By Alana Burke
Initially, the idea sounds absurd. Of course black people can’t appropriate African culture, because that’s their heritage. Appropriation is defined as the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture. Now the question becomes whether black Americans have the right to wear traditional African garb and immerse themselves in African cultural practices.
Black Americans are descendants of African slaves who were taken from Africa – even sold to white people by fellow Africans – and brought to America. African slaves were given western-style clothes and even told to cover their hair. Africans were completely separated from their home and stripped of their culture. As a result, future generations were not introduced to many aspects of African culture.
Today, black beauty standards have been recycled and claimed by white people. Black Americans see this and are in complete disbelief. Big lips, curves, braids, hip-hop, and rap music weren’t popular when they were directly associated with black people. Now, when Americans see the Kardashian-Jenner family with butt and lip implants, curves, and braids, they think it’s beautiful. In response, many black Americans have gone back to their roots – wearing headscarves, dashikis, and tribal prints – to show America they are proud of their heritage.
Zipporah Gene, a freelance journalist who grew up in London, fanned the flames of this argument with her article, ‘Black America, Please Stop Appropriating African Clothing and Tribal Marks’, published on black culture site Those People. Gene applauds the unity of black America but believes Africans should have their own voice separate from black Americans. Gene writes, “Please don’t trample our rights fighting for yours.” But to criticize black Americans for attempting to reconnect with their roots by embracing aspects of African culture is insulting.
A black American walking around the AfroPunk festival – which highlights the black presence in punk music – with tribal face paint designs without knowing the meaning behind them can be offensive to Africans. Many black Americans don’t know what tribe their ancestors are from, so they wear what they see in the media. They wear dashikis, Fulani septum rings, and tribal print clothing from West African tribes when their ancestors are in fact from a South African tribe. Black Americans who do this are walking around in a state of ignorance, which can be seen as offensive to people with more direct ties to Africa. In the eyes of an African, this may be as offensive as a black person seeing a white person with dreads.
But the difference between a white person with dreads and a black person donning garb from the wrong tribe is that the black person genuinely may not know that what they’re wearing is wrong. White Americans appropriate black culture because the culture is fashionable, but they have not gone through the same struggles as black Americans. White Americans have never been robbed of their culture, oppressed, or discriminated against.
Black Americans aren’t accepted in American culture unless people want to wear the same clothes and have the same style, replicate the hair, and listen to the music. To turn around and receive disdain and criticism from the country we originated from is discouraging. Instead of criticizing African Americans for wearing dashikis, headscarves with African tribal prints, and “appropriating” African culture, Africans should encourage black Americans to research their ancestral history and learn about their heritage. Black Americans really do want to get in touch with their roots because they are proud of their blackness – especially because now, as during the slave trade and Civil Rights Movement, black people are being oppressed. By embracing our African roots, not only are we trying to connect with Africans, we are also finding a way to empower other black Americans and show that we will not be silenced.