Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What is and what is not an African?

so recently, on tumblr, there was a days-long discussion about what is and what is not African. i made some posts about it on my tumblr, got really angry and frustrated, deleted them because i was tired of the discussion and tired of trying to validate myself to other Africans, but i still have some thoughts lingering.

you can view some of the posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) just to get an understanding of feelings in the discussion. this conversation has happened before on tumblr, and i'm not completely sure how it was resurrected. i think it had something to do with the idea that African Americans (or possibly various diasporic ethnicities) culturally appropriate items from African cultures.

if you're unfamiliar with the term "cultural appropriation" (this blog deals with the appropriation of Native cultures), it means taking from another culture (usually wardrobe, jewelry, make-up and things worn on the body, but can also extend to food, dances, and other items such as furniture, art pieces, etc.) without having the knowledge of the culture or the significance of the said item/style - and, thus adding to the overall culture's erasure and disregard.  an example is the cultural appropriation of of the Native headress. white girls who are feeling "in touch with nature" feel the need to appropriate the headress (of which there are multiple ones, some of which are reserved for special people who are members of the nation, and some only for certain ceremonies) without acknowledging any Native culture. the issue with this is that these cultures, Native cultures (along with many non-European cultures) are being or have been largely marginalized, ignored, disrespected, and face extinction. when hundreds of Natives are living on reservations in which the life expectancy is that of a third-world culture, where many cannot understand that there are hundreds of Native cultures, not just one, and certainly not the one from old Cowboys & Indians movies. it continues the mockery Europeans have made of indigenous societies and adds to the upholding of European societies as the only ones worthy of any distinguish or deeper understanding and respect.

many of the Africans in the discussion felt that when Black Americans don dashikis and whatever else from Africa, that we are culturally appropriating African styles, and thus, the cultures; and ultimately contributing to the erasure of various African cultures that continue to be oversimplified, disrespected, and face extinction by being forcibly amalgamated with other African cultures to make a monolithic, stereotyped, "African culture" (when ultimately, there is no African culture-there are thousands of African cultures). when Black Americans call themselves "Nubians", they are, culturally appropriating; considering that those of us descended from enslaved peoples come from West Africa, and Nubia (or what was) is a region in East Africa, we contribute to the erasure of Nubian culture. i think many Black Americans believe that "Nubia" is another word for "Africa", which shows you where the issue lies. if those that referred to themselves as "Nubians" truly respected the culture, they would do some research, and know that they have no real idea about Nubia, let alone Africa and its vast diversity.

with that said, i don't believe it should be looked at or even termed "cultural appropriation". while other people of color can culturally appropriate other cultures, the situation of AA's and African culture is very different than any other situation. not only have we been moved against our will into European (minded) lands, but we have been told outright lies, mis information or nothing at all about Africa. so, when someone does ANYTHING associated with Africa, it should be understood that there are a number of hurdles one has had to overcome in order to be comfortable with that.

we should be educated (granted it is a genuine interest) in such a way that does not mock us as if we're the dumb, uneducated stepchild that continues to be an embarrassment to the family. of course we're uneducated on African cultures; this is a pillar or colonialism. we have to remain separate, and those of us in the superpower nation that is the US have to be so far removed from our traditions and from those on the continent because there might actually be an international revolution is we unified.

when South Africa was dealing with apartheid, the Black Panthers (among some other Black American groups) were protesting for boycotts, intervention, divestment, and calling general attention to what was happening to Blacks in South Africa. and they were shut down by the government. the Black Panthers were ravaged  by COINTELPRO, half were either murdered, jailed, or exiled from the country. this should tell you how important the diaspora/African unity could be and why it is important for the powers-that-be to keep us at each other's throats and ignorant about each others plights. once we become truly unified, it is not a matter of IF colonialism, capitalism and general Black (or other) oppression can be defeated, but WHEN.

with that said, i completely agree with the issues some of the Africans brought up. we, as African Americans or within the diaspora and are several generations removed and/or descendants of slaves, need to stop treating Africa as a monolithic culture. we have to stop allowing the idea that Africans are running from cheetahs all day, all of them are walking around naked (which, apparently, is equivalent to barbarism), and speaking in clicks to permeate our thoughts. we have to research Africa as a whole, the diversity of the people, of the past and the present and of the distinctions between different ethnicities. understand that we descend from West Africa and none of our people were Nubians, were speaking Swahili or anywhere near Kemet/Egypt. we also have to understand that not all Africans feel the same way about us. many of them will not associate with us or consider us Africans-and that is their right to feel that way. we must learn the virtue of listening. listening to their experiences, their uniquewants/needs/feelings and their frustrations with those of us from the diaspora.

but when Black Americans identify, ignorantly, with Africa - i understand it, and Africans from the continent that seek to criticize us should understand it as well.
Egypt is probably the only place in Africa discussed more than once in public education. one Nigerian sister i responded to mocked the fact that so many AA's know/wish to know Swahili and wondered why none of us knew any Igbo words. the first time i ever heard the word "Igbo" was maybe 3 years ago (i'm 25) and that is because i'm close with some Nigerians and follow a ton of blogs/websites operated by Nigerians. Swahili is the only African language discussed in the media/education and is, along with Arabic, the most common language featured as college courses. and this is what Africa has become to us and most of the world - naked Black bodies, speaking Swahili (which apparently sounds like a bunch of clicks and grunts) and the Egyptians. Egypt, especially, is presented (by whites, of course) as the one and only "civilization" of Africa. most of the things i've learned about Africa has been outside of school, on my own time and within the last 4 or 5 years. and the sources have had to be things i searched for, mostly on the internet. if i didn't have internet access, or any internal push for knowledge of my ancestors or different cultures in general, i'd probably be calling myself a Nubian Princess too.
correct, criticize, and inform us, by all means. but i really resent the tone of informing us of our faults with no cultural or historical context. not to mention the assertion that we aren't/will never be "African". that, honestly, hurts on multiple levels.

we damn sure ain't American, so what are we? for some time, i've looked at the cultural remnants we've kept even through slavery and other oppressions as nothing more than crumbs left over from a meal. but now, i find myself hanging onto them for dear life. parts of West African religions, beliefs, communal and familial relations and even food have been maintained to an amazing degree, given the circumstances. not in all parts of the diaspora (Suriname, Southern US, Brazil, Haiti, and other West Indian communities have sustained multiple parts of West African traditions much more than say, Black communities in Canada and other parts of the Americas), but enough of them do. these things came from West Africa. this cannot be disputed. and at the root of our communities, we are African.

the question for me, is whether or not a Black person can ever completely/truly remove themselves of being "African"?

while some Africans feel that there has been too much time and generations (that have forgotten most of the ways) lapsed in order for AA's to ever be considered "African", some feel as though with time, genuine interest and a push for knowledge while respecting and honoring the customs that we can eventually be considered African (i'm very thankful for those of you that feel this way). but so what are we now (without the effort)? what of the Africans who move to the US, change their names, and start telling people their family is from "the islands", but they they're "proud Americans"? what of the first generation kids who turn their noses up at egusi soup and Nollywood and are, by any stretch of the word, Europhiles? are they not African?

i'm not suggesting that by categorizing them as African, they get some type of pass for kissing white ass; not at all. oppressors and those that aid in our destruction come in white just as well as Black. and they should be ostracized from those of us that seek unity and liberation. however, denying that they're African (or Black, as some AA's have said of other AA's) is something completely different. is Clarence Thomas not African? are the Egyptians and other lighter-skinned North Africans who identify more with Arab cultures and would consider it an insult to call them "African" or even "Black" not African?
i suppose that gets into the complexity of what is and what isn't African. and from what i've learned, there never has been a collective "African" identity. the "African" collective/identity is one born out of years or ravaged and raped societies resulting from colonialism, exploitation, slavery, and forced industrialization. unity is needed; unity is PARAMOUNT. and this category was more and likely the result of that need.

it is up to us to decide what it is and isn't. and while i'm not included in many Africans' idea of "us", my "us" includes those on the continent and those not; those several generations removed, and those practicing the cultures how our ancestors did. and while this conversation upsets me at times, i think we should have more conversations like this - otherwise unity can never be achieved.

comment. think. criticize. share your experiences/beliefs/issues.