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At the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn last month, every other attendee rocked some version of this look. But draping oneself in the colors of the Pan-African flag and sporting tribal tattoos isn’t fashion forward, says African journalist Zipporah Gene. It’s cultural appropriation — even, she insists, when African Americans do it.
In a recent screed called, "Black America, Please Stop Appropriating African Clothing and Tribal Marks," Gene takes African Americans to task for wearing African garb to events such as Afropunk with no real understanding of their religious and historical significance.
"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 a djellaba, painted with Yoruba-like tribal marks, all the while claiming that this is meant to be respectful," states Gene in the piece. "It’s a hodgepodge, a juxtaposition, a right mess of regional, ethnic and cultural customs and it screams ignorance and cultural insensitivity."
Gene may not have intended to start a war, but the backlash from her article has been fierce. For criticizing what blipsters wore to Afropunk, she’s been accused of inflaming tensions between Africans and African Americans, attacked for dating a white man, and labeled a race traitor. But the name-calling ignores the provocative, if not totally fair, questions her piece posed: Is Black America appropriating African fashion traditions? Is that even possible?
Is Black America appropriating African fashion traditions? Is that even possible?
While Gene, who never identifies her ethnicity in the piece, certainly thinks so, the reality of the matter is far more complicated than she presents. For one, she reduces cultural appropriation to an act that occurs when people borrow the clothing, jewelry, and markings of groups to which they don’t belong. That’s part of the story but not its entirety.
"If you’re not from an African tribe, please leave off wearing the tribal marks," she says, ignoring the fact that the ancestors of American blacks did belong to African tribes. Thanks to the peculiar institution of slavery, which incredibly Gene never mentions, the average African American can’t trace her roots to a particular tribe without the help of a DNA test. Yet, it’s well documented that the forefathers of American blacks largely hailed from West Africa, where the slave trade flourished.
Given that the blipsters who sport African dress very well could be Yoruba or Fulani, it’s not quite fair to accuse them of appropriating the fashions of such groups. African Americans, after all, have the dubious distinction of not knowing what their traditional dress is. For them, wearing African attire has always been more complicated than "taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission," as Susan Scafidi, author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, defines cultural appropriation.
In the 1960s and ’70s, when the civil rights movement gave way to the Black Power movement, American blacks embraced dashikis to reconnect with their roots, reject white supremacist ideas about themselves and their ancestors, and to show solidarity with the African nations recently liberated from colonial rule. American blacks saw a parallel between Africa’s struggle for independence and their own struggle for equal rights in the United States. Their interest in African fashion never stemmed from a desire to rip off African peoples and popularize their customs for profit, as is often the case with cultural appropriation. It stemmed from the desire to carve out a new racial identity in a nation that had not only treated them as sub-humans, but also taught them to buy into damaging stereotypes about their ancestral homeland, further instilling in them a sense of inferiority.
Malcolm X astutely described the way he and other American blacks regarded Africa before black consciousness gained wide-scale momentum in the U.S.
When the civil rights movement gave way to the black power movement, American blacks embraced dashikis to reconnect with their roots.
"Having complete control over Africa, the colonial powers of Europe projected the image of Africa negatively," he said during a 1965 speech in Detroit. "They always project Africa in a negative light: jungle savages, cannibals, nothing civilized. Why then naturally it was so negative that it was negative to you and me, and you and I began to hate it. We didn’t want anybody telling us anything about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it."
Donning dashikis, rejecting straightened hair, and taking on Afrocentric names directly originated from the "black is beautiful" movement, which promoted black self-love. Embracing an African aesthetic during this period required courage, considering that in the recent past black students were discouraged from wearing bright colors, let alone African dress. Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen, thrown out of Fisk University in 1908 for violating the school’s rigid dress code, railed against such policies via Helga Crane, the protagonist of her semi-autobiographical novel Quicksand. Told that "bright colors are vulgar" and blacks should wear gray, brown, and navy exclusively, Helga protests:
"Something intuitive, some unanalyzed driving spirit of loyalty to the inherent racial need for gorgeousness told her that bright colors were fitting and that dark-complexioned people should wear yellow, green, and red. Back, brown, and gray were ruinous to them, actually destroyed the luminous tones lurking in their dusky skins."
Having long been taught to avoid jewel tones, lest they be viewed as exotic Africans rather than the respected citizens they sought to be, American blacks threw caution to the wind and boldly aligned themselves with the so-called Dark Continent after the civil rights movement. Their dress during this period reflected their newfound pride in their roots rather than a flippant theft of African cultural traditions. There’s no comparison between American blacks in African garb and white Australians in Aboriginal makeup, as Zipporah Gene suggests in her appropriation piece. The white Australian has neither the emotional nor the ancestral connection to Aboriginal culture that American blacks have to Africa. The white Australian doesn’t fear that he will be further marginalized in the Western world for styling himself in a manner that highlights, instead of downplays, his difference. But it appears that Gene may be too unfamiliar with African American history to recognize this.
American blacks threw caution to the wind and boldly aligned themselves with the so-called Dark Continent after the civil rights movement.
That being said, I don’t think she completely missed the mark in her critique of the blipsters at Afropunk. I’m the daughter of a black American mother and a Nigerian father, and I do think it’s important for fashion-lovers to understand the cultural significance of the styles they wear, especially if they are, in fact, sacred objects not designed for everyday use but for special occasions or ceremonies.
I say this, of course, as someone with the privilege of knowing at least half of my ethnic makeup. Since infancy I’ve received Yoruba clothing and artwork directly from Nigeria. I don’t have to ask a shopkeeper to explain their significance to me or look online for answers; I can simply ask my father. So when I’m quick to judge others for their seeming cultural ignorance, I remember that the descendants of the 10 million Africans brought to the Americas in chains will never have this chance.