Connecting to your roots or Cultural Appropriation?

At this point in history, it should be common knowledge the atrocity of the Slave Trade, but little is said about the devastating effects on identity for the descendants of the Diaspora.  While those of African and Caribbean ethnicity in the UK have a deeper connection to their African ancestry and history, persons descended from the slaves of the Slave Trade primarily in America, are not privy to that pertinent information. “Not having the right to know was an integral part of slavery politics,” explains author Grada Kilomba in her book Plantation Memories, Episodes of Everyday Racism.  The lack of access to one’s history and inevitably one’s self is a common thread that weaves into the existence of every African American, and in turn, unifies the identities of the unique ethnicity. Unfortunately, this identity is not readily understood outside of the US, and those ignorant of the demoralizing and debilitating state slavery left an entire race of people, unknowingly it releases a series of painful attacks of identity and undercover plantation memories. “The sad part is that they do not take into consideration our history. I do know that my ancestors are African but that’s all…the system of slavery did not allow us either to know where we were brought from or who we were: We lost our names, our languages…I mean, we were sold by white slavers to white people…It is, of course, insulting when they ask, But where in Africa?” an interviewee from Kilomba’s novel explains.

With so much lost and stolen from African Americans, many in an effort to reconnect with their shattered historical and cultural identities, have adapted using anything and everything that aligns itself with Africa. From African prints to dashikis, children of the Diaspora have been grasping at anything that resembles their motherland whether authentic or not.  But one must ask the question, is this still cultural appropriation. Can one really culturally appropriate a culture that was stolen from them? The definition of appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture without invitation or permission of use.  To delve further, it also means using elements of another’s culture without giving reference to its original owner. It is commendable the effort to want to connect with one’s tattered past, but without the proper research into the historical and symbolic meanings behind each pattern and figure, one falls prey to the same lack of sensitivity and respect for the people of that particular culture as those we quickly assert blame to.  The understanding that Africa is the only knowledge of where one’s own ethnic background starts is the beginning, but to truly get in touch with one’s lost history, I believe there needs to be a better approach to learning about the differences between the individual countries of Africa and their historical artefacts. It is not enough to wear African print, when in most cases it is not even from Africa, does not profit Africa in any way, and is usually a knock-off of the custom work of the artisans of the continent; we must attempt to transcend the superficial commercialist approach to knowing our past. As artists, we must not cling to the idea that to show pride or Afrocentricity in our artwork is to juxtapose unknown African symbols and/or colors into our composition without first understanding their African origins.  In our attempt to get closer to our ancestors, we are running even further away from their messages and lessons.  The answers we seek for ourselves, I truly believe are held in re-educating ourselves about the distinct countries of Africa, the unique cultural identities of each, and how they collectively came to be a part of our intricate identity of being African Americans.

By Beatrice Carey