At What Point Does One Cease to be African?

There is an article on Medium that has been floating around the internet for almost a week now. It deals with one African woman’s (country of origin unknown and unclear) umbrage with African/Black Americans “appropriating” African culture. As a blogger, I am reluctant to participate in a public pile-on as I’m sure I’ve written my fair share of provocative articles which unwittingly or unintentionally caused harm. Though I vehemently disagree with every syllable she wrote, I wouldn’t want to refer any of my readers to her domain for the sole purpose of setting her comments section aflame. Plus, I don’t know if it was this author’s intention to be as inciting and divisive as the language and tone in her article would suggest.

In her piece, the author writes:

“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 adjellaba, 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.”

She then goes on to compare African/Black Americans wearing tribal accessories and African prints to the Australian guy rocking dread locks. Surely by now, I have given you enough clues to find the original article. Got it? Eh hehhhn. Now we can discuss!

Most people who read the assertions levied in this piece – and indeed, this line of thinking – replete with pig wind. The only way to take any part of the idea that Black people can appropriate themselves seriously is to ignore or somehow magically erase the fact that we in the Diaspora are from West Africa. A recent shipwreck discovery revealed that the trans-Atlantic slave trade extended as far as South Africa. Black people are Africans, and that’s the end of it. Time and circumstance have robbed us all of aspects of our identity, but the fact remains that our genomes will never be snuffed out. Our skin, lips, hair, the visceral connection to one another that compels us to nod “what up?” as we pass total strangers of the Black variety will always tell the truth. That is why I found this article so hurtful and unnecessary. It is just another spoke in the wheel that keeps tempers between Africans flared and takes us that much further from the unification we so desperately need!

One of my favorite pastimes is to study people, particularly African Americans. There are some that have so much of the continent in them that I could tell them what village they came from. In fact, MX5’s husband had an encounter recently with a Ghanaian who worked at Best Buy and struck up a casual conversation with him based on the same observation/assuptions. Eventually, he asked him where in Ghana he was from.

“I’m not from Ghana,” FX5 replied.

“Okay…so where in Ghana are your parents from?” the man pressed.

“My parents are from Norf Cah’lina (no one from NC pronounces it NorrrrTH Carolina!). I’m from North Carolina.”

Shocked, the Ghanaian retail worker informed him that the only reason he treated him with such familiarity was that he was sure that FX5 was a Ghanaian! He shouldn’t have been, because FX5 is essentially an African.

Image from Dex R Jones' Envy of the World. I believe the caption encapsulates the experience of many.

Image from Dex R Jones’ Envy of the World. I believe the caption encapsulates the experience of many.

I understand the writer’s need to police African-ness. We have all either policed or been policed by other Black folk who have formulated a measure of Blackness by which to judge all other Black folk by. Those who are found wanting are ridiculed and ostracized until they are compelled to conform to that standard. However, we who have had the pleasure of living on the Continent know that her indignation is neither righteous nor founded; not truly. Most of the things we hold dear as “African” weren’t designed on the continent at all. The most recent may be the furor over Louis Vuitton’s rebranding of the Ghana-Must-Go bag, which has many Ghanaians on social media are in a veritable tizzy.

louis-vuitton-africa-styleThis “African” bag was (and still is) mass produced in China. When Ghanaians who had migrated to Nigeria in search of economic opportunity. Like all economic migrants, they were seen as parasitic on an economy that could not sustain the entire population. In 1983, they were given mere days to pack their belongings and leave the country. The cheapest and fastest way for the expelled to stow and carry their possessions were in these cheap plastic bags. Many people died during the forced migration. There is no pride or symbolism to be found in this particular bag – practical as it may be – unless you’re a sadist.

Secondly, if we’re truly honest, the things that make us “African” are the things we often despise the most. It has taken African Americans to help us find pride in them again, foremost of those would be the darkness of our skin. The neophyte globe trekker would be surprised for example to discover just HOW many Africans hate the darkness of their skin. The proof is in the billions of dollars spent annually on bleaching and toning creams.  Rappers of African descent come to the continent to shoot music videos and request only “light skinned, pretty girls” come to casting calls. Pupils are frequently called “black boy” where black is used as a pejorative. If you can’t be black in Africa, where can you be? Up until a few years ago – and I mean three – it was virtually impossible to find a hairdresser in Ghana who had in-depth of how to style and maintain natural hair. Every salon I visited would scrub my hair with detergent laced shampoo, take a step back to look at the matted mess they’d created and ask me in Twi if they could ‘put some small perming cream inside’.

“Just to soften it a little,” the beautician would say encouragingly.

No plix. I’ve have enough breakage to know what putting small perming cream can do to one’s follicles. If it wasn’t for African American women pushing through the ridicule, stigma and backlash for wearing their hair as it grows naturally out of their hair, threading, afropuffs and twists would not be as trendy on the continent as they are today. There would be hundreds more women wearing weaves or those slicked back, oily coifs resulting from poorly relaxed hair.

And let’s not forget, this is still a continent where folks ask you, without irony, what your English or Christian name is after you’ve introduced yourself as Kobina Owiredu Boateng. The inquirer is confused by the contents and finality with with you’ve delivered news of your moniker. They query further.

“Oh…but that’s what they call you in the house, isn’t it? I’m asking of your English name.”

“I don’t have one.”

“So…you use Kobina in the office? Ei.”

Why? Because in the mind of the every day African, a professional African must surely have an English name! In many ways, our concept of African-ness is counterfeit koraaaa. A lot of the concepts and ideas we hold fiercely to in the name of tradition are eerily Victorian and frankly, anti-black.

I could have supported the author’s assertions about Black American’s appropriating African culture if she could say definitively when someone stops being African. My children are mixed Ghanaian and whatever else is in their African American father’s bloodline. Are they not African? If my daughter decides to do dipo rights at the appropriate time, will she be appropriating Ghanaian culture? What about her great-granddaughters who may want to participate in the ceremony? Will my descendants four generations hence be denied their right to be called African because one group says so? Will they not be allowed to wear kente or kaba and slit because their great-great grandmother was Ghanaian – and just as Black as they are – they have not earned the right to wear the clothes of her Ghanaian ancestor because she may have never been to Ghana, therefore it’s “disrespectful”?

I swear, we are the only people who do this. Indians don’t do that to other Indians. It doesn’t matter if you live in New York or on the moon, you are expected to participate in your culture and know your roots! Why do Africans mock and shove and deny people of African descent the right to connect and more importantly heal the wounds of being robbed of identity? Instead of prohibiting “everyone at Afropunk” from wearing Fulani septum rings, hold a seminar and educate those who are clearly thirsty to connect on the use or significance of these items! But you can’t, can you? You yourself as an African barely knows what it means to be African or understand the roots and origins of your traditions! And honestly, if we are going to insist that African Americans stop “appropriating” African culture, then we must also insist that Africans stop doing this:

It’s only fair.