I wanted to take a moment to respond to the idea of Black Americans “appropriating” African culture being discussed on social media. One example of this broader discussion, the article “Black America, please stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks” showcases an insufficiently nuanced grasp of the issues surrounding African culture and the African diaspora. Here are a few issues that the article has omitted:
First of all, and this is an uncomfortable truth: those “African” wax prints shown as examples of traditional African culture originated in Indonesia. Dutch and British merchants brought these colorful fabrics to Africa. And it gets even more uncomfortable: Africans traded these wax print cloths for — you guessed it — African slaves! Africans sold the ancestors of Black Americans and other New World Africans to buy those cloths.
Yep. Those beautiful “African” prints that Black Americans are supposedly “appropriating” them from Africans were originally Indonesian. They became part of African cultures due to the transatlantic slave trade.
And yes, these textiles have since acquired a special place in many West African cultures, and are associated with weddings, funerals, and so on. Nevertheless, to this day the most popular “African” textiles are still made in Holland, and now China — not in Africa.
So according to the logic of the article, since Africans are ignoring this uncomfortable truth about the meaning of these prints, they should stop wearing Vlisco Dutch fabrics and Indonesian batik. Since Africans first adopted those colorful patterns by selling fellow human beings — other Africans — into slavery, Black Americans should be offended whenever Africans wear these fabrics and other cultural artifacts that became part of African culture through the slave trade. See how this logic gets both Africans and Afro-Americans nowhere?
The images that the original article “Black America, please stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks” uses to illustrate the “African” traditions that Black Americans are allegedly appropriating are from Omar Viktor Diop. Diop’s aim was to highlight the complicated history through which wax print fabrics became part of African cultures. The article missed the point Diop was trying to convey entirely. There are levels of irony in this.
Second of all, the article is insensitive, if not ignorant to the fact that people of African descent in the Americas have maintained the cultural traditions that they took with them from Africa.
People of African descent in the Americas have maintained the cultural traditions that they took with them from Africa
As a result, Black American, Caribbean, Afro-Latin American culture and African cultures have a lot in common. These commonalities have been fostered through centuries of trade and migration. These commonalities go beyond dress, style, and music, to food, religious beliefs, stories. Afro-Caribbean children grow up hearing stories of Ananse, a character from Ghanaian folklore. Are these Caribbean children, who are growing up with the culture of their forefathers, now “appropriating” Ashanti folklore? Africans from the New World from New York City to Sao Paulo Brazil worship Shangó, Oshun, Orunmilá. Are these people “missappropriating” Yoruba religion? These cultural commonalities are a result of the historical and present day affiliations between Blacks of the Americas and Black Africans — affiliations that the article glibly disparages and trivializes as inauthentic and dishonest. The article ridicules and mischaracterizes a real and vital link between Africa and the Americas as mere “attempts to reconnect with the Motherland” while ignoring that said ‘Motherland’ has never been entirely separate from diasporic influences either.
Instead of making stark distinctions between Africans and Blacks as if those are static and entirely separate groups, scholars prefer to use terms like “Black Atlantic” to avoid misrepresenting these ties between Africans and the diaspora. A term such as “Black Atlantic” more accurately describes the ongoing cultural dialogues, exchanges, and movements that have crossed the Atlantic, from Africa to the Americas, from Africa to Europe, and back to Africa.
People of African descent in North America, South America, and the Caribbean had to struggle against attempts to devalue, erase, and ridicule their cultures until the present day. It is not hard to understand then, that Black people from the Americas might take offense when told they are “missappropriating” African culture. As if it weren’t enough that Africans sold their African ancestors into slavery, now Black people of the Americas get to hear that they do not have the right to display the cultures their ancestors fought so hard to maintain?
As if it weren’t enough that Africans sold their ancestors into slavery, now Black people of the Americas get to hear that they do not have the right to display the cultures their ancestors fought so hard to maintain?
Third, and this is related to the second point. Afro-American cultures, “marred ” as they are by the injustices of slavery (the original article’s terms), may look like “hodgepodge” or a “right mess” of different African traditions. However, anthropologsits consider this fusion and reinterpretation of multiple African (and other) traditions an important characteristic of African American cultures. So what from an African tribal purist perspective looks like a “right mess” is in fact an cultural expression in its own right. Afro-Caribbean dress styles (also worn by Blacks in the US of Caribbean descent) look very similar to West African designs. (Not surprising!). So a woman wearing something from HER Afro-diasporic culture might look to a Ghanian or Nigerian as some kind of “mashup” of Nigeria or Ghanaian traditions. Still, any person disparaging Surinamese koto dress as a “right mess” and “misappropriation” of African culture needs to TAKE MANY SEATS. Whether you like them or not, these are African cultural expressions that enslaved Africans brought to the new world with them, and refashioned them, made them anew.
Any person disparaging Surinamese koto dress as “misappropriation” of African culture needs to TAKE MANY SEATS.
Fourth, based on the terms the author uses to describe “Black Americans,” as “marred” by the slave trade — implying therefore that African Americans are damaged, imperfect, inauthentic, pseudo-Africans, while conveniently ignoring the complicity of the “real” Africans in inflicting said damage — I cannot help but shake the feeling that some of this is coming from a place of anti-blackness, parochialism, and tribal chauvinism. As if by not having sold off in the slave trade, African cultures of the continent are somehow better, purer, authentic, un-tarnished by slavery. And African “Black” culture that survived outside of Africa (Black American, Caribbean, Brazilian, and so on) can only be imitation, damaged by colonialism and slavery, and less-than. For reasons I already described above, this distinction between “real” Africans and “fake” Black Americans is untenable. Black people from both sides of the Atlantic have been in contact with each other for the past couple of centuries. This contact, that started with the trans-atlantic slave trade and persists today, has produced cultural transformation and cultural creativity on both sides. African Americans are not broken, disconnected from a broader African diaspora, nor do Africans from the continent have pure unaltered primeval cultures, un-touched by slavery and African-American ‘impurities.’ While this reality might offend some narrow national or tribal sensibilities, it is a reality that needs to be reckoned with on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fifth, who is the “we” and “us” that the author is claiming to speak for in the first place? The African “we” on behalf of which the author claims to be offended, is on closer look, a much more porous construct than she lets on. ‘Africa’ is not singular but plural and multiple. The Africa of culture and imagination is centered on, but not coextensive with the landmass known as Africa. Africa is not a country, and it can certainly not be a homogenous “we” or an “us” that any one person can presume to speak for. Moreover, as a person of African descent living abroad, she is not necessarily any more “authentically” African than anyone else who is of African descent and does not currently live in Africa.
Even more disconcerting, the author sets up a “real” African, a “we” and “us” for whom African dress and fashion is imbued with cultural meaning. And a fake, impostor “Black American” who — damaged as they are by slavery and whatnot — could not possibly understand those meanings that “we” ascribe to cloth, tribal marks, and beads. Those impostor “Black Americans” can never be authentic. The author wants to divide people between those she judges to have “REAL affiliation” with African culture, and those who do not. This project of distinguishing real Africans from fake ones can go down the rabbit hole fast — under this scheme, one could argue that urbanized Westernized Yoruba youth in Lagos, or Akan in Accra (or London and New York) no longer have a real affiliation with the cultures of their rural African forefathers. Are their attempts to reconnect with their heritage through dress and fashion also examples of dishonest and insincere “appropriation”?
For this and other reasons I have outlined above, untangling the thick knots that bind together cultures of African diaspora is not only an impossible task — attempts to do so are ultimately founded on a complete misapprehension of African and African American cultural histories. By imposing a stark distinction between an “African culture” and a “Black American culture” — as if those two are both monolithic, static, entirely separate entities — the author erases the history of dynamism, movement, exchange, and fluidity that unites Africa and the African diaspora. In so doing, the author spites the very heritage she purports to defend.
Finally, there is a lot to be said about the folklorization and commodification of African cultures both on the continent and the diaspora, but this article shows that it is not only ‘black Americans’ who can be ignorant and insensitive about African cultures and their origins. Africans and their descendants worldwide would benefit from being more educated about African cultural artifacts and their meanings. But doing that from the starting point of dividing between Africans “real” and “fake” only takes the conversation further away from a place of education, empowerment, and understanding.
The argument about “Black Americans” appropriating “African culture” falls flat in more ways than the points I have presented here. Not only does the argument seem oblivious to some of the uncomfortable truths around the putatively “authentic” African cultures that are now being supposedly appropriated. It also showcases breathless ignorance and condescension about the cultural history of peoples of African descent in the New World.