The Origins of African American Culture and Its Significance in African American Student Academic Success

By Davis, Patrick | Journal of Thought, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Origins of African American Culture and Its Significance in African American Student Academic Success


Davis, Patrick, Journal of Thought


African American participation in American society seems endemically fraught with devastatingly disproportionate difficulties ranging from critically high incarceration rates to tragic, often-violent, and high mortality rates. Further, school systems across the country consistently report glaring and alarming academic achievement gaps between African American children and their peers. Many researchers argue that effectively educating African Americans would ameliorate many of these devastating social ills.

Much research has ensued in order to intervene in these disturbing challenges, especially the academic under-achievement of many African Americans children, yet the persistence of these issues often bewilders educators, academics, and policy-makers, alike (Roach, 2004). Most educators support the assertion that effective education must involve the integration of one's culture in the educative process. Recently, however, Barrera (1992) discovered and discussed a void in educators' understanding of African American culture. Barrera found that due to educators' limited understanding of African American cultural mores, their ability to effectively educate African American students was severely limited.

Goode (1997) posited that most educators do not recognize the difference between voluntary European immigration to American society and culture, and the involuntary, forced African American relocation to American society and culture. This seemingly innocuous omission, however, may explicate the challenges involved in effectively educating and intervening in many of the sociopolitical problems facing African American, and larger American, culture. Thereby, this article aims to elucidate African American culture in hope that by so doing, educators, policymakers, and politicians will be better equipped to provide services to this large segment of the American population.

Exploring Culture

What is culture? Hollins (1995) insisted, "Culture is the medium for cognition for all human beings, not just ethnic minorities" (p. 71). Hollins argued that culture is central to human functioning; suggesting that virtually all one does is influenced by and has its origin in his/her culture. Guild (1994) noted that most anthropologists agree that learning is inextricably constrained by culture. Anthropologists believe that culture has an inescapable influence upon all human behavior. However, culture is an illusive construct that often evades/defies measurement and quantification. Ianni and Storey (1973) described the difficulty in attempting to understand the acculturation phenomena by defining the activity as a "complex and largely non-intellectual process" (p. 12). Robbins (1993) reminded however, that cultural anthropology is a discipline dedicated to the comprehension and discussion of culture in effort to explain the variety of human beliefs and behaviors, and the meanings groups assign to their beliefs and behaviors.

Despite the illusiveness of cultural constructs, anthropologists persist in their quest to comprehend and enunciate culture. Rosman and Rubel (1995) defined culture as "primarily a set of ideas and meanings that people use, derived from the past and reshaped in the present" (p. 5). Anthropologists, they maintained, agree that culture pertains to the way people live, which includes their behavior, their way of living, and their ideas. Ember and Ember (1996) stated that culture consisted of commonly held beliefs and practices of a group within a society. They asserted that the learned behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals shared by a group are considered that group's culture. Howard (1989) asserted that a group's shared strategies accompanied by generational transmitting of these strategies that perpetuate the group's existence is viewed as the group's culture.

Durkheim, as discussed in Rosman and Rubel's (1995) The Tapestry of Culture, maintained that culture existed outside of the individual, yet exercises coercive power over his/her behavior. …

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