February in the United States marks the celebration of Black History Month. Initially conceived by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who founded what is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 and in February of 1926 introduced the first week dedicated to the observance of African Americans’ contributions to the history of the United States and world, Black History Month is an opportunity to illuminate the often overlooked contributions to society made by Black Americans. This month at the Maine Campus, we have been honoring Black History Month by lifting up the experiences and accomplishments of Black Mainers. This week’s focus is the influence African American culture has had on popular culture at large.
Most prominently beginning with the Harlem renaissance of the early 20th century, Black creative expression has pushed innovation in nearly every aspect of modern popular culture, including fashion, entertainment, sports and language.
In at least one time of their history, modern staples of everyday fashion have been the subject of intense scrutiny for their rebellion against the mainstream white-dominated culture of the United States. Long acrylic nails, hoop earrings, monogram prints, bucket hats, camouflage pants, oversized styles and sneaker culture are only a few examples of trends that were popularized by Black communities.
The flapper dress, an iconic product of the roaring 20s, was pushed into the mainstream through women of Harlem and the South shedding the influence of the Victorian fashion influences in favor of dress that allowed for more freedom of movement. In this way, styles of clothing and accessorization popularized by Black communities have often incorporated a subversion of the contemporary mainstream and other political commentary.
Trends in Black self-expression have seen an integration into mainstream fashion throughout the rest of modern history as well –– from the zoot suits of the 40s to the afros and black leather of the 70s, to the distinctive style of dress associated with hip-hop of the 80s, to modern pop culture which has taken such strong inspiration from Black celebrities and influencers that conversations about cultural appropriation have taken off in just the last half-decade.
Other communities, such as the LGBT community and drag subculture, have also been at the forefront of revolutionizing self expression. This is in part due to the prevalence of members in those spaces hailing from Black communities, as well as their inspiration taken by non-Black members of those spaces.
This has made a recent impact on culture propagated throughout online spaces, with the use of slang that has its roots in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). Terms like “slay,” “cop,” “woke” and “shade” are easy to find in internet comment sections, and are too often regarded simply as online slang rather than recognized as parts of a legitimate dialect.
Far too many aspects of culture within the United States and abroad are popularized and made profitable –– without due credit or compensation –– through the originality that can be seen blossoming within the Black communities of America. Cultural exchange is a beautiful thing to witness; however it is imperative that the achievements of and inspiration from Black Americans are celebrated in a way that does not discard, exploit or plagiarize the communities that supported their development.