Bridging the gap: My experience with appropriation in the African diaspora
Recent controversy surrounding the use of African clothing and tradition by African Americans has sparked a debate questioning whether or not African Americans can appropriate African culture. Africa is an integral piece of African American history, which makes it impossible for African Americans to appropriate culture that was part of their historical formation. I believe this dispute comes from a lack of knowledge from numerous groups because of deliberate attempts from outside forces to disconnect the people of the diaspora. Knowing the power of numbers, it’s vital to bridge the gap between the groups. Understanding our roots is key in shaping the values and identity that defines our community.
Born of West African immigrants, the opportunity to know and learn my people’s history has always been at my fingertips. Although I was not always welcoming to the idea, I am extremely grateful to have that option. This option isn’t available for most African Americans. After being stripped from their land and of their cultural identity by their oppressors, it’s unfair for Africans to repeat the same behavior. Just because it isn’t easily accessible, does not negate the fact that African history is indeed part of African-American history. Africans should be more open to African Americans exploring their culture and embodying African traditions, as passing on these values is necessary in keeping them alive.
Growing up in America, I always knew I was different. From the language my parents spoke at home to the food we ate and even the clothes we wore, I saw many differences between myself and my local community. Initially, my cultural differences weren’t an issue for me, as they were all I had ever known. That changed as I got older and more social. As a teenager, the constant need for approval from my peers caused me to hide my culture. In high school, claiming my African heritage wasn’t an easy feat. I was often teased about the food I would bring to school and the accent with which my parents spoke. Despite my negative experiences, my parents always reminded me that no matter what, I was African, a fact I should always be proud of. After college, I found myself both embracing and broadcasting my ethnic identity. The strong cultural affirmation of my parents gave me the foundation I needed to learn to love my heritage. Now I relish in the fact that I can go into my mom’s closet, have access to vintage African attire and live in the uniqueness of my identity. I’ve learned to engage in and be appreciative of my culture and know that it has definitively shaped the person I have become
In contrast to my story, many African Americans don’t have the luxury of exploring their heritage. The dehumanization of slavery stripped African Americans of their right to legacy and the effects of this are still felt today. Knowing this reality, why would anyone try to take away African culture from them? As an African woman who has the privilege of direct access to my ethnic heritage, I believe that it’s ridiculous for an African to say that our brothers and sisters are appropriating a culture that they were stripped of. Regardless of whether one’s able to directly trace where they come from, the history of Africa is beautifully woven by the diaspora. That complex history did not just end in Africa, it traveled the world. Once we can collectively focus on our similarities instead of our differences, we will truly embody the intricate blanket that is Mama Africa.
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