African American Heritage & Ethnography Key Concepts: Learning Resources Center—Further Reading

What is “culture?”

Culture is a body of learned behaviors common to a given human society. It has patterned and predictable form and content to a degree—yet is variable from individual to individual within a given society. Culture is changeable over time. In fact, one of culture’s most predictable aspects is its constant state of change. It changes because people learn culture. The relationship between what is taught and what is learned is not absolute. Thus some of what is taught is lost, while new interpretations of culture are constantly being made.

Essential Features

Culture can be further broken down into the following essential features:

Systems of Meaning

These systems include forms of communication of which language is primary, traditional beliefs, performances and practices, religion, ceremonies, and celebrations. Language is perhaps the most basic meaning system of any cultural group. It includes shared meanings of words, grammar, uses of language and silence, as well as body language. Language is only one component of the larger set of methods people use to negotiate meaning. Other methods used include written and oral communication and expressive cultural forms such as art, dance, and sacred rituals.

A Southern baptism in Aiken, South Carolina.

Religious ceremonies like baptism are ways in which people express fundamental beliefs or systems of meaning that structure their perceptions of life and death. Some ethnographic cultural resources like this landscape gain their significance from enactment in, near, or on them of such ceremonies. Landscapes like these may be part of or near park service lands.

People also express their perceptions of the world through secular cultural performances and celebratory practices. Such performances and celebrations not only have ethnographic significance for a cultural group but also are valuable elements of America cultural heritage. The mission of the New Orleans National Historical Park for example is to enhance and instill public appreciation and understanding of the origins, early history, development and progression of this uniquely American music art form—jazz…[T]o preserve unimpaired this cultural resource and it’s core values for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations (New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park 2004).

Social Order

African American Family, Spartanburg, South Carolina 1928.

All societies organize themselves socially into families. Some societies emphasize their kin groups and organize themselves by kin relationships. Most people form communities. While there are commonalities in the various ways people organize themselves they also may have a characteristic organization such as recognizing their mothers people more so than the fathers in reckoning kinship and descent. Other groups emphasize the father’s relatives and reckon inheritance through the male members of the family.

People have characteristic settlement patterns and establish social institutions to meet the group’s spiritual, educational, health and welfare needs.

National Parks may occupy lands that have been cultural resources for generations of people and that continue to have significance for contemporary people because their fore parent lived there. The National Park helps to preserve the material evidence of people’s social institutions like this school one of five buildings preserved on Nicodemus National Historic Site, the only remaining western town established by African Americans during the Reconstruction Period.

Material Culture

Africa House, built by African peoples on Melrose Plantation owned by 18th century French African Americans called “People of Color.”

Material culture is defined here as distinctive techniques of a group and their characteristic products, includes the ways people obtain subsistence, their food ways, crafts, architecture and technology. Africa House on Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches is an example of 18th century African American architectural design and building technology.

The Gullah tradition of creating coiled grass baskets is an African American craft that has been handed down from generation to generation. Instead of weaving the baskets, a needle made from a spoon handle, bone or nail is used to sew natural materials together. The most commonly used materials are sweetgrass, palmetto leaves, longleaf pine needles and a marsh grass called black rush.

Culture Change

George Washington Carver: research scientist, teacher, naturalist, and conservationist. 1896–1943. Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.

People modify culture. They strategies they use to modify culture include: acculturation, accommodation, assimilation, and both cultural and counter-cultural resistance.

Each unit in this course will explore, describe, and explain African American cultural heritage in terms of these essential features of culture.

Cultural Heritage

Systems of Meaning Social Order Material Culture Change
  • Language, spoken & written
  • Performances
  • Ceremonies, sacred and secular
  • Celebrations
  • Visual arts
  • Family
  • Kinship
  • Community
  • Settlement patterns
  • Social institutions (e.g., church, schools, health care)
  • Subsistence
  • Foodways
  • Crafts
  • Architecture
  • Work roles/ Occupation
  • Technology
  • Acculturation
  • Accommodation
  • Assimilation
  • Cultural resistance
  • Counter-cultural resistance