A Much Needed Discussion Between Brown Girls
Last August, at Brooklyn’s Commodore Barry Park, Afropunk held its eleventh annual music festival. Thousands of people attended the event created to uplift alternative music of the African diaspora and facilitate a safe space to celebrate multicultural art, fashion and expression. Despite a few speckles of white, the majority of the crowd were people of color — largely African American, first generation Caribbean and/or African.
In addition to two days of live performances, the festival also host vendors who sell goods and have promotional giveaways. And like in year’s past, one of these booths invited attendees to get white painting on their face and bodies—akin to face painting at a kid’s birthday party.
Walking toward the booth I noticed dozens of attendees waiting in line, like a conveyor belt, to be “Africanized,” displaying marks derived from Yoruba spiritual practices primarily found in southwestern Nigeria. Read: It’s a sacred practice not a trendy fad.
My trigger went off.
No, I’m not Yoruba. In fact, my Asante blood suggests other traditions and customs totally distinct of Yoruba. But for my continent as a whole, I was offended at the surface attempt to identify with the culture. And apparently, I’m not the only one.
Last summer Those People writer, Zipporah Gene in a piece titled Black America, Please Stop Appropriating African Clothing and Tribal Marks discussed her similar reaction to the Afropunk activity, that she said, “looks cool and the wearer looks unique, but if you look at it for what it is, it’s still cultural appropriation.”
Understandably so, Gene’s position created an unequivocal fallout with writers and scholars arguing how it’s impossible for African Americans to appropriate African culture for a gamut of reasons.
Appropriation Is Not The Right Word
On the western hemisphere, specifically America, it’s easy to spot cases of appropriation when committed by white people— Marc Jacobs parading models down a runway with faux dread locs or Khloe Kardashian getting bantu knots are obvious transgressions because they’re not a part of the culture being displayed. Furthermore, they’re wealthy influencers whose whiteness affords them the ability to take from a group who have historically been oppressed and suppressed— with or without giving credit, that their followers care little about.
But the concept becomes murky when we examine direct descendants of Africa displaying customs tied to their genealogical roots. In essence, calling it “appropriation” for a member of the diaspora to get Yoruba body paint, is the wrong word. Yet and still, I felt uneasy about Afropunk’s most popular booth.
“I believe that Africans have every right to to be upset with people of any background who distort and just generally disrespect their heritage,” Demetria Irwin, who wrote a reactionary piece about this last year, said in an interview wit me.
“What makes this African and African American dynamic so interesting is that both groups are part of the African diaspora. We are connected. The rich, robust, and diverse African American culture has roots in the even more rich, robust, and diverse cultures of the Motherland. As an African American, if I wear a gele or if I have a drum that has Adinkra symbols carved into it, that is me celebrating my ancestry and acknowledging the flyness of the African diaspora. I'm proud to be connected to so many people around the world.”
Merriam-Webster’s definition of appropriation is to “to take or make use of without authority or right.” But applied to real life, appropriation brings to the surface centuries of hate, pain, lies and ultimately the dismantling of African people —all for the sake of European colonization.
“In terms of this topic, I’m not sure if ‘appropriation’ is the right word,” OkayAfrica’s associate editor Antoinette Isama said in agreement with my fresh revelation on the subject. “Appropriation has to do with stealing, commodification and making money off of it, not giving credit where credit is due. And while at times I do think that is happening, I don’t think it’s the same [within the diaspora].”
As a Nigerian-American, Isama has some of the same conflictions as me. Feeling a connection with black Americans but also an allegiance with the Igbo parents who raised her has afforded a sense of empathy on the topic.
“Being offended comes from acknowledging the amount of work I have to do to understand different parts of the community, and that’s not being reciprocated. I am afraid that there’s an erasure happening at the same time, all for the sake of ‘unity’ and trying to understand your identity by inadvertently doing damage.” Adding, “Education is very, very important. If you’re going to be doing that [tribal makeup] at least know what it is. That’s a start. All I want is for people to acknowledge and know what exactly they’re wearing or putting on their face.”
Kenyan writer, Evelyn Ngugi had a different angle to the discussion. “Every damn body knows a black American wearing a headwrap is channeling something from the continent. Appropriation and reclamation are two different things, and unless folks want to ship an ancestry DNA test to millions of people, I just don't think it's fair to call the incorporation of various cultures ‘appropriation’. I think this discussion is usually rooted in a twisted form of anti-blackness that first generation kids often have to deal with in our families.”
This anti-blackness is a direct result of the fierce loyalty we all have for our specific tribes. Like black Americans who are prideful of their region of the country, state, city and even neighborhood block— this fierce loyalty to our kinfolk can often seclude the diaspora.
“There isn't one African culture,” Ngugi adds. “If I, Kenyan by heritage, wear Angelina fabric, am I appropriating West Africans? It was designed by a Dutchman, who was inspired by an Ethiopian tunic. If I'm ethnically Kikuyu, but wear Maasai jewelry —which I do frequently— is that appropriation? I'm not from that specific group, but we're both from Kenya.”
Author of Who Owns Culture? Authenticity and Appropriation in American Law and Fordham University School of Law Prof. Susan Scafidi talks all about cultures combining in her work. “If a source community voluntarily shares something like a musical style and others pick up the beat or join the dance, contributing their own rhythms and moves, the resulting transformation may be an instance of mutually beneficial cultural exchange —especially if everyone continues to be acknowledged and invited to the party,” she said.
What’s interesting is that the whole appropriation within the culture discussion, opened up a whole new can of worms regarding inner relations between African Americans and those with direct family ties to the Motherland.
A connection has been broken, but in order for me to address it and its complexities, it required diverse perspectives.
A Healing Process
“When I was growing up in D.C. in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the first group of girls to come to my school from the continent were from Nigeria and most of them had Yoruba threading,” writer, and cultural scholar, Michaela Angela Davis said.
“We had never seen that. I was fascinated by it because the designs they were able to make. But they were so ruthlessly teased by the African American girls. They called them every kind of ‘African booty scratcher’— they were really mean to them and I never said anything, even though I thought there hair was cool. What I realized later is that we were triggering each other’s pain because those Nigerian girls also walked a different way. They had a sense of self that was different than black American girls. They knew their food, their language, their lineage. And when you know that, you walk through the world a certain way. They were a glimpse into who we wanted to be or what we wanted to know but we were 9 and 10 years old.”
I too was teased in school. When asked where I was from, I’d say my parents were Ghanaian, all to have kids click their tongue and asks if I spoke that language— and ignorant generalization of all Africans speaking the Xhosa language of Bantus in Botswana and Namibia.
Davis’ and my experience perfectly describe the dynamic between so many Africans coming to this country and black Americans who interact with them. And while it typically happens in grade school, that resentment carries on and manifests itself in a lack of communication. Overtime, I just didn’t distinguish my heritage. Communication that is revealed by mis-diagnosing pride for appropriation.
“To me, this is a misunderstanding,” says Dr. Greg Carr, Professor of Africana Studies at Howard University. “Because Africans that have that type of intention don’t have conversations about appropriation. In fact, they’re grateful. The most beautiful thing I’ve found is when Africans with a similar intent come together, and among those Africans, the question of appropriation is not only not a question. They look at you like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Adding, “I think that being an African is not a matter of a DNA test. It’s a matter of connecting to the deep culture of your ancestry. Nobody asks any white person to take a DNA test to be white. The only time they start making up rules is when people want to break out of the conceptual framework of whiteness. It’s about policing blackness, you can’t imagine a world where you can’t pick and choose what you want from us.”
The more the word “communication” came up in this dialogue, the less “appropriation” was mentioned. In fact, it became tryte in a conversation that has more to do with sharing than stealing.
“We’ve done so much tearing apart and the continent has never stopped hemorrhaging pain,” Davis said, who plans to have this very discussion while craftswomen do cornrows and Yoruba hair threading at Atlanta’s Afropunk this weekend. “And I think culture and aesthetics is a natural way to heal. To be honest, it’s a very African response to pick up fly sh*t and use it. We just take sh*t and flip it because we think it’s cool. So part of it is just the thing that didn’t get beat out of us. The whole idea of colonization was to keep us powerless, by keeping us separated. So it’s an instinctive survival technique to find ourselves. We have to acknowledge our separation.”
Dr. Carr resoundingly agreed, acknowledging unity as strength.
“The importance of Africans in the diaspora embracing African culture is to be in touch with their ancestors, which will allow them to be in touch with each other. Afropunk is a brilliant example of mixing and remixing. But when I see you next year, maybe you don’t have those [white tribal] marks. Maybe you have something else because you found out that the people you thought you were paying respect to or pretending to be, don’t do this that way. That’s the key.Build on it.”
Where White Folks Fit In this Narrative
Solange Knowles most recently said in her song “F.U.B.U.” off her fourth studio album, A Seat at the Table, “Th*s shit is for us.” Meaning? White folks are not wanted in our safe spaces and black folks shouldn’t have to explain why.
It may sound separatist. It may offend. But in a world where history has shown tearing us apart as a form of power and disenfranchisement, Africans directly from the Motherland and/or diaspora, need sacred spaces to commune.
In the conversation of appropriation, particularly in the 21st century, this can be fairly uncomfortable when access to black culture has been given through commodified forms of pop culture. Hip-hop, television, fashion—all easy to purchase and put on, to claim a piece of black folks.
Only when the lines are disrespectfully crossed —blackface, calling cornrows “boxer braids,” labeling baby hair as a ‘new’ trend, selling designer durags— is when it becomes blatantly obvious that there’s a disconnect. But is it always a disconnect, or just plain disregard?
“Eurasians have always wanted out of Africa what any human being would want, but did not want to pay for,” says Dr. Carr. “So you want black bodies. Black learning. Black culture. But you don’t want the people who produced it. In fact, you want those people to think those people are, somehow, less than you are.”
Davis furthered this point by addressing the 21st century approach of calling out those in the wrong.
“Part of what comes up is this deep, emotional feeling that our ancestors stories were never really validated and never really told,” she says. “So when they start to come through these manipulated lenses, there’s a pain.”
Adding, “So you know what’s not OK for white folks to do? Is ignore it. Once we tell you the story. And to defend your position. I give you one pass to be ignorant. But once you know, you know. And what becomes uncomfortable and pisses people off is once we’ve told you and you defend it. All your privilege comes into play. Your privilege makes it a small cost for you to be uncomfortable when we clap at you.”
Oh, the clap back. We’ve heard it from Millennials such as Amandla Stenberg, Vic Mensa, and Zendaya. It’s the most clever and growing way to quickly solve the problem of displaced credit. And it’s not stopping anytime soon.
“My age group is not about respectability politics anymore,” adds Isama. “Cause where did that get us? It’s for the birds. We’re going to say what we’re going to say, and it’s up to you to learn from it.”
She closes out the conversation with one solid point— to which I resoundingly agree.
“No culture should ever be a costume. It’s not something you can take on and take off. It’s real life for a lot of us. Showing that effort that you want to learn, comes down to being open and acknowledging that it’s not yours.
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