African Americans (or African-Americans, also called black Americans) have historically been the second largest ethnic group in the United States, after European Americans (although they have recently been overtaken by Hispanic Americans). The term "African American" is sometimes restricted to the descendants of slaves forcibly brought to America by the aforementioned Europeans; however, there are also more recent immigrants from Africa—or from the Caribbean, another area where Africans were moved as slaves—who don't identify as American, having lived in nations or territories previously or currently claimed by European colonial interests (such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Spain).
African slaves in America were generally from west Africa, in an area from the western Sahara area down to the Congo region. A handful came from other areas such as modern day Mozambique but this was not common. They were often bought in coastal areas of Africa, or brought there by other Africans. Despite some recent claims, the vast majority of these Africans were not Muslim, or even Jewish by religion, but had tribal beliefs (you didn't think voodoo was Muslim, did you?). Some were baptized not long after arrival in the New World. They certainly had little or no connections with ancient Egypt or Israel as some fringe elements claim (e.g., the Black Hebrew Israelites). Egypt and Israel lay thousands of miles from their homelands across the world's largest hot desert.
Conditions in slave ships were appalling with many dying en route. People from different tribes were jumbled together sometimes with no language in common. Despite this some African words appear to have survived in the USA. Most of the slaves were illiterate, although some evidence suggests a few could read and write Arabic. Others learned to read and write later.
Not all African slaves in North America were in the British colonies. The USA gained a new slave population when it took Florida from Spain and Louisiana from France. Hispanics also have some African ancestry, and some slaves were also transported from the Caribbean to the USA. Some Native American tribes, notably the Cherokee, kept black slaves as well. In the American War of Independence, African Americans fought on both sides, with the British offering freedom to some of their supporters. Many of these African American loyalists would later move to Canada. A significant number of the USA's Founding Fathers owned slaves and appear to have seen no contradiction in this (others, such as Jefferson, saw the contradiction and spoke out against slavery, but when push came to shove, just couldn't give up the standard of living that they gained through owning slaves).
For most of the history of the US, African Americans were, de jure or de facto, denied most of the liberties granted to other Americans. The American Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement were all attempts to remedy this; however, it was only the latter movement, which permanently removed discriminatory provisions from the law, that achieved any sort of lasting success.
Despite the name, most African Americans now have some European ancestry (usually on their male lines), with smaller percentages of Native, Asian and Hispanic input. This is confirmed by genetic testing. A lot of this dates from the time of slavery, and was out of wedlock or unrecognized. It is partly to do with the sexual coercion and rape of the slavery period, but also on the other side because genuinely loving mixed race couples were long dissuaded from marriage, sometimes by force. The latter tendency occurred well into living memory.
There are distinct and unique African American traditions in art, music, literature, politics, religion and social culture, but the boundaries of these are hazy. Some of these such as jazz, blues, etc. have been taken up by other sections of society, and American popular music in general has been heavily influenced by black culture for well over a century.
There are those who see African Americans as a distinct nation within the United States, and many African American leaders once fought to have a distinct state. (The republic of Liberia was originally set up for this, but abandoned when it was found that most African Americans did not want to live in Africa.) However, in the modern political climate, this is a fringe opinion, adhered to only by such groups as Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam.
Ironically, African Americans' commonalities in culture, history and speech — which are often invoked in this regard, are partly the result of slavery, segregation and racism. It should also be remembered that a great deal of African American idiosyncrasies do not come from Africa (or even Europe), but are a positive reflection of the creativity, innovation, versatility and resourcefulness of African Americans since their arrival in America.
Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, is African American through his Kenyan father and still has close relatives in Africa. Contrary to popular belief, he is descended from slaves... through his white mother. Unlike the majority of African Americans, he is of mainly east African descent.
Embarrassing side effects
As the term "African American" has gained popularity, an interesting side effect has been observed among Americentric white people: They tend to call all black people "African Americans".
In 2015, Men's Health News reached multiple levels of absurdity when it speculated that actor Idris Elba, who is a British citizen of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian descent, might become the first "African-American" James Bond, apparently forgetting that African Americans are, by definition, U.S. citizens. Yes, that James Bond: the hero of Her Majesty's Secret Service who guest-starred with Queen Elizabeth II in the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and took orders from Dame Judi Dench. Whether Elba gets the role or not, an American of any ethnicity working as MI-6's most trusted 00 agent would be a first indeed.
A similar but somewhat rarer case of stupid can occur when discussing Melanesians, who are neither African nor American.
Another effect is the reflection of the first: thinking that all Africans are black. Much of northern Africa, for example, is populated by those of Arabic and Egyptian descent. South Africa, on the other hand, contains a comparatively-large Caucasian populace descendant from British and Dutch colonists, as well as a significant Indian population. Madagascar is largely a mix of African and Malay peoples with a dash of Polynesian ancestry.
Taking it to the absurd
- African American Vernacular English, colloquially known as "jive"
- Afrocentrism, a pseudo-academic interpretation of history. It can be seen as an overcompensation mechanism for the past treatment and marginalization of African culture.