It´s been no big secret that there have long been underlying tensions within the African-American and African immigrant community, even these labels can be a topic of dispute as to which is appropriate for whom. Yet whether we had been blind to the subtle rifts or chose to look past them, many deepseeded sentiments of dissent were brought to the forefront recently in a viral article that attempted to call out Black Americans for äppropriating¨African culture.
Much of the article has already been debunked not only for failing to present a critical and comprehensive argument outside of ¨being petty¨ but also because we later learned that the whole premise for the piece seemed to be sparked by a photo from this year´s Afro-Punk festival of actual African artists (whom writer Zipporah Gene assumed were Black Americans) dressed in traditional garbs and fabrics.
Yet still many took offense that the Gene would generally consider Black Americans seeking to connect to or celebrate their African roots as ‘appropriating’, and felt the tone of the piece was improperly distancing and distinguishing the identities in a way that shuns Black Americans as inauthentic. Others spoke out in agreement, expressing that many of us wear the garbs without a clue as to what they signify. By definition, the charge of appropriation is way off, as Black Americans wearing African garb is in no way disenfranchising, erasing, or ´coloumbusing´ the cultures or people of the continent. Jamal from around the way wearing a dashiki and greeting folks with ¨Habari Gani¨ to show pride in his roots is hardly the same as Iggy Azalea penning mediocre rhymes and rocking braids only to be praised and credited as trailblazing. And of course, as it’s been pointed out repeatedly, though we have been distanced against consent, Black Americans still hold cultural ties to our Motherland.
With that said, though I strongly disagreed and took issue with the article, overall I see the backlash and controversy it’s created as a teachable moment for us all.
Growing up, I was blessed to have somewhat of a glimpse into both worlds. My older sister and I have different fathers. Her father immigrated from Ghana during his college years, while our mother and my father are both Black Americans. Like most of us who trace our family-tree through the complex results of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, I could only say that my grandparents were from the South while my sister could discuss the land, language, and customs of her father´s family. Luckily the majority of our families embraced one another in a way that I could feel a respectful connection to Ghana as well through her paternal ties.
Although unique in some ways due to our Islamic rearing, our upbringing was steeped in many of the cultural traditions that link Black Americans. We socialized at cookouts, electric slided at birthday parties, and brought bean pie to school for lunch. When my sister she spent time with her other side she would share much of her experiences with me. I learned how greet people in Twi, the meaning the Kente cloth she was gifted as a child, and when I questioned her about why there were so many Amma´s, Kwebana´s, Kweku´s among her cousins she explained to me how each person was given a day name. When she had the opportunity to visit Ghana as a child, I was thrilled to share the photos she brought back. I challenged everyone who ever joked about ¨African booty scratchers” or my peers who had been programmed with the impression that Africa was some desolate place full of jungles, to look at the beautiful sites and images she brought back of Accra. On the flip side, I also saw my sister experience discrimination in her father´s homeland during her study abroad experience in college, being called Öbrani (an offensive term for outsiders) or White because of her light brown skin, which taught us both that there is ignorance and disregard on both sides.
As a child of the diaspora born in America, with no direct connection to my African ancestry I don´t have the privilege to identify with a particular nation or culture from there. So though I recognize and am very proud to be a descendent, but I also recognize that my socializing and most direct familial ties have been in this country. This is part of the reason I´ve never wholly embraced the title African American nor have I been gung-ho about attaching myself to customs and traditions that I don’t fully grasp. I find that often as Black Americans when we think of African culture it’s Kente cloth and Egyptian ankhs, which is reductive to the vase diversity of the continent. Though it is far from appropriation, I do think there are those who attempt to to celebrate our roots in a way that can come across haughtily out-of-touch.
The truth is that many of us have a fictionalized and romanticized perception of Africa that leads us to be expected embraced with open arms. We delight in learning of the historical highlights of the continent and long to place ourselves in the picture while unfortunately overlooking the reality that during our sojourn in the States, Africa was subsequently going through centuries of colonization and social changes. And just as we aren’t taught the full scope of slavery or much about our ancestor´s prior to, many of the African nations involved in the slave trade do not incorporate sufficient education on the subject as well; leaving even more space for disconnect, misunderstanding, apathy, or ignorance.
In our attempts to find common ground, brotherhood/sisterhood and unity, we have to be informed and aware of realities that may challenge our long-held perceptions. When we attempt to connect with our African roots as Black Americans, I believe we should also be open to being educated and corrected. At the same time, those of us who have immigrated or come from an immigrant family should look to educate in a way that is not demeaning to the fact Black Americans share a connection and lineage to Africa.
While the socially instilled ignorance of some of our people to the diversity and modern-day lifestyles throughout Africa can offend our brothers and sisters from abroad, the sense of longing for a connection to Africa only to be seen and treated as ¨other¨ causes hurt and resentment among Black Americans. Adding to this complexity are the images of Black Americans that stream around the world painting us in a negative light, and causing our African family to arrive with preconceived judgements, generalizations, and apprehensions.
It´s a tangled web of inaccurate perceptions and finger pointing. Yet I believe the beauty of our bonds comes by linking with like minds and build and educate from there. I´m sure all of us can recall negative experience from either side, but if we were to reduce every community to the ignorance we encounter with a few individuals, we would have to isolate ourselves from the world. While I fault the Zepporah Gene for what I consider a very poorly written piece, I´m happy it’s brought this much needed discourse to light. Overall, both groups carry a responsibilities to one another – to share with and enlighten each other in a way that is respectful to the uniqueness of our historical experiences.
Shahida Muhammad was raised in Philadelphia and is currently based abroad in Colombia. Her writing tends to lie within the spaces of Black culture, identity, and womanhood. For more, follow @ShahidaMuhammad on Twitter.