instance.

Herskovits performed a valuable service in opening the eyes of the scholarly community and later the mainstream to the presence of African American culture. We are better off today. Correspondingly, today’s failure to see and understand European American culture does us a disservice. It renders us unable to view the greater American experience in its proper context and leaves us implicitly with the only other alternative understanding, i.e. that “white” means “American.”

There is still one final point to be made. Despite the reversal of views between 1930 and now, one thing has remained constant. White American culture still pulls the strings. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, white American culture proudly put forth its name and identity under the mantle of white supremacy. Following World War II and the rise of Civil Rights era, white supremacy retreated from its public stance and colorblindness emerged. And correspondingly, white American culture made a strategic move from the front room to the back room of American society. As everyone knows, it is often the back room where politics are played and power is held.

In today’s global world, with the emergence of the critical perspectives of people of color and the rising power of what formerly were called “Third World peoples,” the explicit naming of white American culture invites a dialogue on the role of that culture in the racial and economic makeup of America. This raises messy topics like white privilege, the “new Jim Crow,” and myriad other concerns. Better simply to not acknowledge white American culture to begin with, and let everyone try to sort out a picture of the racial landscape without it.

No wonder we so often seem lost in that landscape without a map.