The Untold Recent History of Black America: A Primer (Part II: The Culture and Economics)

-This post is dedicated to my job, which is currently my biggest source of angst and motivation for this stuff. Go figure.

-We last left off talking about Black America’s biggest cultural output: Music. As that is the largest piece of the pie, the only other slices to cover are a bit smaller in scope but no less profound: The styles, the slang, the family structure, and the political movements. Since the styles and slang are heavily intertwined with the music and each other, they can be covered together.

There are many Black American styles which influence mainstream culture, from the zoot suit to the gangsta styles of the 1990s and 2000s, to the ubiquitous fashions of men wearing lots of jewelry. Colorful headwraps, cornrows, weaves, and durags are just a few more examples of many. Overall, a very Black thing is the concept of status being tied to “flossin'” very expensive, ostentatious, and usually depreciating things like jewelry, tricked out cars, clothes, and other such toys. Much of the slang is tied to this.

One of the most interesting contributions of Black America is, or course, Ebonics (Black slang). Odds are by now you have thought of at least 50 slang words you have heard from Black TV shows, rap songs, ect. Some even make it into the dictionary. Some seem strange (“On fleek”, “Donk”, “Js”, “Ballin”, “Playa”, ect.) to the uninitiated, while others flow right into standard English, especially words that have a standard meaning (like “peace”) but are used in varying ways by Black folk. The more subtle slang that takes a bit more to pull off in print, but translates smoothly in verbal communication (i.e. “What’s up?”) may be the biggest contribution of all; take away the way Black Americans use the English language, and you lose a lot of Americana. Even tonality and accompanying gestures come into play here.

Also, there is a certain writing style, characterized by being very blunt, direct, and often using the 1st and 2nd person, as opposed to 3rd person, diction, that characterizes a number of Black authors (and yes, I make use of it sometimes too, though not always as much). For a moderate example, see the works of Cora Daniels. For more lively examples, see Iceberg Slim or Zane. Finally, I can’t finish this discussion without mentioning the Black Preacher style, which is still used today in Black churches all over the nation, and which has a number of unique qualities to it (check out some of MLK and Malcolm X’s speeches, or my favorite Black pastor, Tony Evans, to see what I mean).

Economically and politically, Black culture has a few major stories among a million minor ones. First and foremost, is the hair. Erykah Badu is my reference point to the many hairstyles of Black women, as economically Black women rule the roost in this arena, though culturally Black men have a lot of input as well. For modern hairstyles, see Chris Rock’s documentary, Good Hair. For why I put this bit in economics, see Madam C. J. Walker and this article here. Besides the basics (food, clothing, housing, and transportation), the Black hair industry is a gigantic piece of Black folks’ disposable income expenditure. For a supporting point as to why female hair care is the queen of it all, I leave you this video and this story: I used to work in a hotel. One of the housekeepers I worked with was a real hustler. She did hair on the side, and finally got tired of minimum wage for working so hard, so she quit. A month later, she had a new car, just from doing hair (it was used, but it was several model years above the old one, and nice and shiny), and from what she told me, she worked a lot less for a lot more money.

Secondly, the public sector. Black Americans are much more likely to work for the government. Therefore stuff that happens with the government and stuff that happens with Black Americans tends to be closely tied (especially union politics). This is also a part of why Black folks vote overwhelmingly Democrat; Democrats are the pro-union party of this era. Third, look back at that last link. Notice that less than 5% of Blacks are self-employed, yet roughly 76% work in private sector jobs. This means that most Black folks are jobbers; working for someone else. As one who is culturally tied to this, I can assure you that in a good chunk of Black America, having a good job means a LOT more than being an entrepreneur, despite all those Ebony and Enterprise mag articles to the contrary. Of course, being a successful entrepreneur is a different story.

Fourth is the outsized cultural impact of Black musicians, sports figures, and celebrities. Though they are not a majority of the population, these figures tend to have a major impact on their industries, as they tend to be unconventional and (at least formerly) creative in their methods (i.e. George Foreman’s marketing, Jay Z’s business practices, or Stephen Curry’s amazing abuse of the 3-pointer in basketball), and tend to cause changes in their industries.

Fifth, and transitioning more into a darker side of reality, is the unusual relationship between the sexes in Black culture. Going back to the slang, there is one particular term I left out that Black people originated: “Baby daddy”, which means the unmarried father of a woman’s child(ren). There is a strong argument that this term, above all else, is Black America’s single most poignant and prescient contribution to the larger culture, getting more so every passing day.

Now we get into family structure. The Moynihan Report comes into play here, but in short, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ushered in the beginning of the new family structure: Biological mother, welfare state (government check) father, no man allowed in the house, and one or more male sperm donors to the mother (“baby daddies”) to create the children needed for the mother to benefit. Of note is the tendency of said sperm donors to be of the criminal inclination. One thing I have not mentioned about Black culture as of yet is its hypersexualized nature (See the last post for an idea; this too stems from the music).  STDs run rampant, marriage is effectively gone, and the idea of having a father is gone from major swaths of the culture.

This is all directly tied to the government kicking Black fathers out of their culture and homes, but there are deeper roots to why the welfare state works so well in Black culture, mainly the fact that Black men barley ever ran their households as a whole. From slavery through the majority of the Jim Crow era (circa mid 1700s to around the 1940s), Black men and women were very much beholden to outside forces that they couldn’t control. World War II and the Great Migration in the 1940s helped to change this, but that was ultimately a relatively short period. Slavery practices in particular (see the Willie Lynch Letter and note its similarity to how welfare works today), forced Black women to be independent of their men, which, as a rule, leads to less marriage and less family formation. The biggest Black family age was actually from about 1915 to 1964, starting from the early phases of the Great Migration (some may argue that Jim Crow did not affect Black family formation harshly, but its negative impacts on Black male economic achievement lead me to disagree regarding Black men’s authority; this starting date is a sort of “compromise point” between these two arguments, and also data from prior eras is sadly scarce) and ending with the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

So I argue here that about a 50 year period out of hundreds of years is all Black 2 parent family formation got to thrive. After the 1960s and Great Society programs kicked Black men out, the feminist movement took over the momentum of the Civil Rights movement. This happened mostly in the 1970s, and this is when the mantra of “I am a strong, independent Black woman who needs no man,” came into prominence, as well as when the 2-parent Black family became a minority and single motherhood took over, leading up to today. The symbol of this transformation has to be Murphy Brown, who sums it up nicely.

Furthermore, Black women have, for the duration of American history, pretty much always had to be out in the field (literally, during the slavery and Jim Crow eras; all of my great aunts and both of my grandmothers worked in my case, and all did some amount of manual labor the likes of which Hipster men would give out doing) with Black men, and the idea of a Black woman “staying in the home” just couldn’t ever come to be.

Likewise, referring back to this article, notice in the chart a bit down the webpage that Black women are more employed than Black men. The “Strong Independent Woman” meme has a lot of truth to it; propped up by Uncle Sam and combined with higher employment numbers, Black women do, when you add it all up, outright outearn Black men. This may be a part of the reason for the legendary “attitude” that Black women are infamous for; they never have been able to truly be women, in the biological sense. Likewise, many Black men live in quiet shame that the cannot be the primary breadwinner for their women. Personally, as a Black man myself, I wear this fact as a mark of shame: Black Americans are the only group for which the women outperform the men economically, even though the men have a marginal wage advantage. The feminist push for women to continue to dominate the labor force helps none of this.

A few anecdotes: Before I was born and when my parents were newly wedded (because yes, I am one of the few Brothas who has always had a good father), my mom did outearn my dad, and could have kept doing so, but after seeing how much this bugged him, she decided to take a lower paying job. My folks have been happily married for a long time since.

One of my grandmothers was in her mid-twenties when she married my 30-something granddad. At the time, she had a degree (yes, women could, in fact, get degrees back then, even in the evil ole’ ’50s), and was fresh from a prior marriage, and he had not even a high school diploma, though he would go on to get one a decade and a half later. He did, however, manage to find a good, steady job, on which he cared for his wife and their three kids until adulthood. Eventually they both retired and lived happily married until Granny died, having been wed for almost 54 years. Also, my grandpa worked at that one job for almost 33 years, managing to get a patent and build a house too. That house is still standing to this day, and has weathered several hurricanes. Who says you need a degree to be an engineer!

I could go on with other stories like that, but there is one theme, among others: none of my older female relatives never worked. Some did get to be stay-at-home moms, but never for long periods of time, because this simply wasn’t possible. Also note that the first Black American millionaire and billionaire were both women (Madam C. J. Walker and Oprah Winfrey, respectively). Oprah is still the richest Black American person, rivaled only recently by the lowkey businessman Steven F. Smith. Add this all up and you can see that for Black folks, breadwinning and provision has been a checkered story, to say the least.

Why this last bit of family and sex income analysis? Because this is the biggest contribution of Black America, and a warning: If you let Uncle Sam replace the men of your culture, my non-Black Reader, your culture will proceed just like ours has; I doubt I need to note that most predominately Black areas aren’t places where people are flocking to live, or that a lot of rioters and thugs tearing up our major cities tend to have a darker complexion, or that so-called “chocolate cities” don’t exactly tend toward affluence. Take heed of these narratives, and understand this: No culture survives without its men, its fathers, and its 2-parent families.

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