Why Black America Should Appropriate African Dress More Often

September 9, 2015  |  

High Schooler Kyemah McEntyre on her prom

Africa may not be a one big ol’ homogenous country, but neither is the African-American community.

And these are the most important points that I would like to address in regard to this essay by Zipporah Gene entitled Black America, please stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks.

If you haven’t read the essay, I urge you do so.

For the cliff notes: as the title suggests, this UK-born African (she doesn’t say from where) writer believes that Black Americans specifically are in no position to call out anyone, specifically White people, for cultural appropriation considering we do the same thing to African culture. As Gene writes, African-Americans in particular “take a cultural dress, mark or traits, with all its religious and historical connotations, dilute it, and bring it out for occasions when you want to look ‘trendy.”

As an example she points to the AfroPunk Festival, which is an annual event highlighting alternative Black music, art and culture.

More specifically she says:

“I’m not trying to start a war, but I would just like you all to realize the hypocrisy of seeing someone wearing a Fulani septum ring, rocking a djellaba, painted with Yoruba-like tribal marks, all the while claiming that this is meant to be respectful. It’s a hodgepodge, a juxtaposition, a right mess of regional, ethnic and cultural customs and it screams ignorance and cultural insensitivity.”

And it also screams African-American.

What I mean is that us African folks in America have always been a hodgepodge people. And I am not just speaking ethnically. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. once noted in this essay entitled, Exactly How ‘Black’ Is Black America?, Blacks in America are genetically anywhere between 65 to 75 percent subsaharan African, which makes us still pretty got-damn African.

But rather, I am talking culturally. Black America is not just made-up of the descendants of the American chattel system who had our history, language, religions and culture savagely ripped from us. Black America is also comprised of descendants of those free Black people who lived during and came after slavery. And we are also comprised of people who lived under slavery, White supremacy and colonial rule in the Caribbean, South America and even Africa.

What I am saying is that Black America is one big ol’ melting pot. And we are a people who somehow manage to take all of these cultural influences and mix it together to create a new Pan-Africanist cultural identity, which reflects the true diversity of our community. And that includes the over one million continental-born Africans who have made America their home in the past decade.

Yes, it is a hodgepodge. Yes, it is a juxtaposition. And yes, sometimes a regional and ethnic mess. But how we interpret and use the culture as African people is no less authentic. Moreover, we’re no more mixed up and thrown together culturally as the Haitians and other Blacks in the Caribbean, the Afro Brazilians, the Blacks in the UK and many other ethnic and tribal groups in the Diaspora, who conventionally (and tellingly) get left out whenever this topic is broached.

Now, folks might still take exception to seeing a Black American wearing a Fulani septum ring and djellaba at the same time, but when you really think about it: what’s so abhorrent about intra-racial mixing, particularly when we are so keen on adopting culture interracially?

In a essay entitled, African Identity: Nigerians And Their Foreign Names, Naij.com columnist Mawuna Koutonin writes about the erasure of “primordial, authentic features” through the trend of Nigerian parents on the continent giving their children foreign, mostly European names. As Koutonin notes it is often done “with the hope that they will have better chance of success in life or after-life.” However, he also notes that the trend has also placed a higher cultural value on European names than African names.

To prove his point, he asked a handful of Nigerians to react to a list of names, which included a mix of Igbo first names with Hausa and Yoruba surnames. The responses, he discovered, ranged between shock and absurdity, including this person who said:

The brain seems to be processing it much slower. … Not laughable, but more somewhere between funny and strange. When we see a name like that occasionally, you’d guess (and rightly most times) that it’s either a child of ethnic mixed marriage, or if in America, a child of an American who was very Africa-conscious and looking back to their African roots. But you rarely see so many of such names at the same time in one place.”

Now, granted there is nothing wrong with giving kids non-native names. But why is the adoption of European names, and the value and culture that comes with those names, deemed less abhorrent of an appropriation than seeing two tribes mingled together? And why is the adoption of European names and values for a better chance of success less culturally offensive than African-Americans who are hodgepodge by force? Doesn’t that come from the same place? And more importantly, how could we be so critical of those looking to maintain culture – even if it is a hodgepodge – when so many Africans are ready to relinquish it?

And that is the main issue I have with Gene’s ideas about intra-racial appropriation. When Black folks in America call-out Christian Louboutin for its Nefertiti” inspired lipstick collection, which includes an ad with a fair skinned woman dressed as Nefertiti, or the L.A Times for declaring cornrows the “hot new trend,” we do so as a way to get proper attribution and maintain culture. We do so out of acknowledgment that those same attributes, which are now fashionable in the mainstream culture have been historically erased, penalized, vilified and denied to the Black bodies who originated them. And we do so with full understanding of how the framework of White supremacy takes our sh*t and uses it to keep us all economically, politically and socially oppressed.

Gene calls out African Americans specifically for embracing fragments of who we are while simultaneously glossing over how the influx of European fabrics and textiles keeps much of the continent from creating and maintaining a textile and fashion industry of its own at home. And while glossing over how many Africans come to the West to be “properly” educated instead of investing and valuing in their own educational systems at home. And while glossing over how African writers, artists, scholars and thinkers have to go overseas to the West be respected before they are taken seriously at home.

No ma’am, it ain’t us Africans in America who are allegedly diluting the culture; that started long ago when the first African in a Fulani septum ring traded his continental brother and sister in a djellaba to the West for a better chance in life.

*sips Rooibos tea*

In the words of Gene, “I’m not trying to start a war.” But rather I am giving a harsh reminder of how our tradition of tribalism has often blinded us to greater enemies. And in some respects maybe the relinquishing and reworking of some traditions ain’t such a bad idea?

When I see Black people in America rocking a hodgepodge of Africa, I don’t see it as a trend. For one, there have always been Blacks in America who have centered African culture, tradition, religion and philosophy within their Westernized realities (shout out to the early 90s with my faux Cross Colors Malcolm X short set with the huge Kente cloth “X” on the front). And secondly, Black Americans are not only giving proper attribution to where much of our culture have originated from – including what we eat, how we dance and our styling – but we also are at the forefront of its reclamation. How else would you explain the current natural hair movement, which has its roots in the U.S., in places like the Ivory Coast and South Africa where all the traditional Africans are?

If anything we should be finding ways to encourage more Africans in America to embrace our heritage, no matter how fragmented and hodgepodge. Perhaps then Black folks the world over might then see the value and learn to be better keepers of the culture (and resources).

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