Identification. African Americans constitute the largest non-European racial group in the United States of America. Africans came to the area that became the United States in the sixteenth century with the Spaniards, but their first appearance as a group in the English colonies occurred in 1619, when twenty Africans were brought as indentured servants to Jamestown, Virginia. Subsequent importations of Africans from western Africa stretching from Morocco on the north to Angola on the south over a period of two hundred years greatly increased the African population in the United States. By the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, they numbered 4.5 million people. A composite People, comprised of numerous African ethnic groups including Yoruba, Wolof, Mandingo, Hausa, Asante, Fante, Edo, Fulani, Serer, Luba, Angola, Congo, Ibo, Ibibio, Ijaw, and Sherbro, African Americans have a common origin in Africa and a common struggle against racial oppression. Many African Americans show evidence of racial mixture with Native Americans, particularly Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Pawnee, as well as with Europeans from various ethnic backgrounds.
Location. African Americans were predominantly a rural and southern people until the Great Migration of the World War II era. Thousands of Africans moved to the major urban centers of the North to find better jobs and more equitable living conditions. Cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit became magnets for entire southern communities of African Americans. The lure of economic prosperity, political enfranchisement, and social mobility attracted many young men. Often women and the elderly were left on the farms in the South, and husbands would send for their families, and children for their parents, once they were established in their new homes. Residential segregation became a pattern in the North as it had been in the South. Some of these segregated communities in the North gained prominence and became centers for culture and commerce. Harlem in New York, North Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Woodlawn in Detroit, South Side in Chicago, and Hough in Cleveland were written into the African Americans' imagination as places of high style, fashion, culture, and business. The evolution of the African American communities from southern and rural to northern and urban has been going on since 1945. According to the 1980 census, the largest populations are found in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Houston, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Memphis. In terms of percentage of population, the five leading cities among those with populations of over 300,000 are Washington, D.C., 70 percent; Atlanta, 67 percent; Detroit, 65 percent; New Orleans, 55 percent; and Memphis, 49 percent. (East St. Louis, Illinois, is 96 percent African American, but its population is less than 100,000.)
Demography. The 1990 population of African Americans is estimated to be 35 million. In addition to those in the United States, there are approximately 1 million African Americans abroad, mainly in Africa, Europe, and South America. African Americans constitute about 12 percent of the American population. This is roughly equal to the percentages of Africans in the populations of Venezuela and Colombia. The largest population of African people outside the continent of Africa resides in Brazil; the second largest is in the United States of America. The following countries have the largest populations of Africans in the world: Nigeria, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Zaire, and the United States. The cities with the largest populations of African Americans are New York, 2.1 million; Chicago, 1.4 million; Detroit, over 800,000; Philadelphia, close to 700,000; and Los Angeles, more than 600,000. Seven states have African American populations of more than 20 percent. These are southern and predominantly rural: Mississippi, 35 percent; South Carolina, 30 percent; Louisiana, 29 percent; Georgia, 27 percent; Alabama, 16 percent; Maryland, 23 percent; and North Carolina, 22 percent.
Linguistic Affiliation. African Americans are now native speakers of English. During the seventeenth century, most Africans in the Americas spoke West African languages as their first languages. In the United States, the African Population developed a highly sophisticated pidgin, usually referred to by linguists in its creolized form as Ebonics. This language was the prototype for the speech of the vast majority of African Americans. It was composed of African syntactical elements and English lexical items. Use of this language made it possible for Africans from various ethnic and linguistic groups (such as Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa, Akan, Wolof, and Mande) to communicate with one another as well as with the Europeans with whom they came in contact.
The impact of the African American language on American society has been thorough and all-embracing. From the ubiquitous "O.K.," a Wolof expression from Senegal, to the transformations of words like "bad" and "awesome" into different and more adequate expressions of something entirely original, one sees the imprint of African American styles that are derived from the African heritage. There are more than three thousand words, place names, and concepts with African origins found in the language of the United States. Indeed, the most dynamic aspects of the English language as spoken in the United States have been added by the popular speakers of the African American idiom, whether Contemporary rap musicians, past jazz musicians, or speakers of the street slang that has added so much color to American English. Proverbs, poems, songs, and hollers, which come with the historical saga of a people whose only epics are the spirituals, the great songs, provide a rich texture to the ever-evolving language of the African American people.