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.


  1. I was amazed at how this conversation went down on Tumblr. I'm not sure how it started either but I'm guessing it was with eclecticspectrum's post. As for my thoughts on this subject, they have been pretty consistent.

    1) Cultural appropriation is not the term to use when we're talking about African Americans wearing dashikis or kente and calling themselves Nubian. These are cultural misrepresentations, yes, but the sourceland Africans who were calling out cultural appropriation by the African diaspora were talking about stuff like THIS for the most part. Granted this is a very emotional subject for some so a lot of things were ignored or pushed aside or lost in conversation. What I've learnt from that debacle is that most people still have no understanding of what appropriation means.

    2) With regards to Nubians, how many of us are aware of the oppression Nubians face in Egypt? It's interesting that even though I grew up in Nigeria and UK, I knew of Nubian within the African American definition before I even heard that there are still people today who are called Nubians and who are discriminated against in their homeland. I think this is what the sourcelander Africans on Tumblr would call cultural appropriation but as I keep on saying appropriation may not be the correct terminology

    3) No one has the right to say that Africans in the Diaspora are not Africans. All African descended people have a right to claim (or not to claim, depending on personal preference), the African identity. The problem other sourcelanders have is with claiming an ethnic identity. You can claim to be African by virtue of being African American fine, but to say that you have a claim to all and any African culture(s) from Swahili to Nubia to Ashanti is what people consider problematic.

    I am Yoruba (for the most part), the only culture I can claim is Yoruba, it would not occur to me to claim Hausa culture even though I knew how to speak Hausa before I ventured into learning Yoruba. I can wear fabrics that have little meaning from other African cultures, but I wouldn't consider wearing hand-woven kente, for example, the fabric on which each thread has a meaning, because I am Yoruba and I am not privy to this meaning. Similarly I am yet to see other Africans wearing aso-oke or adire, we do share a lot but it seems some things (those things with specific meaning) are out of bounds.

  2. 4) Using Yoruba identity in the Diaspora as an example, I cannot imagine a Yoruba person will hear of Ile Aiye and still insist that the people behind that collective are not African. "Ile Aiye" itself is Yoruba, it doesn't matter that the group is based in Brazil and are generations removed from the continent, they are Yoruba. And a Yoruba person who sees parts of the Afro-Brazilian culture will (indeed should) recognise Yoruba elements immediately. No one can say that Ile Aiye are appropriating Yoruba culture when they know enough Yoruba to call themselves Ile Aiye.

    5) The conversation initially started out as addressing Africa and the African Diaspora. I noticed as it devolved a few African American voices felt that they were unfairly being picked upon. This confused me because when I joined the convo we were talking about identity in the Diaspora as a whole. I recall problems Nigerians and Ghanaians who have spent 3-5 years abroad face when they return home and find themselves being called "oyinbo" or "obruni" (i.e. white person) were also mentioned.

    In the end identity is a very complex beast. While Africans should make an effort to understand where African Americans and the African Diaspora is coming from, this effort needs to go both ways. I didn't see much of this happening on Tumblr last week, sides were drawn and no one was taking the time to hear out the other side. Emotions ran wild and were all over the place, perhaps this conversation is best left off the internet. Personally speaking my African friends, yes both sourceland and Diasporic, we get along marvellously and I'd love to see this unity replicated elsewhere.

  3. i dont waste my time with such....black babies are being killed and trayvon martin just happened all over again and we sitting here fighting over european derived identities....smh fela and bob marley and malcolm x are crying in the grave

  4. @Cosmic
    yea i'm not sure how it popped up again on tumblr either. yea, i agree. cultural appropriation is not the correct term. i put it in my post because i wanted African Americans (who i think make up the bulk of the viewers of my blog....i think) to know where Africans from the continent were coming from (or at least what i gathered from their statements).
    and that's really interesting that you heard of the term "Nubia" through the US first. i really have no idea where that came from. but it probably has something to do with the West's obsession with Egypt, and thus East Africa in general.
    with regards to number 3, i think many AA's or Black folks from the diaspora pick from cultures in that sense because many feel as though they don't have claim and cannot be included in one particular one. for example, a guy i follow on tumblr said that he felt a particular connection with the Dogon. but if he felt that the Dogon wouldn't accept him as one of their own regardless of what he did based on his country of origin, then he may want to identify with Dogon, Mandinka, and some people from nowhere near these others like the Himba. and if i knew that i could (through some personal effort and acceptance by the people) become a member of a people, i wouldn't know what group to be. i would feel like i'm picking favorites (for lack of a better term). if i decided to be Igbo, i would feel like i'm saying they're better than the other groups of west africa. i can't really put it in words...it's like saying one should pick one of their parents whom you identify most with (assuming you're close with both). you know? how can you pick ONE? i do understand what you're saying though. i'm am beginning to narrow down a sense of identity to west Africa as opposed to everywhere on the continent. but even that is still huge.
    with number 4, yea i don't get how anyone can say most south American Black communities aren't African. Suriname is the same say. but i'm wondering about our little pockets in Birmingham, Alabama and Harlem, New York. are they not African?

    and yea, i saw a few AA's speaking about how some Africans were saying they weren't African, but i didn't see any posts saying they weren't African until their posts came out. and the thing with Nigerians and Ghanaians saying they're called Obruni....i think some of them THINK it's the same issues AA's are facing but it's really not. it seems like they're saying they get a side-eye right before a hug, and we're saying we get a side-eye forever and not even a gesture of a hug. but the convo was good to have. i've learned not to expect a hug (even though i'd still embrace one).

    i think those of us that took part in the conversation, that already interact with each other learned something about each other. and for the most part, we do get along fine. i actually follow more Africans from the continent than i do African Americans. and other than that topic, there is nothing but love. i think it's like you said, that it's a very emotionally charged topic that people aren't necessarily open to hearing the other side of.

    and thanks. it seemed like you were one of the few people in the convo that grasped both sides.

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