Is It In A Black Man’s Soul To Rock That Gold?

by R. Asmerom

And I could blame my environment but /there ain’t no reason why I be buyin expensive chains – -Jay-Z , “public service announcement”

Is it in a Black man’s soul to rock that gold? Is the attraction to the flashy and shiny coded in our genes? Are we wired to appreciate and covet the precious metals that lie in abundance all over the homeland? It may seem a peculiar thing to question – who doesn’t love jewelry after all? – but the unique role of this spectacular show of adornment in Black culture is quite extraordinary.

Nevertheless, the relationship between bling and Black expression is not generally understood as something deeper than just a case of conspicuous consumption. Grillz, over-sized platinum chains, and diamond earrings evoke images of rappers showing off in grand fashion in music videos,  defining and selling the idea of urban cool to the rest of the world. Ostentatious swagger, some may call it. And many critics, Black critics included, would demean it as a foolish display of wealth. As over the top as it is, the need to flash, is not something that was born in the ghettos of America.

As MC Schooly D put it, wearing gold “goes back to Africa.” Historians would agree, there is a connection, albeit underlying, between how African-Americans dress and the habits and customs of African ancestry.

“The sharper the dress,  the flashier the gold the more you are taking care of yourself and putting yourself ideally in proximity to important people and even to the divine,” said Robert Ferris Thompson, a renowned professor of African and African American Art who has dedicated his professional life to exploring the art history of the Afro-Atlantic world. “When the Portuguese first landed in Ghana the local chiefs with their gold and early versions of kente outdressed the greys.  Score:  Ghana 7, visitors 2.”

The source of this flashiness has been a gift and a curse. The continent’s cornucopia of gold, diamonds and other minerals are what determined the course of history when it came to the African continent and the explorers who would become its chief exploiters. The West African region got the name “Gold Coast” for obvious reasons.

“Certain areas of West Africa have been known historically for gold mining, which was an enormously important component in some of the most sophisticated and complex commerce networks the world has ever known, networks that included huge portions of West Africa and extended across the Sahara,” said Patrick McNaughton, an art historian and professor at Indiana University. “Accounts of two famous and very large empires—Ghana and Mali—indicate that finely worked gold ornamentation played a large role at court.  The same is true for contemporary leaders in Akan culture groups, within the nation of Ghana.”

The role of gold and jewels doesn’t vary too much from the past. Today, gold, medallions, chains, and other jewelry are used to represent significance and personal worth. In hip-hop land, rappers especially evoke chain competition and the bling ownership to one up the other and compete in a who’s who type of competition.

According to Dr. Alma Gottlieb, professor of Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in certain African societies, gold plays a critical role in defining prestige. “It is very common among centralized societies for holders of political power to dress in a way that’s meant to symbolize outwardly the kind of power that you employ spiritually and politically.”

Although resources were plentiful, gold wasn’t available enough to be worn by all members of society. Obviously, the capacities to express wealth have evolved although the desire to display it have not. “There is some historical precedence for the contemporary passion for bling among African-Americans – the big difference is that in the traditional African context, it was largely restricted to the powerful elite,” she said. “Because of the technology of the industrial revolution, we can now make inexpensive copies of these items. It becomes potentially an avenue of appearing to engage in upward mobility through fashion, even if you’re not moving up in the class hierarchy, you can look the part.”

There are inexpensive copies and then there is the Black-born “Ghetto gold,” which defines as a “classification for tacky, fake-gold jewelry worn by many inner-city individuals.”

The style of oversized and attention-grabbing earrings, rings and necklaces have moved beyond the kiosks of swap meets and inner city neighborhoods and have been embraced by the mainstream in recent years- even the fictionary fashionista Carrie Bradshaw made a mention of her fabulous ghetto gold in an episode of “Sex and The City.”

The popular notion has always been that the desire for material items is fueled by one’s need to keep up with the Jones’. Evidently, it is much more complicated than that, involving the dynamics of human nature and cultural evolution. “This taking care of personal and spiritual business by being  “clean”—to use the argot– is a shield and it will go on forever,” said Ferris. “For as you know,  God created black people and black people created style.”

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