Appropriation. The latest word every one wants to use, hurling it at one another with faux intellect. As soon as you see it in an article or headline, you sigh because it’s either, “I can’t believe they [as in white people] are pulling this stunt again [side eye],” or it’s a tiring and confusing tirade that has been conflated far past the point of making sense. Occasionally a darling steps in, like Amandla Stenberg, and gracefully adds clarity on how the topic should be addressed.
Other times, we’re left with the divisiveness that Zipporah Gene penned as she told black Americans to stop appropriating “African” culture.
Yes, Gene asked, “Black America, please stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks.” After perusing a collection of pictures from this year’s Afropunk in Brooklyn, N.Y., a festival celebrating multiculturalism in the black community, Gene attempted to call out the hypocrisy over the diverse cultural wears she saw in the pictures, tagging the looks “African,” a broad term that encapsulates the extremely diverse 54 countries and thousands of ethnicities, with varying cultures, on the continent. To her, septum nose rings are Fulani; loose-fitting caftans and robes are djellaba, a typical Moroccan dress; and face paintings are mocking Yoruba tribal marks.
What we really have here is someone entirely unaware of the diversity in the black American community, especially in New York City, and the overall historical context of the trans-Atlantic loop that exists within the African Diaspora.
Even on the surface of what Gene calls out as appropriation by black Americans, no one can attest to whether the images she sees are actually of African Americans who are descendants of enslaved Africans in the U.S. In New York City, where Afropunk is hosted, many within the black community are immigrants or children of immigrants. She doesn’t account for the first- and second-generation Americans who retain close cultural ties to the homelands of their parents and grandparents.
Dig a little deeper and you find that in New York City, Caribbean immigrants make up at least 21.4 percent of all immigrants in New York City. And in the past decade, there has been an influx of West African immigrants that trumps the number of slaves brought into the country prior to the Civil War.
Black is diverse in America. So someone sitting overseas in Thailand, where Gene, originally from London, is based, cannot assume while clicking through pictures that the beautifully “melanin-ated” faces she is seeing, with interesting wears and face paint, are simply “black Americans.”
With regards to the cultural authority of black Americans who are descendants of slaves brought over to the country, Gene tipped off a very delicate conversation. Members of the black American community have long grappled with their identity, from how “black” correlates with their own Africanness to how they self-identify.
At the root of it is the question of whether black Americans even have a solid culture. We absolutely do, although it is not singular or monolithic, and it goes far behind the food and popular music that we listen to. What’s lost on all sides of the African Diaspora is historical knowledge. American education doesn’t do much to tell the story of African slaves in America, so many black Americans are unaware of the cultural ties to Africa. The same goes for Africans, who often don’t know much about the shared cultural signifiers between them and African Americans.
Slave ships came to America with kidnapped Africans through 1859, 20 years before the first African nation was colonized. Slave ships came from the Gold Coast, Bight of Benin or Bight of Biafra, and Congo, among other areas that are now divided into about 12 countries from the Ivory Coast to the Democratic Republic of Congo. When Gene attempted to vaguely target the African roots of the garb and facial jewelry people were wearing, she pointed to West Africa for most of them, labeling a Nigerian influence for two of them.
But I’m not here to chastise her about how Nigeria is not the whole of Africa but, rather, to note that beyond the large number of West Africans who have recently immigrated to the U.S., there are black Americans who have strong ties to that region of the continent. You can look to the Geechee and Gullah people of South Carolina, the popularity of okra in black Southern cuisine and the superstitions of hanging glass on trees. We were stripped of our ability to identify with the communities we sprang from, not just through the slave trade but through the European colonization of Africa, where lines were redrawn to fit the whims of imperialism.
Moving forward to the decolonization of West Africa, there was a strong connection between the civil rights movement of African Americans and the emerging black African political leaders who were working to take their countries back from Europeans. Was it appropriation that both the first African presidents of Nigeria (Nnamdi Azikiwe) and Ghana (Kwame Nkrumah) were Lincoln University-educated members of Phi Beta Sigma, a fraternity that has a deep history of members’ founding significant civil rights organizations, such as the Black Panthers? Rather, it was the ties that bound us via our oppression by European systems and the beauty of inspiration that came out of that.
So while Gene points the finger at black Americans, we as the black community at large should be encouraging all of our members to become more culturally aware. Then we can all stop wearing the faux dashikis mass-produced in Asia and focus on what unites us, not divides.