It’s not Appropriation, it’s Healing.
I’ve been coming across a lot of interesting perspectives that accuse Black Americans of appropriating African culture. The sentiments are filled with indignant tones and claims of hypocrisy that are basically telling Black Americans that their participation in some African cultural traditions is an unfair co-opting that is on par with White cultural appropriation of Black American/Diasporic culture. The assertion (and assumption) is that, because Black Americans know NOTHING about the prints, jewelry, and other cultural items that they are so eager to sport, by doing so, they are mocking and devaluing the origin of these things. I’ve mostly heard this opinion be espoused by first generation Africans living in America, and their point is clear: you [Black American] are not African, therefore you don’t have permission to touch what belongs to me. Plain and simple.
I have to say that I disagree.
The main problem I have with this perspective is that it does not take into account that Black Americans are fundamentally African. It draws this ethnic line in the sand that says that, because of historical and geographical differences between us, we are different in essence, and this essential difference make us separate people at our cores.
Most Black people living in the Caribbean and America come from West Africa.
We are not ignorant to the fact that Black Americans were stripped of all ties to the continent because of the brutality of the Maafa. While Black American culture is something that was born and created out of our time in the Western New World, that is not to say that our current customs and traditions are not influenced by our African ancestry.
The point is not music, though. The point is that Black Americans ARE AFRICAN. Our Africaness informs everything that we do and all of who we are, even if the influence is not readily recognizable. With that in mind, our revisitation of something stolen from us cannot be labeled as appropriation. Our respective histories have definitely manifested into different realities, but America is not the genesis of Black American people. Our Western creations are not the totality of who we are.
Yes, your ethnic customs and traditions are important and should not be trivialized. But who’s to say my donning of African traditional garb is not a part of my appreciation process? Of course, there are blacks who have no appreciation or knowledge of African history and do not care to know. All they know is that they wanna be trendy and cute for the day. But that is not a sufficient reason to shun non-African blacks and keep us from getting reacquainted with something that is a part of us as well, even if remotely so.
But even if we were to go according to the logic that non-African blacks who participate in African culture are “appropriating” because they have no immediate ties to it, then first generation Africans living in America shouldn’t wear Rocawear, say “finna” or “fleek”, whip, nae-nae, eat soul food, or partake in any Black American cultural traditions because they’re not Black Americans.
But you see how silly that sounds, right?
It is absurd to go tit-for-tat because our collective identity as African people is just as similar as it is varied. Globally, the African presence can be felt wherever a sizable black population exists.
Because we are African in essence.
We should respect that variation, true. But respect for my Nigerian friends’ history does not mean my exclusion as a whole.
I think we should also be clear on the implications of the cultural appropriation of people of color by Whites versus this supposed appropriation of African culture by non-African black people. Over the course of the last year or so, the uproar over White appropriation of Black culture has been about the blatant theft, plagiarism and relabeling of things created by black people. The criticism has been about black hairstyles, ways of dress, lingo, etc., being introduced to White America as cool, new trends that they created. The issue has always been the erasure of blackness.
By wearing a gele or tribal print skirt or a dashiki, I cannot even begin to erase Africaness. Nor do I want to.
So, if I, a person who comes from a centuries-long tradition that taught me to hate myself and everything about where I come from, decide to indulge in the many customs, languages, foods, dances, expressions that the many countries in Africa have to offer, the last thing I’m doing is appropriating. What I’m doing is decolonizing, healing, and reconnecting myself with the very thing that was taken from me.
I am American. I am Black. I have a distinct history in this country that entails a distinct culture. But I am also, in essence, African. Despite what anyone says, I have a right to that. To all of my fellow Africans who feel like my efforts to reconnect are disrespectful, I implore you to recognize this: I am you and you are me. That connection will never dissipate, although it can be strengthened. Let me in, and I promise to immerse myself in the richness that is us.