Black History Month: Black Teens are Leading the Way

Black History Month: Black Teens are Leading the Way

BY Hannah Hickman

This month marks Black History Month. At YMC, we think it’s crucial to take the time to recognize the contributions that Black teenagers have made to pop culture as both the creators and main drivers behind many of today’s trends and social media challenges. Take a look at the history behind Black teens’ role as trendsetters and some of the most popular and impactful contributions.

Black Teens as Trendsetters Through the Ages

Black teenagers have been the trendsetters driving pop culture for many decades. The Roaring 20’s were defined by music genres like jazz, blues, swing, dance band, and ragtime. These music genres all originated from Black communities. At first, society openly vilified the Black community for creating this new music. Once it was accepted into the mainstream, the Black community’s contributions were minimized. 

When you think of the 1950s, Elvis Presley, dubbed the “King of Rock and Roll,” dominates the conversation. However, it was Black teens that popularized and revolutionized the genre. Additionally, many of the most popular and edgy fashion styles of the day originated from young people of color, especially men. Swing dance filled the dance halls, an echo from 1920’s Harlem dance halls.

The 70s and 80s were marked by disco and experimental fashion. Acrylic nails became statements, lettuce hems graced t-shirts, and sneakers became status symbols. Many of the trends that marked this era originated in Black culture. Acrylic nails have maintained their popularity, though many of those who love the long and decorated nails fail to remember Flo-Jo, the world-record-setting Black runner who was noted for her extremely long and painted nails. Lettuce hems were invented by African-American designer Stephen Burrows and took root in the fashion world across previous decades. And sneaker culture has sparked a booming market, often championed by Black athletes like Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

This is by no means exhaustive of the massive contributions that the young Black community has made to pop culture. However, these examples show that creators and originators of the trends that have defined eras are often forgotten and suppressed—with society ignoring their labor and hard work.

Today’s Trends

In today’s social media era, trends are quick-moving, explosive, and frequently jump from our TikTok feeds to mainstream media. Dance challenges have popped up all over social media, and often, these dances are created by Black teens. 14-year-old Jalaiah Harmon initially created the Renegade Dance. As the dance gained popularity, Jalaiah’s name was forgotten while other white creators were credited with popularizing the dance. 

Much of today’s most popular music is created by young Black people or mainstreamed through its popularity with Black teens. Lil Nas X, Kodak Black, Doja Cat, and Megan Thee Stallion have topped the charts over the past several years, demonstrating the power and influence of young Black people in the music space. These artists have taken center stage in pop culture, with invites to the Met Gala, bringing AAVE slang and phrases to the mainstream lexicon, and serving as role models to young Black children across the country.

Today’s fashion trends have originated mainly with Black teenagers. Bucket hats, hoop earrings, and Y2K fashion have re-entered teens’ closets, thanks to the Black teens that started these trends in decades past and the black teens today reviving these styles. The beauty space and modern beauty standards have taken notes from the Black community, emulating their looks by utilizing coconut oil and glitter and taking even more extreme measures like fillers to get fuller lips.

Language is constantly evolving and changing, with words entering and leaving the lexicon with regularity. More often than not, these words and phrases originate from teenage girls, who have been the primary drivers of pop-culture language for centuries. Much of the slang and expressions we use today have originated from young Black people, especially LGBTQ+ Black youth.

Doing Better

Black teenagers face hardships that white teenagers often don’t—with their younger years marked by inequity, unfair scrutiny, ignorance, and even vilification. It’s important to take the time to recognize those who make the most significant contributions to pop culture and trends and create a system where they can reap the benefits. It allows the Black contributors to receive their due, and it’s the least we can do. 

As an industry, it’s imperative that we make a point to name and credit young creators of color and avoid appropriation. Instead of knowingly or incidentally erasing the contributions of young Black teens, let’s uplift them and recognize their creations, hard work, and impact. 

Take some time to research the origins of your favorite phrases, the styles of clothes hanging in your closet, the makeup on your vanity, the types of jewelry on your body, and the words you speak. More often than not, you’ll find the influence of Black teens. Also, let your money talk and donate to Black-led charities that uplift young people of color:

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