A representative conversation on the tensions between Africans and Black Americans
My favorite thing about the relationship with the writers at Hazie Thoughts is that there is no such thing as a “touchy” subject. There has always been an open invitation to any type of conversation, everything qualifies. So recently, an old friend of mine brought this article asking Black Americans to stop appropriating African culture to my attention, and I think that while it had a lot of value and overall valid points, it was unsettling for me. I decided to hit Chuck up and ask his opinion on a lot of the things I have wondered about the relationship between Africans and Black Americans for some time now. Since he’s African (Chuck’s family is from Ghana, just like the models in the picture above) and I’m Black American, I felt like we could have a really fruitful and mutually respectful conversation. We did.
Chuck: What do you think about Africans asking Black people to stop appropriating their culture?
Taylor: Um I don’t think I completely understand the tension between “Black Americans” and Africans because I feel like there are Black people, like myself, who genuinely desire to be rooted in where our ancestors come from. There are also Black people who like to make the choice of distancing themselves from Africa for whatever reason, which I admit is odd to me, but they don’t represent all of us. You know?
Chuck: I think your feelings are legit and you have reasoning factual enough that I completely agree, but I want to make 2 points: first of all, African culture isn’t as cohesive or, let’s say structured, as black American culture. Africa is 50+ countries. And in each country there are an abundance of differences, so many that there’s no one unique feature about Africa, but more so many unique characteristics that make each country what they are, ultimately making Africa as a whole to be beautiful.
Taylor: Honestly I never thought to break it down and consider the fact that Africa isn’t as structured and it’s not something you can just learn by indulging in one portion of the culture, so that makes a lot of sense to me. But even with that said, I think the more a person knows about something, the more they come to respect it; so in order for us to be able to reshape our views of Africa that have been improperly influenced and skewed by our Eurocentric institutional upbringing, we have to indulge in it. Why do we get called for cultural appropriation if we connect directly with the culture?
Chuck: Black people, no matter where they’re from, are connected to Africa. You can appropriate any culture that you don’t respect, and didn’t actually try to learn about. I can appropriate Rock culture, and be American. Or hood culture and be black.
Taylor: So you don’t look at appropriating as a bad thing? Like you don’t identify with a negative connotation?
Chuck: I look at it as how the individual perpetuates it. Is it malice or ignorance? A fashion magazine telling you something is in and you wearing it isn’t as bad as you lying and telling people you identify with the struggles and triumphs that comes with said culture.
Taylor: So on a case by case basis instead of grouping it all as ignorance? I can definitely appreciate that.
Chuck: Yeah, because my honest opinion is that Black people have decided that their culture is centered and majority, which then leads to everything being viewed through a scope where Black culture is the end-all-be-all and that’s dangerous.
Taylor: Hmm that’s interesting. So you don’t like a black-centered perspective? I think the people who are stating their views are always going to be biased because that’s their lived experience. I don’t think we can ever truly rid ourselves of that. But that’s interesting in the same token, because how can we actually empathize with the African culture if we aren’t willing to see past our own individual lived experiences?
Chuck: Exactly! That’s my biggest thing. Live your experience, but understand that your perspective is not the authority on all things.
Taylor: That’s so important. Empathy — that’s exactly how it is achieved.
Chuck: I also think there are differences between the main idea of appropriation for black people when it comes to white people vs. what appropriation is for others. White people not only take pieces of a culture, but they take it and don’t acknowledge it at all. That’s stealing. They’ll take a dance like the “whip/drop” and call it shit like the “T-Rex.” That’s stealing.
Taylor: I fucking agree.
Chuck: With Africans, black people aren’t stealing per say, it’s more like a cousin borrowing your clothes. They can take it, you’ll be mad, but more so cause they could really just have it if they asked.
Taylor: Right! It’s like black people know the dashiki is not a direct piece of their culture but it is one of their semi-distant culture so they feel they’re still entitled ownership or allowed to participate and that is not always the case?
Chuck: And even with that, Dashikis alone are complex. I’m wearing what some would consider a dashiki, but it’s also kente cloth made into a shirt.
Taylor: So it’s complicated. Like most tensions are. And if you could take a guess, what do you think is another primary concern that Africans have with Black Americans?
Chuck: I think the biggest is the past disrespect. I don’t think cultural appropriation is the BIGGEST, it is an issue, but more so it’s the years of feeling laughed at and ridiculed, and then now people are embracing it. Like a lot of people, at one point, wanted no connection. Now all of a sudden they do, and I think that some Africans don’t view that as truly genuine.
Taylor: Okay I get that because I can recall my elementary school years and watching African students be the butt of people’s jokes. I never participated and always thought it was fucked up. But wouldn’t you agree that is the sort of thinking that stems from the constant misinformation about Africa that we get when we learn in a Eurocentric environment? I think now that people are more informed, and realizing how fucked up and institutionalized racism is, they are seeking their information in better ways and trying to reverse the stigmas that they may have played into when younger.
Chuck: Definitely, but Eurocentrism isn’t a good enough excuse, because that’s everywhere. There’s even a major skin bleaching issue taking place in Africa right now. The idea that Eurocentrism is just in the U.S. is false.
Taylor: I agree that it is everywhere, but now it feels like we’re at a road block because there are Black people who still attempt to separate themselves from Africa – but then there are people, like myself, who want a connection but feel like I’ll never truly be able to get one because some African people are harboring hurt against Black people. To be real, I think they have every right to be hurt honestly, but with that accepted, what’s next?
Chuck: I’m not sure.
Taylor: It kind of feels like Africans are the only ones who want access to the motherland, and to me it’s a little unfair because we (Black people) were brought here against our will. And now it’s like we’re not welcomed back or invited to indulge in the culture. So we’re at another roadblock. When can we share?
Chuck: That’s true. The idea of access to the homeland is important. You know how in Islam, they request that people do a pilgrimage and visit Mecca once in their life? That’s sort of the thing that connects Muslims all around the world, this one central idea that if you go through Y, then you’re connected to Z. Maybe something like that needs to happen in this instance.
Taylor: That’s a really interesting concept. But Islam is a religion that’s chosen by people. I am a part of Africa, not by choice – by blood and by design. So why should I have to do anything besides respect it in its entirety to be accepted? You get what I’m saying? I think there’s a bit of a difference between religion and heritage.
Chuck: Definitely, but there’s still black people who see no type of connection. Their heritage starts and ends in the U.S. It’s not fair, but until there’s a collective agreement on black life across the diaspora, we will continue to fight about whose struggle is or was worse.
Taylor: I just feel like while it’s not our IMMEDIATE culture, it’s still in relation to us and we should be able to connect with it. I could be wrong, you know? And I’m open to that. But all in all, I just want respect levels of both groups to heighten. I don’t think we should fear or be too critical of our differences, I think we should use them as an opportunity to diversify our personal perspective.
Chuck: Right. I agree to some extent. I think that with Black people, it’s important to embrace all of the different cultures that make up this one, not just bits and pieces because that’s not real respect, it’s partial. Like they have to stop with the idea that Africa is just this one singular place. If people tried to maybe connect with their family lineage and not just some global view of Africa, maybe more Africans would open up.
Taylor: I feel that, but that’s the thing. Africans are privileged in that way, they know EXACTLY where they come from and that’s so beautiful. Some of us black people, I’d even venture to say most, have NO IDEA where our lineage even begins, and access to that information isn’t always available or it ends up being costly.
Chuck: I completely get that. In the same criticism of Black people, I also have to say that I think that on the African side of things, there has to be some sort of release (even if minor) of the past issues with Black people if they are willing to do the same. We can’t keep harboring negative feelings just to keep the idea that we’re oppressed going.
Taylor: Right. So it basically sounds like hard work on both ends will be necessary in order to get rid of the barricade between us.
Chuck: Yeah, blackness is key. As long as people remember that common theme means something, change can happen. If people keep going with the separation, difficulty will always be at the core.
***DISCLAIMER: This conversation ended in the way most important discourses do: unfinished. This is because Chuck and I are not the spokespeople of this matter, this is just how we get to the bottom of where we both stand in our experiences. We hope that this was of service to you, and that maybe you’re able to identify or add-on to some of the things we brought up on both sides. We feel like these kinds of conversations are necessary because they open gates and make an attempt to bridge gaps. Discourse is important, especially on issues we encounter regularly.