BLACK VOICES
09/30/2015 10:13 am ET

Why It Isn't Possible For Black Americans To Appropriate African Culture

My dashiki shouldn't offend you.
Members of the Restoration Dance Company perform a traditional African dance during a Kwanzaa festival at the Museum of Natur
Stephen Chernin via Getty Images
Members of the Restoration Dance Company perform a traditional African dance during a Kwanzaa festival at the Museum of Natural History December 28, 2002 in New York City. Kwanzaa, started in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, is an African-American cultural holiday celebrating family and community.

Columbus Fortune was the name given to my great-great grandmother’s grandfather. I only know this because my Nana is a stickler for attempting to compose family trees. I say "attempting" because, with the exception of what has been told to us, it is difficult to recount an undocumented lineage.

My grandfather was an enslaved African. He was 18 when slavery was abolished in the United States and I don’t know if he knew his mother, his father, his brothers, his sisters or his grandparents. I do not know if he knew what tribe he hailed from.

For black Americans, tracing our lineages back to their African origins is almost impossible (unless we use DNA testing). African enslavement left us devoid of a way to define ourselves. It severed familial ties and deprived us of any viable opportunity to reclaim them. When we go looking for our ancestors and their culture, we’re chasing shadows.

This is why it hurts when native Africans criticize black American attempts to regain a lost portion of ourselves. Writer Zipporah Gene, who identifies as both British and Nigerian, wrote a post earlier this month claiming that black Americans can appropriate African culture -- since we are American -- by wearing tribal garb to be "trendy." Backlash to her piece led her to write an equally obtuse follow-up declaring that, based on her own experiences, it is unnecessary for black people to showcase their Africanness:

Growing up, whether through a mix of complacency, security, and childhood obliviousness, I have never felt the compulsion to wear my culture on my sleeve. My mother would buy me traditional dresses, which would be reserved for special occasions. We would cook traditional food at home, and she would always tell me traditional stories and teach me how to read and write in her language. It was never something that needed an outside perspective, or acknowledgement.

It is understandable why an African woman might look at a picture of Afropunk's New York festival attendees, recoil and believe her culture is being used as a costume (though The Root pointed out that, because of New York's diversity, whether or not the people in the photo are African-American or African immigrants cannot be determined). But cultural appropriation requires a degree of economic and political privilege black Americans simply do not have. We cannot oppress Africans, shame their cultures, claim it for ourselves and then decide it’s trendy. Even if we could, that's certainly not what's happening here, by any stretch of the imagination.

Another element of appropriation is acknowledgement. When white people appropriate elements of black culture, the origins of the style are erased (see the baby hairs and durags of New York Fashion Week; how Taylor Swift got credit for #SquadGoals; and a slew of other times mainstream magazines declared black culture a "trend" once white people caught on). When black Americans wear African garbs, our appreciation is clear: the Motherland is always acknowledged as the source. 

Parade participants march with a tribal themed group wearing colorful face paint. The 46th Annual African-American Day Parade
Pacific Press via Getty Images
Parade participants march with a tribal themed group wearing colorful face paint. The 46th Annual African-American Day Parade was held in Harlem; the spectators, politicians and prominent members of Harlem's black community celebrated the historically-rich NYC community of those from different African heritages.

Nothing beneficial comes from this conversation if people ignore how African enslavement, colonialism and white supremacy have shaped the lives and identities of black people in the Western hemisphere. This history of erasure and oppression is why black Americans seek cultural knowledge of various places on the African continent since we do not know where, exactly, to begin. We don’t know if our ancestors hailed from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone or Angola -- all prominent countries within the TransAtlantic Slave Trade -- since enslaved Africans were not documented during the Middle Passage or during their enslavement in the Americas.

Our tribal markings were washed from our skin; our dialects were stripped off our tongues; and our mannerisms were beaten out of us. We had no choice in the matter -- which is what Gene writes about the British accent and mannerisms that cause Africans native to the continent to question her Africanness. But by not extending this understanding to the black diaspora, she becomes part of the problem.

Tyree A. Boyd-Pates recently made this point in a blog post for The Huffington Post:

Attempting to define someone else's Africanness by where they fall on the globe is a direct byproduct of the colonialism that removed Black people from Africa in the first place. It is deeply misguided and disrespectful to disqualify non-native Africans from partaking in African customs and practices solely because of their dislocation from the continent. Such narrow and exclusionary definitions -- cultural and otherwise -- reinforce the colonial separation people across the Diaspora are still grappling with today.

Our only option is to try reconnecting with nations whose histories and cultures empower those with black skin. Black Americans are routinely told that we are inferior beings whose lives do not matter. Every day we witness and live through the violence inflicted upon black bodies by domestic terrorists with anti-black agendas, modern-day police forces that grew out of slave patrols, housing discrimination and rampant economic inequality. Even our names are those of the people who stole us from our homeland, beat us, raped us, bred us like cattle and, today, systemically bar us from upward mobility.

Gene’s concerns around a lack of true and nuanced understanding of the diversity of African cultures are understandable and valid. It is evident that, in a global sense, black Americans do benefit from American privilege. Some of us do lump all Africans into a singular category and have no desire to truly reconnect to the continent. But just as Africans are not monolithic, neither are black Americans. If we get it wrong, it would be more beneficial if Africans turned the faux pas into a teachable moment. Because of white supremacy and heavily Eurocentric curriculums in schools, in-depth knowledge of African cultures is not accessible to most black-Americans until college -- which is an economic privilege not afforded to everyone.

In Gene’s latest piece, she writes that “DNA is given, but culture is a learned exchange.” She’s absolutely right, which makes it even more disheartening that she doesn't extend this understanding to black Americans. Gene is Nigerian and maybe my grandfather was, too. Again, I don’t know if he was or not -- and I likely never will. The bottom line is that regardless of his origin, he bore the same ugly burden as me and everyone who looks like us.

Black Americans and Africans share a common origin, and our black skin causes us to have similar experiences of racial terror. We all endure anti-blackness and we all deal with the mental stress of it. The fact that most black Americans do not know our tribes doesn’t make us any less African, just as knowing one’s tribe does not make you immune of the burdens attached to black skin. As Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minster of Ghana, said "I am not African because I was born in Africa but because Africa was born in me."

We have too much in common for anyone to draw such a harsh line in the sand between us. I hope Gene and our native African brothers and sisters who feel the way she does realize that sooner rather than later.

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