The Complex Art of Reclaiming African Culture

Are African-Americans appropriating the fashion and other aspects of African lifestyles, or are they rightfully reclaiming their culture? Recently, an article claimed that African-Americans are committing cultural appropriation when it comes to African culture, sparking several counterarguments and discussions about both African-American and African identity.

Simply put, you can't appropriate a culture that is, in fact, your own.

Black or African-American culture, heritage and history are directly tied to Africa. Black people have made efforts to reclaim and assert pride in their roots for centuries, which is completely different from any incidence of cultural appropriation. Appropriation is defined by a power structure that empowers one group and marginalizes another, a dynamic that African-Americans just don't have with Africans. White people praising the Jenner sisters for their braids while discriminating against black women in jobs and schools is cultural appropriation. Black people wearing Kente cloth stoles at graduation to exhibit pride in their African heritage in a Eurocentric country is not.

"Appropriation occurs when a style leads to racist generalizations or stereotypes where it originated, but is deemed high fashion, cool or funny when the privileged take it for themselves."
- Amandla Stenberg, "Don't Cash Crop My Cornrows"

African-American culture is largely rooted in West and Central Africa, the areas most affected by the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the journey of the Middle Passage. European slave traders thought enslaved Africans to be uncivilized despite them having their own fashion, music, religions and languages. These cultures were meant to be stripped from Africans through the institution of American slavery for generations, but aspects of those cultures were maintained and continue to be practiced by African-Americans even today. As the modern United States were colonized by Europeans, African-Americans were indoctrinated into a new lifestyle, but there are still many efforts to maintain distinct hallmarks of African culture.

The Black Power Movement, taking place from roughly 1965-1975, showcased a rise in the expression of black pride and heritage. During this time, elements of African style, such as vibrant colors and beaded jewelry, were reincorporated into African-Americans' daily lives or special occasions. African-American culture and fashion have diversified even further throughout history. In New Orleans, Creole culture has manifested from the blending of Yoruba or Vodun and Catholicism. The Afro-Punk Music Festival in Brooklyn showcases a mix of alternative music and African heritage, and is composed of a large population of Afro-descended immigrants bringing their culture to the United States. In both instances, African-Americans exhibit markers of Africa while partaking in American practices as well.

This is not to say that our attempts at reclaiming African culture are perfect, however.

People can be misguided in finding an authentic way to explore and assert their heritage, and misinformation is often the largest problem. Some of the major issues are treating Africa as if it is monolithic, when it is a continent with 54 countries, or referring to Egypt as the pinnacle of African civilization and the foundation for one's connection to history and religion. Unfortunately, most African-Americans have been stripped of their family history, and thus have no connection to individual countries or tribes from where their ancestors originated. This complicates reclamation of African culture, and can oftentimes be a painful process of discovery with very poor results.

As a result, different movements have emerged in an effort to compensate for that loss of cultural identity. Afrocentrism has been one of the largest efforts to change black consciousness to include African identity, and it has been met with both praise and criticism. The ideology evolved from the work of African-American scholars over centuries, including Marcus Garvey and Molefi Asante, and focuses on reinterpreting history as inclusive of African contributions as well as asserting African power.

"Hotep" is a more recent development, which is controversial because of its lack of scholarship as well as the fact that it often serves to be more divisive than unifying. Proponents often speak of having an elevated consciousness and can disparage other blacks for thinking differently. People who exhibit this ideology are sometimes referred to disparagingly as "Hotep niggas."

So what are the right steps?

Wearing the Ankh on a chain or the African continent on a tiki or earrings won't exactly do the trick. But understanding the significance of certain aspects of fashion and culture, such as piercings, tattoos, "tribal" patterns, etc. is a good start. Many have utilized AncestryDNA or AfricanAncestry.com to find our assorted countries of origin, which is another way to begin research. Ultimately, we should reach out to members of the African diaspora to explore their mosaic of cultures and identities. Connecting to African people is often prevented by perceived language and culture barriers, but it must be done in order to share our culture in a meaningful way.

We should strive to reach the point where Africans are no longer sharing their culture with us, but welcoming us back to our own.