Expressive culture refers to the intentional use of the human body to engage in performances of group identity. Groups utilize it to present their culture to outsiders and to fashion and disseminate a common language and set of beliefs to insiders. Often these groups are a socially constructed means of categorizing people based on race, gender, sexuality, and/or ethnicity. Consequently, the forms that constitute expressive culture change based on the social and political experiences of the group. Expressive culture encompasses such intentional performances of shared identity as dance, sports, fashion, oratory, song, and body language.
For subordinate groups, cultural expressions provide a subtle method to challenge and subvert their repression while also shaping mainstream American culture. By adapting mainstream cultural forms and creating their own, groups utilize expressive culture to reassert control over their bodies, critique white culture, challenge stereotypical representations in mass culture, and develop collective identities that transcend geography and time. Groups censor these cultural performances for mainstream audiences who often appropriate them without knowledge of their hidden meanings.
Although the study of expressive culture originated within cultural anthropology, historians have utilized it as a tool to interpret the history of groups that are traditionally absent from archival records. The study of social dance, hip-hop, zoot suits, hairstyles, and other forms of expression culture render visible the experiences of subordinate cultures by filling silences in the historical record. Historians of African American and Latinx history have increasingly examined expressive culture as a means of opening discourse surrounding historical agency, racial consciousness, popular culture, and cultural appropriation.
For Further Reading
Aparicio, Frances A. “U.S. Latino Expressive Cultures.” In The Columbia History of Latinos in the United States Since 1960, edited by David Gutierrez, 355-390. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Burstein, Joyce. “Integrating Arts: Cultural Anthropology and Expressive Culture in the Social Studies Curriculum.” Social Studies Research and Practice 9, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 132-143.
Caponi, Gena Dagel ed, Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’, & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
Feintuch, Burt, ed. Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
White, Shane and Graham White. Stylin’: African American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
During the Jim Crow Era, African Americans utilized clothing and hairstyles to resist their prescribed social status, challenge racial stereotypes, and craft a collective identity. Photograph from the author’s personal collection.