A Commentary on Cultural Appropriation
Define Black Culture.
Defining what Black Culture is has continuously been an issue that Black Americans struggle with, because truly who is to define what Black culture is? Because when I think of cultures outside of mine, or even cultures that I ethnically have ties to, I can think of what constitutes their culture: foods, styles of clothing, belief systems, historical traditions. But when we open the question of what constitutes Blackness in the United States, it becomes an awfully tricky conversation. But how can we address issues of cultural appropriation offenses against the Black community when there is confusion of who and what we are?
See, the members of the African Diaspora are somewhat bound by both abstract and physical ideologies such as struggle and oppression, physical features, and quite honestly whoever the colonizer deemed as Black. Black being synonymous to impure, “destitute of light”, ugly, inferior, “the opposite of white”, and ultimately culturally and ethnically inferior to the white man. (Webster Dictionary).
So let’s say, we assume to be Black in the U.S. is defined as being a descendant from American slavery. In that assumption we must question, where do the Caribbean slave-descendant Blacks fit in, what about the 1st or 2nd generation of African immigrants? See, there was a point in time in the U.S. that Irish immigrants were considered nonwhite (I know, insane) and treated terribly by English-descendant white people, and forced to work in the same jobs that Black migrants from the South were allowed to work in.
But the “Great White Race” allowed them to separate themselves from their Black coworkers and assume a position of racial hierarchy. (Harriot) Now, why do I mention that? Because when the first waves of African immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1980s, Black Americans, who were still being discriminated against by white Americans, joined in their teasing and making fun of African immigrants to assume a racial hierarchy…but then we realized that wasn’t it (Nsofor and Ngumbi). The unwanted-ness of being Black in America has allowed so many types of “Black” people to be able to fit under a unified Blackness, however does an American Black person with no ties to their African ancestry have the right to participate in wearing Kente cloths from Kenya? Or do the Gwara Gwara South African dance at parties?
American Blackness does not have a home. We are nomadic, almost, in looking for whatever environment will best embrace us and allow us the opportunity to thrive. This can be seen in the Great Migration from the Southern slave-history states to the Midwest and New York, only to be rejected by a society that was formed without them being the slightest bit in their minds. So move West? Back South to reclaim a Black Mecca in Houston? Atlanta? We have no physical home, so we cling on to whatever defining factors of “us-ness” that we can find. Whether that is in hip-hop, hairstyles, fashion, or food, we are at an endless search for a definition of who we are, yet every time we get settled someone is trying to shake us up.
When Beyoncé Knowles, Queen Bey, blessed us with a visual album entitled, Black is King, late summer 2020, fans across the world swarmed. Beyoncé, a Black American woman with strong ties to her Creole background created a film to depict her love of Blackness and showing to others how beautiful it is to be Black. While Beyoncé gave us incredible visuals, and hired African directors and artists to best portray her perspective of Blackness, one couldn’t help but to introduce the question of if Beyoncé was ‘allowed’ to go to Africa and portray this African reality and culture when she was not herself raised in it. Was this cultural appropriation? This goes back to the question of challenging whether Black Americans can claim ties to their African roots in the modern day while we do not know very much about their culture, we ourselves our outsiders, so what allows us to participate in it? Is Blackness universal?
Do we as Black Americans, have a say in depicting Blackness from any lens that is not our own, even though we have ethnic ties to Africa? By challenging ourselves to consider these questions we enter a space that allows us to potentially elevate ourselves to have a better opinion on how to further address cultural appropriation in any other group.