17 Terms Shaped by Black History and Cultural Contributions

Thursday, February 106 min read

Since 1970, Black History Month serves as a celebration highlighting the momentous achievements of  Black people in the United States. Faced with innumerable plights, injustices, and heartaches, Black people made a way when there was no way. From trailblazing music genres and movements that influenced government policies to the creation of new vernaculars, powerful messages delivered by abolitionists, and soulful artistic expressions, here are 17 terms Black history helped define.


“BIPOC” is a relatively new acronym meaning Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The word gained popularity in 2013 during the Black Lives Matter movement as it was used to describe groups of people who are largely impacted by police brutality. It has since become a common phrase in media and culture.

Rock ‘N’ Roll

While “rock ‘n’ roll” now covers a wide swath of popular music, the genre was pioneered by Chuck Berry in the 1950s as dance music characterized by a heavy beat and simple melodies. The origins are based in R&B (rhythm and blues) music, which was primarily played by Black artists, such as Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jackie Wilson. Elvis Presley, perhaps the most famous early rock ‘n’ roller, notoriously got inspiration from a variety of Black artists, including Otis Blackwell, who wrote for Elvis.


While it began as a linguistics term, the idea of “code-switching” has become more prevalent in culture analysis. Similar to “AAVE” (previously referenced in a more derogatory way as “Ebonics”), “code-switching” happens in casual conversation when a person may need to switch how they communicate depending on who they are having a conversation with. For example, a student might use a more formal tone with a teacher, and then code-switch to slang in the hall with their friends. People may choose to code-switch because they are unable to fully express a thought in one language, or they may change their speech patterns to show a cultural familiarity to the other speaker. The NPR podcast “Code Switch” uses the term to describe the ways race affects cultural discourse.

Harlem Renaissance

While it refers to the revival of art and literature in Europe between the 14th and 16th centuries, the word “Renaissance” didn’t appear until the mid 19th century. However, the term took on new meaning in the 1920s and 1930s with the “Harlem Renaissance,” a literary and artistic movement that centered in the upper Manhattan neighborhood. It was an early manifestation of Black cultural consciousness in the U.S., and produced great works from artists and writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Augusta Savage, and Langston Hughes.  


While it was used as a word for a musical session in the 1930s, over the next few decades the term “sit-in” came to describe a form of protest in which demonstrators occupy a place, refusing to leave until their demands are met. Sit-ins grew in popularity during the civil rights movement when activists would occupy spaces in primarily food establishments where they were denied service, such as at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Sit-ins were also a large part of the anti-Vietnam War movement when activists occupied spaces to oppose the war.


Juneteenth became a federal legal holiday in the United States in 2021 to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States on June 19, 1865. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, some enslaved people in Texas were not informed about the law, and didn’t find out about their freedom until that day in 1865. Juneteenth has been celebrated primarily in Texas and across the South, but the recent designation as a federal holiday will make the day known country-wide.

Black Lives Matter

The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is based on a movement formed in 2013 to campaign against systemic racism and violence against Black people in the United States. The word “matter,” meaning “to be of importance, or have significance,” is used to shine a light on how the injustices faced by Black people can often be overlooked, and not considered a priority. The term is now used globally to protest and discuss the mistreatment of Black people.


While “reconstruction” first appeared as a word in 1594 to describe “the act or process of rebuilding, repairing, or restoring something,” in the United States, “Reconstruction” typically refers to the period in U.S. history from 1865 to 1877, during which the Southern states that had seceded during the American Civil War rejoined the United States. Various legal measures, known as the  “Black Codes,” impacted the civil rights and liberties of Black people, through voting, housing, and educational restrictions, among other suppressions.


In modern contexts, when someone speaks of “privilege,” they may be referring to an advantage available only to a particular person or group. However, the word “privilege,” originating from the Latin privilegium, originally referenced a law or bill that was for or against a person. Through feminism and the civil rights and LGBTQ+ rights movements, “privilege” grew in popularity to explain how some people do not experience the same hardships due to their skin color, sexuality, economic status, or gender.


“Gullah” is an English-based vernacular that is primarily spoken by African-Americans living on the seaboard of South Carolina and Georgia. The people who speak the language are also culturally identified as Gullahs or Geechees. “Gullah,” developed in the rice fields amongs enslaved people who were forced to adopt English as their new language, became a language blended with the various languages originally spoken by the enslaved people, who came from many different places in Africa. This culture is explored on the popular mid-1990s kids show, Gullah Gullah Island.”

Black Arts Movement

While the Harlem Renaissance might be one of the better-known arts movements in Black History, the “Black Arts movement” was a period of artistic and literary development among Black Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. The art represented the cultural aspect of the Black Power Movement, and many ideas focused on Black empowerment, political ideologies, and Black culture. Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Gil Scott-Heron, and Thelonious Monk notably contributed to the Black Arts movement.


The term “intersectionality” was coined by scholar and writer Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989 and looks at the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender. The term began to rise in popularity in the early 2000s, but further skyrocketed after being used by mainstream media outlets to discuss the purpose of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Today, the term includes the intersection of other systems, such as sexuality, religion, and class.

HeLa Cells

Immortal cells, also known as “HeLa” cells, do not die, but rather multiply. This discovery happened following a 1951 gynecologist visit, where Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells were sent to and studied in a lab without her consent or permission, leading to some of the most important scientific discoveries in history. Although her family was never fairly compensated for her contribution, the “HeLa Cell” line has contributed to many medical breakthroughs in the study of leukemia, the AIDS virus and cancer.


The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, and The Temptations were all artists on the first Black-owned record company in the U.S. — Tamla Motown, founded in Detroit in 1959 by Berry Gordy. It notably popularized soul music as it produced artists like Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and Gladys Knight. The term has been used as a shorthand for that era of Black music, such as “the Motown sound.”

Freedom Riders

In 1946 the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to segregate buses and bus terminals in the Morgan v. Virginia decision. However, this practice still continued, predominantly in Southern states. The “Freedom Rides''of the 1960s  — in which passengers refused to abide by these racist laws — tested this ruling by showing that Southern states were still denying people unsegregated access to buses.

Tuskegee Airmen

While the words “Tuskegee Airmen” immediately bring to mind the bravery of the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (a precursor of the U.S. Air Force), before World War II, Black people were unable to enlist as pilots. However, withthe United States on the brink of war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced an expansion of  the civilian pilot program meant to teach regular citizens how to fly. This announcement excited many, and infuriated those who felt Black people should also be allowed to enlist. In 1940, their cries were answered when the President approved for Black civilians to train in an Army air field in Tuskegee, Alabama.


“Ally” originates from the Latin alligare, meaning to “bind together.” The term was typically used in a military sense during World War II in regards to the Allied powers.  Today, it refers to a person or organization that actively supports the rights of a minority or marginalized group without being a member of it.

Featured image credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

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