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.
It’s Black History Month, and I’ve decided to share some ways our history and our heritage have been instilled in my life — not only in February, but all year long.
Hair is hair, like I always say. But by simply saying “hair is hair” doesn’t stop us from being judged, objectified and pit against each other for what sprouts from our heads. In a society where hair means much more than just hair, it’s important to remind ourselves of the culture, the valor and the heritage that comes along with our hair.
Braid styles originated from all over Africa. Certain cornrow styles have Ethiopian roots. Particular haircuts can be tied to certain regions as well – for example, cuts similar to Lupita Nyongo’s have been said to be traced to the Kalenjin of Kenya. Our Egyptian ancestors have been weaving hair for some odd centuries. Some styles denoted royalty and prestige, while others were simply forms of creative expression.
Those before us have been rockin’ our styles long before us. Essentially, our hairstyles are extensions of our ancestors and our lineage. We get caught up in the politics of hair and forget all about the heritage and the pride behind it. No matter how you wear your hair, know this – you are wearing a crown fit for a queen or a king.
If that’s not black history, I don’t know what is.
“Feed ‘em with a long handled spoon”
“You’ll get better before you get married”
“Dead cat on the line”
“Dry along so”
“All willy nilly”
“Like talkin’ about”
These are all sayings and phrases I’ve heard throughout my life. I didn’t learn them in English class. I didn’t learn them from reading classic literature, either. I learned this vernacular from my family, in the comfort of my own home.
To many, these phrases sound foreign or don’t make sense. They aren’t in Webster’s Dictionary, probably can’t be found in any public school textbook and weren’t written by Shakespeare, Mark Twain or Edgar Allen Poe. But, despite a lack of formal acknowledgement of this black vernacular by the status quo, I know what these sayings mean, can use them in a sentence and everything else. And I do so – proudly.
My parents were raised knowing this vernacular, and so were their parents, and so were my great grandparents – and so on and so forth. It’s part of my blood and therefore, it’s part of my history. My grandparents, great grandparents and other ancestors may not be honored in black history month specials on TV. Their lives may not be portrayed in schoolhouse plays, either. But regardless of any of that, it’s still part of my history. It still has value and valor.
In our daily lives, when we speak the words of the ones before us, we are remembering them. We are acknowledging the lives they led and the circumstances surrounding their language. Ultimately, we’re carrying on their legacy — not just in February, but each & every day.
Black Hair Don’t Care
She better stop playin’ that natural hair game and put a damn relaxer in her head!
You wear fake hair because you’re ashamed of your real hair and yourself.
You know you need to look presentable for this. It’s important. So slick that afro back and straighten it or something.
That girl is disgrace. She don’t know what the hell she wants. She got a wig on one minute and braids the next.
Why in the world did you cut it?! You shoulda never cut your hair! Don’t cut it anymore!
And she know damn well she need to take that color out her head. All them chemicals. Plus she too dark for that light color anyway.
Natural ain’t for everybody boo. And it ain’t for you.
This tug of war – also known as the thoughts and opinions on black hair – is everywhere. And it’s getting really old and really tiring. Really quick.
Don’t Mess With My Mane
…and I won’t mess with yours. Naw, but really. My hair…is MY hair. I’m not walking around asking you to fix it, judge it, touch it, or give it a score on a scale from 1 to 10. Does my afro look too unkept? Great. You don’t like the fact that I wear extensions sometimes? Just dandy.
I like to switch up my look and my hair is part of my look. But the best part of it all? This hair…is on my head. Not yours.
The Natural Hair Movement Should Not Be Divisive
I am just LOVING the natural hair movement and the paradigm shift that has occurred as a result – that is, the fact that we as black women are embracing our hair the natural way it grows from our heads now more than ever. But just like colorism (or in short, the whole light skin/ dark skin thing), it has caused a great deal of division in the black community. Some naturals turn their noses up to what they deem to be the unconscious weave-wearers and identity-barren relaxer-users. Some who insist on extensions or relaxer look at the naturals as going “overboard” with the history and the hotep. Regardless of our hair preferences, we should be standing TOGETHER as women.
Thou shall not let weave nor wash and go get in the wayeth of that.
Our Curls in a Man’s World
Some men – whether they are our boyfriends, husbands, fathers, brothers, friends, etc. – have gotten the idea that our hair belongs to them. Men: if you want to change her hair, aren’t comfortable with what she does with it, or if you define her beauty and her worth by her tresses – grab a mirror and take a peek in it.
You see that – you see your face? You are NOT her and you do not OWN her, or her hair.
If you don’t like her natural curls, put some extensions in your hair. Or better yet, throw some relaxer on your low cut. Do whatever it takes to keep you from demeaning the women in your life and putting your insecurities and complexes on their scalps and their ends. Please.
Knowledge is (Our) Power
The historiopolitical implications of our hair – from the use of hair texture to divide African slaves during colonial times, to the use of straighter hair to help one pass as white and gain access to the privileges that came along with it, to the association of natural hair (namely afros) with the black power movement – are closely tied to knowledge of self. Some use this knowledge to educate and empower themselves and enlighten others. Other people will use this knowledge as leverage over our hair. They will use ideas of identity to intimidate and using politics of hair to propagate undue pressure.
Attempting to control black hair – be it by putting down a woman and pressuring her to change her hairstyle because you don’t like how her hair looks or what she does to it or looking at yourself as better than other women because of how you choose to style your mane and separating yourself accordingly – doesn’t get us any closer to liberation or a true love of self; a true love of tearing others down is what this tug of war has turned into.
The Real Deal
I think the root of this entire hair debacle is (drum roll)….insecurity. Maybe my hair is so thick, it makes everyone else in the room feel uncomfortable. Maybe you’re jealous because your hair can’t do all the things mine can. Or maybe, you just can’t stand the power, the creative agency or the liberation my hair offers me.
Or, simply put, maybe you have the problem…because I am proud of who I am. Because I am not here to meet your standards. Because my black hair don’t care.