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Understanding Black History: 10 Terms That Illuminate The Black Experience In The US

green background with white outlined text of keywords in a list: Harlem Renaissance, Diaspora, Juneteenth, Civil Rights (in dark text), Black Power, Great migration, Black Lives Matter, Black Excellence

Black history is American history, but it’s also bigger than that. The reach and influence of Black culture is global. Black history is too vast to be covered or contained in a single month, or a single article.

Black History Month is nevertheless a reminder to engage in a year-round, lifelong celebration and exploration of Black history and its many facets.

It’s an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the events introduced in history class, and to explore the countless ones that were not—including those that have been erased, obscured, or ignored because of anti-Black racism and the teaching of history in a way that has been historically dominated by a focus on white culture.

Content warning: This article includes some detailed content on chattel slavery, lynching, and other forms of anti-Black violence.

🔑 Key purpose

In this article, we will enter into Black history through words. Using 10 key terms as focal points, we’ll explore some of the significant events, figures, movements, places, and other aspects of Black history. Along the way, we’ll note terms that are newly emerging, newly entering mainstream awareness, or newly relevant to a history that is continuously unfolding. Some of these terms include:

Diaspora

Black history is US history, but Black history and culture begin and are rooted in Africa. Black people have lived in Africa for millennia, establishing a staggeringly diverse range of thriving cultures and civilizations. That history stretches back far before colonization by white Europeans.

A key term that highlights the ancestral origins of Black people who live outside of Africa is Diaspora (or African Diaspora). In this context, the term collectively refers to the descendants of Africans who were forced from their traditional homeland during the period of trans-Atlantic chattel slavery. As a historical event, the centuries-long enslavement and murder of millions of Africans by white Europeans, North Americans, and others is often referred to as the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but many scholars consider this term inappropriate and inadequate in its encapsulation of the atrocities it entails. Increasingly, the event—and its lasting impacts—are referred to as the Maafa, which comes from a Swahili word for “great disaster” or “great tragedy” and serves a function very similar to the word Holocaust (which has become the established term to concisely refer to the systematic mass murder of Jews by the Nazis).

For many, identification as a member of the Diaspora plays a crucial role in personal identity and culture—one shaped in many ways by the culture that enslaved Africans brought with them to the places they were forced to labor in the Americas.

In the territory that became the United States, the institution of slavery was centered in the Southern region and was primarily conducted through the route known as the Middle Passage.

Many scholars date the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the year 1619. Use of the date as a historical landmark has been popularized by the 1619 Project, a journalistic, historical, and educational initiative of The New York Times that was created by journalist and scholar Nikole Hannah-Jones. (It was published in 2019 to coincide with the 400th anniversary of this date.)

The 1619 Project and related works have been described as a way of reframing the discussion of US history to emphasize how the institution of slavery influenced the nation’s founding and how its legacy has continued to impact countless aspects of modern American society.

As awareness of this date and its historical significance has increased, so has its use as shorthand for the beginning of slavery in America. The next term we’ll discuss is now commonly used as a way to refer to—and celebrate—the end of slavery in the US.

Juneteenth

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed an executive order known as the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation, issued two years after the start of the Civil War, is often hailed as having ended slavery in the US, but its effect and intent was more narrow: it specifically freed the people enslaved in the territories still in rebellion against the Union. In Union border states and in Confederate territories captured by Union forces, slavery remained in place. Of course, it also remained in place in Confederate states, where the proclamation was rejected and ignored until it was able to be enforced by Union forces.

For that reason, it took much longer for many Black enslaved communities to learn of their freedom. Some of the last enslaved people in the US to be informed that slavery had been abolished were those who received the news in Texas on June 19, 1865. The anniversary of this date is now celebrated as Juneteenth (a blend of June nineteenth).

Along with commemorating the specific event, Juneteenth is also often observed as a time to commemorate the end of chattel slavery in the US. While Juneteenth has been long observed by African Americans, widespread observance and recognition of the day has grown in recent years. In 2021, Juneteenth was adopted as a US federal holiday, officially called Juneteenth National Independence Day (a name that brings to mind the belief among some that Juneteenth represents a more appropriate and inclusive celebration of true American independence than the one celebrated on July 4).

Why is February Black History Month? Learn more about the history behind Black History Month.

The full, legal abolition of slavery across the US came with the 13th Amendment, which was ratified on December 6, 1865, after the Civil War ended.

But the end of slavery did not end widespread anti-Black racism and oppression. Since the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction, racist laws and policies have taken many forms, both official and unofficial, and have been known by many names.

Jim Crow

After the Civil War, not only did the Black Americans who had been enslaved not receive any reparations, their new freedom was suppressed in a number of ways, including violence and a systematic denial of rights that was often implemented on an institutional level.

In the years immediately following the war’s end, the ex-Confederate states passed laws known as Black Codes to suppress Black Americans’ rights, including limits on freedom of movement intended to ensure that former enslavers continued to have access to cheap labor.

In 1890, the Louisiana General Assembly passed a law requiring that Black and white citizens use separate cars when traveling on a train, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy vs. Ferguson, notorious for its “separate but equal” ruling.

This decision opened the doors to a wave of restrictive laws all across the South designed to deny the rights of Black people in numerous ways—including, crucially, their ability to vote. Such laws came to be known as Jim Crow laws. (The term Jim Crow comes from the name of a minstrel show character based on a racist caricature of a Black enslaved person.)

In tandem with racist laws, white supremacy was also upheld throughout the Jim Crow era with violence. Particularly widespread was the form of murder known as lynching, often carried out by white mobs and with the cooperation of law enforcement. It’s estimated that nearly 6,500 Black people were lynched between 1865 and 1950.

The Jim Crow system of legalized segregation and discrimination didn’t officially end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but its legacy persists alongside other forms of injustice.

Discussion of many of these forms of injustice—and the terms for them—continues to be relevant today.

Legislation has been introduced to make lynching a federal crime, and there is a continued focus on well-known cases, including the murder of Emmet Till, whose case helped to spur the Civil Rights Movement. The term lynching has been applied to recent cases of racist violence, including the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

The term Jim Crow is now sometimes used in terms like the new Jim Crow and Jim Crow 2.0 to refer to the persistence of systemic anti-Black discrimination, particularly in the contexts of the suppression of voting rights and the mass and disproportionate incarceration of Black men in the US.

Looking back to the past, it was in part the atmosphere of Jim Crow in the 20th century that led millions of Black people to migrate to places where they believed their opportunities would be better.

The Great Migration

Beginning in the early 1900s and particularly around the time of each World War, Black Americans left the South in massive numbers to relocate to cities and other areas in the North, West, and Midwest. Approximately six million migrated from roughly 1910 to 1970—a population shift that shaped the longstanding demographics of many areas of the US.

During this time, many of the Black people who worked as sharecroppers and in other agricultural jobs in the rural South left to pursue industrial work in Northern cities, motivated by the possibility of a better life. In many cases, there were better wages and educational opportunities.

But while the North did not have the widespread Jim Crow laws of the South, Black people were nonetheless targeted by Northern whites with racist policies and discrimination, such as redlining and de facto segregation. Redlining is a discriminatory practice by which institutions like banks and insurance companies refuse or limit loans, mortgages, or insurance within specific geographic areas, especially certain urban neighborhoods. This practice and similar ones are often cited as a factor in the persistent wealth gap and the lack of generational wealth among many Black families. (The suppression of rights in such ways—those not explicitly encoded in law but that are nonetheless allowed by the law—is one of the realities implied by terms like systemic racism and structural racism.)

More recently, the term Great Migration has been used in discussions of similar relocation trends and demographic shifts involving Black Americans moving from Northern and Western states to Southern states, especially Southern cities. This movement has been called the new Great Migration in some reports about it.

While many Black people remained in the South and moved to cities there, the Great Migration resulted in significant Black population increases in many Northern cities and the formation of Black communities there. These communities are often considered to be the basis of Black urban culture and the growth of Black arts movements.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem section of New York City is perhaps the most well-known of the Black communities formed within American cities during the 20th century. Beginning around the 1920s and continuing into the ’30s, Harlem became the center of a renewal and flourishing of Black literary, musical, and artistic culture.

Many of the writers associated with the movement are among the most recognized  of all Black writers, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Other notable literary figures include Arna Bontemps, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Dorothy West.

The artists of the movement shared in common a celebration of Black traditions and ways of life and a centering of the Black voice in explorations of the many aspects of the Black experience. But their works, perspectives, and disciplines were incredibly diverse.

Musical luminaries associated with or whose careers coincided with the Harlem Renaissance include Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey. The widespread cultural influence of the movement’s musical elements can be seen in the name often applied to the 1920s: the Jazz Age.

The movement also included visual artists, like photographer James Van Der Zee and graphic artist Aaron Douglas. It also included performers, such as actors Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker—who was not based in Harlem but was still associated with the widespread reach of the movement.

The era was marked by the intersection of the arts and the growing movement for Civil Rights, including the association of many artists with organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League.

Thinkers of the time expanded on and transcended the work of predecessors like Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, focusing on the distinct identity of Black people in the US.

The movement had major, long-lasting influences on Black art and thought. These influences can be traced to later artists and writers, notably the generation of James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou—and many since, including those working today.

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t the only Black artistic movement, nor was it the only center of Black innovation.

Black Wall Street

Black Wall Street is the name that was given to the Black residential neighborhood and business district of Greenwood, in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the oil in the area generated a huge amount of wealth, and some Indigenous and Black landowners were able to share in the boom. Greenwood became one of the wealthiest Black communities in the US. The community had its own extensive infrastructure and was able to build and thrive to a level that other Black communities were often prevented from reaching.

In 1921, a confrontation erupted between white and Black Tulsa residents after the arrest of a Black man on dubious charges. After a white mob looted and set fire to Greenwood businesses, the governor declared martial law. The National Guard arrived and pursued the mass arrest of Greenwood’s entire Black community, detaining thousands of people for several days. During that time, white mobs—including some individuals deputized by Tulsa police—killed as many as 300 Black people and burned thousands of homes and businesses, utterly destroying the Greenwood district.

The anti-Black persecution continued in the aftermath: the perpetrators of the destruction were never prosecuted; insurance companies denied claims; and efforts to rebuild were suppressed by the local government.

The term Black Wall Street and the place it refers to have long been known to Black scholars but have only recently entered more mainstream awareness—even among many Tulsans and Oklahomans. The event that became known as the Tulsa Massacre wasn’t made part of the curriculum in most Oklahoma schools until the 2000s. This is just one example of how Black scholarship and journalism have documented and revealed both Black triumphs and tragedies that have been whitewashed or excluded altogether from the dominant narrative of US history.

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Civil Rights

We tend to think of Civil Rights as a general term, but it can have a few very specific meanings, including the “rights to personal liberty established by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution and certain Congressional acts.”

Perhaps the best way to define Civil Rights in this context is to define them as the goal of what became known as the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement grew out of long-held efforts to gain equal rights for Black Americans, but it is particularly associated with the movement in the 1950s and ’60s to legally establish and protect such rights.

In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education paved the way for racial integration in schools (a reversal of the earlier “separate but equal” decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson). In 1955, Rosa Parks engaged in her now-famous act of protest, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The success of the boycott gave momentum to the movement and helped some of its organizers rise to prominence as the movement’s leaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the defining moments of the Civil Rights Movement came in 1963 when Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 people on the National Mall during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Get inspired by taking a closer look at the artistry and effects of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Continued marches and protests—and violent resistance to them by whites—brought continued attention to the movement and pressure for legislative reform.

The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in voter registration, employment, and public accommodations. It officially put an end to (legally sanctioned) segregation in schools.

In 1965, protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, as part of a voter registration drive and a call for voting rights. Despite violence against the marchers by police and white mobs—including the killing of four activists—the march continued to Montgomery. National outrage over the violence led to additional pressure for legislation, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed months later. Notably, it eliminated various policies traditionally used to restrict voting by Black people, such as literacy tests.

The next major piece of Civil Rights legislation came three years later in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act), which was aimed at addressing discriminatory housing policies.

Like the other Civil Rights laws, pressure to pass the Fair Housing Act increased after a tragedy—this time, the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, 1968. It was yet another brutal act of violence against a Civil Rights leader: Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.

These tragedies were a reminder that despite significant victories in the form of Civil Rights legislation, the fight for Civil Rights was not over. Even today, such legislation (and its shortcomings) is often discussed in the context of calls for new rights protections for Black people—and all Americans—including voting and housing rights.

Black Power

The movement of nonviolent resistance embodied by Dr. King—and for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1964—is credited in part with achieving legislative victories in the 1960s. But the continued racist violence and systemic oppression not addressed by such legislation inspired greater participation in what became known as the Black Power movement, whose members were most active in the 1960s and 1970s.

Growing out of and in parallel with the Civil Rights Movement and inspired by Black leaders like Malcolm X, the Black Power movement was based on a focus on the political and economic power of Black Americans and the independent development of political and social institutions. The movement and its symbolism were intended to embrace Black pride and to counter white supremacy.

Early leaders associated with the movement included Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, who founded the Black Panther Party, and Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael), the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

In Chicago, Black Panther leader Fred Hampton formed a coalition of marginalized groups with a focus on working to combat poverty and rights abuses by police, among other things.

Members of the movement were often more radical in their views and strategies, including in terms of armed resistance and anticapitalism. Such views often brought increased surveillance and intimidation from law enforcement. Beginning in the ’60s, the FBI targeted Black Panther leaders for arrest and assassination, and is widely believed to have helped coordinate the murder of Fred Hampton by police.

Today, the legacy of the Black Power movement continues in many ways, including with a sustained focus on the transparency surrounding cases of police violence against Black Americans.

Black Lives Matter

Ten years ago, in February 2012, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Black teenager Trayvon Martin. In the aftermath, Black organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter to mobilize against racist violence and to spotlight the failure of the justice system to successfully prosecute such cases.

As greater attention was focused on police brutality and the shootings of Black people by police, such cases continued to spark outrage, bringing greater scrutiny and, in turn, greater momentum for the national and then global movement that Black Lives Matter became.

In 2020, protests spread worldwide in response to the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by white police officer Derek Chauvin, who was later convicted of Floyd’s murder after a highly publicized trial.

All of these events and movements have impacted the language used in the context of antiracism and social justice (both of which are terms that have become more prominent in recent years).

Notably, the names of the victims of police violence and mistreatment—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, and too many others—have become a focal point in the efforts to secure justice for them, their families, and for Black communities and all people of color. This focus is reflected in slogans like Say their names.

Similarly, there has been a renewed call among victims’ advocates to refer to police brutality trials with the name of the defendant, rather than the name of the victims (which can suggest that they are the ones on trial). This is related to the fact that in many cases such victims are demonized as an attempt to justify their killing.

Additionally, as a result of the movement for racial justice and the attention it has brought to many different issues, there is now greater awareness of terms for topics that Black scholars and activists have been discussing for decades.

The evolution of this vocabulary—and the increasing awareness and use of it—is reflected in the addition of many such terms to this dictionary, including many new additions in 2020 and 2021 (with more being added as they emerge and grow in use).

These include terms like systemic racism, white privilege, implicit bias, microaggression, race norming, and intersectionality, which was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the prominent Black scholar who is also credited with naming Critical Race Theory.

Critical Race Theory (often abbreviated CRT) is an academic theory used to analyze systems through a lens of race and racism and their history in the US and the world. Though it is largely applied in legal research and discussed at the university level, it has become a flashpoint in the context of elementary and high school curricula. In particular, it has been attacked by those who disagree with the idea that many institutions are built on and enforce systemic racism. Proponents, on the other hand, accuse the theory’s critics of frequently misrepresenting it, the ideas behind it, and the ways in which it is taught or used as the basis for programs or policies.

Read more about Critical Race Theory and its origins.

The focus on the impact of language in social justice contexts has also led to a shift in terms related to slavery, particularly the use of the adjective enslaved in terms like enslaved people in replacement of the word slave, which can result in a desensitization to the horrors of slavery by implying that status as an enslaved person is somehow inherent to a person’s nature. There are many related shifts, such as the avoidance of words like master and owner, including in contexts other than slavery.

Even more fundamental than many of these changes is the evolution of the terminology used to refer to Black people by themselves and others.

Black, with a capital “B”

In recent years, calls to capitalize the word Black, when it refers to Black people, have been adopted by many publications and style guides, including this dictionary. This capitalization is intended to reflect and respect the distinct culture and identity that the word represents. It is this culture and identity that Black History Month celebrates.

Black history is sometimes presented in the form of a timeline of Black excellence and “Black firsts”—individuals breaking barriers in various fields: George Washington Carver in agriculture (and peanuts!); Jackie Robinson in baseball; Gwendolyn Brooks in literature (as the first Black winner of the Pulitzer Prize); Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court; Mae Jemison in space; Barack Obama and Kamala Harris in the White House; Misty Copeland in ballet; Simone Biles in so many ways. The list is long and growing as we continue to witness barriers being broken.

It is important to acknowledge and celebrate such firsts—especially as examples for the next generation of firsts. But it is also important to acknowledge that historical “Black firsts” have also come in the form of entire art forms, scientific breakthroughs, and other contributions to society that transcend individuals.

Notably, the Black origins of and influences on many aspects of art and pop culture cannot be overstated. This is especially the case when it comes to several quintessential forms of American music that have become some of the greatest US cultural exports: blues, jazz, rock, soul, Motown, funk, and hip-hop have all had global cultural influences.

Hip-hop in particular has had worldwide influences not only on music but also fashion—and language. Black slang (including the slang rooted in popular musical genres) is constantly being adopted (and, in many cases, appropriated) by mainstream culture.

The influence of Black culture also applies to food: many of the now globally popular staples of American cuisine originated in and have been influenced by African American dishes. In addition, Black cinema has entered a new era of expression and popularity, including recent milestones across multiple genres and exploring different facets of the Black experience.

The Black experience—and Black history—intersects in many ways with the history of other marginalized communities, including solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and other People of Color, as well as the prominence of Black figures in movements for LGBTQ+ rights, to name just a few examples.

Despite so many Black firsts and so much Black excellence, Black history is often depicted as synonymous with struggle, particularly due to the history and prevalence of anti-Black racism—a reality that should not be minimized. But as we explore Black history during Black History Month and beyond, it is also important to recognize that Black history is often personal.

Positivity-focused terms like Black joy, Black excellence, and Black girl magic (all of which are commonly used as hashtags) celebrate moments of joy and greatness in everyday Black life. They can also serve as a form of resistance—and as a way to make space for joy apart from the pervasive depictions of Black trauma and tragedy in media and discourse.

Such terms are reminders that Black history begins in the past but it is still unfolding daily. Black history is happening now. We are living in it.

Discover the beauty of Black wordsmiths by reading this collection of stirring quotes from significant Black voices, past and present.

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