Black Americans Wearing African Clothing Is NOT Cultural Appropriation

Maya Angelou and Malcolm X
Maya Angelou and Malcolm X in Ghana

The internet has unfortunately become a cesspool for the most simplistic arguments to be sensationalized. The latest finger pointing bandwagon phrase to hit the net is “cultural appropriation.” It’s being slaughtered, with a slew of would be  writers refusing to actually research the meaning of the term before tossing it around carelessly. So is the case with a recent article declaring, that Black Americans were culturally appropriating African cultures by wearing African clothing. It goes without saying, that this bold assertion is as deprived of history, logic and critical analysis as “reverse racism.”

Part I: Let’s begin with the definition of appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is when a dominant culture takes, claims and establishes itself the creator of the cultural heritage and artifacts of a minority and or marginalized culture thereby erasing the history of the marginalized culture.

In Neo-Slave Narratives: Studies of a Social Logic in Literary Form, African American studies professor Ashraf H. A. Rushdy describes appropriation and how it operates:

Something gets appropriated by something else when a productive or expressive form or practices, let’s say jazz or blues or agricultural methods for growing rice, develops within one disempowered cultural group but gets used by and enriches only or mostly another empowered cultural group. The distinction between cultural groups has to do most emphatically with each group’s relationship to power, controlling the means of material production and controlling the means to mental production.

Rushdy continues:

One of the marks of that relationship between an empowered and a disempowered cultural group is that the empowered group is able to take possession of those material products, physical labors, and cultural forms and practices developed within the disempowered group. Once that something is “appropriated” it no longer functions to enrich materially or to empower socially those within whose cultural group that something developed. (p. 175)

Using Rushdy’s explanation, Black Americans as African descendants are not appropriating African cultures by wearing African clothing. The oppressive power dynamics, the enrichment that excludes African cultures, the means of controlling the material production of African clothing on the part of Black Americans is non-existent. Nor can Black American power dynamics with African cultures be compared with the power dynamics of colonial power structures that stifled Africa’s progress as was outlined in Guyanese Pan African scholar Walter Rodney’s, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

Part II: Black History Is African History

The historical experience of Black Americans does not begin with slavery. It begins in Africa. This is a shocking plot twist to those wishing to disconnect Black Americans from African cultures. We did not emerge out of thin air, but are instead a mixture of African people of multiple ethnic groups predominantly from Western Africa. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery did not erase the cultural legacy of Black Americans anymore than colonialism erased the cultural legacy of African ethnic groups.

During the slave trade and chattel slavery the ancestors of Black Americans, Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribbean people were often prevented from speaking their African languages and practicing their religions. Furthermore, the dominant Western culture demonized all aspects of Black African cultures. Still, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society and later the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1787, which is to date one of the oldest Black American institutions in the United States of America.

They named it the “African” Methodist Episcopal Church for a reason. It was a reflection of how they viewed themselves in America. They spoke no African languages, they wore no African clothing because those things were not readily available to them. But they insisted on embracing everything about their heritage that they had access to.

Over the last 228 years, a lot of changes have taken place including the ability to reconnect with aspects of African cultures that were cut off by oppressive systems.

These reconnections are not without complications.

However, claiming that Black Americans are committing the same cultural appropriation as whites when wearing African clothing demonstrates a gross lack of basic level critical thinking skills. One can not compare attempts to reconnect to cultural origins with oppressive attempts to erase an ethnicity’s cultural legacy. Even if some Black Americans may not understand the full deeper religious meaning of various prints or tribal paints, that is completely different from seeking to erase the achievements and history of a culture’s artifacts, which is what cultural appropriation does.

Furthermore, the assumption that all Black Americans do not know the deeper meaning of various tribal prints or paints is without merit. This is especially the case due to the rising amount of African descendants converting to traditional African religions or at least bonding with various symbolic references from these religions. One can not assume, that the wearer does not know the meaning simply because they are Black American. It could be the case that they know the meaning and that’s why they wore it. It’s complicated, layered and not always executed properly, but still not appropriation.

Part III: Africa Is Not A Country, Blackness Does Not Exist In A Vacuum

Nkrumah and Dubois

Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana and Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, both attended Lincoln University, the first degree granting Historically Black College in the U.S. Nkrumah, an avid Pan Africanist, often cited the interconnectedness among all members of the Pan African World, working closely with Black scholar W.E.B. DuBois. Nkrumah is well known for his vision of a unified Africa with strong linkages to the Pan African World. “I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me,” said Nkrumah.

Making the statement that “if you do not belong to an African tribe, don’t wear tribal print,” is exclusionary to people that may not know the exact tribe of their family’s origin. It’s even furthermore complicated because as a mixed people, Black Americans actually come from many different tribes. Everyone does not have the privilege of knowing what tribes they come from, but they still carry the cultural heritage of those groups.

I was fortunate enough to trace my maternal lineage, with the help of AfricanAncestry.com’s DNA program. My own maternal ancestors are from the Tikar ethnic groups in modern day Cameroon. Does this mean that I suddenly became the spokesperson for all things Tikar? The answer is no. But it does mean that I have a cultural and ancestral connection that extends beyond the history of U.S. chattel slavery and any attempts to reconnect with that at best can be viewed as cultural appreciation or acculturation depending on my proximity to members of that ethnic group. The artistry and craftsmanship that my grandmother exhibited through her quilts, statues, paintings and instruments represent her heritage as a direct descendant of the Tikar people, even though she did not know she came from this ethnic group.

This can not and never will be cultural appropriation. You can not appropriate that which is your own.

Additionally, there are thousands of different types of African cultures and sub-groups. Ethnic groups on the continent and throughout the diaspora borrow from one another through cultural exchanges. Exchanging languages, religions, foods, musical styles and clothing. Members of various African ethnic groups often wear the tribal prints and jewelry of other ethnic groups simply based on liking the style. There is no reason Black Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Latinos should be excluded from this cultural exchange. Additionally, on the economic front, many marketplace sellers and African fashion designers would cringe at the thought of limiting their work to only within the confines of their tribe.

That’s not how this works.

Black Americans and other children of the African Diaspora are included in the Pan African cross-cultural process as evidenced by the spread of hip hop music throughout Africa and the creation of Rastafari communities in South Africa and Tanzania. These are both stylistic and religious exchanges that no reasonable person views as appropriation.

Part IV: Lack of Knowledge Affects Everyone, Not Just Black Americans

Miseducation and Eurocentric thinking taught through colonialism, slavery and Western education affects all members of the Pan African World in varying levels, not just Black Americans.

The need to assert authority over Africanity in the face of other African descendants is a pettiness that stems from the designed disenfranchisement of the Pan African world. It also unknowingly reaffirms anti-Black sentiments by denying the nuanced experiences and cultural heritages of all people of African descendant. Instead relying on a limited non-layered perspective of Africanity.

Additionally, the faux concern about Black American knowledge of African prints would be more believable if critics were offering classes and books that share the deeper meaning on various tribal prints.

Part V: We’ve been told the same lie.

The limited interaction between continental Africans and African descendants is highly influenced by western based miseducation and media (in both Africa and North America) that promotes anti-Blackness at every turn, leaving African descendants and Africans on the continent circling in an endless cycle of confusion and rage uselessly aimed at each another.

This leads some Black Americans to make illogical declarations like, “I’m Black Not African American,” as if Black Land is a thing that magically exists outside of Africa. Upon asking, when did they stop being African, the response will include some gibberish about not speaking an African language, not having a red carpet laid out for them when they went to Africa and the misguided belief that Jesse Jackson created the term “African American.”

No one has yet been able to answer Malcolm X’s question, “If a cat has kittens in an oven, does that make them biscuits?”

Meanwhile, some Africans will proclaim more pride in being French or British than Senegalese, Ghanaian or Nigerian. Upon asking, why they perceive Western cultures to be superior, the response will include a puzzling look as to why you don’t understand that everything white is just better.

We’ve all been told the same lie, that somehow being African is “less-than” believing that it is more refined to be disconnected from Africanity. This has lead to many of us needlessly tearing each other apart. And make no mistake, all levels of anti-Blackness around the world stems from the historical Eurocentric perspective that African people are subhuman.

As children, Black Americans often used heard the term, “African booty scratcher.” I was called African Booty Scratcher daily, being a little dark skinned Black girl with short nappy hair. This term was not reserved for African immigrants but for all dark-skinned children. Black children were reiterating the negative stereotypes of African people that surrounded us on a daily basis through media, the Western education system and older generations. And it hurt.

In fact, there is a meme floating around the net that says, “You called me an African Booty Scratcher in school. Now you’re wearing a dashiki.”

Yet few who circulate this meme will admit that their parents also held onto negative stereotypes of Black Americans and Jamaicans, often attempting to keep them away. Using their own derogatory terms to describe them.

Though this generation has more opportunities to form cross-cultural bonds than our parents, there are those among us that are harboring hurt. And turning this pain into a “you can’t share my toy attitude.” It’s time to grow up. We’re not on the playground anymore.

We are all hurting, because we’ve been taught to believe the same lies.

In Conclusion:

Black Americans, Jamaicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Haitians, Black Canadians, Afro-Caribbeans, whatever you want to call us, are members of the Pan African family. Wearing African clothing and tribal print is more revolutionary and impactful than upholding any stereotypes, slurs or one writer’s shortsightedness.

Our progress depends on our interconnectedness.

Over 400 years ago, many of us were torn from the shores of our homelands in Africa. We were beaten for speaking our languages, shunned for our skin, raped, murdered and brutalized. Some of us tossed ourselves over the sides of ships in order to see freedom through death. We have witnessed our family members hanging from trees. We have survived a horror like no other and still have the unmitigated gall to walk around in 2015 with our tribal print and paint. Our ancestors are somewhere smiling.

Despite not being born in Africa, like Nkrumah proclaimed, Africa was born in us. Overthrowing the tools of oppressive systems, gaining self knowledge and reconnecting with our origins may not always be perfect or without growing pains. But it is not and never will be cultural appropriation.

It’s a layered, nuanced, complicated triumph.

 

 

P.S.

I am a member of the North American Delegation of the 8th Pan African Congress.  To be included on our mailing list email OurLegaci@gmail.com.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com. Follow JAM @TweetingJAM and Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

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Top 5 Phenomenal A Different World Episodes

A-Differen-World-Episodes

As an 80’s baby, I grew up watching A Different World. I can honestly say that the show affected my life in a number of ways. It was the reason why I wanted to attend an HBCU. Consequently, I attended both Albany State University and The Fort Valley State University for undergrad. The first time I ever heard Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping” poem, was while watching an A Different World episode. I was just a kid but I still remember thinking to myself, “Wow I have to find this poem.” Did I mention, I’m also a poet?

The power of A Different World was its complete grounding in the African American experience. It was when Debbie Allen stepped at the beginning of the second season that the show really started molding towards this trajectory. A Different World started off as a Cosby Show spin off, following Denise to college and ended as a show with a massive following and fan base completely its own.

There are a slew of memorable episodes but here are my top 5.

1. The “A World Alike” episode aired in 1990, when I was five years old. I saw it a number of times as a re-run. It was one of the first times I heard African Americans speaking about what I would later come to understand as Pan-Africanism. The students at Hillman College were putting pressure on their school to divest from South Africa and cut off all connections with any companies that engaged in business with South Africa during the apartheid era. It was real life worldwide protests like this that supported South African freedom fighters and helped bring additional awareness about the horrors of apartheid in South Africa.

2. The “Mammy Dearest” episode aired in 1991. Kim, an aspiring doctor recounted how she was called “Mammy” as a child, after she dressed up as a queen. The pain of this stuck with her, as a young dark skinned Black girl. Meanwhile, Whitley struggled with the new found knowledge that her family had owned slaves. It was during this episode that Kim triumphantly performed Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.” She shed the mammy stereotype and was re-crowned queen (I’m pretty sure I practiced this scene about 10 times. My favorite line was, “I turned myself into myself, and was Jesus.”

3. The “No Means No” episode aired in 1989. In this episode Dwayne learns that one of his friends is a rapist. His friend Garth bragged to him about forcing a girl to have sex. Garth says, “Once we got started, she started putting up a fuss. You know how they are. They wanna do it but they just can’t give it up. It’s our job to let them off the hook.” Dwayne then realizes that his friend Freddie who has a date with Garth, is in danger. He rescues her right as Garth is trying to rape her. This episode does a great job of defining rape with its mantra, “No means no!” There is no confusion or excuses.

4. The “Love Taps” episode aired in 1992. In this episode Gina attempts to hide her abusive relationship with Dion, a local rapper. With black-eyes and bruises, Gina is caught in the cycle of abuse and is unsure how to escape. Her friend Lena tries to help her but she is too ashamed to accept assistance. Once the rumor spreads about her painful truth everything unveils and her circle of friends comes to support and protect her. This is what needs to happen in real life. So many Black women are in abusive relationships and not enough receive the support that is needed in order to break away from them. The episode also touches on the recursive nature of abuse. Dion recounts how his father beat his mother. In real life many abusers grow up in domestic violence environments and grow up to become perpetrators themselves. Most importantly this episodes shows Black women AND Black men coming to her defense.

5. “Save The Best For Last”, known to many at Whitley and Dwayne’s wedding episode is one of my absolute favorites. It aired in 1992. I don’t advocate someone storming into an ex-girlfriend’s wedding to confess their undying love and steal the bride. However, this episode showcases a powerful bond and love between two Black people that is not seen enough on television or anywhere in the media for that matter. I also rewound this scene a number of times.

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JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

Dismantling Collective Amnesia

ChoppingCotton-GroupGA
Library of Congress 1941 – Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga.

When I was a little girl my grandmother told me about how my family came to Augusta, GA. Her parents were sharecroppers in Warrenton, GA. At the time, it was illegal to quit and you could be killed for doing so. It was in the early 1940s. The klan was alive and well. But my great grand parents, Flossie and George had a plan. In the middle of the night Flossie packed up the children and fled in a buggy. My grandmother was 4 years old at the time of the escape. Afterwards, the overseer came knocking on the door asking, “Where are they?” George gave a convincing response declaring, “My wife left me and took the children.” He later quietly escaped, reuniting with his family in Augusta to build a new life for themselves.

This was my first personal Black history lesson.

They escaped about 20 years before Martin Luther King Jr. discovered there were people living in Albany, GA that had never seen a dollar bill. Hangings were real, escaping was necessary, money was scarce.

Flossie and George are not people from an imaginary story.

I remember sitting on Flossie’s lap in a rocking chair. Sometimes she would chew her snuff and spit into an old can. She’d say in defiance, ” I chew my snuff and he don’t like it. But I chews it anyway.” At five years old I’d smile at her mischief…my first lesson in feminism.

Meanwhile, George would check my mouth for missing teeth. He’d then demand that my parents and the toothfairy, “Give this baby her money! Make sure they give you your money!” I’d smile at his concern…my first lesson on economics.

Anyone that reads Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest masterpiece on  The Atlantic will realize that it goes beyond the traditional conversation about reparations. It’s a beautifully woven story that works towards dismantling collective amnesia.

Conversations about reparations, entitlements, and the public welfare are often scoffed over and quickly dubbed as unfounded, unrealistic and unnecessary. Then rhetoric such as Paul Ryan’s, “culture of laziness” and Rick Santorum‘s “I don’t want to make black blah people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” is quickly inserted as an effort to switch focus from the root causes of poverty in America.

Again and again we meet in battle the advocates of collective amnesia, that seek to not only ignore history but also change it.

Us descendants of the unpaid, indebted labor force are often told the past is irrelevant. Our attempts at coherent discourse are subdued as the world flashes before us and we see the hand writing on the wall. We’re told that remembering is “divisive”, this history is “non-existent”, and that most all “nobody owes us anything.”

It’s not really about owing. It’s about fixing and creating a country that is no longer mired in disparity or profitable through disenfranchisement. Recognizing that many of the current policies towards wages, education, healthcare, and housing are guided by a historically racist, classist, sexist discriminatory framework.

For me, that’s the most important aspect of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece…remembering and using this memory to guide us towards a more just nation.

This is why I’ll never forget the escape of Flossie and George.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is publisher and multicultural communications specialist. To reach JAM, email her at JAMAiwuyor@gmail.com.

Follow her on Facebook at Facebook.com/JAMAiwuyor.