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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Breaking Down Privilege, Light Skin and Beyond

Precious-2
Precious wasn’t a 110-pound light skinned girl for a reason.

As NPR described, “the writer known simply as Sapphire, tells the story of a dark-skinned, heavy-set, illiterate African-American girl who has survived multiple pregnancies by her father.” In other words, the character Precious was created by Sapphire to depict one of the most rejected, unprotected, less privileged demographics.

In an interview, Sapphire explained,

I wanted to show that this girl is locked out through literacy. She’s locked out by her physical appearance. She’s locked out by her class, and she’s locked out by her color.

There were similar reasons behind the creation of  characters Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Because of denied privileges to women fitting their characteristics, Black women writers felt a need to share these stories. Three things these legendary characters all had in common: poverty, dark skin and sexual abuse. This was not an accident.

It has been known for a very long time that people with dark skin have often been treated with the utmost disdain and abuse. This is not a new discovery. Yet still, a few of my readers had a digital meltdown when I discussed light skin privilege.

Dave-Chapelle-Rick-James

At first I was surprised but then I remembered how difficult recognizing privilege can be. After all, a huge component of privilege is not realizing it exists.

So I’m going to rewind and thoroughly explain what privilege is, how it works and who has it.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I had privilege. Even as a little girl, when a white class mate (afraid of my Blackness) refused to come near me, I had privilege. Even in middle school when a group of Black girls compared me to a gorilla, I had privilege. Even in the 9th grade, when I was bullied to the point of crying in class by other Black kids because of my permed but still nappy hair, I had privilege.

It wasn’t until I was older, when I saw some of these same people and their lives, that I realized the privilege I had. I grew up in a two parent household. Both of my parents were college graduates. The concept of college was never a question. Never had I ever been asked, “Are you going to college?” It was a given. Not only was I going, I had already begun writing, playing instruments, learning modern dance, and performing in theater productions. When I wanted to do something, my mother wrote a check.

Black-ish-money

We were not rich, but she was able to pay for every school activity I wanted to do.

My mother was very busy, but still had time to go over my school work. During the summer, I would get mad at her for forcing me to complete workbooks before I could go out and play. I didn’t know that any of this was a privilege. It was always assumed that everybody was able to do all of these things. In my mind, everybody’s mom read them stories, gave them books, made home-cooked dinners every night, and helped them apply for financial aid to attend college.

I later learned that some of those same people that bullied me so badly, were living in abject poverty. Baldwin County, Ga has a poverty rate double the national average. Many of their mothers were working overtime in service and fast food industries trying to make ends meet. I realized that those playground wars, where I had been called such horrible names, were their own attempts to feel better about their status in the world. If they could succeed in making someone else feel the way they felt, then they could feel powerful (even if it only lasted for a few hours.)

If you had told me at the time I was being called a gorilla, that I had privilege, it would have been hard for me to believe you. I would have said, “But my feelings are hurt, what privilege?”

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when so many Black kids failed to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test, that I started to realize the disparities. It wasn’t until I saw members of my senior class receiving a certificate instead of a diploma that I realized what happened. Their lives were cheated, opportunities had been denied and it was systematic. I recalled how certain students were automatically put on the technical track while others were put on the college track. The state of Georgia had predetermined who was going to college and who wasn’t.

But not me. I was going to college. I was going to leave and study whatever I wanted to. In high school I worked at McDonald’s, Sonic and Papa John’s. Quitting these jobs was never a make or break situation for me.

half-baked-job-quit

I had no problem saying, “I quit,” because, I was college bound. Fast food or retail wasn’t going to be my future. Hence my confusion when I saw other students dropping out of high school once they finally got their highly coveted job at Walmart.

Later in college, I saw how girls that were darker than me in skin tone were treated by men. I saw first hand how their deep brown skin was used a prerequisite for excessive abuse or utter disregard. I’ve seen their love interests dodge them and pursue me or other girls. I’ve also seen how they were treated by faculty members and staff. They were under constant attack. My lighter skinned friends also faced hardships, being not considered Black enough or having to deal with people’s assumptions about them. But what our other friends were going through was undeniable.

We were also treated differently according to body type.

Coming-To-America

Dark skin plus thicker body equaled additional problems. It was during this time that I also realized thin privilege. And yes, that’s a real thing. I had never thought of this before either, but it existed and I benefited from it.

Later I learned about abelism and the privilege I have as a person with no physical or developmental disabilities.

So here I am a Black middle class, 2nd generation college graduate, with two educated parents, with no known disabilities, that wears a size medium. I have a lot of privilege that other people don’t have. That doesn’t mean I’ve never experienced racism or bullying.

So when I wrote about the documentary Light Girls, referencing its avoidance of privilege, the commentary was out of a real need to address historical facts that affect the Black community. Light skin privilege is real. It has been studied and documented throughout history. It is a subsidiary of White privilege, where people of hues closer to white on the racial hierarchy are afforded with certain advantages. Over the past 300 years, it has become a part of the fabric of Western society.

Here are the 6 most common responses when discussing Light Skin Privilege:

draya-bye-felicia

1. But I’ve experienced racism. I don’t have privilege.

2. But other Black people picked on me because I’m light skinned. I don’t have privilege.

1-2: Your concerns are valid. However, it needs to be remembered that this issue isn’t about individual situations or circumstances. Light skinned privilege isn’t about anybody’s assumptions or hurt feelings. Race is a social construct that was created to sustain a hierarchy. In the Western world “whiteness” has been used as a measuring stick for human value. People of lighter hues have been treated with less “disdain” than other Black people. This is a historical fact, not an idea or assumption. It doesn’t mean that light skinned people never face racism or colorism. 

3. But I went to prison or had some other horrible experience in life. I don’t have privilege.

Light skin privilege does not mean that people labeled as light skinned never experience hardships or adversity. However, it does mean that at times, certain hardships will have less of a blow if your skin tone is lighter. For instance, a recent study showed that among Black people in prison, those perceived as light skinned received shorter sentences than those perceived as dark skinned.

4. Stop making assumptions about my character. I don’t have privilege.

Privilege isn’t about making assumptions on someone’s character. People need to understand the concept of light skin privilege is not an indictment on light skinned people, but instead an indictment on how racial hierarchies operate. Challenging this issue, is necessary in order challenge the false concept of white supremacy.

5. I don’t believe it. Show me the receipts! Where is this privilege?

Whitney-Receipts-1

For all naysayers, part of “privilege” is having the ability to not “see” the problem, because it has become so normalized.

Here are the requested receipts:

http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2011/07/color_bias_do_lightskinned_blacks_get_shorter_sentences.html

http://www.multiculturaladvantage.com/recruit/diversity/bias/Skin-Tone-More-Important-Than-Educational-Background-African-Americans-Seeking-Jobs.asp

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/us/school-discipline-to-girls-differs-between-and-within-races.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/14/skin-tone-bias_n_4597924.html

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/study-people-associate-education-with-lighter-skin/283086/

http://thegrio.com/2014/01/16/study-light-skinned-black-men-perceived-as-better-educated/

http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/

http://jezebel.com/368746/study-men-are-more-attracted-to-women-with-lighter-skin

http://www.sentencingproject.org/detail/news.cfm?news_id=1136

6. Why are you talking about this? What good does it do? This is just divide and conquer.

Talking about Light Skinned Privilege does not promote “divide and conquer.” Ignoring it does.

Divide and conquer can only exist in a state of confusion. Right now, confusion exists because we haven’t learned how to effectively pin point and deconstruct the inner workings of racial oppression. By rejecting the privilege of light skin or at least calling it out, we are also rejecting the concept of white supremacy. We are saying that all Black lives are just as valuable as the others. This same thing can be said we we reject homophobia and sexism in our communities. We’re saying all Black lives matter the same, despite our perceived differences.

Last but not least

Part of the normalization of privilege is not being aware it exists. Even as a former landlord happily called me her “new pitch black friend,” I had privilege at various levels. In other words, this isn’t about your or my hurt feelings. Transforming society hinges upon our ability to proactively breakdown privilege: white, light skinned, class, economic and beyond.

In the case of racism and colorism, recognizing light skin privilege is a step towards understanding how to dismantle white privilege and Black oppression. The recognition of light skin privilege is not an indictment against light skinned people, it’s an indictment on the currently normalized role of false white supremacy and how it plays out in our lives.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & Culture The Web. To bring JAM to your school or show, email OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
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Assism Is Not Feminism

Assism-Feminism-OurLegaci

People need to understand that women who present provocative images of themselves are not automatically making a feminist statement. This isn’t to say that a woman can’t express herself, but when this self expression is deeply hinged upon supporting oppressive systems it is not a liberation moment. This is why Nicki Minaj can express herself and still glorify Nazi propaganda. Kim Kardashian can express herself #ALLDAY and still glorify the hypersexualization of women’s bodies. Provocative imagery does not automatically equate to activism or empowerment.

feministtheoryThis point of confusion was described by bell hooks in Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center:

“A central problem within feminist discourse has been our inability to either arrive at a consensus of opinion about what feminism is or accept definition(s) that could serve as points of unification. (p. 18)”

This statement feels even more relevant in 2014 as it did in 1984, especially with the emergence of what some are calling “Millennial Feminism.” Across the digital sphere conversations are constantly springing up around feminism. Still, few are actually producing or referring to a substantial definition of feminism.

The fixation on women’s butts, I’ll call it “assism” is a well documented form of objectification, deeply rooted in the commodification of Black women’s bodies. Kim Kardashian accentuates this fixation, layering it with the benefits of whiteness to score on monetary profits. Though Nicki Minaj is Black she comes as close as she can to Kim K by combining anti-black sentiments with the commodification of Black phenotypes to yet again benefit monetarily. Additionally neither of them are bothered by classism as a form of oppression. They are not feminists. Stop trying to make fetch happen.

ButSomeOfUsFeminism is hinged upon an awareness of oppression in conjunction with working towards ending all forms of it. In All the Women Are White, All The Blacks Are Men: But Some Of Us Are Brave, Barbara Smith explains:

“Feminism is the political theory and practice that struggles to free all women: women of color, working-class women, poor women, disabled women, lesbians, old women–as well as white, economically privileged, heterosexual women. Anything less than this vision of total freedom is not feminism, but merely female self-aggrandizement. (p. 49)”

To refer to Nicki Minaj or Kim Kardashian as de facto feminist icons is to minimize the anti-oppressive backbone of feminism. It’s reductionist thinking. Neither of these women have exhibited any substantial work towards ending sexist, racial, or economic oppression.

While some may point to their open display of sexuality as a liberation moment, this thought process over looks the fact that their displays are based more on the history of women’s commodified bodies under the patriarchal gaze. Yes, they make a lot of money doing this but that does not necessarily translate into freedom. They are riding the constant wave of hypersexualized images of Black women’s bodies with no intention of challenging the status quo. In fact it becomes a competition of who can promote sexual commercial objectification more, who can more closely embody the mainstreamed fantasy of women in sexualized positions.

Yet none of this is new or shocking. It’s actually pretty underwhelming. Another day another booty. Where is the triumph in that? It’s an attention getting tactic but it is not a feminist manifesto or challenge to oppression. The recurring statement is that they were “free” enough to show themselves. However if the only way for them to gain the public’s attention is through a constant stream of butt shots what does that say about society? That’s a far cry from freedom or liberation.

Nicki-Between-Women

Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda was an act of desperation used to counter the emergence of Iggy Azalea. Iggy then responded by appearing alongside JLo in a video for a song literally called, “Booty.”

Booty1

Since the emergence of her sex tape with Ray J, Kim Kardashian has been profiting from racialized butt adoration for years.

Kim-Kardashian-Jean-Paul-Goude-1stdibs

The sentiment has been, “You want to see more? Here you go!”

Oprah-Booty-Meme-Ourlegaci

Perhaps for her that’s winning. But is it winning for women overall? It doesn’t challenge the realities that women face everyday as constantly sexualized beings. This imagery plays up the dehumanization and never dares to deconstruct or even acknowledge it. This article is not suggesting a policing of women’s bodies. It’s about recognizing a thing for what it is. Nakedness can be a political empowering statement  but Kim Kardashian and Nicki Minaj are not examples of that. This may be provocative but it is not feminism.

We already have a plethora of mistruths floating around about feminism. Why add to the list? It’s very dangerous for feminists to automatically embrace commodified sexual images as feminist modules. There are levels to this. Where are the discussions about about intentions and context? It is a teachable moment. But it is not a grand moment in Women’s History.

Sorry folks but assism is not feminism.

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.

Be Careful What You Believe About Yourself‏

Young woman in front of a mirror

“Words are things. You must be careful. Careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. I think they get on the walls. They get in your wall paper. They get in your rugs; in your upholstery. In your clothes and finally into you.” Three years ago Dr. Maya Angelou shared this insightful perspective on the power of words during an Oprah Masterclass.

The part about how words get into you has always stayed with me. Words and images carve imprints into our minds as to who we perceive ourselves to be, while shaping our identity. This is why when certain images, words or phrases are used for descriptive purposes, I become very cautious with accepting them. It also speaks to why after years of being called the N-word, even the most conscious among us can’t let it go. When Maya Angelou worked on an album with the well known rapper Common, he surprised her by using the N-word. She disagreed with it’s usage and Common stated, “She knows that’s part of me.” I’ve always wondered, “What part of you Common? What part of you is ‘nigger’?”

We’ve been called it so often, as if it were our names, at some point we started believing it represents us. I’ve written about this before, where I had to stop a first time father from referring to his newborn son as his, “little nigga.”

But it doesn’t stop with words. Imagery also plays a big role in how we view and address ourselves. For years it was almost impossible to view any realistic imagery of African Americans. Images of caricatures were sold on products around the world with exaggerated features, in positions of servitude, along with hypersexualized or asexualized messages (depending on the caricature). These images were used as a form of messaging to ignore the humanity of an entire subset of society in order to prevent upward mobility, empathy and cross-racial organizing. One of the most well known caricatures is “Mammy.” And years later we find ourselves clamoring to claim this image as something that represents us…when it never did. This is why the nostalgia concerning the Kara Walker Sphinx is so disturbing.

Reclaiming “Mammy” is just as counterproductive as seeking to reclaim “Nigger.” It’s beneath us but we keep trying to do it. Why?

As Dr. Carter G. Woodson in the Mis-Education of the Negro profoundly noted, “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

These negative images and words have become so widespread that most attempts at trying to debunk them have been outnumbered and overshadowed. We’d seen them so much and heard them so much that they’ve seeped into our psyche. Thus, at times we reinforce these images without consciously meaning to do so. In fact, we’ll find ourselves fighting for the right to protect these images and words.

The women that were called ‘Mammy’ had names like Elizabeth, Rebecca, Ann and etc. They were artists, healthcare providers/healers, and organizers of rebellions. These women were humans in totality, many being brilliant pioneers in an awesome Fannie Lou Hamer type of way. Featuring that imagery on a mass level would be groundbreaking. Yet it still hasn’t been done. What would that look like? Imagine the pure awesomeness of that idea and how that idea could help young Black girls discover new possibilities for themselves.

We are more than servitude. Yet so many images surrounding Blacks in history present us in service positions. Thus it is no surprise that in 2012 the Center For American Progress highlighted that 28% of African American women work in service positions and “only 11.9 percent of African American women were in management, business, and financial operations positions. In comparison, women as a whole are employed in these fields at a rate of 41.6 percent.”

Janet Bragg

Janet Bragg

Being limited to servitude is systematic but is upheld by the words and imagery that constantly describe Black woman as people who cook, clean and take care of other people. However, even a brief glimpse into history will show that before, during and after slavery, Black women were entrepreneurs, political organizers, pilots, and scientists.

Yet, we’ve been so inundated with negative words and imagery that at times we can’t decipher between truth and fiction/ reality and perception. It’s not just an African American problem. Nobody knows who anybody truly is. And certain people understand this, so they push words and images that stigmatize groups of people causing further confusion and discord.

But even without corporations and politicians benefiting from falsehoods, how you see yourself or think about yourself can mold your life.

After the trauma of being raped, Maya Angelou didn’t speak for years. During this time her grandmother told her, some people may call you dumb but I know that one day you’re going to be a “teacher.”

When she was a young woman, one day Maya Angelou’s mother turned to her and said, “You are the greatest woman I’ve ever met.” It shocked her. She stopped cursing from that day forward, because she thought to herself, “What if she’s right? What if I will be somebody one day?”

The words of her mother and grandmother literally changed how she thought about herself and gave her the tools to see new possibilities. These words made an impact. The words and images surrounding her spoke life into her future despite the challenges she endured.

So think for a moment about what you’ve been told concerning who you are and what you believe about yourself. Examine which words or images have gotten into you. Be very careful of the things you believe about yourself. Reject words and images that don’t contribute to your well being. It can mean the difference between freedom or servitude.

Audre Lorde said it best, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Please do not republish this article without specific, written permission from Jessica Ann Mitchell.

Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci and Twitter.com/OurLegaci.

Stop Apologizing For Being Black: Natural Hair In The Workplace

BlackWomanArtist

During this recent dip in the economy, many Black people have been forced to endure the dogged job hunt chase. Many of us are qualified (or over-qualified) citizens with plenty of talent and credentials. However, by being Black we are placed in a unique situation of double-consciousness. In the case of black women, we face a somewhat triple- oppression having to deal with our color, sex and socio-economic statuses. One key factor in the job hunt fiasco that specifically affects Black women is our hair. On countless blogs, websites and forums the questions continue to be asked, “ Is natural hair unprofessional?” or “Should I straighten my hair or wear a wig to get a job?” I have seen a plethora of answers and there is always the dreaded conclusion that we must alter ourselves in order to gain employment.

However this issue is much deeper than being about employment. When are we going to realize that the more we continue to alter ourselves to please “others”, the more we are succumbing to the sub-human state of existence that is being placed upon us? This is an issue of forcing the world to recognize our humanity, our God given right to exist the way we were created. When we change our hair, skin or body to please other people we are in essence saying, “You’re right, there is something wrong with being Black.”

When is the last time you saw a discussion about Caucasian women afraid to wear their hair straight for fear of unemployment?

You’ve never seen it because it doesn’t exist. European phenotypes are unfortunately perceived as normal. Meanwhile, African phenotypes are viewed as abnormal in a society that is predominantly Eurocentric. This is why multi-million dollar companies such as Nivea can create advertisements referring to Black hair as “uncivilized” without seeing anything wrong with it. However, this can change and it’s changing more and more everyday. It takes persistence, even in the face of hardships, to make the world respect our right to humanity. We are not three fifths of a man. We are human beings on this planet and we have a right to exist fully and completely.

The more we allow ourselves to be disrespected, the more we will continue to face blatant and overt discrimination concerning our hair, skin and bodies. Furthermore, do you really want to work for a place that does not respect you or your heritage? Wear your hair kinky, curly, straight, bald, twisted or braided but please do your hair the way it pleases you. Not someone else. Let us stop apologizing for being Black. We have to make the world recognize and respect who we are, as we are, unapologetically.

 

Jessica Ann Mitchell-Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com. Email JAM at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

@TweetingJAM – Facebook.com/OurLegaci – Facebook.com/JessicaAnnMitchellAiwuyor