Source: Flickr Creative Commons
“If the rappers can say it, I don’t understand why we can’t say it,” says a WASP man in the comments section of an online news article.
Cultural appropriation (when facets of an oppressed group’s culture are adapted by the dominant culture, and are essentially stolen from the oppressed group) is nothing new. Recently, Bantu Knots, an African hairstyle popular in the motherland and here in the diaspora, was featured on models in a Marc Jacobs fashion show. Afterwards, not only was he given credit for the centuries-old hairstyle, but they were magically renamed “mini buns.” And in cities everywhere, high-end restaurants on the “urban renewal” bus have taken slavery-era black/ modern-day soul food staples like chitlins, collard greens and other dishes as their own. Not only have these luxury eateries detached these foods from their cultural significance (slaves eating these foods because they were easy to access, simply because they were the scraps “massa” didn’t want – and turning them into delicious, filling meals for their families), but they have also attached a heavy price tag to them, claiming another culture’s food as their own and making a profit. Native American headdresses stripped of their meanings for fashion, large numbers of awards in rap and hip-hop (two music genres rooted in African story-telling and the African-American experience) being given to people who don’t represent its cultural context and Halloween costumes trivializing cultural-historical figures (Middle Eastern princesses, East Asian warriors, etc.) are some other examples of cultural appropriation.
Clothes, fashion, food and music come to mind pretty quickly when thinking of examples of cultural appropriation, but what about words?
Like the N-word.
“If the rappers can say it, I don’t understand why we can’t say it.”
When a friend directed me to the comment thread, I knew what to expect, but I didn’t expect to see an adult ask such a question so honestly, so matter-of-factly. When I saw it, my stomach felt kind of weird – kind of like that feeling I had when I was younger (I was the only person of color in many of my classes) when a fellow classmate would comment on something (most of the time falsely) of African-American culture and add at the end “well my best friend is black” – as if that gives one a stake to some sort of claim…to an entire culture.
The N-word has an interesting history. I’m no historian, but in a nutshell, we can say that the N-word started as a means of oppression toward African slaves in America during the slavery-era. The use of this word, institutional degradation and involuntary servitude were all synonymous. This word was also the powerhouse behind the forced rape of enslaved African women including Mother Africa herself, the senseless killings of enslaved African men, women and children and in general, the dehumanization of all people and things of African descent. Some decades passed and the vile power behind the N-Word remained relatively the same, especially in the Jim Crow South.
In a nutshell, for the longest while, the N-word and its use left the African-American community powerless. But today, in many respects, that isn’t exactly the case.
Not just in some rap music, but for some African-Americans, the N-word has turned into a positive affirmation. A word used to describe a friend, a brother. For others, it’s still negative, but on their dime, not on the dime of another culture in an oppressive manner. This here is an acquisition of power, a seizing back of control that once wasn’t there. The taking back of a word a group of oppressed people once had no authority over, even though the word directly affected their own livelihoods, their lives and their deaths.
It’s one thing for an oppressed people to take back what’s essentially theirs, but it is a problem when a member of the dominant group – like the man who posted in the comment thread– someone still in this day and age with privilege and power no member of the oppressed group could ever attain (yes, even if he were president of the most powerful country in the world) – wants to snatch control away from the oppressed group just when it manages to muster up a morsel of agency over its enslaved past, fractured present and uncertain future.
It all comes down to power and control and in this country, some people want power and control so bad that they want ownership over words, even the words that don’t come out of their own mouths.
To the man from the comment thread and others like him: Next time you think about stealing ANYTHING from another culture, no matter who you are, what color you are, where you come from, or how much you may think you know, I can only hope you think twice.
When Oppression Roars like Cecil the Lion
Last week, I heard about the tragic death of Cecil, a lion living in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. He was lured out of his habitat, shot with a bow and arrow, then shot with a gun, then skinned and decapitated.
There is no doubt that this was an unwarranted slaying of an innocent animal. And quite naturally, people are up in arms about it, with much energy being directed toward animal rights and the prosecution of Cecil’s murderer, dentist Walter Palmer. Protests and demonstrations are happening all over the country and all over the world in response to the slaying of this animal.
Too bad humanity can’t empathize with people – brothers and sisters of color dying everyday at exponential rates at the hands of injustice – just as much as they can with the animals that roar and purr and scoot about in the world’s zoos.
You may be thinking – Cecil was lured out of his home, shot and left to die a slow death and mutilated, of course the oppression people of color face doesn’t evoke the same amount of concern and outrage.
But I ask you then, do people of color not experience the same grim fate…barely noticed…each and every day?
It always breaks my heart to hear of missing children. What’s even harder to accept than crimes against children is how some cases get more exposure than others. About 32 percent of the US population is of color – but only 14 percent of television station staff members across the nation are non-white. This results in a lack of reporting of missing child cases involving children of color because journalists have the “ tendency to consciously or unconsciously cover communities that remind them of their own,” according to the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. This phenomenon is so pervasive and well-known, an additional missing child alert has been created in place of the widely known “Amber Alert.” The “Rilya Alert” is only for children of color under age 17 who have been reported to the law as missing. (Journalism Center for Children and Families)
Children of color are lured out of their homes and away from their families each and every day; however, only a fraction of these cases show up on our TV screens, our cell phone news apps and our social media timelines. Maybe if our children were animals, they’d have a greater chance of being perceived as human.
Left to die
In a plethora of ways, people of color are left to die – in their own country, in their own homes. I know that people of color walk upright, on two legs instead of four and aren’t in zoos (anymore – know your history)…but nonetheless, keep reading — maybe just maybe you’ll recognize their lives as just as important as those of animals.
Lack of medical insurance. Higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes than other groups. Exponentially high HIV/AIDS rates combined with less access to life-saving medications. Less likely to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. What do all these things have in common?
They’re all factors that end black lives on a daily basis.
To add, only about 8 percent of black families have a supermarket located in their census tract. To boot, physicians whose patients are mostly minorities tend to be less experienced and are less likely to be certified by a health board. (Five Charts that Explain Why Black Americans are Still Dying Younger than White Americans, Think Progress)
Black folk are living in a country where they are more likely to be sick and unhealthy than any other racial/ethnic group. Ask yourself: have you protested or spoken on this fun fact lately?
Lynched and mutilated
The world was appalled (as it should have been) when news revealed that a dentist beheaded 13 year-old Cecil the Lion. But I’m sitting here wondering, does the “world” even know about Lennon Lacy, the 17 year old black teen who was found dead — his lifeless body dangling from a rope tied from the top of a swing set in a mobile home park in Bladenboro, North Carolina last year? Fast-forward to a few months ago and travel a little farther south to Port Gibson, Mississippi. In March of this year, did you know that 54 year old Otis Byrd was found dead, hanging from a tree? A dead black man, hanging from a tree. In Mississippi. Five months ago. (5 Horrific Modern-Day Lynchings of Blacks in America, RollingOut)
Animals aren’t the only ones mutilated. Would you believe me if I told you that sometimes, humans do this to other humans, and that racism kills and that these deaths should demand your attention, in addition to Cecil the Lion’s death?
The people of Zimbabwe didn’t even know about Cecil’s death, until the world started its witch hunt for his murderer, Walter Palmer. “It is not an overstatement that almost 99,99 percent of Zimbabweans didn’t know about this animal until Monday. Now we have just learnt, thanks to the British media, that we had Africa’s most famous lion all along, an icon!” reported a few days ago in The Chronicle, A Zimbabwean newspaper. – Let that one marinate.
Cecil the Lion was named after Cecil Rhodes…the same guy who gave the Rhodes Scholarship and the African territory of Rhodesia, their namesakes. Cecil Rhodes is known for being a South African politician slash businessman slash imperialist, among other things, but he was also an avid racist. He wanted the white race to take over as much of Africa as possible, insisting that the more whites took over, the better the world would be. “I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence,” stated Rhodes.
Let that one marinate, too.
Look, I know the world is upset. But can a girl be upset with the world for just a moment?
1. Nine people are dead. Three managed to live, but they will never be the same again. All under the roof of the very first African Methodist church in the nation – a church that was birthed from the black struggle and revolution of the colonial South. Death, tragedy, despair – all because of a deep-seated white supremacist hate that words can’t really describe.
- People are blaming the victims for the massacre itself. South Carolina Representative William Chumley suggested the 9 victims chose to die the way that they did. He said they “waited their turn to be shot.” The emotions are running high from the incident alone – the gruesomeness of the crime and its racial implications exacerbate these emotions. But after hearing a politician openly blame the victims for the massacre, the anger, isolation and disappointment set in – especially for me, as a woman of color.
- Hearing about the privileges afforded to the shooter – from the Burger King meal police purchased him hours after the massacre, to a judge urging people to pray for the shooter’s family, to the funds raised by numerous of people and organizations to support the murderer – is a real slap in the face. The more we hear about folk sympathizing more with the murderer than his victims, the more we can all clearly see the systematic devaluing of black people and the ubiquitous never-ending privilege granted to white criminals in action. And it hurts. Deeply.
- The day after the shooting, the South Carolina capital had its flags at half-staff to acknowledge the tragedy – well, not all of its flags. The day after nine lives were violently snuffed out in the state of South Carolina, both the American and the South Carolina flag were lowered to half-staff. The day after a vile hate of black lives resulted in a church massacre, the flag that historically condoned slavery and white supremacy, the confederate flag, flew high — business as usual. This gesture served as a grave reminder that times haven’t changed nearly as much as we’d like to believe they have.
- Over and over again, the historical implications of the confederate flag have been misinterpreted, misunderstood and/or completely ignored. Only slaveholding states could join the confederacy. To boot, the designer of the confederate flag wrote the following on its behalf – “As a people we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior colored race. […] As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race (Our Flag, George Preeble).” And some people are STILL baffled and even angered by black people’s resistance against the flag. But maybe they aren’t baffled. Maybe they know the ugly truth…and they’re just as ugly.
- Mental illness is being used and abused. Many attribute the murderer and his crime to poor mental health and drugs, despite his manifesto, his PLANNING of this slaughter and his DECISION to target this particular church based on its historical significance – all of which require clear, lucid and organized thoughts. Meanwhile, people who truly suffer from mental illness suffer undue abuse in jails and prisons across the nation and across the world. Meanwhile, blacks who commit crimes or are suspected of criminal activity suffer an automatic character assassination and are deemed “thugs.” Rarely is “mental illness” ever a serious consideration in the court of public opinion.
- Since Charleston, black church fires in the south have been largely on the rise. Although these arsons and suspected arsons may not receive the same amount of media attention as other incidents as of late, they are happening. It seems as if black folk can’t even pray in peace. History repeats itself, as we’re coming up on the 52nd anniversary of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four innocent little black girls.
- President Barack Obama recently told a radio show that he is “fearless.” His fearlessness has been conveyed through his candid talk about race. His sentiments have opened up the floodgates for writers all over the nation to feel just a little more comfortable speaking on their experiences in the raw, no holds bar. It has been so refreshing to see a man, our PRESIDENT open up and speak up for his people – but as the same time, it has been disheartening that his openness has evoked fear and anger in the thoughts and opinions of the racists around us. Some have said the President is starting a race war. Black writers revealing their stance on things like the confederate flag, the public opinions on the Charleston shooting and race relations in this country as a whole have been vilified, to say the least. People are going as far as threatening to unsubscribe to papers. For them, black writers talking about their un-white washed opinions makes them feel too uncomfortable; it makes life feel too real. It’s easier for people to live within selective realities than to open their ears and eyes to diverse people, experiences and opinion.
- Just as people have been opening up about race relations, racists have been themselves in the past few weeks – and they look like our friends, our coworkers and our neighbors. Chameleons are among us, and as they are revealed, our stomachs twist, our hearts break and our feelings hurt. We are saddened and we are disgusted. People aren’t always who they seem to be. But we must take this more as a learning experience and less as a let-down. We must let people show us who they are and we must take note…and then? Onward we march.
- Life as a whole is one big learning experience– and the Charleston shooting is yet another lesson that we’re all responsible for teaching to others. As the victims are being laid to rest, the criminal trial of the murderer begins, the survivors try to start the healing process, the politics of the confederate flag are grappled with and other aspects of the massacre start to unfold, people will be looking to us for guidance. Our youth will have questions, our friends may want to hear our take on things and our family members may need help digesting everything. We are teachers. We are ALL teachers. We have to figure out how to help the little black boys and girls love the skin they’re in, despite the hate that radiates like heat all around them. We have to show our peers how to respect our opinions, particularly our differences in opinions. We have to strengthen our family units with the love, affection, education, awareness, wisdom and support to survive in a world where churches are slaughterhouses, white supremacists are supported physically, emotionally and financially and the real opinions of black folk are discouraged and in some ways, prohibited. This means more work for us and heavier loads for us to carry. But during times like this, when the world seems to be working against us, we can’t afford to sit idly in our frustration and our disgust and our sadness – we have no choice but to get to work.
Dedicated to the 9 lives lost at the hands of hate.
Clementa Pinckney. Sharonda Coleman Singleton. Tywanza Sanders. Ethel Lance. Susie Jackson. Cynthia Hurd. Myra Thompson. Daniel Simmons Sr. DePayne Middleton Doctor.
There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from. Mobb Deep used these lyrics to describe life on the streets and how only the strong survive when it comes to a life riddled with things like crime and drugs. But I say, you gotta be fit to survive not just in the streets, but virtually everywhere and in every facet of life.
We are in the midst of an HIV epidemic in many major cities across the nation. Although we have come a long way in HIV treatment and those who are positive with the virus have the ability to live long lives – poverty and miseducation in the black community are just a few of the factors contributing to the overrepresentation of the virus in the black community. More and more evidence of police officers abusing their power is surfacing – in the form of violence against black bodies caught on cell phone video. More of us are going to college, but even more of us find ourselves in debt and degreeless. The media tends to focus more on stereotypical welfare queens and men carelessly spreading their seeds – and less on black women PhDs and black fathers who go above and beyond for their children. We live in a world where our youth are using rap lyrics to dictate their lives – aspiring to sling on the corner, cop bodies and pop Mollies – instead of taking music simply as entertainment. Our bodies are more likely to be unhealthy, as diabetes, high blood pressure and other lifestyle-based ailments pervade our families and our communities. And our mental health bears the brunt of all these things and more, as our culture often teaches us to minimize our pain and maximize our physical, mental and emotion loads.
It’s time to do something different, ya’ll. Apparently what we’ve been doing as a collective has NOT been working.
It’s time to seriously arm ourselves for war.
The books are our weapons – let’s use them and use them wisely, because the brain is a terrible thing to waste. Let’s stop the whole if you want to hide something from a black person, put it in a book lie we’ve been living. Our families, our communities are our platoons. We are only as strong as our weakest player – with that being said, let’s not let a lack of uplift be our downfall. Our love for ourselves is the best ammunition known to man – our want for better, our interest in education, our investments – not only in our businesses, but also in our health and the health of others. Our elders are our wisest soldiers. Let’s listen to them, because more times than not, many of them have been through the same things we’re struggling with and then some. Let’s let them help us guide our steps. Our children are our most precious soldiers. We have to protect them and lead them at all costs – with school, with finances, with relationships and everything else under the sun. They’re going to be holding down the front lines in our place in the near future. And finally, our perseverance is our armor – our trauma has trained us for the trenches and our pain protects us in the line of fire . What hasn’t killed us has only made us stronger – it’s in our blood to stand tall when the going gets tough.
The casualties are adding up. Are you armed for war?
“Sending love to all the girls out there trying to love themselves in a world that’s constantly telling them not to.” — Quinta Brunson (via Twitter)
Pills that promise a smaller size
Surgeries to shrink stomachs, minimize thighs and straighten slanted eyes
The tangled web we weave
When what we see in the mirror don’t look like tv
When the blood boils and burns to the bone
With foreign bodies like plastic, fix-a-flat and silicone
How looks can be deceiving
When the body we’d kill for kills us while we’re sleeping
It’s what’s expected
Because imitation is the new expectation
Self-hate for the love of our butts, our breasts and our pigmentation
The challenge of truth…being true to ourselves
When the reflection in the mirror mirrors plastic itself
Inspired by my frustration with the viral exploitation of black bodies online at the hands of black folk themselves
The fists go up
Two black boys to prove their manhood and give the crowd a show
The show of their lives, for its the only life they know
He think he hard, he think he hard
two’s too many when there’s only room for one
bloodshed paints the sky, the battle has begun
And the phones go up and the phones go record
The sights and sounds of the bones crushing, people cheering
His precious life and his precious death nearing
Back to the present, blast from the past
Yesterday’s battle, same old thing though
Same black people though, same fighters Mandingo
But do we know?
Slaves owners made us fight, brother on brother
our bloodshed, our deaths for the entertainment of another?
My brother, my brother
Put your fists down, sit down and listen
Stop killing each other with your fists and your Pistons
Living the slaveowner’s dream while he’s sleep 6 feet under
Wake yourself up, wake up your mind
From a slumber that should have ended well before 1865
My people, my people
Put the phones away
We can’t afford to entertain the masses with enslaved minds another day
Two black boys to prove their manhood and give the crowd a show
The show of their lives, for its the only life they know
(Inspired by Darnell Moore’s 17 Honest Thoughts of a Black Man after Watching that Walter Scott Video)
1. I am extremely thankful for this video, because had this not been recorded, who knows if the truth (the fact that Walter Scott was another fallen soldier in the war on black men) would have had half a chance of being heard.
2. I also regret that this video has surfaced, because it’s another grim reminder of my reality – more times than not, it seems that a penny with a whole in it may even be worth more than my brown skin. Our brown skin.
3. The video makes me a little uneasy, because they contain the last few seconds of Mr. Scott’s life. He didn’t leave his house that day knowing a police officer was going to gun him down from behind and try to frame him for his own murder (the cop alleged he fired shots at Scott because he took his Taser, while the video actually shows the officer planting an object next to his dead body…presumably, the Taser). He didn’t say ‘hey, if I’m gunned down like an animal today over a traffic stop while running away from the officer, please share/ do not share the video of my brutal death.’ We don’t know if Scott would have wanted his last breaths posted all over the likes of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. And we’ll never know.
4. Should I be thinking more about number 3? Do I need to ask my father, nephew, significant other, cousins and friends about it? The question would be something like “In the chance that a police officer decides to treat your black body as a target on the gun range, do you want the video evidence to go viral?” Should this very question be incorporated into every black man’s will and testament?
5. As a woman, I feel the sudden urge to hug and embrace every single black man I know. Because I want them to know that I love them. And that there is no one else like them on this planet.
6. His family. I’m thinking about his family. His mother, his father, his brother, his 4 children and more. No verdict or civil suit or amount of money will right this wrong or bring back this man. This is a hurt and a loss beyond my comprehension. I will be praying for them before I go to sleep tonight.
7. And am also thinking about my own family. My parents get profiled by the police a lot and it scares me. I asked a panel of police officers at a police/ community event if my parents should ditch their foreign cars to avoid being stopped. The officers looked at me like I was crazy – but what’s crazy is that this has to be a legit concern of mine.
8. What scares me more is thinking about the possibility of something like what happened to Walter Scott happening to one of my loved ones.
9. But what scares me the most is what I’m capable of doing in retaliation, if such an injustice was put upon a loved one of mine.
10. I am amazed at the comfort level of the officer that killed Scott. From when he shot him, to when he planted the “object” next to his lifeless body, to when his back up came and saw what had happened, to when he checked his pulse and realized Scott was dead – this guy looks as cool as a cucumber. If that’s not evil, I don’t know what is.
11. I have a nephew and he’s growing up by the day. He’s one of the smartest boys I know. How should his parents explain this incident (and the plethora of known incidents of ‘death of the black male by open season’) to him so that he is cautious, yet empowered? Enlightened but not defeated? Alert but not afraid? How can a child be a child and feel safe, survive and thrive in a world where people he doesn’t even know and haven’t even met have labeled him a threat to them?
12. I’m sitting here wondering, as a black woman, how can I be more supportive of black men? You are an endangered species and I’m one of your biggest admirers. Tell me how to be a better advocate. Let’s lean on each other and be there for one another.
13. Those eight gunshots. That drop to the ground. That agonizing pain. Is Scott’s murderer ever going to feel this pain or anything comparable? Is prison or even the death penalty enough punishment for him and other murderous cops?
14. I have to then remind myself that number 13 isn’t up to me or anyone else at the end of the day. God don’t like ugly and He will handle it the best way He sees fit.
15. I hope and pray this is being brought up in classrooms, workplaces and dinner tables across the nation and across the world — especially in South Carolina. Everyone – no matter who you are or where you stand in this case, deserves a chance to vent and process this tragedy. Its therapeutic, it’s healthy and it’s needed.
16. I wonder how this era – the exposure of the war on black men – will be recounted in schools, in textbooks and in other ways, if it’s even remembered at all. Only time will tell.
17. I wonder how many more days until time stands still again, when we hear about another Walter Scott.